AskDefine | Define spying

Dictionary Definition



1 keeping a secret or furtive watch
2 the act of keeping a secret watch for intelligence purposes [syn: undercover work]
3 the act of detecting something; catching sight of something [syn: detection, catching, espial, spotting]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. present participle of spy



Extensive Definition

Espionage or spying involves an individual obtaining (i.e., using human intelligence HUMINT methods) information that is considered secret or confidential without the permission of the holder of the information. Espionage is inherently clandestine, as the legitimate holder of the information may change plans or take other countermeasures once it is known that the information is in unauthorized hands. See clandestine HUMINT for the basic concepts of such information collection, and subordinate articles such as clandestine HUMINT operational techniques and clandestine HUMINT asset recruiting for discussions of the "tradecraft" used to collect this information.


Incidents of espionage are well documented throughout history. The ancient writings of Chinese and Indian military strategists such as Sun-Tzu and Chanakya contain information on deception and subversion. Chanakya's student Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Maurya Empire, made use of assassinations, spies and secret agents, which are described in Chanakya's Arthasastra. The ancient Egyptians had a thoroughly developed system for the acquisition of intelligence, and the Hebrews used spies as well, as in the story of Rahab. Feudal Japan often used ninja to gather intelligence. More recently, spies played a significant part in Elizabethan England (see Francis Walsingham). Many modern espionage methods were well established even then.
The Cold War involved intense espionage activity between the United States of America and its allies and the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China and their allies, particularly related to nuclear weapons secrets. Recently, espionage agencies have targeted the illegal drug trade and those considered to be terrorists.
Different intelligence services value certain intelligence collection techniques over others. The former Soviet Union, for example, preferred human sources over research in open sources, while the United States has tended to emphasize technological methods such as SIGINT and IMINT. Both Soviet civilian (KGB) and military intelligence (GRU ) officer were judged by the number of agents they recruited.

Various Forms

Unlike other forms of intelligence collection disciplines, espionage usually involves accessing the place where the desired information is stored, or accessing the people who know the information and will divulge it through some kind of subterfuge. There are exceptions to physical meetings, such as the Oslo Report, or the insistence of Robert Hanssen in never meeting the people to whom he was selling information.
The US defines espionage towards itself as "The act of obtaining, delivering, transmitting, communicating, or receiving information about the national defense with an intent, or reason to believe, that the information may be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation. Espionage is a violation of 18 United States Code 792-798 and Article 106, Uniform Code of Military Justice." The United States, like most nations, conducts espionage against other nations, under the control of the National Clandestine Service. Britain's espionage activities are controlled by the Secret Intelligence Service.
Espionage is usually part of an institutional effort (i.e., governmental or corporate espionage), and the term is most readily associated with state spying on potential or actual enemies, primarily for military purposes, but this has been extended to spying involving corporations, known specifically as industrial espionage. Many nations routinely spy on both their enemies and allies, although they maintain a policy of not making comment on this. In addition to utilizing agencies within a government many also employ private companies to collect information on their behalf such as SCG International Risk and others. Black's Law Dictionary (1990) defines espionage as: "...gathering, transmitting, or losing...information related to the national defense."
While news media may speak of "spy satellites" and the like, espionage is not a synonym for all types of intelligence functions. It is a specific form of human source intelligence (HUMINT). Codebreaking (cryptanalysis or COMINT), aircraft or satellite photography (IMINT) and research in open publications (OSINT) are all intelligence gathering disciplines, but none of them are espionage. Not all HUMINT activities, such as interviewing prisoners, reports from military reconnaissance patrols and from diplomats, etc., are espionage.
A spy is a person employed to obtain such secrets. Within the US intelligence community, asset is a more common usage. A case officer, who may have diplomatic status (i.e., official cover or non-official cover) supports and directs the human collector. Cutouts are couriers who do not know the agent or case officer, but transfer messages. In larger networks, the organization can be complex, with many methods to avoid detection, including clandestine cell systems. Often the players have never met and are sometimes unaware that they are participating. This is often referred to as "the Tyson Effect," where important players are unaware of their own participation. See Clandestine HUMINT for details of the actual operations and people of espionage systems.
Case officers are stationed in foreign countries to recruit and supervise intelligence agents, who in turn spy on targets in their countries where they are assigned. A spy may or may not be an actual citizen of a target country. While the more common practice is to recruit a person already trusted with access to sensitive information, there are cases where a person may attempt to infiltrate a target organization, with a well-prepared synthetic identity for them, called a legend in tradecraft.
These agents can be moles (who are recruited before they get access to secrets), defectors (who are recruited after they get access to secrets and leave their country) or defectors in place (who get access but do not leave).


