Anna Chapman

The Sleeper Agent Threat: Alive and Well in 2023

by Matt Collins

The concept of a sleeper agent has long been present in American media and culture, with generations of espionage professionals evolving the practice over decades.

Of course, most Americans’ first encounter with a sleeper agent came with the immensely popular 1962 film, The Manchurian Candidate. The film features a sleeper agent who’s brainwashed while captured, then quietly elevated to the highest levels of power—with the ultimate goal of hijacking the American presidency.

Decades later, it remains a delightfully convoluted spy flick (and the 2004 remake with Denzel Washington isn’t half bad either). But the reality of Russian sleeper agents in America over the years is all the more haunting, considering how effectively they penetrated various portions of our society and power structure.

The Manchurian Candidate poster

When you think of a sleeper agent… (Image courtesy of IMDB)

So today, we’re going in deep to expose the true nature of sleeper agents—their history, their use by various governments, and how they’ve brought us closer to potential nuclear war.

Let’s get started.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    The Espionage World’s Secret Weapon

  • 02

    A Spy Ring at the Heart of British Intelligence

  • 03

    Jack Barsky: Espionage and Redemption

  • 04

    Operation Ghost Stories

  • 05

    Anna Chapman: The Glamorous Face of Russian Espionage

  • 06

    Risk of a Terrorist Sleeper Agent

  • 07

    Hiding in Plain Sight

  • 08

    Frequently Asked Questions

The Espionage World’s Secret Weapon

A sleeper agent is a spy or “dormant” agent is a clandestine operative strategically placed within a target organization or country by an intelligence agency or a hostile group.

And since they’re not actively engaging in espionage, they’re much more challenging to identify and capture.

These highly trained individuals practice traditional spycraft to maintain a low profile while integrating seamlessly into the fabric of their host society. As such, a core duty of the sleeper agent lies in concealing their true purpose until activated to carry out espionage, sabotage, or other covert operations.

Technically speaking, any embedded operative who has not yet begun operations or been detected can be classified as a “dormant” agent, since they haven’t yet been activated for operations.

But true sleeper agents are often screened and handpicked to favor individuals with diverse backgrounds, often including linguistic, technological, and tactical expertise. They are specifically chosen for their ability to blend in, adapt, and remain inconspicuous in their target environment.

Like any other asset in the field, sleeper agents rely on instructions from “handlers,” who are often higher-ranking intelligence officials from the groups they work for.

Woman in silhouette

(Image courtesy of Spyscape)

There is wide variation in activation triggers, including a coded message, a significant event, or a specific time frame. Once activated, sleeper agents shift from their passive state to an active one, engaging in espionage, sabotage, or any other assigned tasks.

The essential advantage of a sleeper agent, of course, lies in subterfuge. In effect, they’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing—hiding among the enemy, waiting to strike.

Secrecy, therefore, is paramount. Sleeper agents must practice meticulous operational security (OPSEC) measures to avoid leaving digital or physical traces that could compromise their privacy and cover.

Alongside this, they must commit to their cover identity and often lead seemingly ordinary lives, working in non-suspicious jobs, and forming relationships to create a facade of normalcy. By maintaining a low profile, sleeper agents reduce the likelihood of raising suspicion from counterintelligence agencies or their host society.

This means that, if they do their job right, identifying a sleeper agent can be extremely difficult.

Sleeper cells, after all, can lie dormant for years or even decades before their activation. Due to their ability to blend in and mimic native citizens, they are elusive targets. As a result, counterintelligence often relies on human intelligence (handlers, contacts, friends or relatives)–along with close surveillance and pattern analysis–to identify potential sleeper agents.

Preventing the deployment of sleeper agents is a crucial aspect of national security.

As such, counterintelligence efforts will often focus on disabling a network to prevent sleeper cells from being called into action in the first place. They’re also eager to incentivize spies “turning” on their fellow agents.

So make no mistake: sleeper agents represent one of modern espionage’s most covert and insidious elements.

