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We are all led into thinking that, while abroad, a secret agent spends his days in lavish high society parties, copulates with beautiful women and drives fast cars. We know who to blame: Ian Fleming and the movies taken out of his books.

The British author was born into an aristocratic family, went to school at Eton, moved onto the Sandhurst military academy (which he later abandoned) and worked, while still young, as a naval intelligence officer. James Bond brought together his wealthy childhood, what Fleming had learned in the Navy and a good dose of fantasy. But reality is pretty different, as MI-6 agents know all too well.

During operations abroad, socializing is crucial for any intelligence operative. It can bolster the effectiveness of his work, or pose a security risk that could compromise his stature. Hence the agent has to preserve both his contacts, security and cover. All at the same time.

Rather than luxury, the life of an intelligence operative is marked by the tensions deriving from his work, the caution he takes in everything he does or says, the need to cover his back when moving around, the ability to perceive danger and understand other people’s intentions, paying attention to nuances while playing the role given by his cover story. This definitely is not the life of a bon vivant.

First of all, forget about beautiful women and affairs. The intelligence sector is abundant with stories of people who ended up compromised or killed for a one night stand. Human weaknesses (sex, alcohol, drugs, gambling, money, resentment and envy) are the fuel for those in search of a source. And if they are to be exploited by an intelligence operative that is trying to convince another person to collaborate and betray, the same can happen the other way around leading to disaster.


When an agent is in the active research mode (the term espionage/spying is hardly ever used by agents because it sounds fictional and has a negative aura for one of the most ancient professions in the world) technically speaking he is carrying out HUMINT (Human Intelligence), and hence the need to meet people. He chooses his counterparts not to befriend them, but to access the information that are of interest to him.

An agent is forced to pretend he likes a person that he despises, he has to go out with people he would definitely avoid in normal life circumstances, he has to act complacent, be flattering, support ideas he doesn’t share, pretend to show interest, express feelings he doesn’t feel, but that are useful in the context he is operating in. There’s a lot of sociology, a load of psychology, and a good dose of patience involved.

An intelligence operative is also forced to keep an updated list of the people he meets. This is not a diary to aid his memory, but a tool for his bosses to know who his contacts. In fact, thanks to this list, the Central can evaluate the quality of the ongoing contacts, can provide information on the people in the list, or warn in case of dangerous relations. But, above all, the list will be extremely useful if an agent is compromised. This list will help the bureau understand in which circumstances the agent’s cover was blown or who blew the whistle. In which case, the agent not only endangers himself, but also compromises a long work, a number of other people and exposes facts that should have been concealed. Along with the agent, also a number of procedures that are followed while carrying out an operation are compromised.

During his public meetings, he might meet agents or sources from other intelligence agencies. They are like him: they seek information, while the don’t offer it. And when they pretend they do so, they could be spreading disinformation.

In the myriad of work-related contacts, some are accidental, while others are not. This means there is a second list of people, labelled as “useful”. As the adjective says, they are individuals who become the focus of an intelligence operative’s social attentions with the aim of obtaining informations of interest to him. While the target of safeguarding one’s national security is common to every agency, the informational priorities vary in each country. They can range from the stability of a regime, to some illegal traffic, to the production of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, armed forces and so forth.

There are people who hang out where our informational target lies and through them it is possible to obtain details and information. The process is pretty straightforward: identify the information you need, find the person who can give it to you. Once you’ve found the person, you need to create a situation, as fortuitous as can be, to meet her/him. This requires a good dose of groundwork in order to plan your moves. Sometimes you are dealing with people down the social ladder who might have access to what you’re looking for. In other instances, you’re talking to a big shot, who has access to documents or facilities where decisions are taken or knowledge is hidden.

In both cases – and this is where the ability of an agent comes into play – it is crucial to establish a certain degree of intimacy or familiarity with these people. The fact that their social status might differ requires some flexibility in our behavior. And this is not always an easy task because the people an agent meets are usually foreigners, with different behavioral stereotypes, different cultures, different scusceptibilities and relational patterns. In most cases it is hard to discuss certain topics because of prejudices, shyness, surliness or confidentiality.

The intelligence operative has to be both a sociologist and a psychologist, and has to be capable of overcoming any character trait or behavior to become close to that one person. He will be able to use the passions and weaknesses we all have, or could exploit vanity, pride, family relations. Anything is allowed to befriend a person deemed as “useful”. A small gift here and there, a favor at the right time, an act of courtesy to wife or children, sharing a common hobby or the same opinions and prejudices.

james bond

If this works out, the person the intelligence operative has focused his efforts on, in the end, in either an accidental or voluntary manner, will decide to “speak”. He usually does so without realizing he is revealing a secret that is of interest to us. He does so unconsciously, while keeping up with the discussion, or during an argument. Or to show off what he knows, to fuel his ego and narcissism. Either way, everything has to happen spontaneously.

There are no direct questions on the topic the agent is after, because this could arouse suspicion. Two people talk about a number of things, and yet, at some point, you end up talking about a certain topic. And when this happens, the agent never gives away his interest, but behaves as if this was a futile or secondary part of the discussion. Furthermore, he ought to discredit the information in order to stimulate the counterpart to add more details. In the role-playing, it is not the agent who wants to know, but rather his interlocutor who feels the need to speak out. It is the technique of maieutics. There are of course people pretend to know and talk bullshit. It is up to the agent to figure out the reliability of his informations.

One could think a person capable of obtaining information and willing to talk can be easily recruited as a source. It doesn’t work this way. Not every “useful” person can turn into a source. Not all of them are available or suitable for the job. Going from an accidental chat to the clear decision of collaborating with a foreign intelligence agency requires the overcoming of a number of psychological steps. These include: an irreversible decision, a strong motivation to betray, the reliability of a subject on his path to becoming a source. A “useful” person that possesses all of the above will still have to go through a thorough procedure (see "How a Source is Recruited" - Invisible Dog #10, October 2012).

There are also a number of key differences. A “useful” person is not after any sort of personal gain in saying what he knows. He is responding to a psychological stimulus, nothing more and nothing less. A source instead knows what to look for and how to look it up. The relationship with the agent is institutional, almost like a full-time job. Everything a source does is agreed upon. And when an intelligence operative leaves his post to another colleague, sources are passed on, while the same doesn’t necessarily happen with “useful” people.

In other words, the empathy that was built over time through friendly relationships fades away once the intelligence operative is replaced. Sure, the agent can still introduce his colleague to his friends, can favor the newcomer’s approach to these “useful” people or hand out a few tips on how to best go about it. Yet, his personal relationship with them is simply lost. And this is the biggest limit these contacts have for any intelligence operative.

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