Last modified on August 18, 2019, at 18:28

Glossary of espionage terms

Agent handler is a generic term common to many intelligence organizations which can be applied to Case Officers, those who aspire to be Case officers, "controllers", contacts, couriers and other assorted trainees.

The Business

Intelligence and Counterintelligence actually are two entirely different fields. Many writings on the subject of espionage jumble the two together as the same thing; but they are different specialties, with different objectives, and a different mindset required of those working in the field. Like the offense and defense on a football team, the two fields have different approaches and different terminology.

What can be learned from a successful espionage operation usually comes from counterespionage files, which may give a distorted or opaque view. For example, what is known about the CPUSA's secret apparatus, which operated a very large and successful organization in the United States from about 1921 to 1945, comes largely from FBI and SIS counterintelligence files. These files are fragmentary. While counterintelligence agents successfully identified perhaps a third of CPUSA and Soviet operatives between 1945 and 1950, only personal memoirs of the intelligence operatives in question, or successful testimony if it can be believed, or a peek into Soviet and Comintern archives, gives us a clue as to what the entire organization's mission was and how they set about it for two and a half decades. The FBI counterintelligence files typically contain only three weeks of direct surveillance on the subjects' activities, and those under surveillance learned their operation had been compromised and broke their usual pattern of conduct.


The objective of counterintelligence (CI) is to identify an intelligence operative. However, the intelligence operative's objective is not simply to evade detection; he has a more important mission to perform, and avoiding counterintelligence detection is just part of performing that mission. Once the identification has been made by counterintelligence, the operative is not just arrested, tried, and carted off to jail as in other crimes; a decision must be made, and he usually is temporarily left in place so as not to tip off how he came to be identified, which would have the effect of compromising other counterintelligence operations.

Nonetheless, an identified operative must be cut off from access to further secure information, without letting him know that his cover is blown, then fed an elaborate stream of credible disinformation. Then an assessment must be made as to the extent of the damage and what information has been compromised. Eventually, the mole and his handlers will realize their operation has been compromised because of the useless disinformation being passed; but this step buys time for the difficult process of "walking the dog backwards" to determine what has been compromised within the target organization. That is the point at which an arrest is usually made. Sometimes, however, the process of feeding disinformation can be useful, so a discovered agent may be left in place for years.

Occasionally attempts are made to "turn" a mole; that is, gain his cooperation without exposing to his controllers that his cover has been blown. Turning a mole can make him an unwilling agent of either side, either to continue the feed of disinformation, or being coerced at threat of imprisonment to betray his compatriot organization. In the famous case of Arkady Schevchenko, a Soviet diplomat to the United Nations who asked to defect, rather than accept his defection the CIA required he remain in place and engage in espionage. Schevchenko was a professional diplomat, not a spy, and he found the stressful work nerve-wracking.

CI is similar to, and often confused with, HUMINT, as CI uses many of the same techniques for the information collection. CI obtains information by or through the functions of CI operations,investigations, collection and reporting, analysis, production, dissemination, and functional services. CI is not solely a collection discipline, however, and also acts upon information for both offensive and defensive purposes, in coordination with other intelligence disciplines, law enforcement and/or security elements.

  1. The function of CI is to provide direct support to operational commanders, program managers, and decision makers. This support includes: CI support to force protection during all types and phases of military operations; detection identification and neutralization of espionage; antiterrorism; threat assessments; counterproliferation actions; countering illegal technology transfer; acquisitions systems protection; support to other intelligence activities; information systems protection; and treaty support.
  1. Although CI is an activity separate and distinct from foreign intelligence, it supports the foreign intelligence disciplines through its contribution to the I&W function, by its collection, analysis, and production capabilities, and by maintenance of CI databases.


The concept of "MICE" was originated by American counterintelligence in an effort to understand what motivates a person to be willing to betray their own country. It can be regarded as one of America's contributions to the art and science of the business, now that both intelligence and counterintelligence agencies worldwide rely upon this simple mnemonic, to spot potential recruits or identify potential agents in the service of a foreign organization. The concept is simple: it is either Money, Ideology, Coercion, or Excitement, that causes a person to be willing to betray their friends and neighbours, or their whole country, and go into the service of a foreign espionage organization. Sometimes "intrigue" is substituted for ideology, or "ego" for excitement, but the end result is the same. It is claimed that no one has produced a better summary of traitors' motivations.

Individuals who are motivated to betray their country for money, out of greed, tend to be persons who feel life has cheated them out of their just rewards, so they have no qualms about being fairly compensated, in their own eyes, for their worth. At the same they can get back at the society which has misunderstood and not appreciated their talents. When Aldrich Ames bought an $80,000 Jaguar, there was not the slightest pretence of hiding the fruit of his labors.

