Politically, are there actually equivalents to 00 agents, as per James Bond?

That is, not just people who work for an intelligence agency, but people who are sent on missions behind enemy lines with something of a free agency...

That's probably something of an obvious question, I mean, of course there are, but I wondered if anyone has any particular information (non-classified of course) as to what these agents deal with and what they exist to do.

My feeling is they are probably more likely to face character assassination attempts than real assassination attempts these days, except under very particular circumstances, but I'm wondering...


My intuition says they are usually more likely to be metaphorically parachuted into a group to have "influence" than they are to be jumping around between helicopters and shooting people but I could be wrong. Anyone have any concrete info?

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    Would they even know they were hired for that particular position? I mean, you could try to hire someone without their direct knowledge as, say, a Web Developer, then subcontract them out to the organisation you wanted to influence in a particular way, and as long as the psyche profile fitted... Commented May 12, 2016 at 19:18
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    I believe that this question might be more appropriate on Skeptics.SE.
    – A. Darwin
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 19:38
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    Bond is an aberration. Other 00 agents (in fuictional Bond universe) aren't "free agents" - they do what they are told. Bond is just a rogue for the purposes of better storytelling.
    – user4012
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 20:17
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    Various Alphabet Agencies frequently make use of " 'NGOs' " in foreign countries. Commented May 12, 2016 at 20:26
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    @Lostinfrance One of the four major weapons governments have when awkward questions are asked..: 1. Ridicule 2. Allegation of insanity 3. Attacks on a person's character (accusations of sexual impropriety are often unpleasant things when deliberately instigated and backed up memetically, also extremely common, and can be used against almost anyone, regardless of personally impeccable morality in this regard) 4. Attacks on a person's credibility within any and every community related to the person. Having said as much I'm surprised and impressed by the answer given, which seems very useful... Commented May 13, 2016 at 2:47

2 Answers 2


Both types of agents (or officers, the exact designation varies) exist within some intelligence agencies. That is, there exist operatives tasked with direct actions i.e. kidnappings, targeted killings, etc. , as well as "agents of influence", sent by A in order to persuade target politicians of B to make decisions which favor A.

The CIA Directorate of Operations, for example, hires Paramilitary Operations Officers and Specialized Skills Officers, as you can see from their own website . In The Central Intelligence Agency: An Encyclopedia of Covert Ops, Intelligence, Information Gathering, and Spies, Jan Goldman outlines the main techniques used for covert political action, including "developing relationships with influencing individuals" and "advising foreign political leaders".

Mossad is rather well-known for its direct actions, which apparently include the assassination of Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in Dubai, and a similar reputation is held by other agencies around the world.

Political action can be more clandestine, in that you might not even imagine that a law has been drafted because of "suggestions" by a foreign intelligence agency, whereas kidnappings are almost self-evident and assassinations of particularly exposed people are sometimes easy to spot (although a lot of efforts are spent in order to conceal the agency in charge of the operation).

Note that "direct actions" can also be performed by regular special forces, which don't usually engage in political influence operations.

  • Targeted killings... nice euphemism for murder...
    – Adwaenyth
    Commented Dec 6, 2019 at 15:14

No. In fact, if you ask real intelligence agents, James Bond is pure escapist fiction. In Fiction, Spy Thrillers tend to break into one of two sub-genres sometimes identified as "Martini Flavored" and "Stale Beer Flavored". Since James Bond had an obvious hand in the naming dynamic, lets just say "Stale Beer" is more realistic than "Martini" (it's not a push back against the Bond franchise... Stale Beer pre-dates Martini in fiction, it's just Bond has a lot of appeal to 60s era office drones who enjoyed the escapist thrill of the job compared to the daily grind of their real lives. "Stale Beer" by comparison, operates closer to real life and usually never involves killing for multiple reasons, not the least of which is dead bodies tend to draw attention... which if your a spy, is the last thing you want.

In real life, most espionage is conducted through a handler-asset relationship, where the handler is an officer from his nations spy agency tasked with recruiting employees of the target nation to "turn" them. Its rare that a nation will give a deep infiltration op to their agents because cultural norms between two nations are very hard to learn (During WWII, spy catchers in the U.S. would often lead a crowd of troops in a rousing singing of the Star Spangled Banner... and would continue into the second verse... if someone sung along, they would fall under suspicion. Because only spys bothered to learn any part of the song beyond the first verse, which is the only part your average American will be able to recite from memory. Similarly, Germans use different hands for cutlery than Americans and English, which was a tell, as is how one counts on your hand (Americans and Brits count using Pointer to Pinky then Thumb. Germans count Thumb to Pinky). And both sides would rapid fire questions due to numerous similar sounds for question words... but often for the wrong question (The English "Where" which is used for place, sounds like the German word "Wer" which is used when the question is related to identity (Trans Who?). "When" and "Wann" ask the same thing, but asking for the time right now is different in the two languages (What time is it? vs. Wie viel Uhr or literally How many clock in German).). Other very subtle indicators can give the spy away... an OSS training video discusses a case where the spy was caught because he used hair jell that was only available in the enemy country. And this is all assuming that there is a plausible cover story for the new person applying to the agency of a nation he never lived in.

This also helps to protect the government engaged in espionage because spies are not protected by Geneva conventions (among other requirements, you have to be captured in uniform and while openly carrying a weapon. Spies are not wearing uniforms of hostile nations for obvious reasons, and if they carry weapons, they are usually concealed.). So deep infiltration are incredibly risky because if captured, the agent is at the mercy of the target's laws on the matter... and many nations have harsh penalties. Better to have a citizen of the target do the heavy lifting and get caught.

