Former CIA Agents Reveal What You Need To Become A Real-Life Spy

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Former CIA Agents Reveal What You Need To Become A Real-Life Spy James Kegley Photography/Lindsay Moran

As kids, there are typically a few ‘dream jobs’ we consider ourselves destined for, whether it’s an astronaut, a popstar or an undercover spy. 

When we get older, our interests change and we start to pursue different careers, or we realise that these kinds of jobs aren’t so easy to get into and opt for more ‘realistic’ options.


Still, someone has to do these jobs, and even when we have our general life plan figured out, there’s always that little niggle in the back of your brain making you ask, ‘I wonder if I could have made it?’

Spy KidsTroublemaker Studios

To help you find out if you’ve got what it takes to be a spy for the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), UNILAD spoke to two former CIA officers about the skills that prove most important in the role.

Lindsay Moran worked undercover as an operations officer for the CIA from 1998-2003, during which time she underwent espionage – aka spy – work in Macedonia and was forced to ‘shut herself off’ from friends and family who didn’t know what she did.

Lindsay MoranLindsay Moran

Another operations officer, Matthew Bradley, was with the organisation from 1997-2011 and was tasked with working with local authorities ‘on subjects of mutual interest like terrorism, narcotics smuggling and human trafficking’.

Before you can even think about whether you’d be successful in the spy role itself, you have to make it through the application stage – a lengthy process that, according to Bradley, starts with an application detailing where you have lived for the past 10 years. Do you think ‘Mum’s house’ is an acceptable answer?


While figuring out if you’re a worthy employee, the US government conducts a background investigation that applicants must pass before moving on to a polygraph test and personal interviews – so if you don’t do well under pressure, this probably isn’t the job for you.

After Moran was recruited, she was sent to a secret CIA facility in Virginia known as ‘The Farm’. There, she learned paramilitary skills, and, ‘more importantly’, how to spot, assess, develop and recruit foreign spies.

Lindsay MoranJames Kegley Photography

While some careers rely on skills you can learn on the job, Moran believes you need a certain kind of personality to make it as a CIA spy. She stressed that hopeful applicants need to be ‘adaptable’, have ‘street smarts’ and ‘social skills’ – traits that she believes are ‘either innate or developed early in life’.


Bradley, on the other hand, argued that ‘all the skills needed to work for the CIA can be developed’, and while he feels you don’t necessarily need to have an ‘outgoing personality’ to be effective in the role, he agreed that ‘people skills’ are one of the most vital traits agents need.

He commented:

The job is all about building relationships. You build relationships with your local contacts. You build relationships with the people in other government agencies to work on joint operations.

Matthew BradleyMatthew Bradley

Like Moran’s emphasis on the ability to be ‘adaptable’, Bradley stressed the need to be ‘flexible’ to be a CIA agent. Being up for a spontaneous night out might work in your favour here, then, as it could translate to thinking on your feet and being willing to change plans when the pressure’s on and your target is in sight.

Bradley also highlighted the need to be patient and to have the ability to work in a team, suggesting that all those group projects you had to endure in school might finally pay off. However, if you were never good at taking notes then maybe think twice about the job because he added, ‘Everything you do has to be documented so being a good writer is key.’

If you’re known to be the funny one in your group then you may be in luck, as Moran advised anyone working for the CIA should ‘park your ego at the door, but don’t forget your sense of humour’, saying, ‘It will save you in the worst of times.’

Lindsay MoranLindsay Moran

Of course, as cool as being a CIA agent may sound, it isn’t the easiest job in the world, so dedication and commitment to the role is a must. For both Moran and Bradley, the most difficult part of their time working with the CIA was having to keep their work a secret.

Bradley said the need for secrecy makes it difficult in ‘social settings, and it can make it difficult with family’, while Moran found it hard to lie to her loved ones.

Still, Bradley assured UNILAD it is a ‘great job’ that is worth the effort, and both he and Moran have transferred skills from their time in the CIA to their everyday lives; Bradley by ‘getting to know people and understanding what motivates them’, and Moran with raising her two sons, who are ‘sort of like teenage foreign agents’.

Kingsman20th Century Fox

The CIA itself stresses a few must-have traits for its operations agents, including a ‘commitment to service, integrity, and excellence’ and the ability to ‘thrive on challenge and significant responsibility’. Again, think carefully here, because if you can’t handle the responsibility of taking the chicken out of the freezer for dinner then you’ll probably struggle with the notion of protecting the United States.

With all these requirements in mind, it’s easy to see why working for the CIA only becomes a reality for a select few people. Still, if you think you’ve got what it takes, check out its career page – though prepare for your first test of patience, because the organisation warns applications could take more than a year.

Good luck!

If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]

Topics: Featured, CIA, job, Now, Spy

Emily Brown
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