What is Espionage?


The Perceval series is not about spying but I discovered that knowing about espionage would enrich my writing and the story.  Real espionage crawls forward, reverses, and crawls forward again — hardly glamorous or exciting.  While it can involve the use of high tech gadgets and electronic eavesdropping, the bedrock of espionage is human intelligence and counterintelligence.

Intelligence involves the gathering of information, usually in a foreign country, about that country’s defenses, industries, and people.  The spies come in two varieties: those with diplomatic cover who also work at an Embassy, and NOC or non-official cover operatives.  NOCs have the most dangerous job and often put their lives on the line.  Intelligence is a country’s offensive spying.  It involves planting disinformation, collecting information in all formats, running agents (locals who are sympathetic).

Defensive spying is counterintelligence.  An operative or spy often does both offensive and defensive operations.  Counterintelligence involves turning people to spy for the home team (often the other country’s spies), sabotage, infiltration (moles), and wet works or black ops which can involve assassination.  The Perceval novels occupy this category.  Whether or not Evan Quinn is a spy is left up to the readers to decide.  He does not think of himself as one.

Espionage requires practitioners to have a clear purpose (to protect and defend one’s country, for example) and be somewhat comfortable with moral and ethical ambiguities.  Spies use deception and manipulation to accomplish their missions.  They learn not to trust other people in the field.  They work undercover, sometimes for years, with an alternate identity and personal history.  They must be good, if not extraordinary, actors and liars.  They need to be able to blend in with the local population and not call attention to themselves.

Sometimes, a country’s intelligence agency will recruit professionals in other fields to spy for a certain period of time.  An example of this kind of operative: Julia Child during her time in France.  Her husband was a diplomat.  Julia, with her “civilian” status, could go where he couldn’t easily and they both met people in government.  Any business person who travels a lot to a certain country or lives in another country for business purposes could also occasionally spy.  It depends on what’s going on geopolitically and what the intelligence agency needs.  The one exception to this are journalists.  They refuse to spy because it compromises the trust they work so hard to establish with the public.  They can be manipulated, however, by both sides without their knowledge during a disinformation campaign.

How can writers research espionage, especially if they have a specific idea or goal?  There are nonfiction books on espionage, often written by former operatives.  I read books by both American and Russian operatives.  The media offers possibilities also, if one reads widely and carefully.  I found the postmortem of the Osama bin Laden raid published in the media fascinating for what it revealed about the intelligence operation that preceded it.  In America, the CIA also has a public relations office that can answer questions (not about specific operations or operatives) and set up interviews with retired operatives.

A separate kind of espionage involves stealing proprietary information or intellectual property from corporations.  Corporate espionage involves rival companies in the same country usually, but with the global economy, now can involve rival companies in different countries.  Stealing the formula for a perfume for example could involve espionage just as stealing nuclear secrets from a country’s government.

Espionage fascinates me, especially the type of person that it attracts to work as a spy.  I think John le Carre’s novels have illustrated and illuminated the spy’s world and personality in an often devastating way and has taken all the glamor out of it.  Spies, in order to survive, exist in the shadows and shun attention unlike James Bond who could not blend into a crowd even if he wanted to. For real spies on film, try the movies of le Carre’s novels or a British series entitled The Sandbaggers starring Roy Marsden.

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