27 phrases only spies will understand

Daniel Craig gun James Bond
Give me a Martini, shaken not stirred. Now. ‘Skyfall’

People and regions all around the world have their own unique phrases and slang that only they would understand, and the intelligence community comprised of spies, analysts, and cryptography specialists is no different.

For people working in the shadows of the intelligence community, “illegal” holds a much different meaning than what most view as a violation of law. The same goes for “assets” or “eyewash.”

These are terms that shed light on the secret world of spycraft, and they help professionals at CIA, NSA, or intelligence services of the military to talk to each other in a common language and present information to decision-makers.

The website Public Intelligence obtained an unclassified glossary of terms and definitions for counterintelligence professionals created by the Defence Department a couple months back. At 359 pages, it’s a hefty read, so we pulled out some of the most interesting and unique terms here.


No, we’re not talking about a stock. In intel-speak, an asset is anything that holds intelligence value. This can be technical — a hacked phone for example — or a human asset: A person working for a foreign intelligence agency who has agreed to share secrets a spy is looking for.

“Asset validation”

Not every source is going to be a meaningful one. Just as a journalist may test a source or press for other information to confirm what they are being told, an intelligence asset needs to be “validated” — meaning there is a process to make sure the asset is authentic, reliable, and useful.


While spies often have to go out and look for people to turn against their homeland and spill secrets, sometimes a potential asset just shows up at the embassy door. These are referred to as “walk-ins” or “volunteers” although they don’t have to literally go to a location.

Former CIA officer Aldrich Ames and former FBI agent Robert Hanssen were both “volunteers” to the Soviet KGB.

Interrogation hoover


This is an arrangement made to make sure a spy’s cover isn’t blown. It’s the spy’s version of an alibi if they were to be picked up by the bad guys. If a spy is inside Iran posing as a businessman, then his backstop would be documents, financial records, and a phone number back to his office that would vouch for him, as one example.

“Cover within a cover”

If the backstop may not hold up, a spy may revert to this “Inception”-like phrase. In going to their cover within a cover, a spy would admit to doing something less serious than espionage, which would hopefully explain away the suspicious activities they were observed to be doing.

“Oh no sir, I’m just a tourist taking pictures.”


Let’s say a CIA officer successfully recruits a member of Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB. Since both sides have had problems with their own files being given away to the other side, the CIA officer may make an “eyewash” entry to protect the new source.

When writing about the recruitment effort, he or she might write that an attempt was made to get information, but the FSB agent balked at the idea. It’s like lying to your own personal diary.

“False-Flag Recruitment”

A common piece of trade craft involves a spy’s effort to recruit an asset by deceiving them into believing they are from a different country.

In his book “A Spy for All Seasons,” former CIA officer Duane Clarridge writes that “Israelis have often used this technique by impersonating CIA officers when trying to recruit Arabs.”

Anna Chapman Russia
Anna Chapman, one of the Russian ‘illegals.’ AP


Illegals are the spies operating in deep cover. They have no overt relationship with their intelligence service, nor do they operate out of an embassy or have diplomatic cover. They are operating in a country illegally and alone.

Sometimes this means they will simply burrow in and pose as just an average person in the neighbourhood.

As recently as 2010, the U.S. uncovered a ring of 11 “illegals” from Russia who had assumed stolen identities and reported back to Moscow since at least the 1990s. These types of spies could also be referred to as “sleepers” if they are just there, waiting to be told what to do next.


To intelligence personnel, an agent more often refers to an asset or source from a foreign entity. While movies and media often refer to “CIA agents,” the correct term is actually CIA officer. A CIA agent would better describe a mole inside the agency that is under the control of a foreign intelligence service who is throwing secrets their way.

“Confusion agent”

This is a spy that has the goal of screwing up the opposition’s intelligence service, rather than gaining any information.

Here’s an example: At an embassy function sure to be teeming with military leaders, diplomats, and spies alike, it would be the confusion agent’s job to keep the other side’s spies occupied with boring chit-chat so he or she can’t listen to what the diplomat nearby is saying.

Soviet spy poster

“Active measures”

The use of a confusion agent can also be put under operations known as active measures — which were often carried out by Soviet intelligence during the Cold War — to spread disinformation, manipulate media, and push propaganda.

Former NSA analyst John Schindler wrote about one such operation recently, in which Cuban intelligence was able to influence The Daily Caller website to publish scandalous allegations that U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) was engaging with underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic.

“Brush contact”

You’ve seen it in spy movies, of course. Also known as the “brush pass,” it’s a brief encounter between friendly spies to share a few words or documents. These are risky maneuvers, and there are better and safer ways to pass messages, like having a pre-arranged site that is accessed by each side at different times.

“In the gap”

If it’s absolutely necessary that two spies need to meet up for a quick conversation, they’d want to be “in the gap” of surveillance. This means they have no eyeballs, cameras, or microphones pointed in their direction for at least a few seconds, but not any longer than a minute.

“Jack in the Box”

Besides being a restaurant home to always-great waffle fries, “Jack in the Box” refers to a dummy placed in a vehicle to deceive the other side into thinking there are more people inside. If a spy wants to make it seem like he or she is not alone, they might put a blow-up doll in the passenger seat.

