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Skills Required for a Secret Agent

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The fictional character James Bond is undoubtedly the most famous secret agent in history. The never-ending Bond movie installments, in addition to other profitable spy movies, have glamorized the role of the secret agent. They've also provided insight into some of the skills required for success in this secretive career. Beyond these British characters, secret agents work for U.S. government agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency and the military, international agencies and private investigation firms. Wherever they work, secret agents share certain skills and characteristics.


Secret agents need keen observation skills to carefully examine their subjects without appearing to display an inordinate amount of attention. When they’re shadowing subjects, they need to perform effective surveillance while avoiding detection. Secret agents must also pay attention to details and should have excellent powers of recollection.

Mentally Agile and Intuitive

Secret agents often make split-second decisions, so they need to be mentally agile to respond quickly when situations take an unexpected turn. When working in the field, secret agents rarely have the luxury of going back to the drawing board to brainstorm a plan B. They have to formulate alternative solutions on the spot. Also, they need intuition when they lack time to gather additional information; secret agents have to trust their gut feelings to choose the best course of action. According to the CIA’s website, they need to be “people and street smart.”

Master of Disguise

Secret agents must also assume false identities when they’re working undercover. Often they pretend to be unsavory characters so they can fit in with their targets, or they may pretend to be naïve, would-be-victims. They must be convincing in these roles and possess the ability to hide all traces of their own personalities.

Specialized Skills

Secret agents also need specialized skills, such as mastery of a foreign language, country or culture – especially hard target countries that are difficult to spy on, such as China, Russia and North Korea. Other specialized skills include computer hacking, martial arts, surveillance, impersonations and weapons.


Special agents must be secretive and maintain confidentiality. They can’t reveal their identity or discuss their job, and they certainly can’t post updates on Facebook and Twitter. In fact, the CIA’s website states, “Knowledge by non-Agency personnel of your association with the Central Intelligence Agency or the Intelligence Community may limit your ability to perform or preclude you from certain assignments.”


Keen observation skills, intuitiveness, the ability to assume false identities, secretiveness and specialized skill expertise all require a certain level of intelligence. Secret agents need a bachelor’s or master’s degree and a strong academic record, preferably with a 3.0 GPA or higher. They also need excellent written and verbal skills.


Terri Williams began writing professionally in 1997, working with a large nonprofit organization. Her articles have appeared in various online publications including Yahoo, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report University Directory, and the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago. Williams has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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