Spook Talk 101: 5 Spy Terms You Should Know For Everyday Life

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Everyone, whether they know it or not, will possess at least a rudimentary knowledge of spy vocabulary.

Espionage fiction of the Bond/Bourne/Smiley variety has been popular for generations, and a culture cannot be so rigorously soaked in something and not have some of its terminology seep into the common vernacular.

I mean, how long was it, really, since none of us knew what a "muggle" was? But, there is a difference between being aware of a term or word existing and truly comprehending its meaning and importance.

While the Cold War is seen historically as a "golden age" of Spycraft and intelligence agent derring-do (perhaps more easily perceived that way by those of us too young to remember it firsthand), the need and importance of unseen, unheard actions taken in the name of government policy has never actually diminished.

As the killing of Osama bin Laden, the revelations of Edward Snowden and many other important events have demonstrated, things happen every day with far-reaching and long-term ramifications. We owe it to ourselves to understand how and why.

Having said that, the aim of this article is more humble in scope.

The terms thrown around by scholars, journalists, thriller writers and anyone else discussing such matters have precise and important definitions, and need to be understood properly.

Below are some examples of terminology and their exact meanings. Feel free to print this and stick it on your wall for easy reference.

These days, you never know what might come in handy:

1. Proxy

As a rule, the government isn't a fan of getting its hand dirty. While events such as coups, assassinations and paramilitary operations are conducted by many agencies when deemed necessary (more on that later), keeping one’s fingerprints off any evidence, both metaphorically and literally, is critical.

Israel’s Mossad, one of the most secretive and most audacious intelligence agencies in existence, was deeply embarrassed when an alleged hit squad was identified after killing a senior Hamas leader in Dubai in 2010.

Proxies are, thus, often used. Proxies are a person, group or other entity that acts on an agency’s or government’s behalf.

Western aid to Mujahedin fighters taking on Soviet troops in 1980s Afghanistan is a good example.

Accounts of this were even made into high-profile movies and featured in novels now that many of the facts are apparently known.

In a more contemporary vein, the Syrian conflict has seen many groups utilized by foreign powers as proxy forces, leading to an understandably confusing mess for any external observer to untangle.

While often used for reasons of political sensitivity and practicality, proxies can also lead to the second term you really ought to know:

2. Blowback

While I already covered this to an extent in a previous article, it is a recurring and interestingly karmic feature of international intrigue.

While essentially definable as "unforeseen consequences," it is the long-term nature of blowback from politically sensitive operations that makes it both so fascinating and so troubling.

The 1953 Iran coup orchestrated by the CIA and the British Secret Intelligence Service, which led to the toppling of the democratic Iranian government of Mohammad Mossadeq, is linked directly to the better-known 1979 revolution, which deposed the Shah and led to an enduring theocratic regime in Tehran.

That this occurred over a quarter of a century after the original Western-backed coup was surely not predicted by its architects and has been an enduring and significant regional problem ever since.

The recent conclusion of talks on halting or slowing Iranian nuclear progress demonstrates the ongoing relevance of such events, and their long shadows.

Fears of similar far-reaching consequences have dogged Western governments trying to steer a coherent policy course in Syria, and so far, have led only to ineffective rhetoric and the rise of the ISIS terrorist organization in the region.

One potential way to minimize blowback from an operation or action, of course, is to prevent it from looking like you had anything to do with it.

Since an entire country cannot have an alibi as such, the next best thing is to make it look like someone else did it, which brings us to our next piece of terminology:

3. False Flag

Just as the term freelance derives from the idea of a "free lance," a soldier for hire has no ties to a particular state or master, so a false flag or "black flag" operation derives its name from the good old days of wind-powered naval escapades.

How do you get your ship within striking distance of the enemy without giving yourself away?

Simply run up a flag that makes you appear friendly, or at least neutral, rather than a blatant member of the opposing navy.

The modern concept of such an operation stems from the same idea, but with more complex connotations.

