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Nick Conley (’10): Foreign Affairs Officer-Intelligence Analyst

Nick Conley standing with a view of Kabul
Nick Conley with Kabul in the background

Nick Conley (’10) began his intelligence career after getting an internship through the IWP network. He soon found himself doing intelligence work in Afghanistan for the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. He now serves as a Senior Intelligence Analyst for State with the Iran/Syria/Jordan/Lebanon Desk. 

Sudden discovery of a new lifelong interest

Originally a political science and pre-med major in college, Nick watched the September 11, 2001 attacks unfold during his freshman year of college. “My focus suddenly switched,” he remembered. “I was interested in why it happened, who did it, what were the ramifications, etc. I went down a rabbit hole of global politics, terrorism, and the Middle East.”

Nick soon switched colleges so that he could pursue these interests further. He transferred to Elmira College in Elmira, New York (close to Ithaca), where he majored in international relations and history.

He applied to IWP while still in college – and while IWP was still unaccredited. He chose IWP because the courses were unique, and he had not seen them offered at other schools. In addition, the faculty members were “daytime government workers and nighttime adjuncts,” remembered Nick. He was eager to study with people who had actually done the job, and not full-time educators: “I felt that I could learn the most that way.”

After graduating college in 2006, Nick began his graduate studies during the first semester after IWP received accreditation.

Getting started in intelligence

Nick’s first internship in intelligence came after attending a Christmas party with an IWP classmate, where he met a contact who worked at a risk assessment company called Total Intelligence Solutions. As a result, Nick started an internship doing open-source intelligence, which turned into a job. He worked there for three years until he graduated.

Two days after graduation, Nick flew to Afghanistan for a contract with the State Department and was there for three years. “I sold all my things,” said Nick. He worked with his IWP professors to make sure that he could do his oral comprehensive exam panel early to accommodate this adventure.

Upon arriving in Afghanistan, Nick began an intelligence analyst position at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul dealing with counterterrorism. “It was an awesome job, one where I knew I could make a difference,” he said.

Nick worked hard, and his efforts were recognized. Within six months, the State Department converted his position from a contract to working directly as a State Department employee.

Nick Conley in Kabul
Nick Conley at the building that Taliban insurgents used to attack the U.S. Embassy in 2011

Protecting Americans in Afghanistan

During this time, Nick worked in a joint operations center at the Embassy with 15-20 intelligence analysts from different agencies. He helped manage this unit as they sifted through and analyzed threat information. This information was then used to protect the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, as well as Americans who were traveling throughout the country on behalf of the U.S. government.

Nick and his colleagues would look at when attacks would happen and what tactics were being used so that they could prepare for or avoid future attacks. “It was a lot of reading, writing, briefing, and traveling,” said Nick. “We went to go see some of these places firsthand.”

When asked where he believes he has made the biggest impact in his career, Nick points to his time in Afghanistan: “I believe that I saved lives – individual lives. I’m sure I’ll do big papers and briefs in the future, but playing a role in potentially saving individual lives is different. What is more important than a life?”

There were instances when Nick and his team were monitoring information and told Americans not to go to certain places – and then those places were attacked. If the people had gone there, they would have died. Nick helped put out warnings and made individual phone calls to warn people of bad situations and impending attacks.

In one incident, Nick and his team gave advice to the British Embassy in Kabul, warning them about a certain threat. Nick was adamant that they evacuate the location. Six hours later, it was attacked. Had the British stayed there, they would have been attacked, and people may have been killed.

Nick was in Afghanistan for three and a half years, working 12-16 hours per day. His work involved looking at awful pictures of war, going to locations that had just recently been attacked, and feeling constant pressure to ensure that the Americans (and our Afghan allies) in Afghanistan were kept safe, and feeling responsible if anything happened to them.

“You are so exhausted, but you want to stay,” said Nick. “I didn’t want to miss anything. You are so entrenched. If you leave, and there is an attack, you feel like you should have been there.” Eventually, he was ordered by his doctor to take a break – he was exhausted mentally and physically.

Nick Conley visiting a small coffee shop in Kabul
Nick Conley visiting a small coffee shop in Kabul

Working for Diplomatic Security in D.C.

After transferring back to the U.S., Nick has continued his work as an intelligence analyst with the State Department. He worked for the Afghanistan Desk for a few years, and now he focuses on threats from Iran, Syria, and Lebanon.

In this capacity, he monitors information focused on our interests in that region and the various nefarious activities that Iran is organizing around the world, with a goal of protecting Americans in these countries. His work involves monitoring terrorism and civil unrest, and he occasionally travels to these countries.

Nick plans to continue this work in the future, and he strives to make a difference, save lives, and support the United States government. He enjoys the travel involved, and, as a father of young children, he also appreciates the work-life balance that the State Department offers.

Reflecting on the IWP experience

Looking back at his time at IWP, Nick feels that it gave him a glimpse of what a job in intelligence and the international relations field would be like. The stories that the professors would tell in class were real-life case studies, often from their own time in government. “In my undergraduate studies, the teachers taught about things that others experienced. At IWP, they taught things that they had experienced. I found it useful and interesting,” said Nick.

The IWP curriculum allowed Nick to hone in on his interest in the Middle East and counterterrorism. He took courses tailored to these interests, and within the various courses, he would select subjects for papers and briefs that focused on these topics.

Meanwhile, Nick was exposed to different instruments of power that worked alongside intelligence. He learned about public diplomacy and soft power from Amb. Thomas Melady, and he learned about Soviet active measures in other classes. With his focus on war and counterterrorism, Nick had not previously delved into these soft power tools.

IWP also helped Nick develop his research and writing skills. He remembers when Dr. Chodakiewicz returned his paper with heavy criticism and advice, despite liking Nick’s argument within the paper. “I still hear Dr. Chodakiewicz’s words in my head when I write something,” said Nick. “When I write my assessments at work, I use his tips.”

At IWP, Nick also honed his public speaking skills. He rarely spoke in public when he was younger, but he had to do it a lot at IWP. “Now I feel like I’m a master at it,” said Nick. “I do it almost every day now at work. IWP helped me with those skills I use today.”

Nick also took advantage of IWP career services. IWP career director Derrick Dortch helped Nick rewrite his resume, and Nick met with Derrick on a weekly basis as he planned his career and submitted different applications. Nick felt the hands-on approach and level of attention given to him by Derrick were certainly unique to IWP.

Nick also appreciated the network at IWP. He said, “It has an impressive cadre of students who are already working in the field. They are doing their job during the day and going to IWP at night. You can learn a lot from them… In counterterrorism or international affairs, you have to network. It is so important, and a personality-driven field in a lot of ways. You definitely have that opportunity at IWP, whether it is with a professor who is working at the Pentagon, or one of the fellow students.”

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