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Agent handler is a generic term common to many intelligence organizations which can be applied to Case Officers, those who aspire to be Case officers, "controllers", contacts, couriers and other assorted trainees.


The objectives of intelligence work are many. There is no single job for operatives: each has a particular position within an organization. At the high end, it may be to penetrate and infiltrate a target organization: either with one's own personnel, or to gain an "agent in place". If the job is to handle an agent in place, a Case Officer may be required to oversee the agent.

Sometimes the oversight is done indirectly, through lower level "handlers", "controllers", and contacts. The CIA customarily uses "agents of influence": secondary sources connected with a target, like the maid to an ambassador who digs through the trash. This recognizes its weakness at the direct approach of recruitment. Such agents may be easier to find, but do not substitute for having the actual target in your employ.

Other operative positions are support functions: maintenance and operation of "safe houses", couriers, etc.


An "agent" by definition acts on behalf of another, the "another", in this case, being an organization or government. Agents can be either witting or unwitting, willing or unwilling. Agents are typically under the direction of an agent handler or controller. In the case of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, this handler is known as a Case Officer.

A potential recruit is often identified by skimming of trade journals and professional proceedings for subject experts names and affiliations, vulnerable political and technical delegation members, trade conferences attendees, and foreign travellers whose activities make them potential subjects for coercion or inducement. The assessment of a potential agent includes verification of their credentials and bona fides or true identities. An approach is either done 'cold,' where the recruiter has no prior contact with the target, or 'warm,' in which the handler and the target are prior acquaintances. Recruitment of an agent can take many months or even years to accomplish, and is risky.

KGB recruiting practices show a record of success. The Soviet Union recovered from a defeat in the Polish-Soviet War in 1920 to become one of the worlds' only two superpowers armed with nuclear weapons within 30 years, in part based on skilled espionage. The first step was obtaining permission from the Moscow (or 'the Center'). Next came a formal recruitment interview by an experienced operative or officer. Topic number one in the interview was the person's motivation for spying for the USSR, with the attendant issue of whether the person was a provocateur of another intelligence service. Often the language of "contracts" was used, with reference to "signing on". Following the recruitment meeting the recruiting officer submitted a comprehensive report to the Center.

Case Officer

The relationship between Case Officer and agent might be compared to psychiatrist and patient. A person willing to become involved in espionage, and the betrayal of his country, is often someone with emotional problems, or subject to the stress of the work. The Case Officer is mentor and must exhibit characteristics such as professionalism in the operational field, a cool head, and control of the emotions.

After a source (agent) has been exploited, he is in practice often no longer handled well (historical examples from BND, MI6 and others). Promises are made but broken. Case officers may privately lack respect for an agent who is risking his life. Every agent runs the risk of being exposed by penetration of his employers, for example by a defection from within his handler's organization.


After recruitment, agents are given the training required to conduct espionage activities safely and effectively. CIA training often includes various tradecraft such as clandestine communications, elicitation, surveillance and counter-surveillance, photographic and audio recording, concealment device construction, demolitions, use of small arms, all depending on the personal fitness and skills.

In some forms of infiltration, the agent may be provided with a false identity, which CIA calls a cover or legend, that might aid in their access and operability in regards to the target. This may depend on false or reproduced documentation, disguises, and other identity support techniques.

Agent in place

An agent in place refers to a subject known within a society, known to his friends, who may even have a position inside a government, and is willing to cooperate or assist. Case handling in these instances require much more caution, security, and training. It is extremely dangerous for both the Case officer and agent to publicly meet and have face to face contact, though initially this may be necessary to establish bona fides and some training regarding contacts. Usually the agent in place is then handed off to an innocuous cutout, or series of cutouts, who act as go-betweens and courier, delivering instructions and retrieving material.

Unwitting agent

Examples are Stephen S. Attwood and Walter Lippmann. In Attwood's case someone connected with the university he taught at was working for Soviet intelligence; in Lippmann's case his personal stenographer had knowledge of all his Washington D.C. contacts and their conversations.

Wen Ho Lee, it appears now, through sloppy work habits and carelessness on both his part and Los Alamos National Laboratory's, possibly unwittingly passed vital information to the Communist Party of China.

Fronts and cutouts

A front organization in espionage functions within a system of "cutouts". The extensive use of cutouts, so long as they are trusted and reliable persons, can become a long chain of individuals.

A "ring" within a penetrated bureau consists of several collectors of information from different areas within the penetrated bureau. The most valuable source must be protected; so often the least "productive" infiltrator, i.e. the person lowest on the totem pole within the penetrated target, functions as the head of the group and cutout.

Historical reconstruction and its limitations

Intelligence and counter-intelligence are two different fields.

