Tag Archives: writing spies

Q&A: Assassins vs. Spies

Not sure if this is the right place to ask and sorry if this is a dumb question in which it seems fantasy like. But is it possible for an assassin to have a to kill a spy who is undercover, not that the assassin is aware of that. Sorry if this is broad.

It depends on the degree of fantasy, but this scenario could play out. It’s entirely plausible someone could be contracted to kill an undercover operative without either the assassin or the client knowing the target’s real affiliation. This could even be a result of the spy’s activities being identified as a threat, without realizing that they’re a professional.

For example: Organized crime corruption could incorrectly identify a spy as someone gathering information for law enforcement, rather than a foreign power. Similarly, an operative’s activities could interfere with organized crime (either intentionally or not), and become a target without the organization knowing what they’re really dealing with.

It’s also possible someone could hire an assassin to deal with a spy, but not tell their assassin about the target’s true occupation.

There’s two problems with this question, the first is simply, “what do you think an assassin and spy are?” The second is the phrase, “have to kill.”

“Have to kill,” is a little strange, as phrases go. It implies that they need to kill their target, rather than they were simply hired to do so. There are situations where this could happen, such as if the spy was a witness, or if the assassin’s target was someone the spy was close to, and the assassin doesn’t know anything about them except that they need to be dealt with. However, in a lot of cases, if the assassin realizes they were hired to go after a spy, and that information was withheld, it’s entirely reasonable they’d cancel the contract when they found out (and depending on their status, maybe even blacklist the person who took out the contract in the first place.) Though, obviously, that might not an option if the assassin isn’t a freelance killer.

Spies and assassins are both careers that are radically distorted in popular culture. The James Bond style superspy is a superhero variant, with about as much relation to real world espionage as Batman does to being a functioning, well-adjusted adult. Similarly, master-class assassins like 47 or John Wick don’t appear to exist in the real world. (There have been a handful of assassinations which are hard to pin down, but at the same time, the entire point of being an assassin is to go undetected, and it’s the amateurs who fail to get away with murder.)

With that in mind, depending on the level of fantasy you’re imposing, your spy could just be an individual with exceptional social engineering skills, and a technical background slightly more advanced than you’d expect given their cover story. They could also be a superhero, living a double life, with a suite of implausibly advanced gadgets hidden in their home.

Depending on the level of fantasy, your assassin could just be some guy with a .38 and a dream, or they could be a professional contracted by a shadowy international organization, with decades of experience, with an access to an arsenal of hardware that starts with “top-of-the-line,” and quickly ascends into borderline sci-fi.

There’s room for stories at either end of those spectrums, though mismatching them could have peculiar results. Somewhat obviously, a superspy vs superassassin story is going to be very different from an accountant with social skills vs a cheap hitman. There’s also room for either character to be the protagonist in those stories.

It’s also worth remembering, when you’re looking at the skillset of characters like Bond and 47, they’re both very similar. Bond isn’t an assassin by trade, but he has the skillset, and assassinates people on occasion. 47 isn’t a spy, but, he is incongruously skilled blending into a crowd, (to the point of parody.)

Ironically, an excellent example of this similarity is Jason Bourne. In the novels, he’s a spy undercover as an assassin (when he loses his memory), while in the (Matt Damon) films he always was an assassin.

On the low end, with a, “realistic,” spy, it’s entirely possible that their killer never learns about their real job. On the superhero end of the spectrum, that would be need-to-know information, and the assassin could be reasonably put out with their employer for withholding that detail.

While not 100% reliable, if you’re an evil mastermind, it wouldn’t be the worst way to dispose of an assassin who was becoming troublesome. Send them after some James Bond proxy’s cover identity and let the problem sort itself out. Worst case: You’ve dealt with one annoyance (either the assassin or the spy.) Best case: They’re both dead and you can go back to your evil masterminding business uninterrupted. I mean, it’s not like they could team up and come after you together, that would just be silly.


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Q&A: Superspies, REALISM, and the Ethics of Stale Beer

I would just like to ask about the super spy genre. The one where the character-usually an attempt at grey morality and a failed one at that-is a spy and has to deal with some sort of espionage or generally cool, badass stuff. James Bond, for example. The character that started it all off. I’ve always loved reading the genre, trying to get into writing it. I’m just terrible at writing action realistically, and wanting to ask if you had some helpful resources for making it realistic and engaging.

The superspy is an awkward creature. The genre is another flavor of pulp. I realize this may seem pejorative, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with the genre. It’s how we got the first superheroes after all. However, unlike the spandex and leather crowd, spies come from a very unheroic reality.

So, let’s step back for a second and talk about where it comes from.

The gray on gray morality you usually find in spy fiction comes from some realities of being a spy. We’ve talked about it before, in depth, but being a spy is not a job that rewards being, “a good person.” Ultimately, it’s a job where you’re manipulating other people into completing your goals, often at their expense.

John La Carre’s is still my first recommendation for that kind of realistic espionage fiction. (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is probably his most recognizable work, even though it’s in the middle of a series.) The Sandbaggers, a British TV series from the late 70s is another favorite, though that one’s a little more difficult to source.

While it’s a little reductive, it’s not completely inaccurate to say that a spy cannot be heroic on their face. The context around them allows us to rationalize their actions as heroic, but in the moment, it’s dark stuff.

Put another way (and to paraphrase Burn Notice‘s narrator), a spy is a criminal who preys upon others. They justify their actions because they’re working in support of a higher calling (whether that’s patriotism, ideology, or some other group that has their loyalty.)

This does not mean that a spy is automatically unethical or evil, however many of the tools they will need to employ do come with a real human cost on the people around them.

And then we drop a superhero into the mix and ask them to do it instead.

Make no mistake, the superspy is a superhero. They probably benefit from the demigod durability of a conventional action hero, and they usually supplement it with an array of advanced gadgets.

It’s worth noting that the gadgets that superspies like Bond play with are, in fact, rooted in a degree of reality. Tradecraft has resulted in a lot of very specialized espionage tools. Micro-cameras and highly concealed weapons are two of the big examples. You’re not going to see a car mounted with concealed machine guns and an ejector seat, or a laser watch, but you could certainly find a watch designed to conceal a garotte. If you’re looking for a realistic take on spies, I would recommend researching these tools. It’s not only a fascinating rabbit hole, but it can help you get into the mindset.

So, what we have with the superspy is Batman in a tuxedo. (Ignoring for a moment that a tux is going to limit your mobility. You can still walk around, but as a tailor once told me, “you’re not going to be doing cartwheels in [your suit].”) So far as it goes, that’s fine. That’s the genre, and it embraces the absurdity. Realism becomes a becomes a minor trap, because you’re not going for the real world. You’re writing a comic book or action movie (in prose.)

