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Who Are the Spies?

Jeff Stein
Intelligence Columnist

"We're case officers, alright?" Martin says. "We're the jet fighters, we're the gangsters, doers."

Terms like "agent" are commonly misused, even by CIA people


Espionage or spying involves a government or individual obtaining information that is considered secret or confidential without the permission of the holder of the information. Espionage is inherently clandestine, as it is taken for granted that it is unwelcome and, in many cases illegal and punishable by law. | Photo: | Spy, Camera, Intelligence, Cia, Kgb, Undercover, Investigator,

Terms like "agent" are commonly misused, even by CIA people

Jeff Stein
Intelligence Columnist



[Comments] Do you know what a spy is? Sure, you say: Clown question.

But the fact is most people don't know a "spy" from an "agent"--neither of which terms apply to an employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, you might be surprised to learn.

It's no wonder: The terms "spy" and "agent" are regularly misused in the news media, sometimes even by CIA people themselves, who seemed resigned to going with the flow.

Like Nada Bakos, one of the CIA counterterrorism analysts featured in Manhunt, the HBO documentary on the agency's long pursuit of Osama Bin Laden.

"On the operations side, this is where all the spies work," she said.

"Which are the ones you always see in the movies, running around recruiting assets and playing James Bond or whatever," added Cindy Storer, another member of the analytical "sisterhood" featured in the film.

Bond, James Bond: That's a stretch. For sure, CIA field operatives are "running around recruiting assets," but finding one who looks or works like a tuxedoed Bond, with a babe in every Lamborghini, would be pretty hard.

That's because the CIA's big job these days is catching terrorists in their lairs. Pakistan and the other front lines are a far cry from the tables at Monte Carlo.

In Manhunt former senior CIA operations official Marty Martin offers such a succinct tutorial on the meaning of "spy" that it's worth repeating here.

"You know, often times you talk about 'agents' --'You know: he's a CIA agent,'" Martin says. "Well, the agents are the people we recruit."

Agents are the locals. And the CIA officer recruits and runs them is a "case officer."

"A case officer's job is to spot, assess and develop (spies)," Martin says. To "find people who have access to secrets."

How is it done? "Get to know them. Get them to trust you. Recruit them. And then keep them safe."

Espionage 101. Every CIA operations trainee learns:

*Spotting: Finding a government official or businessman with access to information the CIA wants. Using a pretext to get to know them.

*Assessing: Finding out if the target is friendly to the US (or can blackmailed). Or whether he or she might be a potential double agent (like the Jordanian doctor who killed seven CIA employees in Khost, Afghanistan in 2009)?

*Recruiting: Just like it sounds--making a pitch to someone to spy for you.

(And not like this, as Martin put : "Hi, I'm CIA, I'm assigned to this embassy. Would you like to be a spy?")

That's where cover stories come in.

The Central Intelligence Agency

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is a civilian intelligence agency of the United States government. It is an executive agency and reports directly to the Director of National Intelligence, with responsibility for providing national security intelligence assessment to senior United States policymakers. | Cia, Central Intelligence Agency, Spy,

And then there's:

*Managing: Holding your spy's hand, calming his nerves, rewarding him for good work and "keeping them safe" through covert communication channels and other means discreet mean of communication.

"It's dangerous. It is dangerous," Martin said, particularly in places where terrorists roam at will.

It takes a special kind of personality to do that kind of work, says David Charney, an Alexandria, Va. psychiatrist who treats CIA personnel.

They're "excitement junkies," he told me in a 2009 interview, for whom "boredom equals death."

"We're case officers, alright?" Martin says in Manhunt. "We're the jet fighters, we're the gangsters, we're the doers."

Yup, said Nada Bakos:

"There is a fair amount of ... bravado" in that line of work.

Spytalker Jeff Stein was a military intelligence case officer in Vietnam.

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein, Intelligence Columnist : [ Click here to
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] Bronze Star recipient, author, and investigative reporter, specializing in U.S. intelligence, defense, and foreign policy, Jeff Stein. Stein was born in Philadelphia but grew up in New England, moving with his family to Maine in 1954. After attending school in Providence, Rhode Island, he moved to Hingham, Massachusetts, where he graduated from high school in 1962. Following high school, he... (more...)