From The Psychology of Spies and Spying by Adrian Furnham and John Taylor.
Former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told the US House Armed Services Committee In 2015 that 200 US Special Operations Forces would be dispatched to spearhead the fight against the Islamic State.
"We’re good at intelligence; we’re good at mobility; we’re good at surprise. We have the long reach that no one else has… It puts everybody on notice in Syria that you don’t know at night who is coming in the window. And that’s the sensation that we want all of ISIL’s leadership and followers to have." (Politics Today, 2015)
Carter summed up the role of Special Forces well.
Spies & Spying: Special Forces
In his book SAS Rogue Heroes (now a BBC series), Ben Macintyre commented that David Stirling, the founder of the British SAS ‘would have recognized and applauded’ the definition that Carter described.
The origins of the SAS date back to the Second World War. The Russian equivalent known popularly as Spetsnaz can claim its origins to the 1930s under General Ilya Starinov, but it was not until the 1950s that the modern equivalent was created.
Following the success of the SAS, similar units were created in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. In the US, Delta Force was officially formed in 1977.
The assessment of people to ensure a perfect fit
We summarize below the main skills and qualities which recruiters will look for in their assessment of potential intelligence officers.
Not everyone in an organization needs to be super clever; they do however need to be ‘bright enough’. There are different kinds of intellect that are required in an intelligence service:
- Intellectual and cognitive capacity (IQ): an individual’s efficiency at information processing and storage. It predicts how quickly and efficiently they learn. People can be taught skills but there is not much people can do to improve their intelligence.
- Analytical: the ability to identify relationships and patterns from information and data.
- Numeric or deductive ability: this relates to those posts which demand a strong mathematical or scientific approach to their work.
Personality - is about preferred ways of doing things and seeing the world. Intelligence officers cannot change their personalities but they can learn to change their behaviors. Different roles require different personality traits. Recruiters will want to assess the following:
Stability/resilience/composure - an ability to withstand stressful external stimuli without psychological hindrance. All roles involve pressure, some more than others. It is important that people do not buckle under pressure and make bad decisions.
Openness/inquisitiveness - open to experience and embrace the new and the different. They are less fazed by unusual or different places, people, or ways of doing things. Inquisitiveness is about an individual’s ability to innovate and be curious when presented with intelligence from an existing source or a new source.
Sociability/extraversion - value social interaction and a preference to work in groups and as part of a team. Introverts value independence, preferring to work alone, or in an insular manner.
Risk-taking preferences - central to intelligence roles is the concept of risk. While all risks are thoroughly analyzed, understood, and (as much as possible) mitigated, intelligence roles require that people take risks. We split risk into two distinct parts:
- ‘Hot’ Risk - risk where decisions have immediate (and potentially dangerous) consequences. This represents a person's willingness to engage in missions that are physically stimulating/frightening.
- ‘Cold’ Risk - risk where decisions have effects that are distant and in the future. This represents a person’s willingness to make strategic decisions based on intelligence or challenge existing intelligence in favor of a different strategy. It is calculated, planned, and strategic.
Drive/conscientiousness/work ethic - this trait assesses the level of self-motivation, organization, and drive within an individual. A conscientious person is organized, reliable, and responsible.
Integrity/honesty - an individual’s ‘moral compass’. It focuses on whether the individual is manipulative, callous, and devious or whether they have an ethical sense and moral backbone. This is one of the most important traits in the spying world, famous for its intrigues and falsehoods. It is vitally important that insiders can trust their colleagues.
Skills can be taught - people can learn to do better. Inevitably an individual’s intellect and personality tend to dictate both what skills they initially have and how efficiently they learn further or higher skills.
Interpersonal skills - the ability to cultivate and maintain relationships. Certain jobs specify a need for strong social skills, not only to gather information but also to operate with others.
Observational skills - the ability to observe and follow targets. Certain roles have a need to be aware of their surroundings.
Physical ability - some roles require more than average physical fitness.
Leadership - leadership is relevant primarily for the Spymaster and for those who have to lead groups. It needs to encompass strategic ability, ambition, and a willingness to delegate. The desirable qualities of a leader are much debated.
Excerpt courtesy of The Psychology of Spies and Spying by Adrian Furnham and John Taylor.