Q&A: Covers and Legends

How do spies pretend to be from certain countries when it is very difficult for foreigners to become 100% fluent? Or is it more that they were raised with more than one language m, or make up a convincing reason they should be in that country when there is a war going on?

The short answer is that you’re looking at this backwards. Do not ask a spy to adopt a cover they cannot sell convincingly. If you need a spy of a given nationality, look for candidates who grew up in that country, but are are loyal to yours. The children of diplomats, and military personnel who grew up in that country are ideal, though, really, however that’s not an exclusive list.

If that’s not an option, and you have time, a good alternate option are sleeper agents. The entire idea is that if you don’t have someone who can pass for a native, you simply make an agent you do have a native years, or decades, before you need them. The downside is, the sleeper won’t be doing any intelligence work for the next decade or two, so this really rewards planning ahead, and hoping they don’t flip in the end.

For a spy’s cover to be effective, they need to be able to inhabit it. If they need to be able to pass as a native, they need to have an ILR score of 4+, preferably a full 5. Yeah, you’re right, that’s not easy.

For reference, the ILR is the International Language Roundtable score. It’s a measurement of proficiency in a given foreign language, with a 0 indicating that you may know some stray words and phrases, but can’t speak the language, up to 5, which is full lingual, and cultural fluency. It’s not just enough to understand the words, you need to also understand the culture. That’s where things get really difficult, because radically different countries sometimes share languages. For example, even if you have an ILR5 English rating for American English, you probably could not swing a similar score for the Australian, British, Canadian, Irish, or Scottish, versions of the language. To say nothing of dialect variances within a given country.

It’s also not, just, about learning the language. As I mentioned, ILR5 requires significant cultural familiarity as well. While you can, theoretically, learn that from intensive study, chances are the only way you’ll get there is immersion. This is why it’s

So, we loop back to where this began, don’t ask a spy to be someone they don’t understand. Ask them to be someone they do understand. This is where things get interesting, because it’s not critical your spy appears to be a native, they simply need to avoid being assumed to be from the hostile nation. If your spy can pass as a being from a neutral, or better yet, allied nation, then they can operate in hostile territory without drawing the same kind of attention, assuming their legend (their fabricated documents) are convincing enough, and that they can sell the illusion of being who they say they are. To use the example above, there are differences between American and Canadian English, but expecting a non-native speaker speaker to be able to distinguish between these is less likely.

A fictional example I remember had a KGB officer passing themselves off as South African in the UK. While it’s unlikely that the spy could pass themselves off as British, their mark wasn’t able to distinguish between East German and South African, even though German and Dutch are distinct (if similar) languages. While it strains credibility that a senior military official wouldn’t dig into that, the overall structure does illustrate an excellent way to get a spy into a country who could pass for native.

During the Cold War, South Africa was excluded from a number of NATO intelligence treaties because of international opposition to Apartheid.

The fictional officer disagreed with those policies, and believed he was passing intelligence to a South African agent, without realizing they were actually passing extremely sensitive information to a Soviet agent.

(I think the example above was from Sandbaggers, but I’m going from memory.)

Now you have a spy who doesn’t need an artificial cover. Their cover is the truth. They don’t know who they’re working for. They think they’re acting to further their own ideological beliefs. In short, the perfect spy. Even if they’re discovered, proving they were your agent will be basically impossible.

That’s the potent skill for a spy. It’s not about sneaking in, and living out your James Bond fantasies. It’s about bribing a cleaning lady to give you any documents that end up in the trash. It’s about conning an enemy official into believing you speak for their allies. A spy’s job doesn’t need to be about stealing secrets, it’s about cultivating a network of contacts who work for them and give them access to what they want.

Getting spies in a country is more about identifying and flipping assets. (By “flipping,” I mean, convincing them to come work for your spy.) You don’t need to do the impossible and train an agent to blend in perfectly, if you can get an actual native working for you.

On the final part of your question, yes. A spy needs a convincing reason to be where they are. This isn’t unique to wartime, any effective cover needs to do this as much as possible.

A spy who needs access to bank records would benefit from a cover with an NGO focused on economic development, while one who needed access to military intelligence would be better suited to being a consultant for a PMC, or some other security contractor. If they need freedom to move around outside of cities, then you’re looking at things like agriculture or mining interests being ideal.

Once your spy does have a cover in mind, they need to build up the associated skillset. If they’re part of an Agro-development NGO, they need to be able to play the part convincingly. In fairness, that’s not as difficult as it may sound. Your spy doesn’t need to a master of their new field, they simply need to credibly pass for someone who makes a living doing their job.

So the short answer is, if you can’t pass for a native, don’t try. However, it’s not about whether you can pass for native, it’s just about not looking like you’re the enemy, and having a compelling explanation for who you are, why you’re there and what you’re doing. In a lot of cases, that’s a simple as, “not looking like a spy.”


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