The goal here is not so much to avoid arousing suspicion until one can act, but rather to make it appear that your action was carried out by someone else after the fact.

A historically critical example was used by the Nazis to preface their 1939 invasion of Poland when a German unit, led by an officer of the Sicherheitsdienst (security service) attacked a German radio station dressed in Polish uniforms.

A dozen convicted prisoners, also in Polish uniforms, were shot and left for display to foreign correspondents as evidence of Polish "aggression."

Of course this carries with it grave risks. Neither the victim nor the unfairly maligned scapegoat will look kindly on your action and if revealed, it can be deeply embarrassing, or worse.

Since the cloak of "deniability" covers everything in the intelligence world, the ruse must be convincing enough to persuade both the victim and any third party observers of your narrative.

Add to this the risk of potentially disastrous blowback if it is discovered, and this type of operation carries the possibility for horrendous repercussions.

Since the facts surrounding a particular incident may never be known, or at least not revealed for years after the event, they can be very hard to prove or disprove if executed competently.

Still, they are worth bearing in mind when reading of terrorist attacks and other such incidents in the news.

4. Covert Action

A term with very broad usage, this encompasses any act by a government, usually carried out through an intelligence agency, which seeks to effect change without openly deploying military forces or other "overt" means.

Actions including coups, assassinations, false flag operations, kidnappings and instigating or supporting rebellions and insurrections all fall under this label.

The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 by CIA-backed Cuban exiles is an example of a covert action failing egregiously, but they are a disturbingly common and aggressive tactic of governments the world over.

The tension around how much the duties of an intelligence agency rest in actual intelligence gathering versus the amount of its resources devoted to covert action to advance government policy is a constant headache in many countries. It surely is within the agencies themselves.

The disagreements in the early days of the CIA between the Office of Special Operations, focusing on political manipulations abroad and the Office of Policy Coordination, attempting to bring about insurrections in Europe through the remains of WWII resistance groups, encapsulate just how problematic this can be.

When covert action becomes the main focus of intelligence, rather than gathering and processing factual information to inform government, then problems can begin to accrue very rapidly.

The utter failure of the CIA, and to a lesser extent the British SIS, to put even the slightest dent in Soviet occupation of Europe after WWII speaks to this.

Even successful operations like the Iranian coup d’etat often lead to blowback. Outside of ongoing warfare, it often appears that covert action is much more trouble than it’s worth.

Then again, the public is often much more aware of failed attempts than successful ones.

5. Counterintelligence

The final term to be covered here is one that is often neglected in the media, but remains critically important.

Essentially, a two-in-one term counterintelligence encompasses both preventing an enemy’s intelligence organizations from discovering its own secrets and actively targeting those enemy organizations for surveillance or penetration by your own agents.

Once spies are spying on spies, who in turn are spying on the spies who are spying on them… things can get complicated quickly.

Ever felt like someone was following you and glanced over your shoulder to check? Congratulations, that was counterintelligence, albeit of a rudimentary kind.

Intelligence agencies of course practice both simple counter-surveillance of the look-over-your-shoulder variety, and much more complex activities, like watching embassies identify anyone who may have a less than legitimate purpose for going there.

The problem with counterintelligence work is that it is inherently paranoid. The longtime head of counterintelligence at the CIA, James Angleton, was dismissed in the 1970s after a long career due to the beliefs of his superiors that he had become so paranoid he was detrimental to the agency’s work.

Regardless of its trendiness these days, counterintelligence is an integral element of any intelligence service, and rumblings with Russia, China, Iran and other countries generally regarded as "hostile" by Western governments, will hopefully cause it to remain a well-staffed and funded component of any intelligence agency.

These are only a few of the broadest terms to be used when discussing intelligence activities, but they do convey a general sense of how wide is the remit and responsibility of an intelligence organization.

They also give vague suggestions as to how they go about their business.

Of course, these few definitions only scratch the surface of the terminology peculiar to espionage, but they are a good first step to grasping the words and phrases increasingly common in the media and fiction alike.