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What is a Double Agent?

Double agents sometimes sell classified documents to anyone willing to pay.
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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 August 2014
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A double agent is an intelligence operative who pretends to spy on a targeted group for another agency, but is in fact loyal to the target group. The term has also come to include an agent who is gains trust at a target organization in order to spy, although this is not technically a double agent, but a mole. Double agents are a commonly used by intelligence-gathering services to infiltrate rivals or enemies, but they may also be once-loyal members who report to another agency voluntarily or under duress. Many famous double agents have been executed, jailed or publicly shunned after being discovered, and they have long been favorite characters in fictitious spy novels.

One common use of a double agent is to spread disinformation. In order to protect the agent’s true affiliation, the agency to whom the agent is loyal will give them real, though unclassified, information to pass on. This helps to deceive the betrayed agency, as the agent’s stories will be factual. With moles, this tactic is often turned around on the targeted organization. A mole double agent will be given true, but useless, information from its parent group to pass on to the target, either to gain their trust or to throw them off an investigative track.

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When using double agents, any organization assumes a serious risk, as the agents’ ability to deceive is both their greatest asset and worst liability. Agents are often not trusted by their employers, who commonly have them under surveillance to detect disloyalty. Some agents are also believed to be mercenaries, willing to sell classified information to a high bidder. Although these traits begin to sound like fanciful fictional characters, double agents are indeed real and have played parts in espionage for centuries.

Roman Czerniawski, also known as Brutus, was a Polish pilot during World War II, who created an allied espionage network in France. He was captured by the German intelligence organization and offered safety in exchange for spying for the Nazis. Brutus agreed and was sent to London as an agent, where he immediately informed the British of his status and was made a double agent for MI5, the British intelligence service. He was able to pass false information to the Nazis, throwing them off the track of the planned invasion of Normandy.

Matei Pavel Haiducu was a Romanian spy involved in a high-profile double agent scheme. After being given orders to murder two radical Romanian writers residing in France, Haiducu informed French authorities. Using him as a double agent, the French helped Haiducu stage an assassination attempt on one of the targets and simulated a kidnapping of the other. French authorities chastised Romania for the “murders,” allowing Haiducu to return to Romania and bring his family back to France. Once he had returned to settle in France, French newspapers ran the true account of the incident.

In fiction, novels are often enlivened by the prospect of a double agent. In the recent Harry Potter series, much of the final outcome of the seven book series is based on the true loyalties of Professor Severus Snape, who is in fact a triple agent. Both film adaptations of the James Bond novel Casino Royale feature a beautiful Russian infiltrator who attracts the eye of the famous spy.

Double agents are irresistible in literature for their deceptive abilities, complex moral code, and ambiguous morality. In real life, they are agents of both life-saving and life-ending power. Whatever side they are truly loyal to, they do not seem likely to disappear from the intelligence community soon.

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