How Much Can CIA Agents Brag About the Medals They’ve Won?

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Dec. 11 2012 6:32 PM

Congratulations. Tell No One.

How secretive are awards for CIA agents?

Distinguished Intelligence Medal.
The CIA's Distinguished Intelligence Medal, awarded "for performance of outstanding services or for achievement of a distinctly exceptional nature in a duty or responsibility, the results of which constitute a major contribution to the mission of the Agency"

An inspiration for the hero of Zero Dark Thirty, a CIA agent who was celebrated with a prestigious award for helping to track down Osama Bin Laden, seemingly has had a less glorious career in the mission’s aftermath, according to the Washington Post. A former CIA official says she bashed her fellow honorees over email, essentially telling them, “You guys tried to obstruct me. You fought me. Only I deserve the award.” How does the CIA give awards to secret agents?

Very secretly. Each awards ceremony for a covert agent is different depending on the sensitivity of their situation and the prestige of the award. Some may simply be presented the award in private, in the director’s office. Others may be invited to attend a larger ceremony with other honorees and family members, held in a conference room or the auditorium at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. After the agents are given their awards, they may choose to hold onto them, as long as they don’t reveal them before they are declassified. While the TV series Covert Affairs and the movie Argo each contained scenes in which the agents had to return the medals immediately after receiving them, this is not usually the case, according to an official familiar with how the CIA gives out awards. The ceremony doesn’t look dramatically different from what, say, the FBI would hold—except there is no media, and it may be years before anyone can acknowledge that the ceremony ever took place.

While the CIA keeps the names of its recipients a secret, it describes the awards themselves openly, on the CIA website. They range from the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the CIA’s most prestigious award except for those given for action under direct fire, to the Bronze Retirement Medallion, which is given “for a career of at least 15, but less than 25 years with the Agency.” The agent who served as an inspiration for Zero Dark Thirty’s Maya received the Distinguished Intelligence Medal. Tony Mendez, the agent depicted in Argo, received the Intelligence Star for Valor, which he describes as the agency’s second highest award for valor. Mendez told the New York Daily News, “I was the first one across the stage and got the Intelligence Star and then they took it back.” Eventually he was allowed to take the award home, where he kept it in a small case on his shelf. Now that the honor is no longer classified, it’s been moved to the Washington, D.C.’s International Spy Museum.


Even awards given to operatives killed in the line of duty may remain classified years after they die. The agency honors these officials at its annual memorial ceremony, held in the lobby at CIA headquarters. Hundreds of employees and family members may attend the closed ceremony, during which a new star is chiseled into the white marble of the lobby’s Memorial Wall for each operative killed in the line of duty. Each fallen employee also gets a star in the Book of Honor, and any declassified names are listed next to the stars. As of May, there were 103 stars. You can see a picture of the book on the CIA’s website, along with some of the names of deceased agents, but the CIA says that many “employees must remain secret, even in death.” A 1997 account of one memorial ceremony described a performance of “God Bless America,” remarks from the CIA director, a reading of the names of the deceased, a placement of a floral wreath, and playing of taps.

Another relatively well-documented awards ceremony was held in 1997, for the CIA’s 50th anniversary. On Sept. 18 it honored 50 “Trailblazers” with medallions. Forty-eight of them, including Tony Mendez, were honored by name, and their names are listed on the CIA website. As then CIA head George Tenet congratulated the honorees and their families, he said, “Your achievements probably will never be known in their fullness by the American people.”

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 


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