And over the years, their methods have become all the more damaging.

A Spy Ring at the Heart of British Intelligence

One of history’s first and most influential groups of sleeper agents was The Cambridge Five, a notorious spy ring that operated within British intelligence during the mid-twentieth century.

Graduates of the prestigious University of Cambridge, each of the five men involved would go on to pass highly classified information to the Soviet Union during the most frigid moments of the Cold War. This severely undermined Western intelligence efforts, causing a rude awakening for counterintelligence professionals.

After being recruited by Soviet intelligence in the 1930s, the Cambridge Five remained undercover until they infiltrated vital positions within the British intelligence and government establishments. With privileged access to classified information, they worked together to leak susceptible documents to the Soviet Union, compromising Britain and its Western allies’ intelligence operations and strategies.

The Cambridge Five

The Cambridge Five (Image courtesy of The Economist)

And their activities had an indisputable impact on World War II.

As sleeper agents, they provided the Soviets with critical information about Western military strategies, including the timing and location of D-Day landings. This espionage posed a massive security threat to the Allied forces, leaving them vulnerable to leaks, and risking American and European lives.

In the following decade, as the Cold War intensified, the Cambridge Five continued to pass on valuable information to the Soviet Union, damaging British and Western intelligence operations and hindering efforts to counter Soviet expansion.

Even though the group was first exposed in the late 1940s, events took years to fully unfold.

Suspicion initially fell on other individuals, diverting attention from the true culprits. But MI5’s efforts to uncover the spies eventually led to several defections and confessions.

Following interrogation at the hands of MI5, two of the Cambridge Five escaped to Russia in 1951–confirming suspicions of a Soviet spy ring in the heart of British intelligence. In the wake of this revelation, Kim Philby, the most popular of the Cambridge Five, faced suspicion on the homefront. But he too managed to evade arrest and flee to the Soviet Union in 1963, where he lived until his death in 1988.

Unlike Philby, art historian Anthony Blunt managed to evade suspicion for many years. However, in 1964, an American defector exposed him as a spy, leading to public disgrace and the loss of his knighthood.

All in all, the Cambridge Five’s espionage activities left a lasting impact on British intelligence and national security. Consequently, the extent of their betrayal and the damage caused to Western interests during the Cold War remain subjects of ongoing debate and investigation.

Jack Barsky: Espionage and Redemption

Jack and Chelsea Barsky’s story is one of intrigue, espionage, and–ultimately–redemption.

It begins in East Germany, where Jack Barsky–born Albrecht Dittrich–grew up during the height of the Cold War. In the 1970s, he was recruited by the Soviet intelligence agency, the KGB, to infiltrate the United States as a sleeper agent. Accordingly, he was given the name Jack Barsky and a fabricated identity, including a false birth certificate and other documents, allowing him to blend into American society seamlessly.

Jack Barsky

Jack Barsky (Image courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine)

He arrived in the United States in 1978, preparing to assimilate into American life while secretly carrying out his mission. After enrolling in Baruch College in New York City, he started working for a major American corporation. His mission–even if it took years–was to infiltrate critical US government and private industries sectors to gather classified information for the KGB.

So, for over a decade, Barsky masterfully lived his double life, evading detection by US authorities. During this time, he sent encrypted messages to his KGB handlers and received instructions on coded shortwave radio frequencies. His covert activities included gathering sensitive information, participating in clandestine meetings, and discreetly passing intelligence to the KGB.

But by the late 1980s, the political landscape was in upheaval.

The Cold War was winding down, and the Soviet Union faced internal turmoil. As the KGB unraveled, Jack’s handlers disappeared, leaving him without support. Realizing that the end of the Soviet Union was imminent, he decided to abandon his espionage activities and forge a new life for himself.

But Barsky's Cold War activities would remain a subject of interest to investigators, who had been tipped off by a KGB defector about a spy with his (assumed) surname.

