If I seem overly harsh here, I apologize. My doctor just cut a piece of my foot off, and it hurts like you wouldn’t believe.
We used a very strict definition of spy, for a couple simple reasons: one, we’re a writing blog, so this is intended for people who are, well, writing Spies, and second, because anyone can fit the definition of a spy, depending on who’s making the accusation.
A spy is an opportunistic title. When you’re looking at literature, and media in general, a spy is going to be either a HUMINT operator or a James Bond super-ninja. Thing is HUMINT are an extreme minority of the intelligence community.
Intelligence gathering gets split under two large banners, SIGINT and HUMINT.
HUMINT is short for Human Intelligence, if you’re thinking of writing a spy, then you’re probably thinking of a HUMINT operator. These are the characters that Michi detailed in the psychological outlook. It’s the kind of spy that John Le Carre actually was. In broad strokes, it’s where 95% of the espionage genre exists, or where it tries to exist.
HUMINT can refer to deep cover agents, but more often, it refers to officers that recruit and use others to do their spying for them. This is part of why they end up with the incredibly cold outlook they do. Burn Notice's Michael Westen and Le Carre's George Smiley are both examples of HUMINT Officers.
SIGINT is Signals Intelligence. This includes anyone that gathers intelligence through electronic means without involving real people. These are surveillance techs, radio operators, sat techs, computer programers, IT guys. Anyone who sits in an office, and collects intelligence via the internet, sat feeds, or wire taps. This is the kind of spy that Ian Flemming was in real life, and you can start to see why James Bond split off from reality so egregiously.
There are circumstances where you’ll need to stick a SIGINT officer in the field, but, even then, defining them as a spy would be a bit tenuous.
After this you have Analysts, who take the data that’s been collected and use it to generate a coherent picture, and figure out what the intelligence means. Jack Ryan in the early Tom Clancy novels is one of these. Analysts are people who have to have a fairly deep understanding of their field, and they’ll look more like academics than spies.
There’s also a lot of support personnel, military intelligence and special forces, who all have intelligence roles.
As I mentioned earlier, the problem with the term “spy” is it can apply to anyone.
Is Edward Snowden a spy or a whistle blower? Uncomfortable as it is, the difference is just who’s making the accusation.
There’s also a long tradition of charging foreign visitors as spies because “reasons.”
There were the programers from Bohemia Interactive who were arrested in Greece for being spies. Their crime was they had cameras and were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Iraq and Iran had a long history of arresting any foreign national they found near their shared border and labeling them a spy. Sometimes even crossing over the border and hauling them back. This included fishermen, farmers, and of course a trio of American hikers.
North Korea has also been known to cross the Chinese border in search of “spies” that never set foot in North Korea.
And, of course, Iran is now going to execute an American programmer because of some tenuous connections between his employer and the DoD.
Welcome to the wonderful world of espionage, one execution at a time. If you’re setting out to actually write a spy, it’s probably going to be a HUMINT Officer.
Anonymous: Re: your post on spies: You should probably note that you are talking specifically about covert HUMINT operatives. There are a lot of other types of spies out there, most of whom don't fit your profile.