When writing anything, the only way to learn is by practice. As writers, we write so much garbage that no one else sees. It’s a stepping stone as we’re learning what works and what doesn’t. There’s no shame in it. If you read something you wrote, and you’re not happy with it, wipe and rewrite it. (I know I’ve said, “keep your old drafts around,” and that remains true; you don’t want to lose something that worked.)

When you’re looking at something you wrote, and it doesn’t work for you, try to figure out why. “Why?” is the most important question. “Why?” will tell you what you need to correct. If you don’t know at first, give it some time, roll it around in your head, do other things, and come back when you have an idea. A strength of writing is that you do not need to have an answer ready the moment you see a problem.

With that in mind, you don’t need a superspy to be realistic. You want them to be consistent. You want your reader to be invested, that means you need to give them challenges that are comparable to how powerful they are. Spies (and superspies) as a genre create a wonderful shield to abuse the hell out of your protagonist because the spy genre tends to be pretty bleak.

Finally, you’ve done one of the most important things, you’ve read the genre. (More than I have. I could probably count the number of superspy novels I’ve read on one hand.) So, you need to ask yourself, “why?” Why does this appeal to you? What parts of the work catch and hold you? This can give you a good idea of what you want to do and how you want to approach the superspy. Remember that there are multiple genres of spy fiction, and keep those separate when you’re analyzing a piece. Decide what works for you, what you want to do, and what fits in a different genre. (As a quick aside, it doesn’t matter if your categories match anyone else’s. This is to extract as much useful analysis for you and your writing. For example: You don’t need someone else to sign off on whether Jason Bourne is a superspy, a regular spy, or an assassin. Pick what you want from it, and run with that.)

If what you create is interesting and fun to read, it will engage readers. I realize that can feel like a, “just draw the rest of the owl,” answer, but keep working at it and rewriting it. Don’t expect perfection on your early passes. You’re learning, and you can always improve further.


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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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Q&A: The Roman Legion, Spies, and Cover Identities

My heroine is a secret agent who travels with one of Emperor Hadrian’s legions disguised as a camp launderer. (For context, she’s not spying on the legion or anything, but her mission is secret.) Could she feasibly hide Roman armour under civilian clothes?


So, before we fully pry this question apart, the simplest answer is, “no, you cannot hide armor under civilian clothes.” This isn’t, 100% true. In the modern era you can conceal a light ballistic vest under heavy clothing, like a hoodie or jacket. It will still add bulk, but not to the point that you automatically assume they’re wearing armor.

When we’re talking about historical armor, the answer will, generally, be, “no.” In the case of a Roman Legionary, no, you could not.

A spy may have armor that functions as their uniform when they’re on home territory and openly interacting their military. Which is a long way to say, “yes they may have armor back at home,” but they probably wouldn’t bring it with them.

Also, I’m not an expert on the Roman Legions, but, my understanding was that the Legions on the move did not employ dedicated launderers. Laundry duties were performed along with bathing, and a Legionary was responsible for cleaning their own gear. The Legatus might have had a personal servant who handled their laundry, but I’m just guessing there, and that’s a long way from “the camp launderer.”

There were a number of potential intrigues within a legion. The Legion had 120 Eques Legionis, who were mounted cavalry, and their duties included scouting and relaying messages. As covers go that grants a lot of latitude for independent operation.

The Tribune was appointed by the Emperor as the Legion’s second in command (behind the Legate.) It’s possible (even under Hadrian) that the Tribune may have covert orders from the Emperor.

Additionally, there were the Immunes. These included surgeons, Venetorii (hunters), engineers, and other specialist roles. If someone had technical training that the legion used (even in its civil functions) they were probably an Immune. This mean they were exempted from the hard labor that most Legionaries engaged in.

Civilian camp followers offering laundry services was a reality, historically. But, that was (mostly) later in the middle ages. Camp followers were a serious weak point, as you had civilians following armies, without much scrutiny. They didn’t have access to the camp, proper, but they did have a lot of access to its soldiers, which was almost as good for intelligence gathering.

When it comes to women in the Roman Legions, they weren’t allowed to serve. Until recently, archaeologists have taken this to mean there were no women. Additionally, Hadrian’s rule came in the middle of a two century ban on married legionaries. (Note: I do mean the soldiers. This ban did not extend to officers.) So, on paper, these were supposed to be unmarried men. However, the legionaries would marry illegally. Archaeological research at Vindolanda (an auxiliary fort along Hadrian’s Wall), estimates that ~43% of the legionaries stationed there had a wife or children.

There is a problem: The Legionaries weren’t paid enough to support the families they weren’t supposed to have, so the women worked. It’s believed that the women were employed in domestic roles such as fort cooks and launderers. As a random note: Immunes received better pay than their fellow soldiers. Though, I suspect it still wasn’t enough to support a family.

So, this is not a Roman legion on the move, and more importantly, these jobs would have preferentially gone to the Legionary’s wives, not a Roman citizen showing up under strange circumstances.

Also, while you’re looking for something, it is worth remembering that the senior officers may have had family members present. Especially if they were deployed someplace for decades.

So, that’s the legion, let’s talk about spies, cover identities, and gear for a second.

When you’re picking gear for a spy, you need to consider their cover identity, and mission critical equipment. Nothing else. This is something we’ve discussed before, though that was about assassins. In many cases this means they neither need, nor benefit from, having weapons and armor.

If your job is to kill someone, you need a weapon. Okay, “need” is debatable, but you will seriously benefit from having one. Ironically, most people don’t carry functional weapons on a daily basis. It has been the fashion historically, and it’s not too hard to explain away a knife as a utility tool, but if your job as a spy doesn’t include combat, that weapon doesn’t help you do your job.

Likewise, most people don’t wear functional combat armor on a regular basis. If your spy is not in a role where that armor would be expected, it’s a major sign that something isn’t, quite right. The armor is, literally, more dangerous to a spy than its absence would be. Obviously, if you’re in a fantasy setting you might have armor options that wouldn’t be out of place for your cover, but that requires roles that are far rarer in the real world.

I suspect you thought about this, but when your spy is trying to set up a cover, they want one that will overlap with their actual job as much as is practical.

If you need to get information from someone important, get hired onto their personal staff. Preferably a position that will get you the access you need, so that when you need to extract with the information, you can pick it up and walk out the door without anyone thinking anything’s amiss.

The reason that service positions make for excellent covers is, they allow your spy to eavesdrop as part of their job. No one will question a waiter listening in on a conversation periodically, because their job requires them to know when the patrons need something from them. Getting caught isn’t the end of the world, because their behavior has the potential to be legitimate.