The risks of espionage vary. A spy breaking the host country's laws may be deported, imprisoned, or even executed. A spy breaking his/her own country's laws can be imprisoned for espionage or/and treason, or even executed, as the Rosenbergs were. For example, when Aldrich Ames handed a stack of dossiers of CIA agents in the Eastern Bloc to his KGB-officer "handler," the KGB "rolled up" several networks, and at least ten people were secretly shot. When Ames was arrested by the FBI, he faced life in prison; his contact, who had diplomatic immunity, was declared persona non grata and taken to the airport. Ames's wife was threatened with life imprisonment if her husband did not cooperate; he did, and she was given a five-year sentence. Hugh Francis Redmond, a CIA officer in China, spent nineteen years in a Chinese prison for espionage—and died there—as he was operating without diplomatic cover and immunity.'''
Many organizations, both national and non-national, conduct espionage operations. It should not be assumed that espionage is always directed at the most secret operations of a target country; national and terrorist organizations and other groups needed to get agents into target countries to learn security routines around their targets. They also needed to arrange secure ways of transferring money.
Communications both are necessary to espionage and clandestine operations, and also a great vulnerability when the adversary has sophisticated SIGINT detection and interception capability.
See espionage organizations for national and non-national groups that conduct clandestine human operations, for any of a number of reasons: assessment of national capabilities at the strategic level, warning of the movements of security and military organizations; financial systems; protective measures around targets. Be aware that certain organizations who have an association with espionage, such as the US FBI, UK Security Service, and Canadian Security Intelligence Service do not perform espionage, but, with these three examples, all monitor and defend against it, the CSIS principally at an analytical levels. In the US and UK, respectively, the National Clandestine Service, part of the Central Intelligence Agency, performs espionage, while the Secret Intelligence Service does so for Great Britain. Canada does not appear to run espionage, although it collects SIGINT. The Russian SVR performs espionage while the FSB defends against it.

Spies in various conflicts

Espionage under Elizabeth I of England

Espionage in the American Revolution

Espionage in the American Civil War

One of the innovations in the American Civil War was the use of proprietary companies for intelligence collection. See Allan Pinkerton

Espionage in the Second Boer War

Espionage in World War I

Espionage in World War II

With a few notable exceptions, most espionage in World War II was conducted by "rings", or teams of agents.