After observing him for three years–even locating the parents of the real Jack Barsky, who had died in childhood–the FBI moved in. Barsky, following a covertly recorded argument with his wife in which he admitted to being a spy, was taken into government custody.

During questioning, Barsky revealed his true name and role as a former sleeper agent for the Soviet Union.

But instead of arresting him, US authorities asked for his cooperation. Barsky agreed, providing them with valuable insights into Soviet espionage operations and their tactics during the Cold War.

With all of his secrets thus revealed, Barsky was able to fully embrace his American identity, renouncing his allegiance to the Soviet Union and becoming a US citizen.

This profound shift in his life led Barsky to channel his experiences into writing, sharing his life story and the dangers of espionage in his autobiography, Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America.

More recently, the life of his daughter, Chelsea Barsky, was fictionalized in the 2018 TV movie, The Spy Who Raised Me.

Operation Ghost Stories

Exposed in 2010, Operation Ghost Stories became one of the most high-profile espionage cases of the twenty-first century.

Run by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Operation Ghost Stories involved ten deep-cover operatives living seemingly ordinary American lives while secretly carrying out covert missions to gather intelligence for the Russian government.

The ten operatives in Operation Ghost Stories were part of a long-term sleeper agent program. Each had been trained extensively by the SVR and was given false identities, including forged documents and backgrounds, to blend seamlessly into American society.

Their primary goal was to infiltrate influential circles in the United States, including government, academia, and business, to gather sensitive information and influence American policies.

But unbeknownst to these Russian operatives, the FBI had been tracking their movements for nearly a decade.

The ten spies captured in Operation Ghost Stories

The ten spies captured in Operation Ghost Stories (Image courtesy of CBS News)

The sprawling counterintelligence operation involved monitoring their communications, conducting physical surveillance, and deploying various tactics to gather evidence of their covert activities. In collaboration with several other intelligence agencies, the FBI identified the sleeper agents’ code names, communications channels, and the scope of their espionage operations.

And on June 27, 2010, in a coordinated operation, the FBI arrested all ten Russian sleeper agents simultaneously in different locations across the United States.

Rather than being subjected to lengthy court trials, the Russian operatives were dealt with through a spy exchange agreement between the United States and Russia.

On July 9, 2010, the ten arrested individuals were deported to Russia in exchange for four Russians who had been imprisoned for their cooperation with Western intelligence agencies. This swap ensured a swift resolution to the case and minimized the potential political fallout between the two nations.

While this might sound like a tidy resolution, it’s not quite the case.

The discovery of a sophisticated Russian spy ring operating within the United States was, of course, highly alienating to the US government, causing diplomatic relations between the two countries to become further strained.

The successful detection and dismantling of the Russian spy ring also prompted a reevaluation of counterintelligence efforts and protocols in the United States—since the next spy ring is likely to adapt.

Perhaps most importantly, the operation emphasized the heightened importance of cybersecurity and digital monitoring in the twenty-first century.

Ultimately, the experience is a vivid reminder that espionage is alive and well. The exposure of yet another Russian spy ring, a full seventy years after the discovery of the Cambridge Five, underscores the need for vigilance and cooperation among intelligence agencies to safeguard national security interests.

It also produced one of the most infamous spies of the modern age…

Anna Chapman: The Glamorous Face of Russian Espionage

Born Anna Vasil’yevna Kushchyenko, Anna Chapman emerged as a captivating figure in the exposure of Russia’s spy ring in 2010.

With her glamorous lifestyle, beauty, and social media presence, Chapman captured the public’s imagination.

Anna Chapman looking glamorous

Anna Chapman (Image courtesy of The Today Show)

Little did her fans know, however–she was a spy.

Chapman’s life in espionage began in her early twenties when she was recruited by the Russian intelligence agency, the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). Her fluency in multiple languages, cosmopolitan upbringing, and ability to assimilate into different cultures made her an ideal candidate for espionage.

