What I did in the CIA: Analysis

What I did in the CIA: Analysis

First Job

My first position with the Central Intelligence Agency was as a political analyst. The official CIA website describes analysis jobs as:

“Collaborative. Problem-solvers. Critical thinkers. These are the qualities needed for CIA analytic positions. The ability to study and evaluate sometimes inconsistent and incomplete information and provide unique insights that help inform decisions.”

The website offers more about being a political analyst at CIA:

“You will support policymakers by producing and delivering written and oral assessments of the domestic politics, foreign policy, stability, and social issues of foreign governments and entities. Your analysis will examine these actors’ goals and motivations, culture, values, history, society, decision making processes, and ideologies in the context of how those elements affect US interests and national security.”

In short, you are solving puzzles. Complex, ill-defined, and hidden puzzles.

For the first five years of my career, I did just that. It was a terrific introduction to not only the US intelligence community and US military but also to the challenges of international diplomacy.

Carmen Amato in Fiji

In the South Pacific, circa 1988

Information from multiple sources crossed my desk. I had to sift through the details to find patterns and  motivations. Sometimes key details were there and clear as a bell. Those times were rare.

Mostly, the puzzle pieces didn’t fit together. The story was murky and incomplete. You always wanted more and better pieces.

Related post: Wordsmithing at CIA

Former CIA Director (and Secretary of Defense) Leon Panetta, writing in WORTHY FIGHTS, put it this way:

“In the real world of intelligence . . . breakthroughs are the result of patient and resolute work, the slow accumulation of facts, each of which may seem ambiguous but that collectively add up to a hypothesis.”


Teamwork was imperative. Not only do teams of CIA analysts work together on a problem or a publication, but analysts work with those in other agencies.

Analysts connect with counterparts in other government agencies and the military, consulting and often collaborating.

I became close friends with a State Department officer who made baby quilts when my children were born. I also had a bit of a crush on a Marine colonel who headed up a community-wide task force (this was before I was married, ahem).


Being an analyst meant writing in a disciplined style and specific formats, including for the Presidential Daily Brief, which David Priess wrote all about in THE PRESIDENT’S BOOK OF SECRETS: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents. A bit of an academic tome, but with great historical vignettes.

I have to credit one of my first bosses with teaching me how to write. As opposed to academic writing, which usually follows a fact-fact-fact-conclusion format, intelligence publications—for readers who are perpetually pressed for time, like the Secretary of State–follow a key-judgments-fact-fact-fact format. I was fresh out of grad school, buoyed by my Master’s thesis and successful defense of it at a major academic conference. Switching my mindset was tough. I will always remember Jerry, who was partial to plaid sport coats and running around the office in his socks, taking the time to coach me.

Now as a mystery and thriller author, I really appreciate how being a CIA analyst forced me to become a disciplined writer. I learned how to construct an argument and create useful outlines. There was no waiting for the “muse” to strike before getting down to work.

Carmen Amato at CIA 2016

At CIA Headquarters, with my Career Intelligence Medal, November 2016

But that fact-fact-fact drumbeat has proven hard to shake. I may be writing fiction now, but often find it a struggle to be humorous, use pop culture references, or drop qualifiers like “almost certainly.”

But I’m almost certainly trying.

Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


What I did in the CIA: Glutinous but not Unflavorful

What I did in the CIA: Glutinous but not Unflavorful

Blame it on the Swedish meatballs

Early in my CIA career, I was having lunch in the cafeteria of the Original Headquarters Building (back when it was the only Headquarters building.) My friend Willa was apparently feeling daring that day. She ordered the Swedish meatballs.

After a few minutes at the table, I asked Willa how were her Swedish meatballs.

“Glutinous but not unflavorful,” she replied.

FYI, Willa went to Yale.

I did not.


“Glutinous but not unflavorful.”

Translation: My lunch looks like crap but tastes okay.

But “crap” and “okay” aren’t as precise as the words Willa used.

At the CIA, we were all wordsmiths in addition to whatever other skills and jobs we had. There is a certain discipline, flow, and format required by intelligence work. Mastering it was not easy, but it helped to be surrounded by people like Willa who were very cogent and precise in their thinking and expression.

When it comes to intelligence writing, descriptive precision is imperative. Conclusions and key judgements always come first, followed by the evidence to back them up. Modifiers are often used (“almost certainly,” “probably,” etc.) so that the prose does not mislead or assume a context not supported by the evidence.

Transferable skills

I spent my first 7 out of 30 years at the CIA as an analyst. Every subsequent position I held, as intelligence collector or other role, required the same understanding of how to use words to present information, clarify complex issues, and support conclusions.  Accuracy and objectivity were paramount.

Now retired, I’m comfortable reading non-fiction that delivers the same pace and detail as intelligence reporting. I love a crisp descriptive detail, a context that allows me to see the issue or event more clearly, and things in chronological order.

This is great for research, especially as I curate background details for the GALLIANO CLUB historical thriller series.

But transferring my CIA writing skills to the world of fiction takes effort.

The prose can’t be glutinous. It has to be flavorful.

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


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