The World

Office Humor of America’s Counterterrorism Analysts

President Obama’s limousine waits in front of the National Counterterrorism Center on Oct. 6, 2009, in McLean, Va. 

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

From 2010 to 2011, sociologist Bridget Rose Nolan worked full time as a CIA analyst at the National Counterterrorism Center while at the same time “conducting ethnographic observations and interviews with 20 analysts in NCTC’s Directorate of Intelligence” for a recently published doctoral dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania.  

Steven Aftergood covers some of the big takeaways of the study, namely that the “U.S. intelligence community has become too large to be properly managed.” But the dissertation is also a fascinating, and surprisingly entertaining read about culture at the NCTC, the multi-agency office created after 9/11 to coordinate the U.S. intelligence agency’s counterterrorism work. One surprise, for anyone who imagines counterterrorism intelligence as field for serious and obsessive “Mayas” and Carrie Mathesons, is that the office culture seems pretty goofy.

While the analysts are “a dedicated group of patriots who are more serious about their jobs than anything else in their lives,” Nolan writes, “humor is such a big part of the sociology of the IC that any accurate portrayal of this workplace must include it.”

Some of the humor can get pretty dark, as you might expect. “We used to joke about this guy who accidentally blew his arm off while making a bomb,” one 34-year-old analyst tells her. But most of it’s your more typical white-collar office fare.

For instance, terrorism analysts love forwarding snarky Gawker posts as much as your co-workers:

In April of 2010, the gossip site posted an article entitled “Triscuitgate: Why Do the Islamic Extremists Who Hate South Park Also Hate Triscuits?” (Somaiya, 2010). The article discussed the group Revolution Muslim, an Islamic group that had previously made headlines because of its threats against the cartoon South Park for its depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. The Gawker article reports that Revolution Muslim called the South Park creators “Darwinist faggots who are as despicable as the rest, walking around eating your Triscuits.”

Like the Gawker writer, several analysts in my group wondered, “Why Triscuits?” There was a lot of lighthearted discussion in person and via email about why Triscuits were targeted instead of saltines or Ritz crackers, and whether it had to do with round vs. square crackers. One co-worker posited that the Revolution Muslim member had eaten a Triscuit and torn the roof of his mouth when he had been expecting the “cashmere of wheat,” as advertised on the Triscuit website (“Triscuit: A Simple Story,” n.d.). The phrase “cashmere of wheat” quickly evolved into the “Cadillac of crackers,” and, perhaps inevitably, someone brought in a box of Triscuits to decorate the office and renamed them “Freedom Squares” by pasting a picture of Mel Gibson from the movie Braveheart on the box with the caption, “Tastes like FREEDOM!”

The Onion’s 2009 article, “American Muslims to Fort Hood Shooter: ‘Thanks A Lot, Asshole’,” was also apparently a big hit around the office, as, not surprisingly, was Team America: World Police.

Nolan describes a parody song contest at the 2010 Winter Holiday Party, which was won by those cut-ups in the Al Qaeda and Sunni Extremism Group, who rewrote popular songs of the ‘80s in CIA jargon.  “Dude looks like a lady” became “The suspect—whom we assess to be male—resembles a female.” “Welcome to the jungle,” was rewritten as “The jungle welcomes you.”

America’s allies also came in for some ribbing. A popular office joke went, “Why do we need the French on our side against bin Laden?” … “So the French can show him how to surrender.”

The most fascinating example of office humor may be twenty-part parody ofThe Hunt for Red October written by CIA analysts during the 1980s. The story describes how the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence would actually have handled the events of the book and movie, and has become something of a legend in the Intelligence Community, passed down from generation to generation, as well as a barometer of how acclimated you are to the culture.  “I was specifically told that “you aren’t truly initiated into CIA until you think that ‘The Hunt for Red October: The Untold Story’ is funny,” Nolan writes.

The full story is included the appendix of the dissertation, and I can confirm that to outsiders, it’s a bit impenetrable.

*Correction, Oct. 1, 2013: The photo caption with this story originally misspelled McLean, Va.