Back in November 2014, SOFREP writer Frumentarius wrote an excellent piece titled Top 5 Qualifications for CIA’s Clandestine Service, which outlined the checklist of resume items for aspiring spies. The list included background prerequisites such as military experience, language, experience abroad, higher education, and life experience. In this article, I will discuss some of the internal qualities and attributes that the CIA looks for in a candidate and which successful intelligence officers must possess and maintain throughout their careers and even into retirement. Some of the attributes can and must be learned and taught while on the job, but most are intrinsic to the officer’s character.


1) Integrity

Probably the most important of all of the attributes, this is also the most difficult to maintain, as attested to by the fact that, despite the Agency’s strenuous vetting and hiring process, it has endured traitors. For example, Philip Agee, who published a book in 1975 titled Inside the Company: CIA Diary, which exposed the identities of roughly 250 alleged officers and agents. Or Aldrich Ames, whose 11-year span of treason compromised over 100 intelligence operations and who is responsible for the deaths of at least 10 CIA assets in the Soviet Union.

In essence, integrity comes down to the unofficial definition of “doing the right thing even when no one is looking.” We all know that the right choice is not often made by those who choose the easy road. Be it in training, in the office while writing up a report, sitting face-to-face with an asset at a meeting, or memorizing the details of the crucial information being passed, the common denominator in the equation is… you. The Agency and your colleagues trust that you will do the right thing every time, and not just because you’ve been pegged as “one of the good ones.” Lives can and will be at stake, and those trusted with our nation’s secrets must be above reproach — the same goes for our leadership (yes, yes, I know the history and I read the news… that is a debate for another time).


2) Honor and Courage

If you read my book review on the CIA’s memorial to its fallen, The Book of Honor, then you will know why this is important. Honor and courage don’t always materialize on a battlefield. Sometimes they are shown when an operation goes wrong, or when an asset has to be extracted through an extremely non-permissive environment. Sometimes they shine brightest from the cell of a dark and wet prison in a far-off place when no one even knows you are being held, and the bad guys are using every means at their disposal to make you talk, but you stick to your cover story, despite your body and mind begging you to make the pain stop. Hopefully, you will never have to rise to that level of honor and courage. But every time you strap it on and hit the field remember those who have risen to such levels; it may keep you from having to.


3) Flexibility

No need to expand on this one. If you have been in the military, run a business, or been a parent, then you know all about flexibility. In the Marine Corps, we called it Semper Gumby — pseudo-Latin for “always flexible.” Things can change in a heartbeat, and this is most certainly true in the intelligence community. It can be as simple (yeah right) as your boss saying, “Hey, I need you to handle this last-minute brief to the front office,” or as nerve-wracking as your asset showing up to a high-threat meeting with his wife… and her parents. Whatever the case, you need to be prepared, at least mentally, to handle the sudden changes and go with the flow.