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It's a common trope that during the Cold War (and afterwards) America, the UK, the USSR, and sometimes nations beyond these developed super spies, capable of acts of espionage, sabotage, and direct military action worthy of a film deal or two. Often they're subject of super-soldier programs, and achieve abilities beyond the normal man. James Bond, Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt, and Black Widow to name a few.

Not only do these spies accomplish the unbelievable before breakfast, they also (strangely) often embark on missions that leave international involvement difficult to deny, if not downright impossible, with burning buildings and mass-murdering of enemy soldiers, yet often are assumed to be covert.

How far (and in what ways) can someone follow this trope while:

  • Abiding by the laws of science
  • Keeping their skills and capabilities within what is technically possible for a human
  • Not altering history as we know it today
  • Explaining how they could exist while we (as common citizens posting on WB) would have no evidence of their existence, nor probable cause of suspicion that they did, in fact, exist

...And what things will have to be thrown away?

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Aug 12 '16 at 13:13

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There are very real world training programs designed to identify folks with, and further enhance, astounding levels of resilience, endurance, and fortitude. Most of that you would consider a "super spy" is really just someone with a very high level of patience, perseverance through adversity, and dogged determination. You don't need super healing, world class levels of martial arts, or bullseye marksmanship in order to do incredible damage to an enemy through espionage.

Just consider the amount and length of training American special forces goes through. YEARS of training. It both creates high level operators and, more importantly, selects for those few folks with abnormally high levels of mental and physical capability. There is nothing magic or high tech about it, just a solid training program paired with a LOT of money and resources.

So high level espionage organizations can recruit from military units, than add that final level of polish in select skills. Most espionage isn't flashy hand to hand combat and demolitions, but rather charismatic persuasion, shrewd economic analysis, and an ability to sense and exploit weakness. One could argue that such a training program would naturally select for sociopaths, but again, that is just taking advantage of natural human resources, not "creating" them in some way.

Extensive drug enhancement, psychotherapy, and the like (typical Jason Bourne type program) are not very practical because they have a low level of social acceptance, are not well understood tools for positive enhancement, and require continuous application. It is very difficult for a (relatively) open society like the US to engage in such programs. I suppose the Russian or Chinese could be doing it (certainly their state sponsored athletic programs are accused of it often) but ultimately it is probably too hard to make effective operatives in the numbers required through these techniques. If giving soldiers steroids would make then unstoppable, believe you me the US would be doing it. But while steroids might make for awesome SWOLE bodybuilders, it makes for sucky endurance soldiers embedded with the natives for weeks on end (even ignoring the long term health effects). Same with most PEDs. Psychotherapy isn't NEARLY so well developed that it can achieve specific reproducible results. It is just easier to screen for folks who can pull the trigger when asked to do so, there are enough of them out there that we don't need to try to manufacture them (the classic "here is a puppy, come to love it, then we'll require you to kill it" scenario is really a SCREENING tool, not a development technique).

Plus it is unnecessary. One man armies are not feasible, no matter how well trained. In the real world they catch a bullet early on. Direct action requires a team, tons of planning and rehearsal, and not a small amount of luck. Solo guys just can't do it, no matter how skilled they may be.

So it is far better to have a tight screening mechanism to identify folks who can hack the job, give them some specific training for the job they'll need to do, utilize a strong mentorship program, and then let natural ingenuity take over as the operative grows and develops. In the novels, James Bond is more like this. His strength isn't that he is an unstoppable ninja, but rather that he has a good eye for estimating people, can handle himself ok in a fight, and has a well rounded skill set. And of course he is surrounded by plot armor a mile thick so he isn't really a viable real world model.

EDIT: As for creating a "real world" super spy program, I think the most plausible model is based on good recruitment. The older, experienced agents have to work with various military, police, and legal agencies. They identify folks that seem to have values compatible with what the Agency can use (low threshold for killing, high loyalty and patriotism, an "ends justify the means" attitude, etc). These selected targets get recruited and undergo some training designed to give them a well rounded skill set but more importantly test them to see if they will hold up under pressure. But since these recruits have ALREADY undergone various rigorous training programs the Agency isn't trying to mold folks into killing machines (kind of what I think Bourne was about) but rather make sure the killing machines they've recruited are stable enough to operate in the field. No need to build agents from scratch out of orphans or whatever (the Black Widow model) when there are so many to choose from with established records. Then the recruits go into the field under the eye of a mentor, accomplish their tasks, and are eventually sent out solo once their reliability is ascertained.

