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Students spend a day as CIA analysts

  • Analysts
    Analysts  William & Mary's team of (from left) Connor Smith '14, Katie Mitchell '13, Dallen McNerney '14 and Emily Pehrsson '13 placed first among Virginia schools and second overall in the Central Intelligence Agency's Crisis Simulation Competition.  Photo by Joseph McClain
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“I was so nauseous the whole day,” says Katie Mitchell ’13, recalling her day as a CIA analyst.

It all was hypothetical—but very realistic. Mitchell, Emily Pehrsson ’13, Dallen McNerney ’14, and Connor Smith ’14 represented William & Mary at a CIA Crisis Simulation Competition in November. These students were presented with information concerning the hypothetical situation of growing unrest on the Korean Peninsula following unverified reports on the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

The William & Mary team was assembled by Visiting Assistant Professor of Government Dennis Smith, co-director of the College’s Project on International Peace and Security (PIPS). At the competition, held at Georgetown University, William & Mary came in second out of 12 teams overall, placing first among the Virginia schools.

The first Crisis Simulation Competition was held in February 2011 at William & Mary. Smith notes that each scenario is set up to approximate the pressure-cooker atmosphere that is everyday life in the CIA during an international crisis. Each team is tasked with analyzing the reliability and validity of various documents related to the unfolding situation. Their assignment is to sort out the information and prepare a written synopsis—and an oral brief—outlining a course of action for the United States.

The William & Mary team chose Mitchell to brief a CIA analyst acting as the director of the CIA. She was responsible for distilling into a ten-minute talk the conclusions her team had made after working in a small conference room for several hours. The William & Mary students began their deliberations with a stack of documents, any of which could challenge or support their argument.

“We would split up the readings that were given to us, and we would each read half of them so we could fill in gaps, in case people missed something,” says Mitchell. The team’s strategy also included classifying the information they received based on elements of the information that included location and target of threat. Each of the teams had a seasoned CIA official in the room with them as they discussed and received information.

“I think as college students, we tend to get bogged down in details. Having been an analyst herself, she is able to say, ‘It doesn’t matter what these details are,’” says Mitchell of the mentor assigned to William & Mary. “She was obviously brilliant and she knew just how to change our pattern of thinking.”

The various teams initially competed against only the other schools in their home state. After oral briefings, winners were selected to represent Maryland, D.C. and Virginia in the final rounds, in which Washington College, American University and William & Mary competed. The finalists received additional information from the other schools of their state had concluded before entering the last round.

Mitchell says her oral presentation was the most stressful part of her semester. “They basically gave each team a different question to answer. You would go into the final round answering the question that you had been prepared to answer, and then it would switch to something entirely different,” Mitchell recalls.

She explains that, the “director” would stop her in the middle of her brief, and she’d have to mentally begin again and have to convince him of what she thought was taking place, and her recommendation of how to respond. “I don’t even think I got my first sentence out and the guy interrupted me,” she says of her oral briefings.

Mitchell and Pehrsson are veterans of the simulation, having also participated in the first competition. The Project for International Peace and Security (PIPS) is a rigorous and highly selective undergraduate International Relations think tank here at the College. The CIA Simulation Competition is the extension of a pilot program suggested last year by the PIPS program.