Surveillance camera

“Ghost surveillance”

Spies are taught to watch for when they are being watched.

In a vehicle, this might mean taking frequent turns or heading out into the country to see if there’s a tail. On the street, a spy’s eyes would be looking for people who look like they might be a little too interested in what they are doing.

But it’s much harder to spot “ghost surveillance” — the “extremely discreet and seemingly omnipresent” type of surveillance, according to the manual, which watches the target from out of view.

“Spy dust”

Also known as Metka, spy dust was a chemical compound used by the Soviet KGB that could be applied to a target to mark them for surveillance. Once applied to clothing, shoes, or elsewhere, the invisible compound could be picked up on infrared by people following, according to Intelligence Reference.


Instead of a target, a rabbit is what intel folks would call the person they are watching and/or following.

“Black-bag job”

Think of this as the spy’s version of breaking and entering, but instead of burglary, the intention is to enter a target’s residence to learn more about them without them ever finding out. Also known as “surreptitious entry,” the manual says this type of operation is often carried out by FBI agents against foreign intelligence agents operating inside the United States.

“Cover stop”

Spies are usually working “under cover” but still know they are likely under surveillance. In order to go where they need to go, and ultimately — steal secrets without getting caught — they may make cover stops, which give what appear to be innocent reasons for going out.

This could be as simple as a trip to the grocery store where a spy makes a brush pass with a friend in aisle nine.

“Rolling car pickup”

This term is fairly self-explanatory. It’s a move where someone is picked up so smoothly, the car hardly stops or seems like it’s just moving forward normally.

While not exactly the same, closed-circuit footage from February showed a CIA and Delta Force team capturing a terror suspect off the street in Libya and putting him in a van. The entire sequence took only 40 seconds.

Woman cell phone sidewalk

“Hello number”

If a spy is dialling a hello number, it usually means they are in trouble. This trade craft term refers to a phone call where the person on the other end doesn’t identify who or where they are, but only gives a codeword or some other signal the spy will know the meaning to.

Random example: Spy calls the hello number and the person on the other end tells he or she that “it’s raining in Florida right now.” To anyone else listening, it could mean the weather is terrible in the Sunshine state, but the real meaning could be that the spy needs to get on a plane and get out of the country immediately.


This refers to activities that try to change the behaviour, perceptions, and capabilities of an adversary. Similar to “active measures,” this bit of jargon deals with preparation that often happens before people may enter a foreign land.

Military commanders will say they are “shaping the battlespace” by dropping leaflets in a village for instance, before they send in troops to try to gain intelligence.


Motivation holds the same meaning as you probably think, but it’s an important term in the intelligence community for when a spy is trying to recruit a source. An asset’s motivation for giving away secrets could boil down to ideological, financial, sexual, ego, coercion, or a combination. If a spy wants to recruit a source, he or she needs to understand the “why” first.

Historically for American spies, the manual says, the motivation has been money. One of the worst intelligence leaks in U.S. history came from former FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who sold secrets to the Soviet Union, and later Russia, for $US1.4 million over 22 years.

Nsa computer spying
A reflection of Charlie Miller is pictured on his computer screen in his home-office in Wildwood, Missouri April 30, 2013. Miller is a security researcher at Twitter who previously worked for the National Security Agency (NSA). REUTERS/Sarah Conard


While some hackers break into computers just out of curiosity or in an effort to score some cash, there are plenty of others who are working in the intelligence community. In the U.S., the vast majority are in a special NSA unit called TAO, or Tailored Access Operations (Many other countries have their own versions of this unit).

Put simply, TAO is the unit of hackers trying to break into foreign computers, and one technique they can use is pharming. In a pharming attack, a user is redirected to a website other than what they were trying to go to, but they don’t know it. For example, TAO could duplicate a bank’s website where the target enters in all their account information and logs in successfully, but in the process, the data also gets captured by the hackers.

Pharming can be used in conjunction with, or in an independent “phishing attack” — usually in the form of an email that looks friendly but contains links to very unfriendly places.


The SCIF, as it’s referred to by intelligence professionals, is the acronym for Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. It’s the room or building where the really sensitive and secret information is held and processed, which has physical and procedural methods to keep those secrets in.

Before entering a SCIF, intel analysts usually have to give up their phones, thumb drives, and other media that could potentially be used to take out information. The procedures aren’t always followed, as the U.S. Army learned soon after former intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning started spilling secrets to the Wikileaks website.

Spy gadget

“Triple agent”

You may have heard of a double agent, which is a spy playing for both sides.

Well, there’s also a triple agent. Like the double, this person may “wittingly or unwittingly” withhold significant information from two intelligence services at the urging of a third service.

“Clean phone”

A clean phone is a brand-new — usually pre-paid — mobile phone a spy can use that won’t be traced. These are burners taken out of the box that ensure more secure communications.

Of course, that doesn’t mean a call couldn’t be picked up as it travels over the air, but a spy can at least be safe in knowing the purchase or user probably won’t be traced.