Of course this isn't likely how any actual intelligence agencies usually operate, but for the purposes of having "lone wolf" operatives I think it is a plausible method for developing them. It gives you combat/police veterans with substantial experience who then get the espionage basics (though most police and special forces probably already have them) and a supervised period to mature into a capable agent. I suspect most espionage agents learn their tradecraft "on the job" doing very low risk routine things before they graduate to more high risk operations rather than just popping out of "spy school" ready to infiltrate the Kremlin. And it is undoubtedly more of a team operation instead of one guy going into some country and doing it all on his own.

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    $\begingroup$ "Solo guys just can't do it, no matter how skilled they may be" This more than the fancy gadgets or improbable escapes breaks the reality of spy stories for me. The world is in danger, global war at risk, and they send one guy with a pistol and a dossier to fix it all. $\endgroup$ – Kys Aug 10 '16 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ At least the earlier Bond films usually had Bond call in the cavalry at the end. He was more of a recon unit to penetrate a (highly) suspected threat organization, get actionable intel, then waves of color coordinated good guys fought waves of color coordinated bad guys :) $\endgroup$ – Jason K Aug 10 '16 at 14:07
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    $\begingroup$ "are not well-understood tools for positive enhancement". In short they don't work even remotely like the movies. It would be astonishing if there aren't elite soldiers taking steroids somewhere. But they give you a fraction better performance, not movie physics. Ben Johnson and Lance Armstrong won at sport, they didn't back-flip off a motorbike under machine-gun fire ;-) $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Aug 11 '16 at 12:52
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    $\begingroup$ US soldiers are not taking anabolic steroids, they are tested for that and would get prosecuted under UCMJ. So if they are, it is on their own initiative and at their own risk. About the only PED program I've heard of in the military are amphetamines for alertness, and even they are sorta hush-hush. $\endgroup$ – Jason K Aug 11 '16 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for not including any links to TV Tropes (especially for the wonderful term "plot armor" which I hadn't heard before). I really need to get some things done today and a direct link would've spelled the end of my working day. :) $\endgroup$ – brichins Aug 11 '16 at 17:53
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The real life answer is not to use super soldiers at all, but "grey men". During the cold war era, the KGB and GRU could assassinate defectors in the West without anyone being caught, despite the use of exotica like putting radioactive polonium in the tea or injecting a victim with a pellet of Ricin concealed inside an umbrella.

The Mossad is also known to have gotten a lot of people (after the Munich Massacre of 1972, teams of assassins travelled the Earth hunting down members of the Black September organization. The story of one team was recounted in the book Vengeance. Nuclear scientists in Iran seem to have "accidents"" more often than by chance, and Gerald Bull, a ballistic scientist who was making a supergun for Saddam Hussain was killed under very suspicious circumstances as well.

In virtually all cases, the perpetrators were never found.

The same principle would apply to computer hacking, espionage, sabotage and other things the spy would need to do. Even blowing things up would require a careful consideration of the target, moving in unobtrusively (maybe disguised as a delivery truck or a utility van) and then exiting ("I'm on coffee") to be picked up as you go around the corner and a timer detonates the truck.

Careful training and constant practice is required, and training would also involve the ability to rapidly memorize what is seen, careful attention to detail, the ability to mimic and the ability to blend in using culture, clothing, makeup and even stage magic skills to distract people.

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    $\begingroup$ If you refer to the death of Alexander Litvinenko, it was in 2006, long after the Cold War as it's usually understood. $\endgroup$ – ilkkachu Aug 11 '16 at 9:50
  • $\begingroup$ I'd understood that the umbrella trick was ascribed to Bulgarians rather than the Russians. Still behind the Iron curtain, but a different agency and one less affected by tit-for-tat diplomatic arguments over "cultural attachés". $\endgroup$ – origimbo Aug 11 '16 at 17:58
  • $\begingroup$ Trying to find the source turned out to be very difficult (more grey men?), but this only serves to illustrate the point. You don't want it to be easy to track down or too obvious as to who did it. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Aug 11 '16 at 18:10
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    $\begingroup$ @ilkkachu, well, in the Litvinenko case it was more or less found what happened, just not in time to catch anybody. But I read they probably pulled similar stunt once much earlier already and the first time around police nor counter-intelligence didn't have a slightest clue what happened. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Aug 12 '16 at 15:07
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This question reminds me of the adage/quote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. It applies to operations as well as technology.

In real life, you're not going to find anyone like James Bond or Ethan Hunt, etc. There are no super soldiers who are one man armies that can take out hordes of trained opponents. To be brutally honesty about it, there aren't even any people in the world who can consistently win a "fair" engagement against a single trained opponent... which is why spies and commandos (special forces) have so many resources behind them and work so hard to avoid a "fair fight". That said, there are people in real life who might look like they can do that, if all you're looking at is the point man, and you don't see, or ignore the hundreds of people involved in a successful, real-life covert operation.

