A sleeper agent is a spy who is placed in a target country or organization not to undertake an immediate mission but to act as a potential asset if activated. Even if unactivated, the "sleeper agent" is still an asset and is still playing an active role in sedition, treason or espionage by virtue of agreeing to act if activated. Sleeper agents are popular plot devices in fiction, particularly in espionage fiction and science fiction. This common use in fiction is directly related to and results from repeated instances of real-life "sleeper agents" participating in spying, espionage, sedition, treason, and assassinations.
Sleeper agents in espionage
In espionage, a sleeper agent is one who has infiltrated into the target country and has "gone to sleep", sometimes for many years. The agent does nothing to communicate with the sponsor or any existing agents or to obtain information beyond what is in public sources. The agent can also be referred to as a 'deep cover' agent. The agent acquires jobs and identities, ideally ones that will prove useful in the future, and attempts to blend into everyday life as a normal citizen. Counter-espionage agencies in the target country cannot, in practice, closely watch all 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. That avoids any possibly 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".
Sleeper agents who have been discovered have often been natives of the target country who moved elsewhere in early life and were co-opted (perhaps for ideological or ethnic reasons) before returning to the target country. That 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 difficult, as it is uncertain that the target will be appropriate some years in the future. If the sponsor government and its policies change after the sleeper has been inserted, the sleeper might be found to have been planted in the wrong target.
- The Illegals Program is a network of sleeper spies planted in the US by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. An ongoing, multi-year investigation culminated in June 2010 with the filing of charges and the arrest of 10 suspects in the US and another in Cyprus. The Russian General Directorate for special programs, or GUSP in Russian transliteration (Главное управление специальных программ, ГУСП), still recruits candidates among students and talented scientists in order to use them as sleeper agents or as legal employees in police and intelligence bodies in Russia.
- Jack Barsky was planted as a sleeper agent in the United States by the KGB. He was an active sleeper agent between 1978 and 1988. He was located by US authorities in 1994 and then arrested in 1997. Barsky quickly confessed after being arrested and became a useful source of information about spy techniques.
In fictional portrayals, sleeper agents are sometimes unaware that they are sleepers. They are brainwashed, hypnotized, or otherwise conditioned to be unaware of their secret mission until activated. Examples of such stories are:
- The Manchurian Candidate (the novel and its film adaptations), in which some Americans are captured by Soviet intelligence forces, given post-hypnotic commands, and returned to their lives in the U.S.
- The 1977 film Telefon, in which Russian agents believe they are ordinary Americans until their memories are unlocked with a special activation phrase
- The 2010 film Salt, in which an accused sleeper agent goes on the run to try to clear her name only to discover she actually is a sleeper
- The 2012 film Thuppakki, in which the sleeper cells attack the Mumbai city.
- The 2014 film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which Bucky Barnes has been brainwashed after World War II
- The 2015 film American Ultra, in which the Small-town stoner Mike Howell spends most of his time getting high and writing graphic novels. What Mike doesn't know is that he was trained by the CIA to be a lethal killing machine. When the agency targets him for termination, his former handler activates his latent skills, turning the mild-mannered slacker into a deadly weapon.