She first moved to London in 2001, acquiring British citizenship and staying there for a few years to build her backstory (or “legend”) before moving to the US in 2009. In New York City, she built her new identity as an international businesswoman and entrepreneur, running a Manhattan-based real estate business.

Unbeknownst to her new high society friends, however, this was all a part of her mission.

Tasked with establishing connections with influential individuals from New York’s most elite social circles, she attended the most glamorous events, rubbed elbows with the highest of high-class New Yorkers, and posted all of it to her social media accounts online.

After being exposed and sent back to Russia, Chapman became a celebrity. Amid pronounced Russo-American tensions, the Kremlin embraced her and portrayed her as a cunning spy who’d outfoxed rival intelligence agencies.

She did not (ostensibly) stay in their employ, however. Instead, Chapman took advantage of her newfound fame with public appearances, a television show, and a new fashion line.

While her role as a sleeper agent remains controversial, Anna Chapman’s legacy as one of the ten Russian spies exposed in the United States in 2010 has made her infamous worldwide. In this way, her story is another fascinating chapter in the history of sleeper agents.

Risk of a Terrorist Sleeper Agent

As you can no doubt see by now, the life of a sleeper agent isn’t exactly what they’ve shown you in the movies or on television.

Instead of raging gun battles and beautiful lovers, most sleeper agents (and most spies in general) live a much more mundane life–not counting Ms. Chapman.

More than anything else, the intelligence business is about just that: intelligence. It’s about gaining and concealing knowledge that can give your side an advantage over the other. As a result, the average sleeper agent poses a much smaller threat to someone like you or me than he does to a classified filing cabinet.

This means that the cost of their betrayal is more likely to manifest itself on a battlefield or in a tense negotiation—rather than right at our doorstep.

Nonetheless, the risk of terrorist sleeper agents does pose an immediate threat. During the media frenzy following the September 11 attacks, it was often speculated that a terrorist group might embed sleeper agents in US society who would go on to execute multiple attacks simultaneously, based on a predetermined time or trigger.

Men with guns with partially obscured faces

(Image courtesy of OpIndia)

In this regard, however unlikely, sleeper agents could pose an immediate and intense threat to your wellbeing. After all, the terrorists who executed the September 11 attacks were themselves sleeper agents. It's worth remembering, then, that similar attacks could be repeated.

In fact, according to PBS, all it would take is a single piece of abandoned medical equipment to provide a sleeper agent group with enough radioactive material to make dozens of dirty bombs.

That means, as always, a respirator will be step one. If you can’t breathe safely, you can’t do much else. So, in this case, we’re recommending the CM-6M full-face gas mask.

MIRA Safety gas mask

This mask makes no compromises, with a panoramic visor for maximum visibility and a lower half compatible with all of MIRA Safety’s accessories and upgrades. That means you can add everything from a powered air purifying respirator with the MB-90 PAPR to prescription lenses with the MIRAVision Spectacles insert.

MIRAvision glasses

You’ll also need a filter, in which case the NBC-77 SOF is the top option.

MIRA Safety filter

This filter offers practical protection from every listed CBRN threat and a reactor element to protect you from potentially deadly fallout. Plus, filters are individually vacuum-wrapped with a twenty-year shelf life, making them a perfect choice for staying prepared.

Hiding in Plain Sight

History has shown us the average sleeper agent is more than just a brainwashed assassin like we might see in the movies.

A sleeper agent is one of the most disciplined espionage operatives, and they have repeatedly proven their effectiveness. From the Cambridge Five’s Kim Philby to Anna Chapman, these espionage experts have penetrated and compromised the highest levels of intelligence and society.

Kim Philby

Kim Philby (Image courtesy of NPR)

Yet however romantic their exploits, these spies have still laid the groundwork for a terrorist sleeper agent network that could potentially follow in their footsteps to execute devastating attacks across the United States.

Once again, that’s extremely unlikely. But anything is possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a sleeper cell?
What is a sleeper agent?
Could a Russian sleeper agent be operating in the US currently?
Who was Chelsea Barsky?