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A sleeper agent is a spy who is placed in a target country or organization not to undertake an immediate mission but to act as a potential asset if activated. Even if unactivated, the "sleeper agent" is still an asset and is still playing an active role in sedition, treason or espionage by virtue of agreeing to act if activated. Sleeper agents are popular plot devices in fiction, particularly in espionage fiction and science fiction. This common use in fiction is directly related to and results from repeated instances of real-life "sleeper agents" participating in spying, espionage, sedition, treason and assassinations.
Sleeper agents in espionage
In espionage, a sleeper agent is one who has infiltrated into the target country and has "gone to sleep", sometimes for many years. The agent does nothing to communicate with the sponsor or any existing agents or to obtain information beyond what is in public sources. The agent can also be referred to as a 'deep cover' agent. The agent acquires jobs and identities, ideally ones that will prove useful in the future, and attempts to blend into everyday life as a normal citizen. Counter-espionage agencies in the target country cannot, in practice, closely watch all those who might possibly have been recruited some time before.
In a sense, the best sleeper agents are those who do not need to be paid by the sponsor, as they are able to earn enough money to finance themselves. That avoids any possibly traceable payments from abroad. In such cases, it is possible that the sleeper agent might be successful enough to become what is sometimes termed an "agent of influence".
Sleeper agents who have been discovered have often been natives of the target country who moved elsewhere in early life and were co-opted (perhaps for ideological or ethnic reasons) before returning to the target country. That is valuable to the sponsor as the sleeper's language and other skills can be those of a 'native' and thus less likely to trigger suspicion.
Choosing and inserting sleeper agents has often posed difficulties, as it is uncertain that the target will be appropriate some years in the future. If the sponsor government and its policies change after the sleeper has been inserted, the sleeper might be found to have been planted in the wrong target.
- Otto Kuehn and family were installed in Hawaii by the German Abwehr, before World War II, to work for Japanese intelligence. Kuehn and his family aided the Japanese in the period before the Attack on Pearl Harbor.
- Kim Philby was recruited by the Soviets while at university and may have been a sleeper agent for some years until going to work for the British government. By the end of World War II, he was operating as the liaison between the British Secret Intelligence Service and several US intelligence operations. He was an agent of influence by then and had not been a sleeper agent for several years.
- The so-called Illegals Program is an alleged network of sleeper spies planted in the US by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. The ongoing, multi-year investigation culminated in June 2010 with the filing of charges and the arrest of 10 suspects in the US and another in Cyprus. The Russian General Directorate for special programs, or GUSP in Russian transliteration (Главное управление специальных программ, ГУСП), still recruits candidates among students and talented scientists in order to use them as sleeper agents or as legal employees in the police and intelligence bodies in Russia.
Fictional sleeper agents
In fiction, particularly science fiction, sleeper agents fall into two categories. The former is an extension of the real world sleeper agent where an enemy agent is substituted for a person already in a trusted position. The latter and more common category involve those who have been subjected to mind control techniques, such as drugs, torture, psychological conditioning, implanted devices, and even telepathic manipulation and then are either released or allowed to escape back to friendly territory. The sleeper agents are then used by enemy forces to spy, to conduct sabotage, to assassinate certain targets, or for other operations the enemy has in mind for them. During these outbreaks, the sleeper agent normally does know what is being done.
The substitution sleeper agent was often surgically altered to appear as someone else, but more recent versions tend toward androids or clones. Also, the agent may have been an infiltrator from the start but brainwashed to believe they are the real thing until activation.
Activation of the second kind of sleeper is, at least in novels and stories, done by approaching the agent and uttering a long ago memorized password or pass phrase or by mailing a postcard with a significant picture to the sleeper. Once a sleeper becomes active, counter intelligence agencies can, at least in principle, become aware of the sleeper as intelligence is collected and transmitted, as instructions are passed, and so on.
In popular culture
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There are a number of examples of sleeper agents found in science fiction and other forms of entertainment. Many times, the unveiling of a sleeper agent is an important part of the plot and acts as surprise element and a plot twist. Here are some examples of sleeper agents:
- One of the earlier uses of the second type of sleeper agents in fiction is in Richard Condon's 1959 novel, The Manchurian Candidate, which has twice been adapted to film. Both the original and the remake are about a group of people 'programmed' to be sleeper agents. One of the sleeper agents is part of a presidential election campaign, which if won will produce a Vice President controlled by sinister forces. One of his fellows would then be ordered to assassinate the President, allowing these forces to control the Executive Branch of Government.
- An example of the sleeper agent mechanic—without naming it as such—can also be found in Frank Herbert's science fiction 1969 novel "Dune Messiah. In a plot to overthrow Paul Atreides, the Bene Tleilax engineer a ghola (clone) of Paul's teacher and friend Duncan Idaho and present him as a gift named "Hayt," with commands implanted but unknown to himself. These commands are later awakened by the Tleilaxu servant Bijaz with a specific humming intonation, the trigger phrase being, "She's gone" when said by Paul after his concubine Chani dies.
- Another early use of sleeper agents is in the 1977 Charles Bronson film "Telefon." Bronson plays an unwitting KGB agent whose trigger phrase is borrowed from Robert Frost's poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."
- In the show 24, the villain Habib Marwan commands a network of sleeper agents. His hierarchy is complex and secretive, with families being able to identify only the rest of the family (as well as Marwan) as the only members of their "cell".
