To interview the principal deputy director of national intelligence, you must first drive to a bland but very secure office building in Northern Virginia, pass through a gate manned by rifle-toting cops, and stash your phone and voice recorder in a locker, as electronic devices are very much forbidden. A staffer will record your conversation for you. The interview will take place in what’s likely the safest conference room you’ve ever visited.
This rigmarole is worth it because Stacey Dixon is the kind of high-security-clearance Washingtonian you don’t often get to chat with—the number-two at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which compiles the work of the entire US intelligence community for the President. She’s also a native Washingtonian who attended Georgetown Day School before studying engineering at Stanford and Georgia Tech. Dixon likes to go to farmers markets and see shows at the Kennedy Center and listen to gospel, jazz, and go-go. Her life resembles that of a lot of people around here, except that she spends her days fretting over the kind of scary stuff that regular locals never even find out about. “We try to bring it all together and paint a single picture for decision-makers about what the intelligence-community perspective is on whatever question they may ask,” she said when we sat down in the secure room.
How does an engineering major wind up in the spy biz? For Dixon, the dot-com crash of the early 2000s narrowed her post-college options, and “I ended up coming back to DC and realizing how many of our family friends actually worked in the intelligence community.” The CIA brought her onboard to focus on satellite technology, then got hired by the House Intelligence Committee to advise on tech issues.
Dixon also did stints at three-letter agencies (NRO, NGA) and became deputy director and then director of IARPA, which funds research that could benefit intelligence. (One example she offers: the SMART ePANTS project, which seeks to develop clothing that can record audio and video and would have been quite useful in this conference room.)
Now that Dixon has reached the top intelligence echelons, she’s thinking about how to recruit talented people who might never have considered a career in her secretive world. That can be a challenge: How do you attract candidates to a job that many employees can’t even admit they do? “It makes it hard for advertising,” Dixon says. But that could be changing—which, perhaps, is why this interview is happening in the first place. In other words, if you’re looking for a job and have read this far, perhaps America’s spy agencies would be interested in hearing from you.
At the end of our conversation, Dixon headed back to whichever looming threat was currently worrying her, and staffers arrived to present a decidedly old-fashioned piece of technology: a CD-R with a recording of our interview burned onto it. The disc was prominently stamped unclassified. I’ll probably shred it just to be safe.
This article appears in the October 2022 issue of Washingtonian.