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A sleeper agent is a spy or operative who is placed in a target country or organization, not to undertake an immediate mission, but instead to act as a potential asset on short notice if activated. Even if not activated, the "sleeper agent" is still an asset and can still play an active role in sedition, espionage, or possibly treason[a] by virtue of agreeing to act if activated. A team of sleeper agents may be referred to as a sleeper cell. A sleeper cell or agent may possibly be working with others in a clandestine cell system.[citation needed]

In espionage

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In espionage, a sleeper agent is one who has infiltrated 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.

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. Counterespionage agencies in the target country cannot, in practice, closely watch all those who may 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, averting any possibly traceable payments from abroad. In such cases, the sleeper agent may 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, thus less likely to trigger domestic suspicion.

Choosing and inserting sleeper agents has often been difficult, as whether the target will be appropriate some years in the future is uncertain. If the sponsor government and its policies change after the sleeper has been inserted, the sleeper may be found to have been planted in the wrong target.

Notable examples

In fiction

Sleeper agents are popular plot devices in fiction, particularly in espionage fiction and science fiction. This common use is directly related to and results from repeated instances of real-life "sleeper agents" participating in spying, espionage, sedition, treason, and assassinations.

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:

See also


  1. ^ If the agent is enlisted against his or her own country.


  1. ^ "Jack Barsky: The KGB spy who lived the American dream". February 23, 2017 – via
  2. ^ "Geiger". Goodreads. Retrieved 2024-04-25.