The shadow world has inspired—and mandated—a vivid vocabulary of words and codenames for secret operations, missions and agents. These words are carefully chosen to clarify or confuse, depending on the need to know.
The "spookspeak" presented here is drawn from fact and fiction, from agencies and authors around the world and throughout time.
Agent: a person unofficially employed by an intelligence service.
Agent-in-Place: a government employee who is influenced to cooperate with a foreign government instead of defecting; now working for two employers instead of one.
Agent-of-Influence: a person who works within the government or media of a target country to influence national policy.
Asset: a clandestine source or method, usually an agent.
Bagman: an agent who pays spies and bribes authorities.
Bang and Burn: demolition and sabotage operations.
Birdwatcher: slang used by British Intelligence for a spy.
Black Bag Job: secret entry into a home or office to steal or copy materials.
Black Operations: covert operations that are not attributable to the organization performing them.
Black Propaganda: disinformation that is deniable by (and not traceable to) its source.
Blowback: a deception planted abroad by an intelligence agency to mislead another country that returns to the originating nation with bad consequences.
Blown: discovery of an agent's true identity or a clandestine activity's real purpose.
Bombe: Polish electro-magnetic device created to decipher 3-rotor Enigma combinations; early precursor to the modern computer.
Bona Fides: proof of a person's claimed identity.
Bridge Agent: an agent who acts as a courier from a case officer to an agent in a denied area.
Brush Pass: a brief encounter where something is passed between case officer and agent.
Burned: when a case officer or agent is compromised.
Camp Swampy: CIA's secret domestic training base (also known as "The Farm").
Camp X: Canada's secret domestic training base.
Carnivore: computer program designed by the FBI to allow the FBI (in compliance with court orders) to collect electronic communications from a specific user targeted in an investigation (at the exclusion of all other users' transmissions).
Case Officer: a staff officer who manages agents and runs operations.
Center: KGB headquarters in Moscow.
Cheka: Russian secret police founded in 1917 to serve the Bolshevik party; one of the many forerunners of the KGB.
Chicken Feed: convincing, but not critical, intelligence knowingly provided to an enemy intelligence agency through an agent or a double agent.
Chief of Station: the officer in charge at a CIA station, usually in a foreign capital.
CIA: Central Intelligence Agency; U.S.'s foreign intelligence gathering service.
Cipher: a system for disguising a message by replacing its letters with other letters or numbers or by shuffling them.
Clandestine Operation: an intelligence operation designed to remain secret for as long as possible.
Clean: unknown to enemy intelligence.
Cobbler: a spy who creates false passports, visas, diplomas and other documents.
Code: a system for disguising a message by replacing its words with groups of letters or numbers.
Codebook: a list of plain language words opposite their codeword or codenumber.
Colossus: an electronic device that helped solve German cryptograms.
COMINT: all intelligence gathered from intercepted communications.
The Company: an unofficial term for the CIA popularized by fiction.
Compromised: when an operation, asset, or agent is uncovered and cannot remain secret.
Controller: officer in charge of a string of agents (a handler).
Cover: the purported occupation or purpose of an agent; it must be consistent with the agent's background and presence in the target area.
Covert Action Operation: an influence operation designed to effect foreign affairs.
Cryptology: the science of secret writing in all its forms.
Cut-out: a mechanism or person used to create a compartment between the members of an operation to allow them to pass material or messages securely; also an agent who functions as an intermediary between a spymaster and other subagents.
Dangle: a person who approaches an intelligence agency with the intent of being recruited to spy against his or her own country.
Dead Drop: a secret location where materials can be left for another party to retrieve.
Dezinformatsiya [Disinformation]: KGB term for its well-financed and multifarious program to manipulate the West with lies.
Discard: an agent whom a service will permit to be detected and arrested so as to protect more valuable agents.
Double Agent: a spy who works for two intelligence services, usually against his or her original employer.
Dry Clean: actions agents take to determine if they are under surveillance.
Ears Only: material too secret to commit to writing.
Echelon: a computer program developed by the NSA that captures satellite, microwave, cellular, and fiber optic traffic and processes them through filtering technologies for the purpose of gathering information.
ELINT: electronic intelligence usually collected by technical interception.
Enigma: the machine used by the Germans to encode messages during WWII.
Escort: the operations officer assigned to lead a defector along an escape route.
Executive Action: assassination.
Exfiltration Operation: a clandestine rescue operation designed to bring a defector, refugee, or an operative and his or her family out of harm's way.
Expats: expatriates who have taken up residence in another country and are helping to define its culture.
Eyes Only: documents that may be read but not discussed.
FBI: Federal Bureau of Investigation; U.S.'s domestic counter-intelligence service.
Flaps and Seals: the tradecraft involved when making surreptitious openings and closings of envelopes, seals, and secure pouches.
Floater: a person used one-time, occasionally, or even unknowingly for an intelligence operation.
Friends: general slang for members of an intelligence service; specifically British slang for members of the Secret Intelligence Service.
Ghoul: agent who searches obituaries and graveyards for names of the deceased for use by agents.
Handler: a case officer who is responsible for handling agents in operations.
Honey Trap: slang for use of men or women in sexual situations to intimidate or snare others.
Hospital: Russian slang for prison.
Hostile: term used to describe the organizations and activities of the opposition services.
