Intelligence Agent

Intelligence Agent


In general terms, an agent is one authorized to act in place of, or on behalf of, another. An intelligence agent, however, is not simply an agent of or for an intelligence agency. Whereas members of the agency are called intelligence officers, operatives, or special agents, an agent is someone hired or recruited from outside. There are numerous other variations in the informal taxonomy of agents, including secret or undercover agents, agents provocateur, agents-in-place, double agents, and agents of influence.

The distinction between agents and operatives. Intelligence agency employees who work in the field do not call themselves agents; an agent is someone hired or recruited by an intelligence agency to do its bidding. The person to whom the agent reports—the actual agency employee—is known as an operative.

The distinction goes back to World War II and the origins of modern intelligence agencies. At that time, Office of Strategic Services (OSS) manuals defined an operative as "an individual employed by and responsible to the OSS and assigned under special programs to field activity." An agent, on the other hand, was defined by OSS as "an individual recruited in the field who is employed or directed by an OSS operative." The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), successor to OSS, calls its operatives CIA officers.

There are numerous variations on the term "agent." In the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) under J. Edgar Hoover, operatives called themselves "special agents." By this designation, Hoover meant to distinguish FBI agents from ordinary police officers.

Secret agents, double agents, and agents-in-place. A secret agent or undercover agent is, simply enough, an agent who works in a clandestine capacity, such that the relationship with the intelligence agency is not obvious to those around him or her. These terms are more likely to show up in the vocabulary of laypeople than of intelligence operatives. In fact, such terminology is somewhat redundant, inasmuch as most agents must be secret or undercover in order to function effectively.

More useful are terms such as double agent or agent-in-place. A double agent is someone who seems to serve one intelligence agency, but actually works on behalf of another. Usually these agencies represent enemy governments, and the double agent provides information to one agency about the other or others. If, instead of two agencies, an agent serves three, the term triple agent is used. The double or triple agent may even be providing information to each service about the others, but usually there is only one entity that the double agent truly or ultimately serves.

A double agent whose perfidy has been discovered by the agency against which he or she is spying, and who is then used in that agency's service against the other, is a redoubled agent. An agent may be forced against his or her will to become a double agent. The same is true of a redoubled agent, a role an agent can assume without even knowing that he or she is doing so—for example, by being given inaccurate or deliberately deceptive material to pass on as genuine intelligence.

An agent-in-place is similar to a double agent, with the difference that, whereas a double agent is usually called upon by agency to take that role, the agent-in-place usually volunteers for the position. Suppose a person works for Agency A, then is sent to work for agency B so as to report information to Agency A without anyone at Agency B knowing. That is a double agent. On the other hand, an agent-in-place would be someone working for Agency B who, of his or her own initiative, offered services to Agency A. The agent would continue to work for Agency B, and feed information to Agency A.

An agent-in-place is extremely valuable to the employing agency, but his or her role has great risks. For agents in place working on behalf of America's enemies—for example, Robert Hanssen, the FBI special agent who sold secrets to the Soviets and later the Russians—discovery led to imprisonment. For agents-in-place working on behalf of America in the Soviet camp, the penalty for discovery was far worse. According to an anecdote reported by Henry Becket, when KGB officers discovered that one of their own was serving the Americans as an agent-in-place, he was thrown feet first into a roaring furnace while his colleagues watched.

Sleepers, provocateurs, and agents of influence. Several other interesting variations on the concept of an agent are sleeper agents, agents provocateur, and agents of influence. A sleeper agent is one placed in an undercover situation and told to await further instructions before beginning to actively engage in espionage activities. A sleeper may remain inactive for months or years, or even the rest of his or her life.

An agent provocateur is someone who infiltrates a group or organization with the purpose of inciting its members to unlawful acts that would bring them to the attention of—and most likely cause them to receive punishment from—authorities. Agents provocateur in labor organizations of the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, for instance, instigated mob violence that brought police action against workers' groups.

Finally, an agent of influence is someone who does not directly work for an intelligence agency, but is willing to act on its behalf. For example, right-leaning American intellectuals during the mid-twentieth century who worked for the Congress of Cultural Freedom, a CIA-sponsored group intended to influence western European opinion during the Cold War, often knowingly acted as agents of influence for U.S. intelligence. At the same time, many left-leaning Western intellectuals who were fed Soviet propaganda or disinformation, and who disseminated that material as truth, unwittingly acted as agents of influence for the KGB.



Bennett, Richard M. Espionage: An Encyclopedia of Spies and Secrets. London: Virgin Books, 2002.

Nash, Jay Robert. Spies: A Narrative Encyclopedia of Dirty Deeds and Double Dealing from Biblical Times to Today. New York: M. Evans, 1997.

Richelson, Jeffrey T. The U.S. Intelligence Community, fourth edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.


CIA, Formation and History
Hanssen (Robert) Espionage Case
Intelligence Officer
KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti, USSR Committee of State Security)
OSS (United States Office of Strategic Services

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