Sunday, August 21, 2016

I Spy: Words Thriller Writers Should Know

Seal of the C.I.A. - Central Intelligence Agen...
Seal of the C.I.A. - Central Intelligence Agency of the United States Government (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Have you been watching a lot of spy movies for research? Do  you have your pad handy so you can accumulate a fabulous spook vocab? 

From ThrillWriting friends who come to this blog to share their expertise, I have learned one very important lesson (well, no, I've learned a TON of lessons, but this is the overarching take-away), don't believe anything you learn in the movies unless it was recommended as authentic by someone who spends their careers in that situation. For example, last night I watched PROOF OF LIFE after it was recommended to me by Rock Higgins. Wonderful movie. Lots to learn. 

But this article is about words. If you are writing espionage, (which I am working on right now) here's a short list that might be helpful. First, a word of caution, if you pepper your work too heavily with spy words, readers may get slowed down trying to understand the new vocabulary; a word here and there gives authenticity. Also, if you're using a new term like "cut out" go ahead and define it for the reader through dialogue or action. Secret words make people feel that they're "in the know", and then they're included and invested in the private world you're creating.
  • Agent - This is a person who is unofficially employed by an intelligence service, often as a source of information. This one caught me by surprise; I thought that the official employee was an agent, but this word is a synonym for asset. My fear is that using agent instead of asset would confuse a reader.
  • Agent-in-Place - This is an asset who works for a foreign government but provides intelligence to us. They get their regular paycheck from their government, and they get a paycheck from Uncle Sam. 
  • Agent of influence - This is someone working for a foreign government who is a decision maker and who can help manipulate their policy to be pro-America. (Paul Manafort's influencing the Republican party to change their Russian platform is an example - only not in our favor)
  • Asset - This is the same as agent. They provide info to our spooks usually in exchange for something that they want - be it money or visas or get out of jail free cards.
  • Babysitter - is the person set up to protect an asset - the bodyguard or close protection detail. Related article HERE. In my LYNX books, I call them "watchdogs" because the Strike Force men needed a more active/dangerous name than babysitter.
  • Bagman - The guy with the bags of money. He's the one who pays the assets and bribes authorities. I'd think these people would have to be of extraordinary moral fortitude. They're handling a lot of money, often untraceable, and giving it to people who don't write receipts. Lives are on the line if this person should suddenly decide that they'd like to go live on an island somewhere and drink mai tais  under an alias.
  • Bang and Burn - Sounds like a bad date. Ew! Sorry for the visual. This is the spook who does the demolition and sabotage operations. In my LYNX books this is Axel White. Related article HERE
  • Black Bag Job - when a spook goes into a building to get hold of materials either by taking them or copying them.
  • Black Ops - A spook goes into an operation disavowed. If they get caught, then their mothership will deny any knowledge.
  • Black Propaganda -  Is basically disinformation that can't be traced to a source. Sort of the ultimate rumor mill.
  • Blown - Whoops, someone's true identity is revealed. A spook might be outed or an agent's secret work is exposed. Blown is bad.
  • Bona Fides - this is proof that you are who you say you are.
  • Bridge Agent - This person takes information from a case officer and delivers it to an agent (asset) in areas where deniability is required.
  • Brush Pass - the person who is walking out in public and something is passed from one case officer to another. They might be walking and simply hand it over, or they could sit at a bench and put a bag by their feet, someone else comes and sits beside them then picks up the bag. It's a public clandestine exchange.
  • Burned - A case officer or agent is compromised.
  • Camp Swampy - A synonym for "The Farm" where they train CIA employees.
  • Case Officer - runs the operations and manages assets.
  • Chief of Station - the officer in charge of a foreign (for the most part) CIA station.
  • Clean - Unknown to enemy intelligence; the antonym of blown
  • Cobbler - A spook who creates false passports, visas, diplomas and other documents Related article HERE
  • Compromised -Syn blown
  • Controller - syn handler. It's an officer who is in charge of an asset.
  • Cover - The persona taken on so the officer can infiltrate. It is imperative that the officer has background in this area. A language major couldn't use a bio-medical engineering cover, they'd be blown the first time they had to have a conversation on the subject. 
  • Cut-out - It's a way of passing information or materials securely. This could be an actual physical  compartment, or it could be a procedure between those on an operation. It is also the term used for an asset who works as an intermediary between two people.
  • Dangle - A person who wants to be a double agent. A foreign intelligence agency sends their operative to America in the hopes that they'll be recruited as a spy. If that works, then they can gather intelligence or they can spread disinformation. Remind your spook to be careful whom they trust.
  • Dead Drop - A clandestine location where materials can be left by one person and retrieved by another.
  • Discard - If your character has been tagged a discard,  they're in for trouble! This is an asset that their handler will allow to be detected and arrested in order to keep a more important asset safe. Similar to "throw away".
  • Dry Clean - countersurveillance - the things that operators do to make sure they aren't under surveillance.