The reality of espionage/black-ops is that it's an extremely expensive team effort that is usually mind-numbingly boring, and whether it's a magical, implausible super-spy trope or just the result of a good planning and multiple highly-trained trained teams is largely a function of perspective. Consider, for example, the case of Stuxnet. A bunch of politicians identified a problem - Iran was developing a nuclear program. A group of spies and analysts gathered intelligence about that operation, including who was involved, and what equipment was being used. This involved billions of dollars of surveillance equipment and thousands of man-hours of surveillance. Using that intel, a team of software engineers developed a complicated computer program to target that specific configuration of industrial machines. Then a spy was given the task of getting that program onto the laptop of one the workers at Iran's nuclear weapons development facility. (Another task that probably took multiple teams to gather intelligence on and execute). All that to make Iran's Uranium-enrichment centrifuges fail inexplicably.

If all you see is the spy who managed to break into the laptop (or turn the owner, or however they did it), and the results, it looks like magic. If you know the whole story, it's much more mundane. The same applies to combat operations by special forces operators. For every impossible-looking mission that a special operations team takes on, there is millions or billions of dollars of technology, thousands of man-hours of surveillance and analysis and a massive support staff backing them up to make it happen.

So, as far as the super-spy/super-soldier trope in real life... well, you can't actually get anywhere near it. No amount of science is going to give a guy the ability to break out of any restraints, take out multiple opponents holding him captive, dodge bullets, or anything else. With enough resources behind you, though, you can definitely make it look that way to anyone who doesn't have the whole picture.

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    $\begingroup$ "If you find yourself in a fair fight, recon screwed up". Can't remember where I heard it, but it's basically what modern warfare is all about, whether on the open field or in the dark shadows. $\endgroup$ – Jörg W Mittag Aug 10 '16 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ Well, there is the unexplained Clinton body count... who knows, there may be a super-spy there. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hampton Aug 11 '16 at 8:39
  • $\begingroup$ This is the answer. If you start a mission against overwhelming odds, the most likely outcome is that it will fail, no matter how good your guy is trained. As Sun Tzu (or someone called similarly said), a great general is the one who has won the battle before it has started. $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Aug 11 '16 at 11:13
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During the late 60's and throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union ran several very succesful spy programs. One of their strengths was pitching these groups against one another, and thus capturing information regarding a Western secret from several different sources, thus getting a very complete understanding of what's going on in the West.

Author Victor Suvorov, in his book Aquarium, describes being recruited from the military into the Spetsnaz, and being groomed to eventually join the elite Soviet Military Intelligence Directorate, or GRU for short. He describes the training, tools, and support that their agents received, as well as the many security measures which were employed to determine that information was valid, and that agents remained loyal. It's a incredible read, and I highly, highly recommend it. That being said, I'll go over the main points:

The people being recruited into the GRU were all military personnel. Suvorov himself was a tank commander when he was first noticed by the officer who eventually had him transferred out of the tank corps, and into Spetsnaz. What set him apart from others was an ability to think independently, which marked him as a useful underling. (a tank broke down, blocking the exit from the military base, and the entire battalion was stuck in the middle of a military exercise. Without waiting for orders from higher - the Soviet mentality - Suvorov ordered his plattoon to turn off the main road and drive straight through the base perimeter - walls, barbed wire and all)

Once in the Spetsnaz he was then trained as an elite special forces soldier, as well as in extreme survival techniques behind enemy lines, and disrupting both government, law enforcement, and military agencies. Things like sabotage, typical police and military deployments, etc. avoiding, and even fighting trained police dogs, surviving off of the land in extreme situations, etc.

I'm detailing all this because I want to underline that this guy had elite military training before he became a spy. He proved that he was a tough bastard, and that he had no issues killing people before he was even approached by the GRU.

He was then subtlety tested by the GRU without it even coming to the knowledge of his own officers. He was instructed to play sick, and get a medical discharge for a few days (difficult to do in and of itself). He was then to slip out of the base undetected, undergo a night mission across the border, and return to the base undetected. He succeeded, not knowing why, or questioning orders, and was then approached by a GRU officer with a recruitment offer. As you can see, even for an elite soldier, he was still supposed to accomplish feats which not just anyone would get away with.

Once in the GRU (officially he was part of a scout division or some such thing, and still part of a regular military unit) his training began. The recruits were taught by former spies who had, essentially, screwed up, and were known to Western spy and law enforcement agencies - aka useless in the field. They underwent psychological torture and extreme testing. They would be held in a room, in front of a panel of "interviewers" for hours, and hours and asked question, machine gun style. His answers were all recorded, the point being to be as accurate as possible under extreme stress. Sometimes they would be kind to him, other times he would be lead on with some false information, or treated very poorly. He was expected to see through the subterfuge, ignore the false leads, and still provide an intelligent answer to what he was being asked.

