Tradecraft: How spies are made

(TFC) – Espionage is a game as old as recorded history. It’s played by governments, corporations, paramilitary organizations, individuals, and even religious entities. But what does the process of creating a spy look like? How does it really work?

It’s time for TFC’s Tradecraft section to really delve into the heart of the origin of its name: turning someone.

First, some vocabulary terms need to be explained and a few terms unlearned. In the intelligence world, an “agent” doesn’t carry a badge. At least not one from the country he’s spying for anyway. An agent is a spy. He or she is passing information secretly to a “handler”. The handler is typically an actual employee of an intelligence agency. The agent is not. There are several kinds of agent, but they are all “assets”. The term is as callous as it sounds. An asset is a person who is used until they are no longer beneficial, and then discarded one way or another. While all agents are assets, not all assets are agents. For example, a person who creates fake identification for a living or engages in smuggling is an asset, but since the person is not gathering information or acting on the orders of a handler in their daily life, they are not considered an agent. For clarification, sometimes people in these support roles are referred to as “paid assets” because they are typically providing their services in exchange for currency and act as independent contractors.

There are several types of agents.

Agent: A general term for someone directed by a handler. This person could be any of the types of agents below.

Access agent: The least glamorous of all spies. This person has no access directly to sensitive information but has access to people who have access. These individuals are the easiest to recruit, and if trained properly can work for decades without being discovered. Think about receptionists, janitors, maintenance workers, security guards, and the other hourly positions that make every building run. These individuals may not be in the room when a classified meeting is taking place, but they will empty the trash cans full of notes or be in charge of shredding documents or have access to the room so that a bug can be dropped.

Agent in place: This is what most people think of when they think of the word “spy”. This person has access to sensitive information because of their profession or personal relationships and passes that information to a handler.

Agent of influence: While slightly outside the scope of this installment of tradecraft, this type of agent is still worth mentioning. This individual has been recruited and is taking direction from the handler, but most likely isn’t passing any information back that truly matters. Their real role is influencing outcomes within their sphere of influence. An agent of influence might provide a letter of recommendation for another agent seeking a promotion so she can gain better access to information. If the agent is a public figure, they might adopt a particular stance on an issue that aligns with the handler’s wishes. Agents of influence are the grease on the wheels of espionage.

Bridge Agent: Handlers and agents can’t always meet directly, especially if the agent is behind enemy lines or under constant surveillance. In this case, a bridge is used. Often times, bridge agents know nothing about what they are actually involved in. Many bridge agents are recruited through false flags. Contrary to use in popular culture a false flag intelligence operation is simply recruiting a person while pretending to have a different affiliation. Bridges are typically criminals who already have street smarts and know how to move undetected. The handler may present himself as law enforcement and coerce the criminal into acting as a bridge.

Agent provocateur: This is a term most readers are familiar with, but only in the sense of discrediting an organization. There are times when agent provocateurs are used to start rebellions, cause two paramilitary groups to go to war, or even initiate successful operations that fulfill the infiltrated organization’s goals as well as the handler’s.

Double Agent: A double agent is an agent who appears to be working for one handler but is, in reality, working for another. If the CIA was to recruit a Chinese national to start spying, but that person spoke to the Chinese government and started feeding them information about how the CIA recruits and trains its agents, that person is a double. Later, the double will feed small pieces of good information and large quantities of bad back to the CIA. Alternatively, the double may establish a track record of always being right by feeding the CIA valuable information. When the agent finally feeds a piece of bad information to the CIA, it will be believed without question.

Sleeper Agent: This is an agent who is trained, assumes a life in the desired area, a profession that aids them, and then waits years or decades to be called upon to act. While “sleeping” that agent may still occasionally act as an agent of influence.

T Agent: A T agent is someone who was recruited and used to their fullest potential. The agent then serves no purpose to the handler. While in the movies and books, the successful agent is typically set up with a quiet life in the suburbs somewhere, the reality is they become a T agent. The T stands for throwaway. The agent is left in position and given menial tasks until he is needed to take a fall. If another agent who is producing valuable information becomes endangered, the handler might set up the T agent to become arrested and incarcerated or even executed for the activities of the agent who is still producing so the producing agent can continue to operate.

