Language of Espionage

If you expect to make it out there, you’re going to need to learn the lingo. Put in the work here and you’ll be talking the talk in no time. Check out our glossary of spy terms and code words.

A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z


 

A

Agent

A person unofficially employed by an intelligence service, often as a source of information.

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.


 

B

Babysitter

Bodyguard.

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

A 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 help decipher Enigma cipher machine settings; 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.


 

C

Camp Swampy

CIA's secret domestic training base (also known as "The Farm").

Camp X

Canada's secret domestic training base during World War II.

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

Genuine, but not seriously damaging, intelligence knowingly provided to an enemy intelligence agency through an agent or a double agent to establish his bona fides.

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.

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

Colossus was an electronic device that helped solve German cryptograms; the world’s first electronic computer.

COMINT

All intelligence gathered from intercepted communications.

Compromised

When an operation, asset, or agent is uncovered and cannot remain secret.

Controller

Officer in charge of agents (a handler)

Counterintelligence

The business of thwarting the efforts of foreign intelligence agencies; includes but is not limited to spy-catching.

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 operation designed to affect foreign affairs; may be lethal or non-lethal.

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.


 D

Dangle

A person sent by the intelligence agency of his or her own country who approaches an intelligence agency in the hope of being recruited as a spy so as to allow a double agent operation for the purpose of intelligence collection or disinformation.

Dead Drop

A secret location where materials can be left for another party to retrieve.

Dezinformatsiya [Disinformation]

The Soviet and Russian term for disinformation operations: operations designed to pass false information to the enemy.

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 pretends to be working against one country but who is in fact working for that country’s opponent; often a conduit for disinformation.

Dry Clean

Actions agents take to determine if they are under surveillance.


 

E

ELINT

Electronic intelligence; derived from the interception of radiation sources such as radars.

Enigma

A cipher machine used by the Germans to encode messages during WWII.

Escort

The operations officer assigned to lead a defector along an escape route.

Espionage

The practice of spying or using spies to obtain secret or confidential information about the plans and activities of a foreign government or a competing company.  

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

Citizens of one country who live in another.

Eyes Only

Documents that are intended for the eyes of one specified person only.


 

F

FBI

Federal Bureau of Investigation; U.S.'s domestic counterintelligence service and federal law enforcement agency.

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.


 

G

Ghoul

Agent who searches obituaries and graveyards for names of the deceased for use by agents.


 

H

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.

HUMINT

Intelligence collected from human sources.


 

I

Illegal

KGB/SVR operatives infiltrated into a target country without the protection of diplomatic immunity, having assumed new identities and even new ethnicities.

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.

Intelligence Officer

Intelligence officers are professionals trained by their governments. Called case officers, operational officers, or handlers, they run operations and recruit and manage the actual spies.


 

J

Jedburghs

OSS and SOE term for teams dropped into Europe before D-Day to help resistance groups.


 

K

KGB

The Soviet Union's all-powerful intelligence and security service during the Cold War.


 

L

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.


 

M

MASINT

Measurement and signature intelligence; a form of technical collection that uses signatures that do not fit into the traditional scope of IMINT and SIGINT.

MI5

The British domestic counterintelligence service; officially known as the Security Service.

MI6

The British foreign intelligence service; officially known as the Secret Intelligence Service.

Mole

An agent of one organization sent to penetrate a specific intelligence agency by gaining employment; a term popularized by John Le Carre.

Music Box

Slang for a clandestine radio.

Musician

Slang for a clandestine radio operator.


 

N

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) offered to a potential defector.

Nursemaid

Russian term for the security service officer who accompanies delegations to other countries to prevent anyone from defecting.


 

O

Okhrana

Secret police under Russian tsars 1881-1917.

One-time Pad

Strings of random numbers for singular use as a key in enciphering messages; the proper use of a one-time pad renders a message mathematically unbreakable.

OSINT

Open source intelligence; intelligence information derived from publicly available sources.

OSS

Office of Strategic Services; U.S.'s WWII intelligence, sabotage, and subversion organization; "Oh So Secret," "Oh Such Snobs," “Oh So Social”.


 

P

Paroles

Passwords to identify intelligence personnel 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.


 

R

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 or GRU (Soviet and Russian military intelligence) 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.


 

S

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; consists of COMINT (communications intelligence) and ELINT (electronic intelligence).

SIS

Secret Intelligence Service; the official name of Britain's MI6.

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); a Soviet counterintelligence agency that existed from 1943 to 1946; made famous in the James Bond novels.

SOE

Special Operations Executive; Britain's WWII sabotage and subversion organization.

Spy

Spies are people with access to valuable information. Also called agents or assets, they may volunteer or be recruited to spy. Not everyone involved in spying is, in fact, a spy.

Spymaster

The leader of espionage activities, and an agent handler extraordinaire.

Stasi

The East German Ministry for State Security; East Germany's Cold War domestic and foreign intelligence service.

Station

Post from 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 (Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki), formed on December 18, 1991.

Swallow

A female agent employed to seduce people for intelligence purposes.


 

T

TECHINT

Technical intelligence; analysis of fielded equipment for training, research, and the development of new weapons and equipment for eventual intelligence use.

The Company

An unofficial term for the CIA popularized by fiction.

The Take

Information gathered by intelligence collection operations.

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 communications intercepts.


 

U

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 intelligence derived from decryption of messages encrypted by the German Enigma cipher machine during WWII.

Uncle

Headquarters of any espionage service.


 

W

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; a KGB term for an assassination. 

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.

COLLECTION HIGHLIGHTS

Artifacts

The International Spy Museum presents the ingenuity and imagination of real-life spies with the largest collection of international espionage artifacts ever placed on public display. Spanning the history of espionage around the globe, many of these artifacts have never before been seen by the public.