Additionally, most service positions are functionally invisible to the average person. If you interact with a lot of people on a daily basis, people who provide these services just kinda blend into the background. (Now, obviously, if you’re interacting with the same person for years, you’re more likely to remember them.)

Within this context, launderer isn’t as good. Because you will be tethered to the cover, and you’ll need to spend a lot of your time away from the people you’re trying to eavesdrop on. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad cover, just that options are more limited. Also, critically, you’ll probably to move away from the cover to do your real job, this is a problem. This makes your spy more noticeable. Nobody notices a bartender when they’re behind a bar, but when you see them sneaking into someplace across town, they’re going to stand out.

Maintaining a cover, really is, about looking legitimate until the last possible moment. Your character needs to pretend to be doing the job they’re supposed to, playing that role. Get caught out of character and it’s over.

To give your character the best position possible, she should probably be sent with the Legion along with the Tribune. Maybe assigned as his daughter (maybe actually his daughter.) That would give her a lot of autonomy, a lot of inferred authority, without any of the responsibilities, and a cover that will let her (almost) get away with murder.


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Q&A: Superspy Kids Going Off The Reservation

Hi! I was just reading Alex Rider and came across a part that mentioned Alex beating up a group of bullies and it got me wondering. If trained child combatant who was going to a normal public school how would the school as a whole (faculty, parents and students) react to of a story circulating regarding a kid taking on five and going to the ex-special forces levee of brutality to win? How could it be covered up?

Looking at the real world, if you have a kid who’s been getting training from their parent… look, this shouldn’t happen. Most responsible adults with advanced combat  training won’t teach it to their kids. Most. But, it does happen. You will occasionally run across kids who’ve had police or military hand to hand training. They have a parent who’s a cop, or spent tours oversees. The kid may be responsible with this information. Or, something like this could (and does) happen. Maybe it was some misguided, “teaching them to fight,” machismo by their parent. Maybe the kid just wasn’t quite stable, or simply made a miscalculation. There’s a lot of potential factors.

The result is pretty messy, however. Criminal investigations, of both the parent and the child. Depending on the severity of whatever they meted out, you may be looking at criminal charges, potentially being charged as an adult. A kid snaps, gouges out the eyes of an opponent, and kills another by crushing their trachea, and you could easily see a kid in modern America sentenced to +25 years in prison. This can easily spill over onto their parents. It’s not hard to see a situation where an older kid could get their younger siblings taken by CPS in order to, “protect,” them from the parent responsible for this training in the first place.

There’s also a real liability issue for the school and the kid’s parents. If you’re wondering about the idea of a cover-up in the real world, that would be stopped dead by civil litigation. Say whatever you want about America being overly litigious, but things like this are why tort law exists. This would also become a factor regardless of the bullies being alive after the encounter. Someone trained this kid; they’re responsible. Someone let this kid wander around free, waiting for something like this to happen (even if they didn’t know); they’re responsible. This means, even if he kills all the bullies, and there’s no witnesses, you still couldn’t bury this thing fast enough.

The irony here is, even if the bullies provoked this response, it’s still indefensible, and in the eyes of everyone the kid who went too far, and started turning people into meat origami, and they will be held responsible.

This is something every martial artist lives with’ the more training you have, the less force you’re allowed to use to defend yourself. The thought process goes (accurately) that you need to apply less force to ensure your safety, and that of others. It becomes far easier to become the aggressor, legally. This still applies to your kid. Age really isn’t a factor in that. It doesn’t matter if it’s a teen or an adult, with advanced hand to hand training. They go off and start killing people, even in self defense, it’s going to be viewed far more carefully than if a white belt screwed up and accidentally killed a mugger.

So, yeah, that’s not going to be fun.

There’s another factor here worth remembering, bullies are looking for easy victims. They don’t always succeed in finding them, and they probably couldn’t tell you how they identify their potential victims. Normally, bullies will avoid someone with combat training. This isn’t intentional behavior, so much as a subconscious response. Martial training builds self-confidence. In turn, this makes them look less like ideal victims to a bully. Somewhat obviously, it’s not 100%. Some people really are too stupid to live, but that tends to be a self-solving issue.

So, let’s put this back in its intended perspective for a minute. Or at least, as much as I can, having never read the Alex Rider books.

You’re an intelligence agency that just took complete leave of its senses and trained a teenager to be a superspy. They then took that training and used it on civilians? Your next phone call is to get a cleaner on site to bullet the kid in the back of the head, and dump them in a landfill, hog farm, or whatever’s nearby, then pretend that kid never existed in the first place. Let everything after that become one more mystery, because really who’ll notice?

After all, if you couldn’t trust them to keep their training secret, what hope do you have that they won’t flip and start spewing classified information to anyone with a badge or a gun? You can’t afford that. No one can.

Worst case, leaving the body where it landed won’t really lead back to your doorstep. There’s an awkward truth to homicide investigations: If the killer and victim are total strangers, it can become damn near impossible to identify them. A cleaner with an unregistered .44 can leave your teen spy in a pool of their own blood, and slip the perimeter before the local PD figures out what happened. They’re used to giving authoritarian regimes the slip; what are the NYPD going to do? Seal Manhattan over one homicide? Yeah, right.

Not killing the kid and just turning them loose will result in a psychologically unstable rogue agent who may have information you really don’t want in the wild, and their cover is now blown. So any rival groups could potentially make a play for them, or try to disappear them for their own use. That’s another big problem, but hey, it’s a tough world. Hell, even M threatened to have James Bond killed at least once, right?

Also, having a kid flip out like this is a training failure for your agency. I mean, it’s one thing when we’re talking about some guy who was teaching their kid Krav Maga in their basement,  but if you’re supposed to be a respectable intelligence agency, you really needed to make sure your spy would actually be able to operate in the field. That doesn’t mean shirking the issue of bullies, but it does mean finding other, more creative, ways to neutralize them. Not necessarily non-violent means, though those would be preferable. Planting evidence, framing them for crimes, or just straight up blackmailing them into public confessions are all on the table, but taking the direct approach for no substantive gain? No, that’s just bad tradecraft. It exposes the kid, it exposes your agency, and it does this for no benefit.

If there’s a lesson for your writing, it’s that no one is too important to kill if they become a big enough problem. I realize this kind of flips the script on the superspy genre. But, given the provided scenario, there’s no compelling reason not to snuff them. Any cover-up needs to start with tying up loose ends. That means the kid and anyone he confided in. Best case, just him. Worst case, it’s time to dig out the tarps and deep six a few friends and acquaintances. Just be quick, clean, and make sure there’s nothing left that can tie back to you, and you’re golden.