Agent of coercion: This is a plain old-fashioned snitch.This person was caught doing something they shouldn’t have been doing and then blackmailed into service. They’re short-lived assets and are typically used to for short-term operations. The snitch is the worst of all agents to run. Generally, he doesn’t really want to help, has a loyalty to the people he’s spying on, will try to alert them, is unreliable and generally a pain. Even if the snitch wasn’t implicated in criminal activity but instead was caught cheating on his wife, he is still a headache and will only work when the cost of what the handler is asking is lower than the fallout from the blackmail being disclosed.

Now that there is a base familiarity with the types of agents, it’s time to get to the nuts and bolts of actually creating a spy. Potential spies are reviewed to discover their motivation. Once the motivation is discovered, the process of turning them becomes simpler. Different agencies use different methods of gauging a potential agent’s motivations or weaknesses. I’m of the belief that everybody wants a piece of Marie.

M: Monetary. Those who are simply out for material benefit. They’re typically paid or threatened with removal of a source of income. These agents are the most dangerous to employ because if you can buy them, someone else can too.
A: Addiction. It could be drugs, gambling, sex, adrenaline, or anything else. The handler works to find ways to become the only supplier of that addiction. This oftentimes includes creating scenarios in which the target is isolated from their normal friends and family.
R: Religion. Religious motivations can be exploited by framing their actions as a duty to God. A false flag recruitment could have a Catholic agent believing he is actually delivering information to the Vatican, when in reality he is simply working for some branch of state security.
I: Ideology. These are the true gems. They believe they are saving the world by supporting their ideology. They are the most likely to face the firing squad with a smile. With proper training, ideologically motivated agents are the most effective.
E: Ego. Maybe a potential agent feels cheated by being passed over for a promotion. Maybe they feel they are special and deserve to be at a better station in life. Maybe they simply enjoy the idea of being smarter than those around them and pulling one over on them. These agents tend to become arrogant and push the envelope to satisfy their ego, which can lead to danger. An ego-driven agent can never learn anything about the rest of the handler’s network. They run a high risk of becoming a double when caught.

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The courtship of an agent has four general stages:

Selection: It doesn’t do a handler any good to recruit an agent with no access. Before anyone ever talks to a possible agent, people are identified who can access needed information. Those people are then reviewed to determine their motivations. When one is identified who can possibly be turned, the handler gathers all possible information about them. During the selection process, handlers will conduct surveillance on potential agents, go through their trash, review banking records, and so on.

Development: Development is the process in which a handler or an assistant meets the future agent and begins to establish a rapport. The potential recruit has no idea their new friend is a handler. They have no idea they are about to be recruited into espionage. Development can take months as the person is slowly compromised. Small innocent favors are asked and then when they are fulfilled the handler makes sure the reward appeals to their motivations. It could be a simple a pat on the back for the Ideologically motivated, or it could be a “celebration” in which the reward is all the coke the addicted recruit can snort. As the recruit slowly bends rules and becomes accustomed to being rewarded, the barriers against spying break down.

It should be noted that during the Cold War, the Soviets used a method called “crash”. It required extensive selection and preparation of blackmail material, then without any development the pitch is made.

Recruitment: This is the pitch, and it’s critical that all of the handler’s research and observations have been correct. The agent is informed of the handler’s position and is encouraged to join the team. If the handler has properly managed the development stage, the meeting is simply the formalization of an agreement for activities that are already occurring. The innocent favors just become more overtly related to espionage.

If the handler missed his mark and the recruit becomes combative, the handler immediately switches gears and informs the recruit that he is already a spy and has been for some time. Proof of the favors the recruit performed is presented and the relationship is now one of blackmail. It is also at this point that the handler informs the agent of any other potentially damaging information he possesses. It could be proof of an affair, recordings of the agent talking bad about his boss, proof of addiction, or any of the normal tools of blackmail.

Training: Immediately upon acceptance of the offer, the agent is given basic tradecraft training. He or she is instructed on counter-surveillance routes, how to pass information securely, what to do in the event of discovery, how to transport information, techniques useful for gathering sensitive information, and methods of communicating with the handler. The courtship is over and the relationship is now not one of friends, but of spy and spymaster.

From this point forward the agent is owned by the handler. Pressure can be applied and rewards can be offered based on performance. Running an agent is a difficult task and will be the subject of an upcoming article.