Espionage in the Cold War

Espionage technology and techniques

An early example of espionage literature is Kim by the English novelist Rudyard Kipling, with a description of the training of an intelligence agent in the "Great Game" between the UK and Russia in 19th century Central Asia.
During the many 20th century spy scandals, a large amount of information became publicly known about national spy agencies and dozens of real-life secret agents. These sensational stories piqued public interest in a profession largely off-limits to human interest news reporting, a natural consequence of the secrecy inherent to their work. To fill in the blanks, the popular conception of the secret agent has been formed largely by 20th and 21st century literature and cinema. While it is obvious from reading news accounts that many real spies, such as Valerie Plame, are attractive and sociable, the fictional secret agent is often a loner, sometimes amoral—an existential hero operating outside the everyday constraints of society. Loner spy personalities may have been a stereotype of convenience for authors who already knew how to write loner private investigator characters that sold well from the 1920s to the present.
While fictional secret agents, such as Johnny Fedora, were popular during the 1950s and 60s, James Bond, the protagonist of Ian Fleming's novels, who went on to spawn an extremely successful film franchise, is the most famous fictional secret agent of all: he uses the best toys and excels at fighting and seduction, completely ignoring the more tedious side of espionage. In direct contrast to this, John le Carré's character George Smiley is often considered the "anti-Bond" and one of the more realistic fictional spies: he is a finite and imperfect man, initially defeated by enemies within the Secret Service, who eventually prevails by patience, intelligence, and compassion. Another is the boy spy Alex Rider, created by Anthony Horowitz; Rider is said to be useful due to his youth. Other popular spies are the characters Johnny Fedora by Desmond Cory; Quiller by Adam Hall; Nikita, played by Peta Wilson, and Michael Samuelle, played by Roy Dupuis, in the TV series La Femme Nikita (1997–2001), Jack Ryan in numerous Tom Clancy novels, and Sydney Bristow, played by Jennifer Garner, in the TV series Alias (2001–2006). The British TV series Spooks is another example of spy fiction. Charlie's Angels has some spying aspects and the popular cartoon series Totally Spies! revolves around three girls named Clover, Sam and Alex who are spies working for a spy agency called WOOHP which stands for World Organization of Human Protection.
Spy fiction has also become prevalent in video gaming, where the "wet work" aspect of espionage is highlighted. Game situations typically involve agents sent into enemy territory for purposes of subversion. These depictions are more action-oriented than would be typical in most cases of espionage, and they tend to focus on infiltration rather than information-gathering. Some examples are GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark, Thief, Metal Gear and Splinter Cell. Recent incarnations have attempted to introduce more psychological aspects of infiltration, such as social camouflage and moral decision making, into gameplay.

Further reading

There is a vast and ever-growing body of literature devoted to espionage. The following reading list features some of the better known and more comprehensive accounts. The lists are sortable, using the icons next to the headings. In this way the reader can sort the lists by author, title, date and so forth. This is of value especially in terms of the year, for espionage literature tends to build on earlier material as well as on newfound sources.


World War I

World War II: 1931-1945

Cold War Era: 1945-1991

Anderson, Nicholas NOC - 2008 eBook and 2009 published Enigma Books

See also


spying in Arabic: تجسس
spying in Bulgarian: Шпионаж
spying in Czech: Špionáž
spying in Danish: Spionage
spying in German: Spionage
spying in Spanish: Espionaje
spying in Esperanto: Spionado
spying in French: Espionnage
spying in Korean: 간첩
spying in Croatian: Špijunaža
spying in Indonesian: Spionase
spying in Italian: Spionaggio
spying in Hebrew: ריגול
spying in Georgian: შპიონაჟი
spying in Dutch: Spion
spying in Japanese: スパイ
spying in Norwegian: Spionasje
spying in Norwegian Nynorsk: Spionasje
spying in Polish: Szpiegostwo
spying in Portuguese: Espionagem
spying in Russian: Разведка
spying in Simple English: Espionage
spying in Serbian: Шпијунажа
spying in Finnish: Vakoilu
spying in Swedish: Spioneri
spying in Thai: จารกรรม
spying in Turkish: Casusluk
spying in Ukrainian: Розвідка
spying in Chinese: 间谍

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

bugging, cloak-and-dagger work, counterespionage, counterintelligence, detection, electronic surveillance, espial, espionage, following, intelligence, intelligence work, looking, lookout, military intelligence, note, notice, observance, observation, regard, respect, secret police, secret service, shadowing, stakeout, surveillance, tailing, trailing, viewing, watch, watching, wiretap, wiretapping, witnessing
Privacy Policy, About Us, Terms and Conditions, Contact Us
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Material from Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Dict
Valid HTML 4.01 Strict, Valid CSS Level 2.1