  • Escort - The person who leads a defector down their an escape route.
  • Exfiltration Operation - Is a rescue, bringing those affected out of harm's way. This could be, for example, a defector, a refugee, an operative. 
  • Floater - Someone used only one time, occasionally, or even unknowingly for an operation
  • Handler - A case officer who is responsible for an asset (controller)
  • Honey Trap - those using sex for the greater good to intimidate or "trap" someone. See "raven" and "swallow".
  • Infiltration - clandestine movement of an operative in an area.
  • L-Pill - A suicide pill.
  • Legend - A spy's background or biography, usually supported by documents and memorized details. Gives new meaning to someone who is legendary, doesn't it?
  • Mole - Someone sent to penetrate a specific intelligence agency by gaining employment. Another reason for your character to be paranoid. The idea of a mole is a theme in my book CUFF LYNX. It was interesting to explore the idea of a mole at Headquarters and how just the possibility could affect morale and inhibit work output. Remember, a mole acts like your character's best friend, everyone is suspect and everyone is trying to watch their backs.
  • Naked - an operative with no cover or backup. Yikes!
  • Paroles - A french word meaning word, speech, lyrics. They are the passwords to identify intelligence personnel to each other
  • Plaintext - The original message. A message that hasn't been encrypted
  • Playback - When a spy provides false information to the enemy but gets accurate information from him or her.
  • Pocket Litter - This is an important writing detail. For a related article go HERE. These are the items in a spook's pocket placed there purposely to add authenticity to his or her identity. It might be a receipt, or a prescription, or an domestic item. For example a woman with a mom cover might have some crayons in her purse and a container of goldfish.
  • Provocateur - Someone sent in to rile up a target group. The end goal is to entrap or embarrass them.
  • Raven - A male agent who seduces people for intelligence. The female counterpart is "swallow". Yeah, they went there.
  • Rolled-up - when an asset is arrested. This might have been planned/optimal see "discard" and "throw away".
  • Sanitize - When specific material is removed from a document so that the identification of intelligence sources and collection methods can't be detected/followed.
  • Shoe - is a false passport or visa. This gives a whole new meaning to "I bought a pair of cute shoes today."
  • Spymaster - The leader of espionage activities. The spook with the kick ass trade craft.
  • Station - a location from which an operation functions. 
  • Steganography - Ways to  conceal the fact that a message even exists (secret inks or microdots) Steganography tools
  • Swallow - A female agent employed to seduce people so they can be used to for intelligence in some form or another. Who the heck came up with this term. :/
  • The Take - Is the information that was gathered.
  • Throwaway - is an asset that is considered expendable. Your character doesn't want to end up on that list.
  • Timed Drop - is a dead drop that where the materials will be picked up at within a certain window of time.
  • Tradecraft - Methods used by operatives to get their job done. This includes surveillance techniques, running assets, ability to done and keep a cover, data gathering, and sure, if need be, fighting skills, among others.
  • Traffic Analysis - intelligence gained from the patterns and volumes of messages of communications that they are intercepting. You might hear in the news where the FBI identified an increase in traffic on certain sites before an event. Intelligence is trying to keep an eye on traffic to spot the patterns and thwart the outcome.
  • Uncle - Spy service Headquarters. 
  • Walk-in - Someone who wishes to defect and goes to an official installation to ask for political asylum or sometimes they volunteer to work in-place
  • Window Dressing - That's all of the extra information included in a cover story or deception operation that are in place to help convince others that what they see is what they get. Window dressing rounds out the character they're playing. So a spy might have a tennis racket and sports bag in their trunk if the perona they're portraying does that as a hobby. If they said that they're married with two kids, they might put fake pictures on their desk with kids art on their cork board.

  • COMINT - intercepted communications that provide intelligence
  • ELINT - electronic intelligence
  • HUMINT - from a human
  • IMINT - is "imagery intelligence" 
  • PHOTINT - Photographic intelligence. This is often gathered from spy satellites or aircraft
  • RADINT - radar
  • TECHINT - technical intelligence. 
  • SIGINT - Signals intelligence includes COMINT (communications intelligence) and ELINT (electronic intelligence) Related article go HERE

    As I was writing this article, I consulted the Spy Museum's website and learned about "raven" and "swallow" for the first time. They have some great historical terms there too. Check out their list HERE

    As always, a big thank you ThrillWriters and readers for stopping by. Thank you, too, for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you 
    helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.


  1. Great list and very useful. Thank you so much for this and for the examples and links. I especially liked the link to 'stenography tools'. I write mysteries rather than thrillers but I see potential future use for several of these and specifically that information.

    1. I hope it comes in handy.


  2. This is great. I've watched and read a decent amount of spy-related fiction before and this will help. Assuming, of course, the terms are used right.

  3. So now after reading and memorizing some of this code-names and combining with some spy software I can feel myself like a real spy.

  4. Really, REALLY late to the party on this one but it is too informative not to pass on. Thanks for sharing.