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TURN Spycraft Handbook – Black Bag Job

When Abe infiltrates Major Andre’s dinner party in Episode 108, “Challenge,” he commits what is known in espionage circles as a “black bag job.” A black bag job is spy slang for a covert entry into a building or home to remove or copy important documents. Gathering intelligence while deep in the lion’s den is a task that is as dangerous as it is bold.

The term “black bag job” first became widely used during the Cold War era. Missions during that time focused mostly on cracking safes, stealing codebooks, and photographing important documents, in addition to hunting down ciphers and codes from foreign governments. In the modern era, many surreptitious entry operations also include the planting of camera and listening devices for long-term surveillance. The expression “black bag” refers to the little black bag that professional spies often use to carry around the equipment and tools of their trade.

The government agency most notorious for this type of under-the-radar stealth entry is the FBI. During the 1960s, under the direction of Director J. Edgar Hoover, the bureau often deployed these tactics to target persons of interest in a wide range of social groups, including the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panther Party. Often, break-ins were used to gather photographs, names of friends and allies, and other pieces of incriminating intelligence.

Many of these tactics fell into a grey area of legality, but yielded results that allowed the government to build cases against their targets. However, there was one infamous black bag job with the breadth and scope to take down the highest office in the land: the office of the President of the United States. That notorious example revolved around the perfect storm of President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign, former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt and staff counsel G. Gordon Liddy, and a coordinated break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate Hotel.

Whether a covert entry operation involves picking locks and planting bugs or simply biding time until the coast is clear to copy key intelligence, a black bag job necessitates sending an agent into the belly of the beast. What comes out of those covert operations can change the course of a presidency — or turn the tide of a war.

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