Now, this doesn’t mean that assassinating the kid needs to be successful. The odds aren’t in their favor, but they could find a way to survive. I mean, the entire Bourne film franchise is based off a rogue agent working against his old handlers (the novels are slightly different). But, it is the reasonable response, especially when working in a genre that goes through supporting characters like popcorn. It’s easy to sit back and
think, “well, that doesn’t apply to this character, because they’re one of the main characters.” Splat. Not so much, it seems.

One of the best ways to keep your audience engaged (in genre fiction) is to find ways to subtly violate the conventions of your genre by remaining true to the nature of your characters. Especially if those characters are baked into the genre itself. The superspy genre is (usually) very lethal, selectively. It kills off characters who aren’t important to the narrative. It will wax the mentor, the old friend, people your protagonist cares about, because it’s expected. But, it rarely turns around and puts a bullet in the protagonist because they became too much of a problem… unless you’re Sean Bean.

It’s probably worth saying, in closing, you really can’t train a teenager as a spy. Maybe for sigint, but not spies like you think of them. Working in human intelligence includes a staggering amount of psychological pressure. Most adults can’t handle it. Part of the training process is about screening out recruits that simply wouldn’t be able to survive the job. While you could subject a teenager to this, their chances of coming out the side as a functional operative, or even alive, are extremely low. It’s one thing to wave this for because you’re looking at the superspy genre, but that operates with a comfortable disconnection from reality. When you start asking, “but, how would this actually work?” Everything starts to come apart at the seams.


Since I didn’t work a reference in along the way, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is still a fantastic look at spies, and absolutely worth your time. Amusingly, it’s not the first novel in the series, but is an excellent book.

Also, I’ll say it again, the first couple seasons of Burn Notice are a fantastic tradecraft primer. They’re not perfect, but the narrator offers a lot of excellent insight into how to exploit human nature.

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Splinter Cell is Unrealistic

 How DARE you say that about Sam Fisher! It’s made clear in Pandora Tomorrow that he uses Subsonic Ammunition, and his FN2000 and FN5.7 Suppressors are custom made too!


I realize this was probably a joke, (and also that it’s now been several months since it was posted; I’m working on clearing out the draft pile), but it’s probably worth fleshing this out a little. Also, if it sounds like I’m being a little harsh on Splinter Cell here… there’s actually a reason.

Tom Clancy was an American novelist who died in 2013. He wrote thrillers focused on the US intelligence community, starting in the early 80s, and on through the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise of terrorism. Politically, his material leaned hard conservative, with an almost fetishistic obsession on the American Military Industrial Complex.

I’m just going to say it; I don’t like Tom Clancy’s writing, on an aesthetic level. It’s not to my taste at all. However, if you’re writing about the US special forces (and can get past his politics), he is a fantastic place to start. Just, be careful, even before his death, his name was slapped on a lot of books he wasn’t involved with. This includes almost all of the tie in series like Rainbow Six, Splinter Cell, Netforce, and a bunch of others I’ve forgotten.

The games? …not so much. The first game based on Clancy’s novels (that I’m aware of) was Red Storm Rising, a detailed strategic simulator of a potential Third World War between the US/NATO and the Soviet Union.

The second (again, that I’m aware of) was Rainbow Six, a first person shooter that focused on controlling an entire team of hostage rescue/counter terrorist operators, and featured combat with (in the context of contemporary games) very fragile combatants. (One or two shots was enough to down any combatant.)

Splinter Cell was probably the first game that really started wandering off the reservation, and the second that wasn’t based on one of Clancy’s novels (Ghost Recon was the first).

By 2002, Tom Clancy’s name had become a brand which expanded beyond just his novels. There were multiple video games, a TV movie that failed to launch a show, and multiple adaptations of the original novels to film.

Almost immediately, Splinter Cell gets into the exact kind of world building problems that Clancy’s work tried to avoid.

While I like Fisher as a character, he does not fit within the flavor of Clancy’s setting. His personality is right, having someone who engages in that kind of ghosting infiltration isn’t the problem (not really). It’s the skin-tight wetsuit, the thermal goggles, a pistol and rifle that weren’t available to civilian purchasers (at the time). All of this screams, “government sponsored,” which is the last thing you want when you’re sending a cyberninja into a foreign country.

As I’ve said before, the idea of sending someone in, to sneak around and hang from ceilings isn’t exactly how infiltration actually works. Being invisible 100% of the time is an unrealistic goal. Dressing up in a black bodysuit, with a massive array of high end hardware means that when someone does notice you, they’ll notice, and remember. Once spotted, there’s no option to escape, no way to blend into a crowd, no way to disappear. Aside from leaving a huge trail of bodies in your wake.

Also, the Five-Seven really is the wrong gun to give him. It’s a neat, high-tech pistol, but for what Fisher is doing, it’s the wrong tool for the job.

The FN Five-Seven is a modern semi-auto pistol. It entered production in 2000, and is one weird handgun. The strange part is the 5.7mm round that gives it its name. These were originally developed for the FN P90, and are much closer to a rifle round than something you’d usually consider loading into a pistol.

I’ve joked that the only reason for the Five-Seven to exist is to classify the P90 as a submachine gun instead of an assault rifle. Though, I’m honestly uncertain that’s not the real reason.

Unfortunately, the reality is, you really can’t silence a handgun by simply attaching a suppressor to it. The gunshot you hear is caused by ignited gasses expanding and escaping into the atmosphere. In order to fully silence a gunshot you need to capture all (or nearly all) of the escaping gas. With most semi-automatic pistols, one of the venues for that is when the slide cycles open. You can deaden the gasses venting down the barrel, but you’ll still hear a noticeable gunshot. A suppressed handgun will make, roughly, the same amount of noise as an airsoft pistol. Something you’ll hear if you’re in the room with it, but might not notice on the other side of the building. The gentle “fipping” noise from Sam’s Five-Seven… and most media, really, it’s a standard sound sample, just doesn’t occur. (If I remember correctly, the common sound sample comes from a .22 with a locked bolt.)

There’s also a second problem with the Five-Seven that most pistols don’t have to deal with, 5.7mm is a hypersonic round, though that’s something that Splinter Cell directly addresses, it does make Fisher’s weapon choice a little odd. Especially in a setting where .45s are easily available. (And, I want to say Conviction defaults to giving him a USP an H&K Mk23 fairly early in the campaign.)

Most rifles (and some pistols) fire rounds that are hypersonic. Meaning they have a velocity above 343 meters per second. When you hear a rifle from a significant distance, you’re not hearing the escaping gasses, the crack you hear is actually a sonic boom created by the bullet. For most applications, this isn’t really something anyone cares about. But, when you’re trying to suppress a gun, you will want to find a way to remove that sound. The only way (I’m aware of) to deal with this is by using what are called “subsonic rounds.”

