Black bag operation

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Black bag operations (or black bag jobs) are covert or clandestine entries into structures to obtain information for human intelligence operations.[1]

Some of the tactics, techniques and procedures associated with black bag operations are: lock picking, safe cracking, key impressions, fingerprinting, photography, electronic surveillance (including audio and video surveillance), mail manipulation (flaps and seals), forgery, and a host of other related skills. The term "black bag" refers to the small bag in which burglars carry their tools.


In black bag operations, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents entered offices of targeted individuals and organizations, and photographed information found in their records. This practice was used by the FBI from 1942 until 1967. In July 1966, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered the practice discontinued.[2] The use of "black bag jobs" by the FBI was declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court on 19 June 1972 in the Plamondon case, United States v. U.S. District Court, 407 U.S. 297. The FBI still carries out numerous "black bag" entry-and-search missions, in which the search is covert and the target of the investigation is not informed that the search took place. If the investigation involves a criminal matter a judicial warrant is required; in national security cases the operation must be approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.[3]

As example, in 1947, after American spy Elizabeth Bentley had defected from the Soviet underground and had started talking to the FBI, the FBI broke into her Brooklyn hotel to do a "black-bag job" to verify her own background – and to look for anything otherwise. "They found nothing out of the ordinary."[4] Bentley had learned how to dodge such intrusions from her earliest days in the underground:

She learned how to determine if enemy agents had discovered secret documents in her possession. "If I had to leave the apartment, I was careful to put them in my black trunk and tie a thin black thread around it so that I would know if they had been tampered with in my absence."[5]

The CIA has used black-bag operations to steal cryptography and other secrets from foreign government offices outside the United States. The practice (by preceding U.S. intelligence organisations) dates back at least as far as 1916.[6]

Black bag operations in popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]


General references[edit]

  • Peter Wright. Spy Catcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer. Penguin USA, 1987. ISBN 0-670-82055-5.

Inline citations[edit]

  1. ^ "Tallinn government surveillance cameras reveal black bag operation". Intelnews. 16 December 2008. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
  2. ^ "Freedom of Information/Privacy Act". Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved February 26, 2018
  3. ^ Rood, Justin (15 June 2007). "FBI to Boost 'Black Bag' Search Ops". ABC News. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
  4. ^ Kessler, Lauren (13 October 2009). Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley, the Spy Who Ushered in the McCarthy Era. Harper Collins. p. 130. ISBN 9780061740473. Retrieved 4 September 2017.
  5. ^ Olmsted, Kathryn J. (3 November 2003). Red Spy Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley. University of North Carolina Press. p. 26–27. ISBN 9780807862179. Retrieved 4 September 2017.
  6. ^ "The CIA Code Thief Who Came in from the Cold". Retrieved 3 December 2012.

External links[edit]