Secret Agents: What It Takes to Work for Mossad

Mossad psychologists and agents shed light on spy agency’s unique recruitment process in rare TV documentary.

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What does it take to work for Mossad? (Archive: Unsplash)

Mossad’s recruitment and training methods are unlike anything most people will ever experience. The select few who pass the strict selection process of Israel’s spy agency go on to perform unique missions abroad, at times under extreme danger. But what does it take to be a Mossad field agent?

Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan, recently offered a rare glimpse into this shadowy world. Investigative reporting show Zman Amiti (Real Time) was given access to some of the agency’s retired psychologists and agents to produce a detailed report about Mossad’s hiring process.

As it turns out, Mossad agents can come in all shapes, sizes and personality types. Some are extroverts, daring and sturdy, while others are introverts, more cautious and physically weaker. But all share some core traits that make them fit for the unusual and demanding job.

Dozens of exercises

Mossad’s evaluation team aims to identify recruits with a diverse set of skills. Field agents need to regularly change identities, live in isolation in distant lands, and cope with constant pressure. They must be creative and capable of lying and manipulating others, while remaining truthful in their reports.

After passing some initial standard tests, all candidates undergo an in-depth psychological analysis. In this phase, they are questioned about all facets of their life and interrogated about their personal and professional history.

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In-depth psychological analysis (Archive: Unsplash)

However, Mossad realized early on that a psychological evaluation wasn’t enough.

To get a deeper sense of a candidate’s suitability, the agency’s experts came up with diverse simulations that place potential recruits in challenging real-life situations. Only those who pass this phase are accepted into the prestigious training course.

For two weeks, candidates are kept away from home and perform dozens of exercises that assess various elements. To heighten the sense of insecurity, they later go over the tests with an instructor and move on without any feedback. This is yet another way to evaluate their ability to deal with uncertainty.

Coping with anxiety

Coping effectively with high levels of fear and stress is a basic requirement that must be demonstrated by all recruits. After all, a field agent constantly faces operational danger and deals with enemies from close range, said David Meidan, a retired Mossad spymaster.

Operating under such conditions can easily trigger a paranoid reaction, a former Mossad psychologist observed. In a worst-case scenario, a terrified agent will be unable to distinguish enemies from neutral bystanders.

Hence, the screening process checks the candidate’s ability to face threatening situations and cope with anxiety. One way to do it is by assigning missions that call for breaking the law in broad daylight.

In another exercise, recruits performing a task under an assumed identity are unexpectedly arrested by the police on trumped-up charges. These episodes can extend for long hours and include rough treatment and overnight detainment in a prison cell.

Mossad’s former top psychologist notes that people who could develop serious mental problems under stressful conditions are unfit for the job. Field agents must cope with adversity without breaking even when stripped of all their defenses, he said.

Stranger at the bar

To work for Mossad, agents must be quick and creative thinkers with excellent interpersonal skills. One of their main missions is to convince strangers to take actions that they would not consider otherwise. This set of abilities is also tested during the screening process.

A classic exercise is to bring recruits to Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, point to a random balcony in a nearby building, and instruct them to show up there with a glass of water in 10 minutes alongside the homeowner.

In another test, the instructor points to an individual at a hotel bar and gives the candidate 15 minutes to come up with a cover story. The recruit must then approach the target, elicit some personal information and set up another meeting. At times, the person at the bar is another Mossad agent posing as a hotel guest.

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Approaching a stranger at the bar (Archive: Unsplash)

To ace such tests, candidates must possess a healthy dose of curiosity and a sense of adventure. A good field agent must have these basic urges to succeed, Mossad’s psychologists say.

The ability to perform multiple tasks in parallel is also an important skill, which explains why Mossad has been hiring more female agents. Former director Tamir Pardo previously noted that women tend to excel at multitasking, which gives them a distinct advantage.

Criminals unwelcome

The integrity of Mossad agents is also a key piece of the puzzle. While they lead a deeply dishonest life on the operational front, they must maintain the highest standards of truth within the agency.

Ultimately, Mossad counts on the reports of its agents to plan its moves and set up operations, says former spymaster Meidan. As reports often can’t be verified independently, the agency must be confidant that its operatives are trustworthy.

This could present a dilemma, as manipulative recruits may possess the skills needed to work for Mossad. However, the agency has decided to rule out these candidates even for offenses like tax evasion. At the end of the day, the risk of employing such agents is too high.

Hiring dubious individuals badly backfired in several cases. The most serious involved Mordechai Keidar, who was sent to Argentina in the 1950s to establish a cover story before his assignment. Keidar, who had a record of violence and deceit, ended up robbing and murdering a local contact person and was sentenced to a long prison term.  

To weed out problematic applicants, Mossad grills candidates about their lives and performs extensive background checks. Moreover, the evaluators observe recruits during exercises and review their reports to verify every detail. Questionable tendencies and dishonest accounts are grounds for immediate dismissal.

Lonely in a foreign land  

For all the glamor and excitement, one of the greatest challenges faced by agents is the need to lead a dull and isolated life. Loneliness and boredom could be the most serious threat to a candidate’s well-being and mental condition, Mossad’s psychologists warn.

Field agents are often deployed in foreign countries, where they must sometimes wait for months before being activated. During this time, they can’t create real relationships or share the details of their work with anyone.

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Alone in a foreign city (Archive: Pixabay)

To cope with such difficulties, agents must possess inner strength and maintain a strong sense of identity. However, at times the pressures could become unbearable. In such cases, their handlers will aim to come up with a solution, such as a short vacation in a destination far away from the deployment site.

On a final note, ex-deputy chief Ram Ben-Barak says that Mossad used to recruit candidates with a complete set of skills, such as command of foreign languages. But this has changed following some painful lessons.

Today, the spy agency focuses on integrity and the ability to cope with difficult situations, Ben-Barak says. Mossad will teach you everything else you need to know. So, do you have what it takes to work for Mossad?

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