These are low velocity cartridges designed to keep the speed of the round under 343m/s. The problem with this is that you’re now trading a whole lot of ballistic factors, including accuracy and flatness, to keep the gun quiet. On a pistol, there’s really no reason to do this.

The reason being all .45 ammo is subsonic. This stuff has a muzzle velocity of around 260 to 300 m/s.

When the first game came out, the Five-Seven was still new, the first game is set in 2004. It’s (from what I know) a fairly solid service pistol. But it is a bad gun to be giving to your NSA cyberninja. The Five-Seven is a Government and Law Enforcement only item. Fabrique Nationale doesn’t sell to private buyers or retailers. (There are a number of used guns on the market now, but that wasn’t true 13 years ago.) So, if you’re writing a character who’s supposed to be some kind of clandestine and deniable agent, giving them a gun that says they work for a government somewhere is probably a bad idea.

Also, the entire “custom suppressors” line bugs me. I can’t remember if that’s exactly what the games call them, but I think you’re remembering correctly. The problem is, commercially produced suppressors exist for both weapons. Again, a Five-Seven suppressor is going to be more traceable than an aftermarket .45 one. A high end 5.56mm suppressor can run you over a grand, but, it’s aftermarket, and easy enough to hide if you’re part of a clandestine operation.

Incidentally, factory produced Five-Seven threaded barrels are exceedingly rare on the secondary market. Not many of these were produced. Giving someone a Five-Seven today wouldn’t say nearly as much as it did back then, but giving them one designed to accept a suppressor would still be pretty suspicious. An aftermarket modded one, with a replacement barrel would raise fewer eyebrows (but that’s the kind of detail people wouldn’t catch until they were picking over your character’s corpse.)

That said, pointing out that you’d need to use subsonic ammo for his weapons is the kind of attention to detail that the Tom Clancy games (and Clancy’s books) really nail. This is also really important if your character wants to suppress a rifle. Arguably, if your character is a sniper, and intending to fire from long ranges, subsonic ammo is actually more important than sticking a suppressor on the gun. However, this isn’t a panacea, subsonic ammo suffers from severe drop, to the point that it’s noticeable at medium range. For a sniper, this is a really serious consideration. They need to decide between having far less range and power, or having the bullet produce a massive cracking noise when fired.

The entire Five-Seven thing probably bugs me more because this is a solved issue. Pistols designed for clandestine use exist, including some of the weapons that show up in the series. Hell, give Sam something like a Makarov PB while operating in Europe, and no one would suspect that he’s an American if he was caught and killed.

In contrast to the pistol, the FN F2000 is a much better pick. It’s a solid assault rifle that entered service in the 80s, though there’s not really that much special about it except the appearance. It has a rubber seal in the magazine well, which would help a little with suppressing it, but the benefit is basically trivial. What it’s actually there to do is keep dust and debris out of the action, but it also means that you might have issues loading aftermarket magazines in it. (This is all second hand, by the way. I’ve never handled a F2000 personally.) There may have been better choices available, but it’s a legitimate choice. Unfortunately, as with the Five-Seven, there were no civilian versions available, (a semi-auto only version hit the market in 2006), so we’ve still got that, “my cyberninja is government sponsored,“ problem.

Ironically, I know the game doesn’t get a lot of love, but Conviction’s approach to Sam’s loadout is probably more realistic. It’s (mostly) a mix of commercially available weapons and street clothes.

If you’re writing a character who’s supposed to be this kind of a sneak in, and hang from the ceiling kind of black ops agent. The best options are to put them in locally purchased clothes (this will help them blend in, even if they’re from a different ethnicity). Weapons that are readily available on the local market (or black market). Hardware that can be easily adapted from commercial products. If you absolutely need a PDA or something similar, use a smart phone. For a hands free unit, get a bluetooth headset. If the phone needs custom software, then that’s something your character’s agency can produce. (Preferably with some kind of remote kill switch, because forensic analysis of software can provide clues to its origin.) What you don’t want to do is gear them up with a lot of very specialized equipment that says, “hey, this guy worked for a foreign government.”


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Hi there! I love your blog! I’ve seen you mention a few TV shows and movies for research, and I was wondering what your opinion is on the show Leverage and it’s accuracy for social engineering in potentially violent situations. I remember one character saying that “Thieves look for entrances, but grifters create them.” They’ll often use approaches like this to avoid violence.

If the question is: can you use social engineering in order to defuse or avoid violent situations? The answer is yes.

Grifters are conmen, and like spies, they don’t want to fight unless it is absolutely necessary. Whether they can fight or know how isn’t really the point: combat makes messes, big messes, and draws the kind of attention they don’t want/can’t afford.

As for the line, “thieves look for entrances, but grifters create them” the point of it is that grifters focus on people as the exploitative aspect to get what they want. After all, it doesn’t matter how good your security system is if your infiltrator is expected to be there. When someone opens the door for them, they didn’t have to break in.

It is worth pointing out though, being able to stop, defuse, avoid, or redirect violence via social engineering (especially when the character is the target) is very difficult and requires someone who excels at rapidly changing their story/manipulating under life or death pressure while also maintaining their consistency/re-establishing their innocence/regaining their target’s trust.

That’s masterclass social engineering. The average person, even the average grifter can’t do it. When we see Nate Ford, Sophie Devereaux, or Michael Westen on Burn Notice socially engineer their way out of potentially explosive and violent scenarios, we’re supposed to understand this level of manipulation is very difficult. You need a solid ability to read people, predict their behavior patterns, understand how to shift your role so you suddenly seem trustworthy, confuse them, and then redirect their anger somewhere away from you.

You can see another variant of this kind of social engineering on display in The Negotiator. Samuel L. Jackson’s character is a hostage negotiator. Deliberately maneuvering a man who’s taken a child captive around his apartment so he can be taken out. You can see him joking with the target, gaining his trust, distracting him, and guiding him off topic until he’s in a position to be neutralized.

The Grifter is not a fighter, they are a talker and their trick is getting people to move however they want. A skilled grifter can slip in, turn the best of friends against each other, and walk away without a care. Grifters don’t punch. They trick other people into doing the punching for them. When sitting down to write a Grifter, remember: their first instinct is getting others to act in their place, to create the openings they need, and be their fall guy.

On the whole, I’ve liked Leverage ever since the episode where Eliot pointed out that guns are ranged weapons, and the most common mistake people make is giving up the distance advantage by getting in too close. However, I’ve only watched the first season. I liked what I saw, it’s an enjoyable caper show in a similar vein to The Equalizer, Person of Interest, or Ocean’s Eleven. Not quite in there with the original Law & Order when it comes to accuracy (in this case for cops) but certainly better than White Collar, which uses similar techniques (though never, ever pay attention to White Collar’s usage of the FBI… ever). The X-Files, meanwhile, fudges a bit but it’s pretty good when you’re wanting to get a grasp of the FBI’s culture and what happens to someone who doesn’t come from a military/law enforcement background.