- Both the book and film Eye of the Needle demonstrate how a sleeper agent has to operate within a host country, in this case, the German agent Henry Faber in World War II Britain. The story portrays points of view of both the agent and the British intelligence services as the hunt for the sleeper spy continues across Great Britain. Faber discovers the true nature of Operation Fortitude and tries to get the information to his home country.
- The BBC mini series Sleepers centered on two Russian sleeper agents who had so fully integrated in British society that they were keen to avoid being brought back to the Soviet Union.
- The seventh series of BBC spy drama Spooks involved an MI6 operation to put a network of sleeper agents in post-Soviet Russia as the Berlin Wall fell, and a Russian counteroperation to infiltrate Britain. The finale involved a Russian sleeper detonating a suitcase nuke in the heart of London.
- In the 2004 Battlestar Galactica miniseries, Raptor pilot Sharon Valerii is a sleeper Cylon. She is unaware of her true identity until activated. Her actions under her sleeper programming was a major plot point of the first season and the movie Battlestar Galactica: The Plan.
- The 1987 movie No Way Out is a cold war themed fiction of US government frantically searching for an alleged mole whose elusiveness is revealed in his being a successful sleeper agent.
- The 1988 movie Little Nikita (starring Sidney Poitier and River Phoenix) revolves around a teenager in America finding out that his parents are actually Soviet sleeper agents.
- Martin Scorsese's 2010 movie Shutter Island involved an imaginary plot to create sleeper agents at a Mental Institution.
- In American TV series Family Guy (Season 8, episode 3) Stewie and Brian Griffin travel to meet Mayor Adam West to inform him of a secret spy program, but incidentally utter the phrase "gosh that Italian family at the next table sure is quiet," which activates the "sleeper agent" status within Mayor West, who fights his way out of the building to head towards Russia.
- In the 2010 film Salt, Evelyn Salt was exposed as a sleeper agent but after finding out her husband was killed by the hands of her own people, she decides to annihilate the missions she was supposed to execute.
- In the 2004 game Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, EVA was a PLA sleeper agent assigned with obtaining the Philosophers' Legacy while posing as a KGB agent.
- In the 1998 game Metal Gear Solid, during the briefing it's revealed that Liquid Snake was a sleeper agent for the Secret Intelligence Service that penetrated in the Middle East shortly before he served to the Special Air Service in a mission during the Gulf War.
- In the 2010 game Call of Duty Black Ops, the main character Alex Mason is turned into a Russian sleeper agent while being captured as a P.O.W. at the real-life gulag Vorkuta in the northern Soviet Union so that the Soviet Union can attack the United States with other sleeper agents, including Mason with the fictional Nova 6 nerve agent.
- Garage-rock band Sleeper Agent derives its name from Cylon sleeper agents in the show Battlestar Galactica.
- In the comic series Assassin's Creed: The Fall, the main character Daniel Cross was a sleeper agent of the Templar Order (Abstergo Industries) programmed to kill the Mentor of the Assassin Order, succeeding in the year 2000 in Dubai.
- Thuppakki is a 2012 Tamil movie which is also the first sleeper cell based movie in Tamil. The movie's plot revolves around the hero Jagdish (Vijay), a captain in the Indian Army fighting a set of sleeper agents terrorizing Mumbai.
- TV series The Americans is a Cold War drama. The premise is that a group of Soviet KGB officers have been trained to impersonate American citizens, so that each one can become a sleeper agent, with a cover which may even include an unwitting spouse and family.
- The Phyrexians in Magic: the Gathering made use of sleeper agents, engineered beings which believed themselves to be members of the native race of a plane until activated, at which point they became loyal to Phyrexia and were used to construct interplanar portals, among other chores. One such sleeper agent, Xantcha, notably retained her free will after her activation partially failed, and rebelled against Phyrexia.
- Holiday: A Soldier Is Never Off Duty is Hindi action thriller film featuring Akshay Kumar and Sonakshi Sinha is Bollywood's first sleeper cell based movie. It is a remake of Tamil movie Thuppakki.
- In Captain America: The Winter Soldier and in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the peacekeeping organization S.H.I.E.L.D. is infested with numerous sleeper agents from the terrorist organization Hydra.
- In The Penguins of Madagascar episode entitled "Our Man in Grrfurjiclestan," Special Agent Buck Rockgut is revealed to be a Sleeper Agent working for the villainous Red Squirrel, (that is after tricking the Penguins into believing that one of them was said Sleeper Agent out of spite for being tricked by them into looking for the fictitious Grrfurjiclestan for the Red Squirrel.) In the show, the Penguins instead define a Sleeper Agent as "A captive who is hypnotized into working for the enemy, and then sent to eliminate their allies when they least expect it."
- In the 2016 game Tom Clancy's The Division, the game takes place in Manhattan after a pandemic disease outbreak across New York. The plot revolves around a fictitious sleeper agent organisation known as the Strategic Homeland Division, commonly referred to as simply "The Division", who are activated. The character in which the player controls is a sleeper agent from The Division.
- In John M. Green's 2013 cyber-thriller, The Trusted, a group of PhDs who are radical environmentalists conspire as the "Nine Sisters" to spend a decade as sleepers, working themselves into trusted positions of power and influence, so that at the chosen time they can switch off the world's economic system to save the planet.