Q&A: Creating Supernaturally Secret Agencies

How would you go about writing a fictional agency, the one no one is supposed to know about. Things like the members, advisers, the place, etc.

So, before I get started, the process I’m about to detail isn’t, exactly, how I’ve gone about this in the past. Usually when setting up government agencies, I have a pretty solid idea of what it’s doing, and how it works before I start trying to nail down anything else. In some cases, I’ve let background details remain undefined because I’m confident they won’t become relevant and I’m not planning on revisiting that setting.

When you’re setting up background elements in your worldbuilding, you need to decide when something is important enough to dig into, or when you can just prop up a façade and let it ride.

So, with that in mind, you want by asking a few questions. It’s a little difficult to predict which will be most useful without detailed access to your worldbuilding. So you may want to think about related topics.

How secret is the organization? This is a much wider range than you might first think. There’s an entire spectrum between an organization which is technically public but not widely known, and one that is completely off-book.

An example of the former would be the DIA. Ironically, I remember seeing a YouTube comment from someone who assumed that appearances of the DIA in Fallout 4 were referencing the CIA. That’s incorrect, it is in fact the Fallout universe’s version of the Defense Intelligence Agency. The DIA is part of the DoD, and responsible for managing military intelligence. Where the CIA has more of a, “big picture,” approach to intelligence, the DIA is primarily concerned with military threats.

The DSS is another another American example. This is the Diplomatic Security Service, and it protects various diplomatically important individuals (both foreign and domestic) who don’t qualify for Secret Service protection, but still require dedicated protective details. This includes US Ambassadors. They don’t get Secret Service, they get DSS.

Again, both of these are real agencies, and you may have been unaware of their existence. There are a lot of agencies like this, which you’ve never heard of, and if someone pulled out a badge, you’d be left scratching your head going, “who?”

There are agencies that are (or were) classified, and their existence denied. The NSA is a high profile example of this. The Agency was originally founded via a classified memo from President Truman, and as a result the Agency’s existence remained a secret for decades.

Finally, there are real, “off-the-books” agencies. A defunct example which already appeared in this post would be the Bureau of Secret Intelligence. This was founded by Secretary of State Robert Lansing in 1916, to provide the State Department with a covert office to investigate information the State Department obtained and coordinate between the Secret Service, FBI, and the Post Office’s Inspection Service. I say it’s already appeared, because this group would become the Office of Security, which in turn would become the modern DSS. Much like the NSA, the DSS’s origins are more covert than its current incarnation, it’s simply undergone name changes, and restructuring, along the way.

This is all without getting into the range of agencies going rogue and dropping off the face of the earth. I’m sure there may be some historical examples, but I’m not aware of any off hand. Though there are plenty of examples of organizations shutting down only to open up under a new name shortly afterwards.

If your agency is still official, then you don’t need to wonder how it continues operating. Even if it is classified, your agents would probably carry identification for their unclassified parent agency. They’re still official in some capacity. If you’re looking at rogue agents, they probably don’t have that luxury.

If an agency is official, you should start to have an idea of what career paths would be necessary for recruiting characters. Depending on what the agency is dealing with, they’d need specialists. If it is a spinoff from a larger agency, then you already have part of this completed, as members will be preferentially recruited from that agency.

Not everyone involved will be fully read in on what’s happening. That’s normal clandestine bureaucracy. There isn’t a huge difference between staff and advisors in that sense. If anything, it’s likely that the agency would take advantage of whatever forensic resources were available without dedicating their personnel to that. (Though, obviously, if they’re working against something that would draw a lot of attention in normal channels, they may need to set up their own resources. For example, if you’re hunting alien infiltrators, you can’t leave an alien corpse with the local coroner.)

Using the US Federal Government again, as an example: It wouldn’t be that strange for an organization tasked with combating supernatural threats to be technically part of the FBI, DHS, or (in the case of something like vampires, werewolves, zombies, and anything else that can infect others), even the CDC. You might even see multiple clandestine organizations working in concert with one another. When your shadowy organization’s agents first show up, they’re just FBI Special Agents, nothing weird here. Importantly, that’s not a cover story, they really are Bureau agents, they just belong to a specialized team.

Ironically, it’s much safer for these kinds of secretive agencies to have a legitimate agency to hide behind. If they did show up claiming to be affiliated with one organization or another, and that was connection was false, that raises a number of problems for them. Claiming to be part of an agency your not is (generally speaking) illegal. And, any routine check into their story would start to fall apart relatively quickly.

The spur of the moment credential legerdemain of the Men in Black (of the films and comic series of the same name) is one of the jokes. Paying attention to who they claim to be affiliated with at any given moment will result in more laughs. The MIBs (much like the urban legends they’re based on) are every bit as paranormal as the extraterrestrials they’re investigating.

In particular, the Men in Black represent a specific kind of paranormal experience where someone on the outside can’t, really, be certain what happened after an encounter. There is potential value in having entities like this in a story, however, thinking of as an “agency,” may be shortchanging their true potential.

Actual claims of encounters with men in black are a somewhat uncommon element in Ufology. Setting aside questions of veracity for a moment, these reported encounters have elements that are difficult to reconcile. Either, there are embellishments, or the entire phenomena needs to be evaluated as something other than simply a “secret agency.” This starts with the MIB having inhuman traits (such a complete lack of hair or no actual facial features, such as lips), or behaving in ways that are similarly impossible, such as speaking without moving their lips, levitating above just above the floor, and telepathy.

With that context, the “flavor,” the films and comics may make more sense. The fictional MIB were designed to be an almost supernatural force just as inexplicable as the beings they policed. With specific comedic elements cuing off the agents’ being oblivious to just how peculiar they’ve become.

Whether you believe in the existence of real men in black, the concept, especially the unreal, and supernatural, elements of these encounters can be useful fodder for writing encounters with strange or otherworldly beings masquerading as government agents or other authority figures. There’s some real meat to work with , but if you want events like that, you don’t benefit from trying to sketch out their organization, or ground it into reality. it a case where less is more. The more your readers can parse out exactly what’s going on, the less threatening the scene will be.

-Starke

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