Of course, the patient zero for these types of shows is the original Mission: Impossible. The television show, not the Tom Cruise movies. Mission: Impossible is all about flipping people and manipulating them into positions to do what you want. The A-Team is its slightly more pulpy counterpart, but its a similar (though far less subtle) deal.

On the whole, Leverage tends to explain itself better, which is helpful when you’re trying to learn or take techniques from a television show rather than just absorb.

The reason why I often suggest Burn Notice and Spy Game is not necessarily just because they’re good, but also because they teach. The narrator on Burn Notice, especially in the first season will offer up a lot of helpful/beginner tradecraft for a variety of situations. This, ultimately, will help you more for taking pieces and creating your own characters than a show that’s trying for smoke and mirrors like White Collar. The same situation is there with Spy Game, where Robert Redford’s character is teaching Brad Pitt’s on how to be a spy. Ultimately, more helpful in the long run than just watching The Recruit. The Michael Mann films like Heat and Collateral are exceptionally good for learning tradecraft, but you have to know that’s what you’re watching/looking for. You’ll learn more by watching them together, rather than separately. The Borne Identity novels are also very good at showing the tradecraft, while the Le Carre ones tend to be a little more hit and miss.

When you’re new, you want sources that are free with their information. Who are good at getting you to think, to take what you’re seeing and apply it to new settings. You may not ever figure out how to build a car bomb, but learning about how the thought process of a spy, criminal, or conman works will serve you better for your writing than a hundred other movies that only show.

After you’ve drawn back the curtain then you can turn to those other shows, novels, and narratives with new eyes. Once you see what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why when they don’t explain you’ll get more out of those other sources than you did before.

When you’re watching a well put together show like Leverage, start questioning character motivations. Not just whether the social engineering there works, but why the characters are choosing to go that route or which routes they prefer. Leverage gives you five characters with different specialties, four thieves and the guy who made a career catching them. They all think in different ways and have different approaches when it comes to problem solving. Leverage offers up a heist per episode, so you have lots of opportunities to see the characters in action. Evaluate their problem solving methods and you’ll come away with more than just questioning whether or not it works.

How and Why.

Then, go find a good video on YouTube where a professional magician explains pickpocketing. It’s the art of misdirection.

Once you understand basic theoretical underpinnings (whether or not you could ever actually pull the real thing off) then you can apply it to many different situations in a fictional context.

When it comes back to applying this to the combat arts, learning to see the big picture is the first major difference between trained and untrained. The untrained only copy surface level, singular techniques, while trained delves deeper to understand how these techniques work together.

My advice for when you’re wanting to pick and choose television shows for accuracy is to check who their consultants are/were, and what experts in the show’s chosen field say about it. That doesn’t always guarantee accuracy, but it will help you flip through the rave reviews.

If you want to watch more fun shows with Timothy Hutton or just like detective shows, I recommend Nero Wolfe.


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Do you have any advice for writing characters undercover? Thanks!

So, we’ve covered this topic a lot in the past. Undercover operatives, intelligence agents, black ops, assassins, and spies I’d start with a spies search on our website, as that’ll get you started. The really good references will be there. My
big advice for writing any kind of spy fiction is to have a clear idea
of what you want and which genre you’re chasing. Do want James Bond or George Smiley? You can blend these genres, but it’s a good idea to have a clear idea as that’ll define your narrative.

The first thing to understand about spies and any sort of shadow operative is the Burn Notice quote: “A spy is just a criminal with a government paycheck.”

Take a look at this passage. This is a character (Thirteen) trained as
an undercover operative exiting a bad situation. What do you see?

Limping down the hall, I forced one foot before the other. Slowly, my stride lengthened. The silver door at the end didn’t open, so I pushed it, and stumbled out onto the launch pad. My gaze fell on a string of oval automatic airstreams parked all in a row. No, I frowned, eyes sweeping to street and the vehicles winging by in the air overhead. No self-respecting AI would let me drive in this condition. Robots always insisted on hospital, and I had no time to hack. To get out fast, I needed a human. A cabbie. Older, preferably female. Fingers to my neck, I tapped twice. Up came the ODS, my thoughts linking to: call a cab. Human.

A string of numbers and faces appeared before my eyes, the oldworld men and women working a dying industry. Better for No Questions Asked rides in our digital world, no one else called when they could pay a corporate run robot for half the cost.

I picked the first female face that flashed across my dash.

Time to pick up… thirty seconds.

I gripped my injured arm, and ran an analysis. Tucked out of sight, Sixteen’s pistol rested against my ribs. Ammunition at less than half a magazine, so seven rounds. Eight, if I counted the one in the chamber. The Uplink already registered the irreparable damage and severed the blood flow to the damaged limb. So, no more bleeding out. My upper lip curled. A bad trade off for no more arm. Damn, Sixteen.

Fifteen seconds.

I couldn’t hide in the shadows. Needed to seem desperate, distraught. Call up tears.

Ten seconds.

My blurred gaze flicked to the skyline, watching for black. The Ghosts wouldn’t appear in the datastream. Still, NIS hadn’t cut my access. Not yet.


A beat up airstream in ruby red dropped out of the sky to the left, pulling up to the curb. They were early. From the shabby state of their car, probably desperate. Good.

I limped over quickly. Even if they weren’t my ride, they were human and sitting in the driver’s seat. A car enthusiast who needed no AI systems to handle the steering. Likely to have built in cameras. More likely to possess a slow Uplink. Slow data received poor police service. My fingers seized the handle, flung open the door, and threw myself inside.

“Need a ride?” the voice was sympathetic, unfamiliar.

I slid across the bench into the seat behind the driver. My free hand tight on my damaged limb, couldn’t do much about my nose. So, instead, I tilted my head and caught her reflection in the mirror. Younger. Mid-thirties. Red hair worn short with one gray streak, tied back in a severe bun. Clear hazel eyes. Talk like you’re in pain, scared, but putting on a brave face. Tears. I wiped the blood from underneath my nose, sniffling. “Y-y-yeah.” I cleared my throat. “Yeah. Thanks.” I tried for a half-smile, half-grimace, and leaned on the window. “Just looking to get away. The address should be—”

“You don’t need to worry, I have it,” the driver said. “Came in with your order. Grace, right? You want to go downbelow, the Rep Shop.”

“Yeah.” Resting my cheek against the glass, I closed my eyes; Uplink sizing up her car’s systems. Automatic turned off, but easy enough to hijack. My free hand drifted off my injury, and moved near the pistol hilt jabbing my ribs.

