Let’s say you find out you’re getting a new boss. Months before he even steps into his office, though, he publicly belittles your skills – and the credibility of your entire organization.
Would you leave?
Intelligence community officials and analysts who specialize in cybersecurity face a difficult decision after president-elect Donald Trump dismissed their assessment that Russia was behind pre-election attacks on US political groups such as the Democratic National Committee (DNC). And beyond just rejecting their assessment, he strongly suggested the country’s spies are politically motivated and inept.
Yet intelligence personnel do not appear to be running for the exits, according to several headhunters well known for helping US spies find jobs in the private sector.
"I haven’t had anyone say that they are making a change or wanting to leave because of Trump," said Kathy Lavinder, founder of Security and Investigative Placement Consultants.
What’s more, companies that regularly hire the best investigators from the federal government – including cybersecurity specialists – agree they have not seen an uptick in resumes to indicate cyberspies and analysts are fleeing an incoming Trump administration.
"Instead they are staying in place right now," said Tony Cole, global government chief technology officer at FireEye, a cybersecurity firm involved in the DNC breach investigation. "Many of these senior people that could easily find a job in industry are staying on right up to the very end of this administration."
That, Mr. Cole says, is despite the fact that it’s common for intelligence officials to move toward the exits by this time in the presidential transition, whenever there's an incoming administration from a different political party than the sitting president. Perhaps even more enticing, companies and headhunters are always circling Washington with an eye for talent and willing to pay top dollar amid a global shortage of skilled cybersecurity professionals.
But intelligence officials aren't jumping ship, recruiters and companies say, in part because they expect Trump may act differently after assuming the presidency in January – and realizing the full landscape of digital threats targeting the US.
Trump has made it clear, in the debates during the campaign and after the election, that he does not agree with the unified assessment of the entire US intelligence community, comprising 17 different agencies, that the senior-most officials in Moscow orchestrated the hacks on the DNC and Clinton campaign to undermine public confidence in the election.
After the Washington Post revealed a secret CIA assessment that Russia hacked and leaked stolen material to benefit Trump, his transition team shot back: "These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction."
Already, though, the transition team seems to be dialing back its hard-line dismissals of intelligence agencies’ findings that Russia was behind the hacks. "I think he [Trump] would accept the conclusion if they would get together, put out a report and show the American people they are on the same page," incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said on Fox News Sunday.
Trump should keep an open mind when it comes to intelligence reports, says Ms. Lavinder of Security and Investigative Placement Consultants. "I don’t think Trump’s doing himself any favors nor is he doing the intelligence community workforce any favors by being so openly critical of them, because he is going to need them," she says. "They are going to be vital to his success."
What also may be comforting for government employees, recruiters say, is the knowledge that a president does not control the purse strings funding their projects.
Congress passes spending legislation and, in recent years, Republicans and Democrats have devoted billions of dollars in additional money and thousands more workers to the growing cybersecurity challenge.
That’s one reason why Mark Aiello, president of Cyber 360, a staffing firm that places cybersecurity specialists from the federal government and intelligence community in industry jobs, says intelligence officials are playing wait and see.
"They seem to believe that there will be a more and better emphasis on cybersecurity, especially as US Cyber Command appears to be headed to elevate its status within the federal government in the military structure," Mr. Aiello says. "Cyber will actually be more on the front burner than it has been – they recognize that it might be the next war front and the government has to really invest heavily in people."
About 50 intelligence community professionals who are considering switching to industry that he spoke with didn't suggest any concerns about job stability or job satisfaction in the Trump administration.
"They may be out looking for a job because they realize that there is so much more money out there available for them," Aiello says. "That's the reason for them exploring other opportunities. It's not the concern about the Trump administration and the most recent squabbles over whether the CIA is correct or who's correct."
There is, however, concern about whether Trump will be able to attract top cybersecurity talent – not just to the intelligence community but also to staff government agencies in need of information security skills and leadership.
The Office of Personnel Management breaches in 2014 led the Obama administration to call for a massive overhaul in federal computer systems and security practices. "That’s going to be the more telling indicator because there’s been a constant flow from government into the commercial sector. The question is what kind of flow goes back from the commercial sector into the government," said John Watters, president of threat intelligence firm iSIGHT.
For his part, President Obama urged his successor, and the public, to heed the findings of the intelligence community on Russia.
"Unless the American people genuinely think that the professionals in the CIA, the FBI, our entire intelligence infrastructure – many of whom, by the way, served in previous administrations and who are Republicans – are less trustworthy than the Russians, then people should pay attention to what our intelligence agencies have to say," he said in a press conference on Friday.
Mr. Obama sounded a hopeful note that his successor will be similarly concerned about foreign interference in the American electoral system – and will also take the advice of the intelligence community.
"The transition from election season to governance season is not always smooth. It's bumpy. There are still feelings that are raw out there.... But when Donald Trump takes the Oath of Office and is sworn as the 45th President of the United States, then he's got a different set of responsibilities and considerations," he says. "I think there is a sobering process when you walk into the Oval Office."