What can be learned from a successful espionage operation usually comes from counter-espionage files, which may give a distorted or opaque view. For example, what is known about the CPUSA's secret apparatus, which operated a very large and successful organization in the United States from about 1921 to 1945, comes largely from FBI and SIS counter-intelligence files. These files, however, are fragmentary. While counter-intelligence agents successfully identified perhaps a third of CPUSA and Soviet operatives between 1945 and 1950, memoirs of the operatives, testimony (if credible), or archival documents, and these alone, can document the entire organization's mission and methods.


The objective of counter-intelligence is to identify hostile intelligence operatives. Once identification has been made, the operative is not necessarily arrested immediately. A decision must be made, and hostile operatives can be left alone for a period of time so as not to reveal the existence of counter-intelligence operations.

Nonetheless, an identified operative must be cut off from access to further secure information, without letting them know their cover is blown. They might then be given disinformation, either directly or indirectly. An assessment must be made as to the extent of the damage caused by that operative. Eventually, the operative and his handlers will realize their operation has been compromised if useless disinformation is being passed, but this creates time for the difficult process of "walking the dog backwards" to determine what has been compromised within the target organization. That is the point at which an arrest is usually made. Sometimes the process of feeding disinformation can be useful, and a hostile operative may be left in place for years.

Occasionally attempts are made to "turn" a mole; that is, gain his cooperation without exposing to his controllers that his cover has been blown. Turning a mole can make him an unwilling agent of either side, either to continue the feed of disinformation, or being coerced at threat of imprisonment to betray his compatriot organization. In the famous case of Arkady Shevchenko, a Soviet diplomat to the United Nations who asked to defect, rather than accept his defection the CIA required he remain in place and engage in espionage. Shevchenko was a professional diplomat, not a spy, and he found the stressful work nerve-wracking.


The concept of "MICE" was originated by American counterintelligence in an effort to understand what motivates a person to be willing to betray their own country. It can be regarded as one of America's contributions to the art and science of the business, now that both intelligence and counterintelligence agencies worldwide rely upon this simple mnemonic, to spot potential recruits or identify potential agents in the service of a foreign organization. The concept is simple: it is either Money, Ideology, Coercion, or Excitement, that causes a person to be willing to betray their friends and neighbours, or their whole country, and go into the service of a foreign espionage organization. Sometimes "intrigue" is substituted for ideology, or "ego" for excitement, but the end result is the same. It is claimed that no one has produced a better summary of traitors' motivations.

Individuals who are motivated to betray their country for money, out of greed, tend to be persons who feel life has cheated them out of their just rewards, so they have no qualms about being fairly compensated, in their own eyes, for their worth. At the same they can get back at the society which has misunderstood and not appreciated their talents. When Aldrich Ames bought an $80,000 Jaguar, there was not the slightest pretense of hiding the fruit of his labors.

Ideology, however is the opposite end of the spectrum. People with this motivation are deeply committed to a system of beliefs that they perceive sustains them, their families, communities, and their friends. Such people will risk their lives for no payment, service to the cause being their reward. Both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were "patsies", or fall guys, for a much larger conspiracy, most of whom walked away unscathed. But the Rosenbergs were willing patsies, martyrs to a cause for which Julius was willing to see his own wife executed rather than implicate others, and Ethel was willing to orphan her own children, in service to the cause. As to intrigue, Kim Philby rose to the number two spot in British intelligence and was poised to become head, and assisted the United States to establish a peacetime espionage organization, but in doing so compromised the CIA from its founding. He originally was recruited into Soviet intelligence to spy on his father, St. John Philby.

Coercion can be used against an unwilling participant, homosexuality-related blackmail and bribery being two of the most common forms. The classic example of homosexuality is Donald Maclean who was compromised by Guy Burgess. As to bribery, once a government official takes a bribe, he is forever in the possession of those who paid him. He must continue taking money, whether he wants to or not, for fear of exposure. Coercion can also be used against a loved one, in forms ranging from fear of exposure to violence and even murder.

Elizabeth Bentley is perhaps the classic study of excitement being the motivating factor. Bentley began her espionage career with a fascist organization, but quickly joined a communist entity, so ideology does not seem too apparent. Bentley then became the lover of a high-level CPUSA underground operative who had been a chekist. When he died, Bentley took over his operations but her personal loss had a huge impact on her work. Excitement, romance, and sex were the original reasons she got involved, and when she lost those things she defected back to her home country.


Valuable spies are sometimes not hanged but exchanged for spies from the opposite country. Many agencies tell their spies that they will not be forgotten in a foreign prison, but this is not always the case. During the Cold War many exchanges with eastern-bloc agents were made on the Glienicke bridge between East Berlin and West Berlin.


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