Sleeper agents are spies who are placed in a target country or organization, not to undertake an immediate mission, but rather to act as potential assets if activated at a later point in time.
Sleeper agents are popular plot devices in fiction, in particular espionage fiction and science fiction.
Sleeper agents in espionage
, a sleeper agent
is one who has infiltrated into the target country and 'gone to sleep', sometimes for many years. That is, they do nothing to communicate with their sponsor, any existing agents, nor to obtain information beyond that in public sources. They can also be referred to as deep cover
agents. They acquire jobs and identities—ideally ones which will prove useful in the future—and attempt to blend into everyday life as a normal citizen. Counter-espionage agencies in the target country cannot, in practice, closely watch all of 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. This avoids any possible 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. The Soviets managed to recruit several people after World War I who reached high positions in Britain and in the U.S.
Those sleeper agents who have been discovered have often been natives of the target country who moved elsewhere in early life and been co-opted (perhaps for ideological or ethnic reasons) before returning to the target country. This 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 which target will be appropriate some years in the future. If the sponsor government (or its policies) change after the sleeper has been inserted, the sleeper might be found to have been planted in the wrong target.
- Otto Kuhn and family were installed in Hawaii by the German Abwehr before WWII. It is not quite clear what was intended as Hawaii was hardly at the center of predicable German interests in case of war, and in any case, they were unmistakably German. However that may have been, he (and his family) seem to have been used primarily to aid an ally—the Japanese—in the period before the Attack on Pearl Harbor. They seem to have been less than useful, even to the Japanese.
- Kim Philby was recruited by the Soviets while at university and may have been a sleeper agent for some years until going to work for the British government. By the end of WWII, he was operating as the liaison between the British Secret Intelligence Service and several U.S. intelligence operations. He was an agent of influence by then, but had not been a sleeper agent for several years.
Fictional sleeper agents
In fiction, particularly science fiction, sleeper agents fall into two categories. The first is an extension of the real world sleeper agent where an enemy agent is substituted for a person already in a trusted position. The second and more common category involve people who have been subjected to mind control
techniques, such as drugs
, psychological conditioning
, implanted devices, and even telepathic
manipulation who then are either released, or allowed to escape back to friendly territory. These sleeper agents are then used by enemy forces to spy, conduct sabotage, assassinate certain targets, or for other operations the enemy has in mind for them.
The substitution sleeper agent was often surgically altered to appear as someone else but more recent versions tend toward androids or clones.
Activation of the second kind of sleeper is, at least in novels and stories, done by approaching the agent and uttering a long ago memorized password or pass phrase, or by mailing a postcard with a significant picture to the sleeper. Once a sleeper becomes active, counter intelligence agencies can, at least in principle, become aware of the sleeper as intelligence is collected and transmitted, as instructions are passed, and so on.
There are a number of examples of sleeper agents found in science fiction and other forms of entertainment. Examples of sleeper agents include:
- In Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942) it is revealed that the Voice of Terror is really a German officer who was used because of his strong resemblance to a captured British officer. The substitution occurred during WWI.
- In Thomas E Sniegoski's "The Sleeper Conspiracy" book series, Tom Lovett, a normal teenage boy turned sleeper agent believes he suffers from narcolepsy. This ends up being a cover for his true sleeper agent identity and subsequent conflicting personalities.
- In Black Dragons (1942) a doctor is hired to use plastic surgery to alter Japanese officers into the images of key American Industrialists. Once Japan attacks Pearl Harbor they go about slowing down production and having accidents happen at their plants.
- One of the earlier uses of the second type of sleeper agents in fiction is in Richard Condon's 1959 novel, The Manchurian Candidate, which has twice been adapted to film. Both the original and the remake is about a group of people 'programmed' to be sleeper agents. One of the sleeper agents is part of a Presidential election campaign, which if won will produce a Vice President controlled by sinister forces. One of his fellows would then be ordered to assassinate the President, allowing these forces to control the Executive Branch of Government.
- In the Outer Limits episode "Hundred Days of the Dragon" a chemical that allows flesh to be molded like clay for a short time is used to allow a Chinese officer to replace a candidate who eventually becomes President.
- In the Six Million Dollar Man/Bionic Woman crossover "Kill Oscar" it is revealed that Oscar Goldman has standing orders to be killed rather than rescued for fear the enemy would turn him into a double agent. In disobeying that order Steve Austin unknowingly brings back an android sleeper agent.
- The plot of Walter Wager's novel Telefon and its subsequent film adaptation revolved around long-term, deep-cover sleeper agents planted by the Soviet Union all over the United States in the 1950s; spies so thoroughly brainwashed that even they didn't know they were agents; they could only be activated by a special code phrase (a line from Robert Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"). Their mission was to sabotage crucial parts of the civil and military infrastructure in the event of nuclear war. Donald Pleasance played the key remaining agent and the center of the drama, in the film.
- In the Battlestar Galactica TV miniseries (2004), it is revealed that Sharon Valerii is a Cylon sleeper agent. In the season 3 finale (2007), it is revealed that Samuel T. Anders, Tory Foster, Saul Tigh and Galen Tyrol are also sleeper Cylons.
- In the video game BioShock, it is discovered that the player's embryo was genetically modified with mind control, which was later used by Atlas to his advantage in order to kill Andrew Ryan.
- In BBC sci-fi drama "Torchwood", where aliens in human form are used to gather intel and eliminate the city of Cardiff and eventually the world.
- In the Blue Beetle (2007) DC Comics comic book the source of the main character powers is a technological scarab, a gift from a seemingly benevolent alien race known as the Reach, giving advanced technologies to budding civilizations and granting a scarab to each planet, to leave behind a champion with the full might and knowledge of the Reach to protect his peers. In fact the scarab has its own A.I., programmed to supplant his/her wearer personality and turn him/her into a sleeper agent under the Reach control, revealing them as a race of spacefaring marauders. Since Blue Beetle's scarab was early damaged at its landing on Earth, it slowly gained sentience, never willing to take over.
- In the 1997 film Air Force One, Secret Service agent Gibbs shoots three other agents so the Russian terrorists can take the plane hostage. Gibbs stays in the room along with the other hostages.
- In the TV series 24, in season 5, Ivan Erwich is a sleeper among hostages at Ontario Airport. A terrorist secretly hands over a key card to Erwich.
- In the Transformers: Spotlight issue starring Blaster, The Autobot Beachcomber is brainwashed and turned into a sleeper. He makes two assassination attempts against the starring character, a very influential radio host/moral officer.
- In the "American Dad" episode "Haylias," it is revealed that when Haylie was a little girl, Stan had her enrolled in a secret CIA training program codenamed "Project: Daycare," of which she has no memory except for occasional nightmares. The children were conditioned to be ruthless assasins, but whose training would lie dormant in their subconcious indefinately unless activated by a precise trigger phrase. Unless deactivated within exactly 7 days by uttering the same phrase again, the assasin mode would become irreversably inprinted in the brain, at which point the agent would lose all stability and kill their handler. Only then will they consider their mission to be accomplished. To keep Haylie from deying his wishes and moving to France, Stan activates her by yelling, "I'm getting fed up with this orgasm!" She immediately becomes docile & compliant to his every instruction, even proposing to and marrying a man who, unbeknownst to Stan, is obviously gay. However, Stan fails to deactivate her in time, and at the wedding reception, she attacks him and begins a lengthy chase scene, finally cornering him in her own bedroom back at the house & shooting him in the head. However, Stan miraculously survives, and upon regaining consciousness in the hospital, finds that Haylie is back to normal and has no idea why she went beserk and shot her own father.