You Can’t Fire Me—I’m Still Trying To Quit!

Why does it take so long to retire from the CIA?

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A senior CIA agent who was canned last Friday after a leak investigation had been scheduled to retire on April 30. Mary McCarthy’s lawyer told the Washington Post that she’d filed for retirement in early December and that she’d stopped going to her office in early February. Since then she’s been completing a standard retirement training course. Why does it take so long to retire from the CIA?


Retirees get to spend several months in the agency’s career transition service. This gives agents and analysts an opportunity to learn about their benefits and prepare for the job market while they’re still on the government payroll. They can put aside their regular responsibilities in order to attend workshops on how to write up a résumé, apply for jobs, and make contacts in the business world. They may get even more direct help: The transition center sometimes hooks up a retiring agent with a specific employer. (Other government agencies provide similar transition programs.)


Undercover field agents tend to need more career counseling than office analysts do. Not all covert operatives are allowed to reveal their secret identities when they retire, and a made-up résumé can count against you as you move on to other things. For example, your cover story won’t necessarily reflect the skills and responsibilities you had at the CIA. Agents who spent their careers in relative isolation overseas might also have a hard time breaking into the American workplace.


Even the most senior CIA officials go through the program. The former acting director of the agency, John McLaughlin, began a stint after he resigned in late 2004, as did Deputy Director for Operations Stephen Kappes and his deputy Michael Sulick. Chief Information Officer Alan Wade entered the career transition program last October.

The career transition doesn’t include a formal debriefing, and the government won’t shake down retirees for secrets like in The Prisoner. In general, agents will have signed a secrecy agreement, and they’ll know what they’re allowed to say in public. They’ll also know the rules about letting the agency vet their books, articles, and speeches.

Even if an agent decided to skip the transition program, she wouldn’t be able to retire on the spot. According to the federal Office of Personnel Management, the paperwork takes a month or two to process. And you might not get your official retirement medallion until a few months after that.

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Explainer thanks Frederick W. Rustmann Jr. of CTC International Group.