HUMINT: intelligence collected by human sources.
Illegal: KGB/SVR operatives infiltrated into a target country without the protection of diplomatic immunity.
Illness: Russian slang for someone under arrest.
IMINT: imagery intelligence.
Infiltration: the secret movement of an operative into a target area with the intent that his or her presence will go undetected.
Innocent Postcard: a postcard with an innocuous message sent to an address in a neutral country to verify the continued security of an undercover operative.
Jedburghs: OSS and SOE term for teams dropped into Europe before D-Day to help resistance groups.
KGB: Soviet Union's all-powerful intelligence and security service during the Cold War.
L-Pill: a poison pill used by operatives to commit suicide.
Legend: a spy's claimed background or biography, usually supported by documents and memorized details.
MASINT: measurement and signature intelligence; uses elements that do not fit into the traditional scope of IMINT and SIGINT.
MI-5: the British domestic counter-intelligence service.
MI-6: the British foreign intelligence service.
Mole: an agent of one organization sent to penetrate a specific intelligence agency by gaining employment.
Music Box: slang for a clandestine radio.
Musician: slang for a clandestine radio operator.
Naked: a spy operating without cover or backup.
NSA: National Security Agency; branch of the U.S. Department of Defense responsible for ensuring the security of American communications and for breaking into the communications of other countries; "No Such Agency."
Nugget: British term for the bait (money, political asylum, sex, or career opportunity) used to offer a potential defector.
Nursemaid: Russian term for the security service officer who accompanies delegations to other countries to prevent anyone from defecting.
Okhrana: secret police under Russian tsars 1881-1917.
One-time Pad: sheets of paper/silk with strings of random numbers for singular use as a key in enciphering messages.
Open-source: intelligence gained from public materials.
OSINT: open source intelligence; an all-source process which includes HUMINT, IMINT, SIGINT, and MASINT which analysts must understand and integrate to produce the best possible intelligence.
OSS: Office of Strategic Services; U.S.'s WWII intelligence, sabotage, and subversion organization; "Oh So Secret"/ "Oh Such Snobs."
Paroles: passwords to identify agents to each other.
Pattern: the behavior and daily routine of an operative that makes his or her identity unique.
PHOTINT: photographic intelligence, usually involving high-altitude reconnaissance using spy satellites or aircraft.
Pig: Russian intelligence term for traitor.
Plaintext: the original message before encryption.
Playback: to provide false information to the enemy while gaining accurate information from him or her.
Pocket Litter: items in a spy's pocket (receipts, coins, theater tickets, etc.) that add authenticity to his or her identity.
Provocateur: an operative sent to incite a target group to action for purposes of entrapping or embarrassing them.
Purple: American name for the Japanese diplomatic cipher machine used from 1939-1945.
RADINT: intelligence gathered from radar.
Raven: a male agent employed to seduce people for intelligence purposes.
Red: American name for an early Japanese Diplomatic cipher machine.
Rezident [Resident]: KGB chief of station in any foreign location.
Rolled-up: when an operation goes bad and an agent is arrested.
RQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle: a medium-sized, long-endurance asset for reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition in moderate risk areas, minimizing the risk to human life.
Sanitize: to delete specific material or revise a report or other document to prevent the identification of intelligence sources and collection methods.
Shoe: a false passport or visa.
SIGINT: signals intelligence; an amalgamation of COMINT and ELINT into one unit of intelligence gathering dealing with all electronic data transmissions.
SIS: Secret Intelligence Service; another name for Britain's MI-6.
Sleeper: agent living as an ordinary citizen in a foreign country; acts only when a hostile situation develops.
SMERSH: short for "Smert Shpionam" (Death to Spies!); the assassination division of the KGB.
SOE: Special Operations Executive; Britain's WWII sabotage and subversion organization.
Sputnik: on October 4, 1957 the Soviet Union became the first country to successfully launch a satellite into outer space.
Spymaster: the leader of intelligence gathering activities, and an agent handler extraordinaire.
Stasi: East Germany's Cold War domestic and foreign intelligence service.
Station: post where espionage is conducted.
Steganography: techniques for concealing the very existence of a message (secret inks or microdots).
SVR: [Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki] The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, formed on 18 December 1991.
Swallow: a female agent employed to seduce people for intelligence purposes.
TECHINT: technical intelligence; analysis of fielded equipment for training, research, and the development of new weapons and equipment for eventual intelligence use.
The Take: information gathered by espionage.
Throwaway: an agent considered expendable.
Timed Drop: a dead drop that will be retrieved by a recipient after a set time period.
Tradecraft: the methods developed by intelligence operatives to conduct their operations.
Traffic Analysis: methods for gaining intelligence from the patterns and volumes of messages of radio intercepts.
U-2: the world's most famous spy plane, developed by the U.S. specifically for intelligence collection in the thin atmosphere 55,000 feet above the Soviet Union; it is still in use today.
Ultra: codename for all Allied codebreaking activities during WWII.
Uncle: headquarters of any espionage service.
Walk-in: a defector who declares his or her intentions by walking into an official installation and asking for political asylum or volunteering to work in-place.
Wet Job: an operation in which blood is shed.
Window Dressing: ancillary materials that are included in a cover story or deception operation to help convince the opposition or other casual observers that what they are observing is genuine.