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.
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.
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.
In one exercise I had to go through during my training, I had to enter a simulated airport in a simulated country while in an alias. As soon as I stepped into the “terminal,” I was fair game. I stepped in front of the customs officer who asked me the prerequisite, “What brings you to our country?” and “What is the nature of your trip?” sorts of questions, then started to send me on my way. I was home free, and feeling great. Then I heard words that even a legit traveler never wants to hear: “Uh, excuse me, sir… could you come with me for a minute?” It caught me off guard, and for a second, I almost panicked, but I remembered what I had been taught.
Off to secondary I went. I ended up sitting in front of a polite and disarmingly friendly customs agent who repeated the questions that the first guy did, with a few curveballs thrown in such as, “Oh, you live in X town? I have a cousin there… is the library still on 4th and Main? Having done my homework, I knew that the town shared a library with another city, so there wasn’t one at that location. I walked out of the exercise with a pass and a new lesson for working in this business: Walk in with confidence, and you’ll walk out with your freedom.
It seems weird to list this given the above-listed trait, but humility does not mean timidity or lack of self-confidence. It simply means that you realize that you are human, that you are not (despite what your parents, your high school yearbook, or what your uniform tells you) invincible, and that you will make mistakes. In the intelligence business (and the military, hell, even in life) it is called self-assessment. Know yourself, your shortcomings, and your strengths. During IO training, after each exercise, the student is given feedback. But in this case, the seemingly innocuous question, “So, how do you think you did?” is anything but. The instructors want to know that you are able to assess your performance honestly — the good and the bad. Unlike a real-world op where it is just you and the asset (see integrity, above), they will know exactly how the exercise went, but they want to see how accurately you assess your performance. And unlike the Bond movies, ego will only get you sent home.
As those of us who have spent any time in the military or the intelligence community know, being friendly, especially to those who deserve anything but, is never easy. And I have seen my fair share of bosses who have thrown that trait straight out the window. For whatever reason, they are bitter and angry and take that out on their subordinates, who, if they produce, do so out of fear. But I believe that the old adage, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” holds true, from the boardroom to intelligence operations.
This is not to suggest that you should be a pushover or that you have to be cheesing from ear to ear every day, but come on, lighten up a little. While he makes for good movies, the stoic, constant hard ass is likely to fall flat on his face. This is especially true when trying to build genuine rapport with an asset as it could mean the difference between a solid recruit and a “Screw you, that Russian guy was nicer.” And I do mean being genuine. People, your coworkers and teammates included, are not dumb: they know when you are being fake. So leave the sour face for when you need it. For me, that’s whenever my daughters bring a boy home.
In this case, the definition of the word is: “(of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.” We all have our opinions, formed by a variety of sources including our upbringing, our social circles, books, TV, and the Internet. But here’s the thing: in the intelligence world, we deal in facts. Period. (Again, I get it, the IC has more than once screwed that up. And again, that debate is for another time). So if you aspire to be an intelligence officer, this is a realization that you need to come to. This is going to bother some folks out there, but oh well: There is no place for generalizations, stereotypes, racism, or prejudice when it comes to intelligence gathering. Full stop.
Having said that, do we contend with all of the above at times? Of course. We are humans. But what I mean is you need to be able to put all of those things aside, knowing that the person that you call a “towel head” or another ignorant slur may be the guy or gal who is able to provide you the intel that may stop the next attack. The ‘Merica bullshit won’t work here. Obviously, love your country and complete the mission and your duty, but be clever about it. And as I said above, people are not stupid. They will see past “the fake.” The only place that opinion should come into play is firstly when giving an assessment of a situation, asset, or topic within an intel report and secondly when asked. Learn to keep it under your hat until the appropriate time, and all will be well.
Quite simply, the opposite of the above. As I said, there is nothing wrong with having and voicing your opinion (in most cases). Just know when and where to use that tool. There will be many times where, out of the blue, you will be asked what you think of something, even when the person in front of you has already made up their mind. They want to know where your head is at, and that is your time to shine. Also, as mentioned above, when providing an assessment of an asset or case, your opinion is paramount to its advancement of termination (no, not as in killing the person; it means to end a case or a relationship with an asset). Headquarters wants to know what an asset or potential asset does and just as importantly, why you think they do it. So flex that opinion muscle, but at the right time.
9) A Sense of Humor
Last, but certainly not least, is maintaining a sense of humor. If you can’t laugh at a situation or even at yourself, you may not be cut out for this gig. I thrive on self-deprecation in a humorous way. It keeps things light, reminds me that I am human, and keeps me focused. We all make fun of one another at work; it helps the day go by. Overseas, it’s even more crucial. Seemingly never-ending days, numerous hazards, deadlines, missing your family, and other stresses may not vanish, but they can be eased by being able to find the humor in a situation. At the very least, it will keep you from going crazy.
So, there you have it. Certainly not an all-inclusive list, and the reasons I gave above are not cookie cutter. As with everything, situations and individuals are unique and should be handled as such. But for anyone hoping to dive into the world of intelligence, this list might help you get a good start. Self-assessment is the key. If you don’t think that you have one or two of the attributes, work on it. But be honest with yourself. You will save yourself a lot of time and grief later on, and in the end, it might make you a better person. (Okay, feel-good moment over. If you don’t have it, you just don’t. Suck it up, learn from it, and move on to the next objective.)
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2017.