“I’m Marla, I’ll be your driver today.” A pause followed. “You sure a pretty girl like you wants the Rep Shop? Not a hospital? You look pretty banged up.”

“No,” I replied. I got what she suggested, this was a nice neighborhood. “I just need… need to go…”

“Boyfriend trouble?”

I grimaced, eyes squeezing shut, and wished I felt a twinge of guilt. It’s like the Overseer always says, love is just a cover.

“Don’t worry, no need to say it,” Marla said as the engine revved, the floorplates shook, and the airstream lifted skyward. “Shipped enough victims out of here to know.”

Notice, she pays attention to her surroundings and makes choices based on her condition in service of her needs. She needs to get out quickly, but would run into more trouble stealing a car so she calls up a cab driven by a human. Human’s are easier to manipulate in short order than code cracking. She specifically aims for a female cab driver, one preferably older than she is.


She’s female. Another woman is more likely to assume her injuries are because of a man, and a cab driver will have encountered this scenario often enough to not pry too deeply into it. An older woman is likelier to be maternal and protective, but not so protective that she’ll stay beyond when Thirteen needs her too. However, pay attention to the fact that Thirteen never verbally confirms it was a man who caused her injuries. She lets Marla assume, and fill in the blanks herself. This gives her an out later if she needs to change her story and place the blame on Marla’s shoulders for misunderstanding.

This is an example of what’s called social engineering.
Deliberately manipulating the people in your environment to divulge
confidential information or getting them to do what you want.

Notice also: After getting into the vehicle, Thirteen’s hand goes to the gun she stole. As she is playing to Marla’s sympathies, she is also assessing the possibility of killing this woman and taking control of the car if things don’t go the way she’s planned. Thirteen would prefer to exit by the easiest means possible, but a good spy always has a contingency. She won’t compromise her safety, and civilian lives mean next to nothing. A dead body is one more problem to deal with, one more attention getter that she doesn’t want, but she’ll go there. Violence is messy, and sometimes necessary.

There’s no real difference between a spy and a conman. Still, if you want to trick people there’s a few rules to follow.

What a spy isn’t:

A compulsive liar, an overseller, or lies all the time. An undercover operative needs to maintain their identity, that is one identity, singular. While a spy can create many false personalities, they should only be using one at a time with the goal of giving away as little information in trade as possible.

Notice: Thirteen does not tell Marla a story, she lets Marla create the story and then plays along. It is easier to convince someone of a lie when they’ll craft it themselves. Why say something when you can get just as much by saying nothing at all?

“You’ve told her three lies. Suppose she’s an asset, now you have to make all three lies true.” – Spy Game

Your character can’t just lie, a liar will be caught after a prolonged period of time. They need to manipulate the truth by creating a fiction. A cover is a fictional person with a fictional job who people think really exists when they check the character’s identity. Assume their identity will be checked, re-checked, and checked again. They are not maintaining a cover to a singular individual, but multiple ones. Their assets are the locals they are manipulating in order gain access to information, and who often run the jobs for them. These assets will, most of the time, not know the truth or not know the whole truth about who the spy really is.

Assets can be friends, business associates, girlfriends/boyfriends, wives/husbands, disgruntled employees, janitors, etc.

Your character can’t enter a business or government agency as a pretend janitor if they’re also going there everyday as a reporter or contractor or some other job. They must maintain the fiction of their identity.

This is the biggest problem most authors will get into when writing spy fiction. The concept of telling lies is something that comes easily to most of us, the problem comes in with keeping up a fiction over a prolonged period of time. The next step is to be able to lie without guilt and throw over people who help you without remorse. Crafting that dual identity of a person who genuinely cares about their friends and allies versus the real one who… really doesn’t.

You need a solid grasp of social functions, mores, and conventions in order to write a spy because a spy is manipulating all those points to gain access. You also need to understand these rules change based on what society your character is entering. Social rules change based on social groups, be it economic or cultural. The expectations for a man or woman in Mexico City versus Seattle are vast, and your character needs to be versed in the world they’re walking into. They need a cover identity to suit their work. Someone who has the freedom to go many places without being questioned, but unimportant enough to be neither needed nor remembered.

A spy is always looking for a way in, to slide into your confidences or sympathies however they can. They are going to use you to get where they need to go. They are very convincing actors and they are changing, modifying themselves slightly for each person they encounter. Not so much though that their falseness becomes obvious to the other people who know them.

When we’re working with a female spy, for example, all the “bad woman” societal traits you’re inclined to throw away are exactly what she needs to succeed. She will flirt, and flatter, and seduce, and manipulate the men (and women) around her to gain entry. She may rotate between being a gorgeous woman and an unremarkable one by the use of fashion and makeup. She is exactly what so many men are afraid of, a social climber who is manipulating their feelings and her attractiveness in order to get what she wants because it is the most expedient method to get what she needs. The one who is manipulating society’s view of women as nonentities, nonthreatening/replaceable objects in order to do her job.

Don’t be afraid of these characters. Don’t be afraid of “unlikeable” characters.

Spies are bad people who do bad things. They are often cold, calculating, impersonal manipulators looking for the most expedient method to get what they need. Your spy’s cover is just a cover. Never forget the real person underneath, especially when they’re lying to themselves.


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Hey friends! I just wanted to say that your posts on spies have been so useful to me. Anyway, I have a character who is an ex-soldier (infantry). For various plot reasons, he needs to infiltrate a very secretive group and gain info on them. He has a mentor, who is an intel agent. Question is: what would a crash course on infiltration look like? They don’t have much time, and my solider is a very straightforward person and has some problems with deception. What does he need to know?

Well, one thing he really should not know, under any
circumstances, is that his handler is setting him up as a sacrificial lamb for
the other guys to capture and interrogate. A “spy,” who is bad at deception,
and very straightforward? He has “doomed spy,” written all over him.

The Doomed Spy is a concept from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. This
is a spy you send in, explicitly, to be captured. They don’t know it, but their
real job is to feed misinformation to the enemy, either through shoddy
tradecraft or under direct interrogation. This could range from something as
simple as a false flag operation, where the spy is told and believes they’re
working for one nation or faction, when in fact, that entity has no knowledge
of their actions, and their handler’s loyalties actually belong elsewhere. Or,
it could be as complex as an entire operation, designed to provide the targets
with false intelligence.

So, your ex-soldier, who’s bad at lying, and thinks he’s
working for one group is, in fact, working for a completely different group that
wants to provoke action against the people he’s (probably) loyal to. This may
go a step further, where his handler recruits him, specifically because of his
prior ties to the faction the handler claims to represent.

