NSA seeks a few brave interns: Spy agency recruiting students as young as 15

In this lackluster economy, a young person could do a lot worse than getting a cushy job reading your emails

By Charles R. Davis

Deputy News Editor

Published December 9, 2013 7:21PM (EST)

                 (Reuters/Jason Reed)
(Reuters/Jason Reed)

If you're a college student studying the art of asking who, what, when, where and why, you may not think of the U.S. intelligence community as a potential employer. But when your prospects are copy-editing a failing newspaper in a dying town, or working for free putting together slide-shows of celebrities' plastic surgery disasters, you could do a lot worse than an internship – paid – at the National Security Agency (NSA).

During the Cold War, it was not terribly unusual for foreign correspondents at major newspapers to be on the CIA's payroll. As reporters, they had access that was denied to other Americans and had a good cover for meeting with U.S. assets abroad. Many considered it a patriotic duty; others probably just needed to pay their tab at the Hilton. But that was a program for the old and seasoned. If you really want a loyal employee, you got to get them while they are young and earnest.

If you are a college junior or senior with a 3.0 grade point average, a concentration in “writing, editing, journalism” or a related field – and the ability “to be granted a security clearance” (delete your Facebook, friend) –  you can be on your way to a “competitive salary” and subsidized housing at Ft. Meade, Maryland. The job: Promoting “accurate and timely information” on the NSA's “missions and accomplishments,” which is probably less than true.

The agency is also looking for students with backgrounds in “television production, motion picture production, or 3-D animation,” because a defense of all-encompassing surveillance is a lot more palatable coming out of Shrek's green mouth than some old white guy's.

According to NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines, “The idea was to help student interns get a better understanding of how NSA communicates with internal and external audiences to raise awareness of the agency’s mission and its unique contributions to national security.” The agency recruits students for the position every fall, this year placing an ad on the job search engine Indeed.com to make sure those looking for opportunities in “journalism” saw the “Summer Strategic Communications Intern Program” first thing.

Including its other internship programs, the NSA has about 500 interns working for it every year – and those interns often get jobs at the agency once they graduate. According to Vines, “we are generally able to convert 85 to 95 percent of those students who wish to continue on here in a permanent capacity.” And if you don't get a job working at the NSA but wish to continue pursuing a career in state-sanctioned journalism, there's always a major newspaper, where editors are accustomed to letting U.S. intelligence agencies do the final copy-edit.

The NSA likes them young

But the intelligence community is not just looking to “convert” college students. Through its “High School Work Study Program,” which is almost as old as the agency itself, the NSA recruits people as young as 15 for entry-level positions ranging from helping around the office to operating “our data processing equipment, often the most sophisticated equipment on the market.” Students work “no more than 32 hours and no less than 20 hours per week” and even get sick leave and paid federal holidays. And if you begin interning at the NSA in high school, you will get a job out of it.

“Last year there were 61 graduates who wanted to convert to either full-time or part-time, and all were converted,” said Vines. “I would say that this is the norm year after year for this program.” Indeed, “for at least the past three years, every participant who wanted to convert did convert.”

Yeah, I know: I don't get why she kept choosing the word “convert,” either. But it's not hard to see why a young person in this lackluster 21st century economy might want a cushy job reading your emails. You could do a lot worse.

“Wonderful experience,” says one high school employee of the NSA, who posted a review the agency as an employer. “Can't really say too much.”

“The job was way exciting,” says another former employee, a self-described “Cryptological Technician” at the agency. “I had access to a whole universe of fascinating real time information from around the globe” – hmm – “and the agency provides great resources for advancing one's self” (it helps when you can blackmail corporate and world leaders).

“All of the technology is very nice,” says another employee. But no place is heaven. Indeed, “Parking is an issue.”

By Charles R. Davis

Charles R. Davis is Salon's deputy news editor. His work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets such as The Guardian, The Daily Beast, The New Republic and Columbia Journalism Review.

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Cia Internships Journalism National Security National Security Agency Nsa Young People