Students walk in CIA’s wingtips through crisis simulation

| February 21, 2011
A team of five international affairs students from Sweet Briar recently traveled to the College of William & Mary’s new Cohen Career Center to participate in a first-time event — a competitive foreign policy crisis simulation.

The simulation on Feb. 7 was co-sponsored by William & Mary’s Project on International Peace and Security and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. PIPS invited undergraduate teams from colleges with government programs that include national security components, and from which the CIA recruits, said assistant international affairs professor and Sweet Briar team sponsor Spencer Bakich. PIPS presented the event as a “highly rigorous, analytical exercise for students interested in intelligence analysis and international security.”

Participating teams played the role of CIA analysts responsible for assessing a simulated emerging crisis situation. After being introduced to their CIA mentors, the teams were separated into individual planning rooms, where they reviewed the simulation’s rules and were then notified of the crisis and given a binder of related intelligence.

PIPS and the CIA designed the next three hours as an “analytical pressure cooker” intended to test the students’ ability to process a significant amount of information and prepare a briefing under a tight deadline as part of a team. The briefing had to include a summary of the situation, predict how it was most likely to unfold and evaluate its broader implications for the U.S. and other actors involved.

As in a real crisis, the teams were given new intelligence as it played out and were able to send “tasking orders” to field operatives requesting additional information.

At the end of two hours, the teams presented their briefings to an agency analyst acting as the director of central intelligence. The director challenged the teams with aggressive questioning, expecting them to justify their conclusions.

“In short, [this was] an excellent demonstration of experiential learning,” Bakich said, noting 13 mid- to- senior-level agency analysts “partnered with the school teams by serving as senior line supervisors to each analytical cell, just as it is done in reality.”

Michelle Messier ’12 said the simulation beats tours and interviews with recruiters, although those are valuable, too.

“This gave us the opportunity to experience what a small part of their job is actually like,” she said. “Being able to try it out in a high-stress, competitive environment really helps you determine if it is the right path for you.”

For Emily Richonne ’12, the experience confirmed her desire to work with the CIA at some point in her career. “We were lucky to experience firsthand a taste of what CIA officers do every day,” she said.

Messier also found watching how her teammates reacted to the changing situation under the time restrictions instructive. So did Richonne, who said they questioned each other but ultimately worked well together and built off one another’s conclusions.

As their sponsor, Bakich said he couldn’t have been more impressed with his students. “The pace was intense and grueling. The banter was candid and professional. The focus on the part of the participants was all-encompassing,” he said. “They performed brilliantly under substantial pressure.”

Senior Sarah Jones acted as the cell leader for Sweet Briar’s team, which also included Kat Alexander ’11 and Rachael Stein ’13.

The simulation situations were close enough to those used in real CIA training exercises that the event was kept largely under wraps until it was over. Other participating teams included William & Mary, Norfolk State University, Old Dominion University, University of Mary Washington, University of Richmond, Virginia Tech and Washington College.

—  Lauren Schoff  ’11

Category: Government and International Affairs, Uncategorized