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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
There are sleeper agents, most being portrayed unrealistically in movies and books. 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.
- The Illegals Program is a network of sleeper spies planted in the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
- Jack Barsky was planted as a sleeper agent in the United States by the KGB. He was an active sleeper agent between 1978 and 1988. He was located by U.S. authorities in 1994 and then arrested in 1997 after 3 years of investigation. Barsky quickly confessed after being arrested and became a useful source of information about spy techniques.
In fictional portrayals, sleeper agents are sometimes unaware that they are sleepers. They are brainwashed, hypnotized, or otherwise conditioned to be unaware of their secret mission until activated. Examples of such stories are:
- The Manchurian Candidate, in which some Americans are captured by a foreign power, given post-hypnotic commands, and returned to their lives in the U.S.
- Telefon (film), in which Russian agents are made to believe they are ordinary Americans until they hear their activation phrase.