But for some, watching this graphic material is all in a day’s work. Imagery analysts and terrorism experts at U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA, the NSA, and the National Counterterrorism Center, sit in banal warrens of cubicles or in closed rooms in top-secret facilities scrutinizing the details of a nightmarish gallery of prisoner beheadings, attacks on U.S. military forces, and sexual abuse of children. It’s their job to find clues in the material that might indicate how an attack was carried out, when another might be coming, and where terrorists are holding their hostages.
The work can take an extraordinary toll on the analyst’s’ emotional state, Five current and former intelligence officers told The Daily Beast. And so the CIA, NSA, and other intelligence agencies employ a cadre of psychiatrists and therapists to help analysts cope with the onslaught of often horrific, sometimes pornographic images they’re seeing.
“They’re being exposed to material that, day in and day out, we’re not exposed to broadly in America,” a senior physician with the CIA’s Office of Medical Services said in an interview. “That has its own sort of impact and own sort of, for lack of a better term, shock value.”
These doctors and therapists comprise a little-known cadre of the intelligence community. And in many cases, they have watched the same material as their patients so that they know what they’ve been exposed to.
The analysts find the grim content of their trade on Websites frequented by jihadists, but also on the computers and smart phones of captured or killed terrorists. In some cases, former officers said, they could see the materials that terrorists were posting in real time.
And it’s not all beheading videos. Yes, these snuff films have become vital sources of clues for U.S. intelligence analysts. But vast majority of material these analysts are studying, according to current and former intelligence officials, is a very different sort of NSFW fare.
“It’s mostly porn,” a former intelligence officer who worked on counterterrorism operations, told The Daily Beast. At the headquarters of the NSA in Ft. Meade, Md., another former intelligence officer said, there is a closed room set aside for watching porno clips.
In another context, a dedicated “porn room” might be the greatest office perk imaginable. But watching hours of the stuff becomes monotonous, analysts say.
It turns out terrorists love watching porn. Stacks of hard core videos were found in Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. And terrorists have been known to embed encrypted messages inside digital porn clips and photos. U.S. analysts have to examine the material to ensure that it doesn’t contain any useful intelligence. Some of the material features children. Those videos, a former officer said, were harder to watch than anything else.
Before analysts watch even a second of a beheading video or sift through the digital detritus of a terrorist’s laptop, they’re briefed by teams of mental health professionals, some of whom sit near the analysts’ desks, on the emotional and physical response they’re likely to experience when they watch someone suffer.
“Typically, for operators working in support of military operations, they’re told, ‘You’re going to see images that might disturb you. Just prepare yourself and realize there are counseling resources available to you,’” Brendan Conlon, an ex-chief of the NSA’s elite Tailored Access Operations group at its facility in Hawaii, told The Daily Beast. TAO specializes in capturing materials from hard-to-reach computer systems and has focused extensively on terrorist networks.
Watching these horrific films often triggers a visceral, sickened sensation, according to those who’ve routinely viewed them. Periods of depression and grief are common. So is a feeling of anger and a sense of urgency to track down and stop those responsible for so much human misery.
The analysts are often looking for subtle clues in videos of attacks, bombings, or executions—clues that could help track down the perpetrators, rescue hostages, or stop another attack. They examine the direction or intensity of sunlight, as well as any geographic features or physical markers that might tell where and when the footage was taken. And they examine the people in the video and try to match facial features and voice patterns with known or suspected terrorists.
“You’re trying to find people,” said Conlon, now the CEO of Vahna, a cybersecurity company. “You have to watch the video and do a forensic analysis to see if there’s any lead to pass to along. The whole point is to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
For those who scrutinize scenes of carnage, knowing that they’re “the thin line,” as a former senior U.S. intelligence official put it, between someone living and dying is the toughest part of the job. An obscure clue that the analyst discovers could be the revelatory piece of information that lets the military mount a rescue mission or tells troops how to avoid an ambush.
Some find those stakes almost unbearably stressful. But others thrive on it. A sudden surge of adrenaline, what the body experiences as part of its “fight-or-flight” response, can focus their attention, the CIA physician said. They become “locked in on the work and importance of the mission.”
But there’s nothing that can be done to “immunize” people from a negative reaction to what they see, the physician said. So the CIA routinely checks in with employees to see how they’re coping with the work.
The NSA also says it has made caring for analysts’ mental health a priority, and that this counseling is part of a broader set of programs that address all manner of stressful situations for employees at the country’s largest intelligence agency.
“The Agency deeply values the health and wellness of our employees and provides a range of comprehensive services to address their needs. NSA has long offered psychological consultation and intervention services to support our employees’ important work against today’s increasingly complex global threats,” NSA spokesperson Vanee Vines said in a statement.
When Conlon was taking part in NSA operations, counselors dropped in on analysts every six months or so, he said, and reminded them that a therapist was always available. Conlon said that in his office in Hawaii, that person, whom he called “Dr. John,” happened to sit across the hall from a team that regularly had to watch gruesome material.
“It was a very open-door kind of thing,” Conlon said. Employees didn’t need an appointment. Conlon couldn’t say how many of his colleagues availed themselves of their proximity to a trained mental health professional. “Its a pretty private thing. Certainly nobody reported to me that they did, because it would be inappropriate.”
The CIA physician said that much of the heavy-lifting of counseling employees can be accomplished just by letting them know upfront what they’re going to see and that they may have emotional and physical reactions to it. But the CIA has a battery of “best practices,” he said, or coping mechanisms to help analysts get through the rough patches. They’re told to take breaks, take a breath—the same tips that workplace therapists give to people working in any stressful environment.
That may hardly seem like great advice for coping with the strain of watching someone die. When pressed on what other techniques CIA analysts use, the physician declined to elaborate but said that agency adjusts common coping techniques to meet the demands of a classified environment and the unusual circumstances of watching hours of violence for a living.
One of the obvious differences between being a CIA analyst and, say, an emergency room nurse, is that the analysts can rarely talk about what they do at the office with family or friends. The steam valve of drinks at the bar or pillow talk is closed to them.
Intelligence agency counselors, however, have security clearances, so there are few limits to what they can discuss. And, said the CIA physician, many of the counselors have also watched the worst videos and looked at the pictures, so they know what their patients are seeing.
Over time, something not terribly surprising happens to the people who repeatedly watch the worst in people: It gets easier. “Broadly speaking, there’s a desensitization,” the physician said, a tendency seen not just in the CIA, but in general as people are repeatedly exposed to violent imagery.
The spy agencies go to great lengths to protect their analysts. But offices, even secretive ones, are communal environments, and not every team of analysts has its own private viewing room. How do they keep the guy on the way to the break room from catching a glimpse of a man being burned alive?
The CIA physician declined to specify what particular kinds of material might merit putting analysts in a cloistered space. But, he said, analysts who work with this material are sometimes part of a “dedicated team” that was already physically segregated from other employees, given the sensitive nature of their work.
In the NSA facility in Hawaii, Conlon said, teams worked in a “cube farm,” and signs posted overhead warned anyone passing through that they might see things that disturbed or offended them. “It basically covered everything from pornography to beheading videos,” he said.
In other words, just a typical day at the office. Such is life in the midst of death.