Most handlers are employed by their nation's embassy or consulate (though usually the former as Embassies are in the host capitals) and typically are either working as middle management or as an attache (depending on how serious their home nation is about getting secrets from the host nation, the attache may not be in a field that is typically espionage. Military attaches are a related field, but sometimes the Cultural Attache is given the job of spy master because it's not hard to find intelligence workers who say nice things about their country). Other times they are in town as part of business or as professors and may often work with organized crime, especially if it's members are ex-pats of the home nation.

After the handler and asset are partnered, it's rare that they meet in public or at all. Typically, they will use meaningless signals to signal a dead drop of information and payment (though this doesn't always happen... the most dangerous spies aren't in it for the money). Dead Drops typically will be hidden under innocuous objects, usually litter, that the ordinary public wouldn't look twice at. One of the most hilarious ones was that in Moscow, Americans and Soviets alike were using dead rat corpses at dead drop sites (as stale beer implies, spying isn't the most glamorous profession) and had come to the clever use for the rodents independently. And both sides encountered a missed problem (Because there were lots of Rats in Moscow, there were also lots of cats... more than a few dead drop rats were intercepted by the hungry felines of Moscow. Surprisingly, rather than look for a better cover object, both sides also came up with a brilliant solution: dab one side of the vermin's body with a few drops of hot sauce, which made the rat taste horrible to the cats! At least one spy gadget collection has on display the two brands of hot sauce favored by both sides! No matter the concealing refuse used, often the person making a drop would also discretly mark another location so the person reviving the documents or money, so the other half wouldn't draw attention picking up random cans in the park... He'd only pick up the right can if the indication was up. Handlers would then be able to get the documents out of the country during a number of ways (if part of the diplomatic mission, diplomatic pouches were too convenient. International law forbids their search by the host nation and they can be any size they need to be (there are diplo pouches the size of shipping containers... usually they bring embassy vehicles).

Spy gadgets are real... though the spy car isn't a thing... when your trying not to draw attention to yourself, the last thing you want to do is drive an Aston Martin down the streets of Moscow... and launch the missiles hidden in the trunk. Typically the gadgets look like ordinary products. Remember the can of cream Dennis Nedry (The Newman guy) used in Jurrassic Park to get the embryos? That's a real spy gadget (though the ones used were shaving cream not whipped cream... they really did dispense the expected contents in case customs searched them. The CIA does have a "prop shop" that is tasked with creating all sorts of nifty tools, and often it was more about hiding the gadget in the tool. There's no real "shoe phone" but some of the silly Get Smart gadgest weren't far off. There were cameras that hid in functional matchboxes (in the 40s) and the OSS issued playing cards with hidden maps that could be delivered to POWs in by the Red Cross (You can search POW care packages, but can't withhold them. And POWs cannot be punished for failed attempts to escape upon surrender (you can shoot an escaping POW... but if he gives up, you can't punish him for trying to escape. Heck, during the civil war, both sides released POWs on the honor system... if they caught you with a weapon before you got to the boarder, you were captured again... but if you crossed, you get to go back to your army... some other complications arose that forced both sides to stop releasing POWs). Usually gadgets were devised to hide a tool of the spy, but function like a real counterpart product of that tool's cover. And many of the most famously known ones are were never used (that we know of... you don't normally hear of sucessful stories and good spies can be opperating for decades before caught. Great spies are operating for decades.). The famous glove gun was never used and theres some debate if it was viable at all... the equally famous "kiss of death" (a single round pistol disguised as a tube of lipstick) was also never used in a documented incident. A pellet gun concealed in an umbrella was used, and is probably the only known spy gadget gun with a confirmed kill.

On the U.S. side, since the 70s, espionage agencies are not authorized to give agents orders to assassinate any targets (I will make no endeavor to speculate if the law is actually followed) but this isn't followed. Since Great Britain works very closely with the U.S. on intelligent matters, it's reasonable to assume that their agents also do not hold licenses to kill (if I recall, in James Bond, the 00 designation explicitly mentioned this), though this would not cover any gun fights that might happen (though again, it's not helpful to have a gun while undercover. Draws too much attention... now a shoe gun... maybe...).

As a final note, Honey Traps are a real thing but it's generally not the femme fatal affair of bond. Typically the Honey Trap denotes an attractive person used to lure a potential asset into a blackmail situation (the Honey Trap will have be quick to get the target into a sexual encounter... while the handler... or another person working for him... is able to take pictures of the target and the Honey for blackmail to get the target to provide intelligence to the handler). And Honey Traps weren't always women... men were often used to in the same way for secretaries in offices (who could have a huge range of access)... and of course, homosexuals were targeted with attractive Honey Traps to their own interests (As bad as the early Archer episode where he had to do exactly this, the show isn't wrong in that the Honey Trap is not exclusively an attractive woman). And while we're on the subject, turn coats were not young skinny attractive girls with names like Ms. Allotta Svexpunsia... more likely they were average working middle management men who just happened to see what the grocery store on the other side of the Iron Curtain looked like (no, seriously, the U.S. would often have agents take potential Soviet assets to grocery stores where the abundence of food was enough to flip them. Germany's Deutschland '83 (about an East German spy) used this for a dramatic moment in the pilot episode (complete with Banana, a food common in West Germany and difficult to come by in East Germany... many jokes exist about what East Germans would do for a single Banana).

As I said, spying is not always as glamorous as Sean Connery made it look... and if he were to ever spy, he'd be more of the moral fiber of his SNL Celebrity Jeopardy counterpart than to Bond.

  • There are certainly instances of CIA agents engaging in covert military operations (even a few cases of air to air combat), assassinations, and abduction and torture. This kind of activity was in resurgence post-9/11 and was pivotal in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa in that time period. It is a minority of intelligence agency work, but an important part of it nonetheless. Does the U.K. do the same? Hard to know.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 26, 2022 at 3:59

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