Ideology, however is the opposite end of the spectrum. People with this motivation are deeply committed to a system of beliefs that they perceive sustains them, their families, communities, and their friends. Such people will risk their lives for no payment, service to the cause being their reward. Both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were "patsies", or fall guys, for a much larger conspiracy, most of whom walked away unscathed. But the Rosenbergs were willing patsies, martyrs to a cause for which Julius was willing to see his own wife executed rather than implicate others, and Ethel was willing to orphan her own children, in service to the cause. As to intrigue, Kim Philby rose to the number two spot in British intelligence and was poised to become head, and assisted the United States to establish a peacetime espionage organization, but in doing so compromised the CIA from its founding. He originally was recruited into Soviet intelligence to spy on his father, St. John Philby.

Coercion can be used against an unwilling participant, homosexuality-related blackmail and bribery being two of the most common forms. The classic example of homosexuality is Donald Maclean who was compromised by Guy Burgess. As to bribery, once a government official takes a bribe, he is forever in the possession of those who paid him. He must continue taking money, whether he wants to or not, for fear of exposure. Coercion can also be used against a loved one, in forms ranging from fear of exposure to violence and even murder.

Elizabeth Bentley is perhaps the classic study of excitement being the motivating factor. Bentley began her espionage career with a fascist organization, but quickly joined a communist entity, so ideology does not seem to apparent. Bentley then became the lover of a high-level CPUSA underground operative who had been a chekist. When he died and Bentley took over his operations, her personal loss was had a huge impact on her work. Excitement, romance, and sex was why she ever got involved originally. And when she lost those things, she defected back to her home country.

Phased withdrawal

Once a counterintelligence mission is completed and an intelligence product secure, a phased withdrawal from the main target is necessary so as to maintain operational security on sources and methods. As manpower resources are deployed elsewhere, the operation is phased down gradually rather than a 'cut and run' approach which risks exposing the scale of the operation and its methods.

In the case were cover is blown and a forced shut down necessary before securing an intelligence product, a phased withdrawal is still necessary, albeit in a more hurried fashion.


Procedures by which a US person's identity caught up in a foreign intelligence gathering operation is 'masked' in audio transcripts before distribution to other members of the Intelligence Community.[1][2]


The objectives of the intelligence operatives, on the other hand, are many and bountiful. In fact, there is no one single job among operatives. Each has his or her own particular position within an organizatrion. At the high end, it may be to penetrate and infiltrate a target organization: either to infiltrate a target organization with one's own personnel, or to gain by MICE an "agent in place". If the job is to handle an agent in place, a Case Officer may be required to oversee the agent. Sometimes the oversight is done indirectly, through lower level "handlers", "controllers", contacts and such. The CIA is fond of using "agents of influence": secondary sources connected with a target, like the maid to an ambassador who digs through the trash for memoranda, because the CIA recognizes its weakness at the direct approach of recruitment. Such agents may be easier to recruit, but it is no substitution for having the actual target in your employ.

Other positions among intelligence operatives are in support functions: maintenance and operation of "safehouses", couriers, etc.

Case Officer

The relationship between Case Officer and agent is very much akin to that of a psychiatrist and patient, because very often the person willing to become involved in espionage and the betrayal of his country, is someone with emotional problems, or may develop serious emotional problems from the stress of the work. The Case Officer is the complete intelligence professional in the operational field, always cool, level headed, in control of his emotions. Always ready to deal with a crisis, be it personal or imagined, or of the dreaded breach of security protocol type, sloppiness, laziness, stupidity, lack of motivation, carelessness. The Case Officer must constantly be looking after these concerns and be ready to mentor and exhort the bedraggled agent to carry on.

However, real history shows that after a source (agent) has been exploited, he is often no longer handled well by many services e.g. BND, MI6 and others. In reality agents are given incentives and promises are made which then turn out to become broken. Many Case officers privately lack respect of the agent who is risking his life, viewing them as most societies view people who betray their own friends, as scum. Since probably every major service can be assumed to be penetrated by moles, every agent runs the risk of being tipped off, which happens frequently after major defectors change sides. Norbert Juretzko of BND, for example, got sacked after they found he did not file the real names of his Russian spies, keeping them from being shot after KGB received their filed names.


The term "agent" refers to "one who acts on behalf of another", the "another", in this case being an organization or government. Agents can be either witting or unwitting. They can also by willing of unwilling. Agents are almost always a foreign national who is under the direction of an agent handler or controller. In the case of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, this handler is known as a Case Officer.

The spotting of potential recruit often is conducted through skimming of trade journals and professional proceedings for subject experts names and affiliations, vulnerable political and technical delegation members, trade conferences attendees, and foreign travellers whose activities make them potential subjects for coersion or inducement.

The assessment of a potential agent includes verification of their credentials and bona fides or true identities. A risk analysis should be conducted to determine the dangers of approaching the target recruit with a 'pitch' for cooperation. This is either done 'cold,' where the recruiter has no prior contact with the target, or 'warm,' in which the handler and the target are prior acquaintances. Recruitment of an agent can take many months or even years to accomplish.