Something else that’s kind of important to understand about
intelligence work, or at least direct human intelligence work. As a spy, your
job isn’t to sneak into an office, or even talk your way in. Sometimes you need
to be there personally, but most of the time, you can get someone else to do it
for you. Why sneak into an office building, when you can pay a member of the
cleaning staff to pass paperwork to the trash, where you can get someone to
pick it up later?

At that point, there isn’t a lot of reason to train assets
(the people a spy uses as intermediaries to get their information). In theory,
they already know how to act in their native environment.

Getting someone into some kind of secret society is going to
be a lot trickier, but at that point,
your spy’s best cover may be going in as themselves. Okay, up front, this one’s
a kind of weird situation, so let’s parse apart how this works.

Normally, a spy’s best option is to get other people to work
for them. It creates a layer of insulation, so if something goes wrong, they
can get out, and take any intelligence they’ve obtained, before the authorities
manage to close in on them. This doesn’t always work, but, the separation
between an actual spy and their assets is vital to effective tradecraft. It
also means that the spy’s identity isn’t immediately known. There’s a huge jump
between walking into a place, and having your face on security cameras, and
getting some poor schmuck no one knows to do it for you. This also leads to a paradoxical
situation with intelligence work. Spies tend to deal with their most
immediately critical cases early in their careers, when no one knows who they
are, and then spend the rest of their career working on much less important
cases, when getting exposed would be less harmful.

What we have here sounds like a slightly different situation
that doesn’t really pop up in the real world, where a spy’s anonymity wouldn’t

If we’re talking about some supervillain’s secret society,
where they already have intelligence gathering on par with some nations, and
have moles in your spy’s intelligence agency, then, as I said a minute ago, the
answer may be to go in, “as themselves.”

With one exception, you wouldn’t likely see this in the real
world, but a veteran spy, looking to infiltrate some kind of Illuminati/Majestic
12 style, “secret rulers of the world,” type conspiracy, may be better off poking
them with a stick and asking for a job. They’d already know who the spy is,
there’s no real point in pretending to be someone else. Their own skill set
wouldn’t raise any questions when that’s who
they’re supposed to be anyway
. Once they’re in, they’d probably act as a
sleeper (an agent who does not engage in any intelligence activities) to build
up their cover, increase their access, and only act when they have the opportunity
to fully achieve their goals, (which could take years).

Just to be clear, you could shove an entire series in here,
about a spy who infiltrated some conspiracy, and is building their cover and
working their way up through the ranks while wrestling with their ethics and
what they’re having to do.

In that context, it’s possible they may pick an ex-soldier
off the street to send in, in order to get the organization’s people knocking
on their door.

In general, you’re not going to see this with national
intelligence services, because no one trusts defectors. But, if you’re talking
about an extra-national service, they don’t really have the option of producing
their own talent (at least, not at first). They’d also be more likely to poach
members of their host nations’ intelligence communities.

The one real world example where you might see a spy walking
in the front door without a cover would be in dealing with businesses. Companies
who are concerned about corporate espionage have a real incentive to hire former
intelligence officers as security consultants and advisors. At the same time, this
isn’t an extremely likely outcome for a couple reasons. First, private sector
jobs like this are a very lucrative gig for ex-civil servants, meaning going
after one would be biting the hand that (would have) fed them. Second, they’d
still be in competition with other ex-intelligence officers for the position,
people with the same kinds of training they received, which would make getting
in tricky. Finally, when it comes to the business world, you rarely need a spy;
it’s overkill. Most of the things a business gets into would be better suited for
investigation by normal law enforcement channels.

Come up with a situation where a spy would need to tear into
a company’s actions, and they’d benefit more from directing police action
against it, rather than going in directly.

In all of this, I don’t think I’ve answered the direct
question. The kind of videogame, sneaking in through the vents, infiltration
approach doesn’t (usually) work. Infiltration, in the real world, is more about
walking in and looking like you belong there, not hiding behind crates and
climbing the drainpipes. (Somewhat obviously, this isn’t going to work out for
your straightforward ex-soldier who has hang-ups about lying to people.) The
biggest lessons are in social engineering. Learning how people function
(psychologically), and exploiting inherent vulnerabilities in “normal” social

Social Engineering often gets broken down into individual
tricks, that play with expectations, for example: using a business card as
false identification when making an introduction. This would never get you
through a security checkpoint, but it might get you in the building to talk
with someone, and give you access to information they normally wouldn’t.

As a gestalt, social engineering is fairly complex, but the
basics are looking for ways to get people to give you information they really
shouldn’t, by making them think you’re someone who is supposed to have access.

But, that’s what a spy’s job is, getting people to tell you
things they shouldn’t, usually by misdirection and deception.

– Starke

Two films that come to mind in this specific genre which may be worth watching are The Recruit, and Spy Game.

The Recruit (2003) focuses on a programmer (Colin Farrell) who is tapped by the CIA to become an agent, and the film spends a lot of time working through the training of prospective CIA Officers.

Spy Game (2001) focuses on a retiring CIA Officer (Robert Redford) discussing the training and career of his


(Brad Pitt). To a degree, this is probably the most on point to what you’re after, so if you’ve never seen it, it should be part of your lit review.

As always, Burn Notice’s, “when you’re a spy” routines may also be useful. The show spends a lot of time on social engineering (though it rarely uses the term). The discussions on how people normally behave, and how to work around, or exploit, their expectations are what you’re looking for.

You may also want to pick up and watch Ronin (1998). This is more about veteran spies interacting, but it has a very slick approach to tradecraft that may be useful.

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What kinds of martial arts or any form of fighting does the CIA or FBI train in?

The FBI uses an adapted form of Judo that was brought over from Japan after WWII. It’s evolved considerably since then, but some elements are still recognizable, particularly the throws.

It’s probably worth pointing out that this is what we’re referring to when talking about Police hand to hand. FBI instructors adapted Judo to fit the Bureau’s needs, and then shared that with the American law enforcement community.

I’m less certain what the CIA trains in. I suspect they receive training in one of the military forms (like MCMAP), but I don’t know specifically what The Farm trains CIA officers in.

For a spy, ideally, you’d learn local martial arts to assist in blending and protecting your cover identity. But, the CIA doesn’t really do that as much these days. They still maintain the concept of the Non-Official Cover (NOC) (a cover without diplomatic immunity), but The Agency as a whole is far more interested in signals intelligence than traditional tradecraft. Your more likely to see a CIA officer who is formally attached to the State Department, rather than an expat working as a tailor or running a restaurant. (Joking aside, service industry positions like those are very good places for spies to work undetected.)

The other thing worth remembering about the CIA is, when it’s planning operations that would be better suited to special forces units, they will actually use the appropriate units (like Delta or Navy SEALS), depending on what they need for the task at hand.

I’m sorry I can’t be more precise with the CIA, but they are a little evasive about exactly what they train their personnel in.


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