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Pssst! You want to be a spy?
CSIS keeps low profile in cross-Canada hiring binge
Josh Wingrove
The Edmonton Journal

Successful CSIS recruits start off here, at the spy agency's Ottawa headquarters.
CREDIT: supplied
Successful CSIS recruits start off here, at the spy agency's Ottawa headquarters.

EDMONTON - Wanted: Spies.

Must have a university degree and full Canadian citizenship. Bilingual applicants preferred.

Trigger-happy folks need not apply.

Most companies with staff shortages can post a help wanted sign, but that's not the CSIS way.

No, the country's intelligence-gathering body isn't like the Central Intelligence Agency, which advertised for staff on TV. And no, they don't employ any double-O agents -- at least they say they don't. It's more of a research-and-interview sort of service, with enforcement left to the RCMP.

But they need people.

The service is in the middle of a recruitment drive for intelligence officers, its bread-and-butter position. They're looking to add to the ranks of their 2,400 current staff, and prepare against attrition.

CSIS has been setting up at university career fairs across the country. Some schools are visited as many as three times a year by recruiters, who hand out swag and quietly spread the word about Canada's secret service.

"Generally we're looking for individuals who are able to perform research, analyze information and (who) are able to prepare clear and concise reports on matters related to national security," says Giovanni Cotroneo, CSIS spokesperson and the only employee -- save for director Jim Judd -- who speaks with the media.

The hiring market is competitive these days -- even the allure of being a spy for one's country isn't always enough.

As a result, Cotroneo says, CSIS has been increasing its pay scale.

Intelligence officers now start at $50,000 -- up from $41,520 last year, and about $34,000 in 2000, pre-9/11. There's also 15 sick days, seven "compassion" days for caring for sick family members, three weeks vacation, health benefits and a full pension. After a five-year probation period, intelligence officers can make as much as $72,000.

"The service continues to review salary and benefits to make sure they're as competitive as possible, not only so we can attract (qualified workers) but so we can keep them in the long term," Cotroneo says.

Not bad for a young recruit, says Aaron, whose name has been changed to protect the status of his own CSIS application. He's hoping to become an intelligence officer.

"It would be kind of fun. It'd be something completely different from what I'm doing now," says Aaron, whose background is in business.

"I'm just trying to gain experience. I'm trying to open my mind and see what's best for me." Cotroneo has been with CSIS 16 years, but can't really talk about it. He will dash cold water on hopes that this is the way to become Bond. James Bond.

"There seems to be a general misconception among some young applicants that a career with the service is somehow similar to what they see in popular culture, motion pictures and stuff. It's important to remember the service is a civilian agency." Prospective spies must undergo an arduous, year-long application process. Every answer on an applicatio n is verified -- applicants must take a lie-detector test and families are interviewed.

Applicants must be fluent in at least one official language and display a desire and ability to learn a second, if they don't know it already. Computer skills are an asset.

And they need to have been drug-free for a year.

An unusually high number of people were hired last year -- about 100 of the several thousand that apply -- and the recruiting continues.

As befits an intelligence service, the whole $300-million CSIS operation is very cloak-and-dagger.

The Western Canada office is the sole occupant of one of the top floors of a downtown Edmonton highrise.

Get off the elevator and you'll see a pale yellow hallway with doors on either end. Each has a security pad next to it. Cameras hang from the ceiling, and one wall on the side reads, in both languages, Canadian Security Intelligence Service. It's not listed on the agency's website, the government directory, the phone book, or even the directory of its own building.

Given the lack of a welcome mat, online applications are preferred.

And they'll call you.

New recruits start the job in Ottawa, but can be transferred with little notice. And it's not a job that is for everybody.

CSIS agents ask questions that people aren't forced to answer, and produce dispassionate reports on issues they may feel strongly about.

"It's a bit soul-sucking," says Arne Kislenko, a professor at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. He's one of the professors behind the Canadian Association of Security and Intelligence Studies, and worked as a customs officer for years.

"You are often confronted with things that you don't understand or you find disagreeable. It's anything but romantic in a lot of ways." Aaron has thought about that. He is continuing with his application, but still isn't sure CSIS is for him.

"I think you have to be free-thinking, but at the same time you have to do as you're told. I respect that, and that's how it has to work, but I don't know if I could do that." Some can't. Those who stick it out and are hired -- about one in 20 -- are responsible for assessing risk posed by potential immigrants, advising the government on matters of internal and international security, and, when they have time, stopping global terrorism.

Sign up now, and you'll get all the perks, and have a hand in protecting your country.

That's what appeals to Aaron the most.

"If the shit hits the fan," he says, "I'd rather be with them than against them."

© The Edmonton Journal 2007


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