KGB recruiting practices provide an excellent example to study based upon their record of success. The Soviet Union recovered from a defeat in the Polish-Soviet War in 1920 to become one of the worlds' only two superpowers armed with nuclear weapons within 30 years based on their skilled use of espionage.

The first step was obtaining permission from the Moscow (or 'the Center'). A subsequent step was the conduct of a formal recruitment interview by an experienced operative or officer. Topic number one in the interview was the person's motivation for spying for Russia, with the attendant issue of whether or not the person was a provocateur of another intelligence service. Oftentimes the language of "contracts" is used, with reference to such things like "signing on". Following the recruitment meeting the recruiting officer submitted a comprehensive report to the Center.


After recruitment, agents are given the training required to conduct espionage activities safely and effectively. CIA training often includes various tradecraft such as clandestine communications, elicitation, surveillance and countersurveillance, photographic and audio recording, concealment device construction, demolitions, use of small arms, all depending on the persons fitness and skills.

In some forms of infiltration, the agent may be provided with a false identity, which CIA calls a cover or legend, that might aid in their access and operability in regards to the target. Sometimes false or reproduced documentation, disguises, and other identity support techniques are used.

Agent in place

An agent in place refers to a subject known within a society, known to his friends, who may even have a position inside a government, and is willing to cooperate or assist. Case handling in these instances require much more caution, security, and training. It is extremely dangerous for both the Case officer and agent to publicly meet and have face to face contact, though initially this may be necessary to establish bona fides and some training regarding contacts. Usually the agent in place is then handed off to an inoccuous cutout, or series of cutouts, who act as go-betweens and courier, delivering instructions and retrieving material.

Unwitting agent

Sometimes after a risk analysis, it is determined recruitment is unfeasible. Yet the target may be valuable and someone close to him is willing, hence useful information can be gained unwittingly. Two example are Stephen S. Attwood and Walter Lippmann, in Attwoods case someone connected with the university he taught at was working Soviet intelligence; in Lippmann's case his personal stenographer had knoweldge of all his Washington D.C. contacts and their conversations. Wen Ho Lee, it appears now, through sloppy work habits and carelessness on both his part and Los Alamos National Laboratory, unwittingly passed vital information to the Chinese Communist Government.

Fronts and cutouts

A front organization in espionage functions within a system of "cutouts". A "cutout" is intended to shield or isolate a higher level infiltrator who has "penetrated" the target organization (government bureau, for example). Once the Department penetration has been made, the higher level infiltrator may have any of three jobs: (1) to bring within the government agency, and to protect, lower level appointees who are also infiltrators; (2) to provide information from within the penetrated target organization to an outside intelligence organization; or (3) a combination of both.

A "ring" within a penetrated bureau consists of several collectors of information from different areas within the penetrated bureau. The most valuable source must be protected; so often the least "productive" infiltrator, i.e. the person lowest on the totem pole within the penetrated target, whose knowledge and ability to collect information is second or third hand, functions as the head of the group. He carries the information from higher level gatherers to outside persons, so as to "cutout" contact between a high level infiltrator and a foreign intelligence organization.

So the most valuable and productive members of the ring are isolated from contact with foreign Agent case officers, which is safest for both. One member gathers all the collected material from all infiltrators, then will pass the information to another cutout outside the government. That second cutout likewise is usually a natural citizen, though not employed by the target government, but who then can transmit the information directly to the foreign intelligence service.

The extensive use of cutouts, so long as they are trusted and reliable persons, can become a long chain of individuals. This performs another purpose, similar to the extensive use of "front organizations"; by their sheer number, it becomes a shell game with counterintelligence investigators, who have finite and limited resources. When suspicion arises, the large number of persons and organizations connected to the conspiracy can devour endless hours and cost, which has the effect of slowing down the process of exposing an espionage organization.

Human Intelligence

HUMINT is a category of intelligence derived from information collected and provided by human sources. This includes all forms of information gathered by humans, from direct reconnaissance and observation to the use of recruited sources and other indirect means. This discipline also makes extensive use of biometric data (e.g., fingerprints, iris scans, voice prints, facial/physical features) collected on persons of interest.


Interrogation is the systematic effort to procure information to answer specific collection requirements by direct and indirect questioning techniques of a person who is in the custody of the forces conducting the questioning. Proper questioning of enemy combatants, enemy prisoners of war, or other detainees by trained and certified DOD interrogators may result in information provided either willingly or unwittingly.

There are important legal restrictions on interrogation and source operations. Federal law and Department of Defense policy require that these operations be carried out only by specifically trained and certified personnel.

US person

A U.S. citizen, lawful permanent resident, or U.S. company, located here or abroad.


Walk-in sources, who without solicitation make the first contact with HUMINT personnel.

See also


External links