Another huge part of his training was recognizing people, and places at a glance. He would have to memorize hundreds of faces, then recognize the same people with different haircuts, clothes, wearing glasses, etc. There was a major, major focus on this to the point where the agents developed almost photographic memory for any sort of detail that you and I might forget 10 seconds after meeting someone.

Memorizing languages was also a must, even if he could barely pronounce the words. The focus was always on memorization.

His final exam was to perform spy duties in Moscow, as if an enemy agent. The KGB cadet's final exam was to catch them, so there existed very real competition even to graduate. He was expected to completely memorize the city in which he operated, to know every nook and cranny, every street, where every door lead. Every hiding spot, every possible location for a dead-drop, and even which stores are located where. He succeeded in his mission, and was assigned abroad, as a diplomat to a Russian embasy.

Once there his training only continued. He was expected to memorize the city where he would be operating, to understand everything about their law enforcement procedures, deployments, etc. His training now started focusing on human interactions. Reading people at a glance, dominating them by sheer strength of will, through nothing more than a hand shake, or looking them in the eye (he describes training by going to the Zoo and staring tigers in the eye).

His loyalty, skills, and knowledge were always being tested. Finding a letter addressed to someone else in your mailbox was something to be immediately reported to your superior officer - failing to do so could be signing your own death warrant.

As he rose through the ranks of the GRU you can see that the focus turns from any military skill to pure endurance, grit, and psychological manipulation. Shooting people, blowing stuff up, etc. is reserved for James Bond novels. Getting to know just the right people, and convincing them to grant you favors was their bread and butter. Subtlely putting them into a situation where they can't refuse your requests, etc.

For more details get the book, it's really a great read.

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    $\begingroup$ Well, that's only half the story about the GRU. Much of the reason they were able to run circles around Western intelligence was luck (and good human intelligence) - they had several highly placed moles in US government agencies that they paid for the intel they needed. There's no intelligence like human intelligence. In reality, what the GRU did, and how they did it, wasn't spectacular or out of the ordinary compared to contemporary intelligence agencies. What you describe applies to CIA field officers as well - they recruit from the military and go through similar training. $\endgroup$ – HopelessN00b Aug 10 '16 at 17:10
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So the rules are

  • Abide by the laws of science
  • Keeping skills and capabilities within what is technically possible for a human
  • Not altering history

The question to answer is

  • how they could exist while we have no evidence of their existence

The first thing, we need to bear in mind is that there has to be no evidence, so this rules out

  • government oversight
  • any paper trail

In order to do this, I'd suggest an old boys network of connections, working without being compensated in any tangible way, maybe working favours for favours but essentially it would be an outside agency without an record anywhere.

The skills needed, so I think we are onto something with the super soldier programs. I think you do like in the Bourne films, recruit the best and put them through a brainwashing process so they become super loyal and willing to sacrifice themselves for the job. 100% dedication plus previous training plus steroids will result in some very scary individuals.

Things that would need to be dropped are espionage and the agents themselves, on failure of mission, they would need to self terminate, removing all traces of identity at the same time. The same agents whilst ideal for throwing into conflict would probably be emotional wrecks and useless when it came to espionage (although kidnapping and torture would be well within their scope).

In addition, as is mentioned in other answers a single super soldier is not going to get very far on their own against an army. A small group (10-15) would be able to achieve much more.

Also, ruining these soldiers psychologically isn't going to leave them to be fit to return to society at the end so each would need to be dispatched before they went off the rails.

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  • $\begingroup$ It doesn't rule out government oversight and paper trail- just it has to be on level of top secret and above and mostly the oversight is a joke just for the CIA and others and paperwork would be scant. $\endgroup$ – user2617804 Aug 11 '16 at 10:09
  • $\begingroup$ @user2617804 I think it does rule out a paper trail, all papers are declassified at some point in the future and government oversight means more people know, the more people know, the more likely to spill the beans $\endgroup$ – Chris J Aug 11 '16 at 11:14
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Most of the answers have suggested that there are limits to how powerful a lone spy can become. With only a slight-stretch of the meaning of "reality-check", I offer the following alternative...

For your super spy to exist, there must also exist an invisible yet transcendent motivator. Your spy and few others must know something which fundamentally changes the nature of the world and drives their efforts to superhuman levels.

Although singularly fit and well trained, your super spy must rely on a network of influential people who occupy exactly the right positions to help out with any difficulties. With a phone call, your super spy needs to be able to silence the media, get civilian cellphones confiscated, have people arrested and/or bribed into silence. To take on armies single handled, and win, your super spy has to be able to accomplish anything that a single, well connected person can do, and maybe even a little more than that.

Your super spy also needs to live beyond money. If a mission requires travel, it must be funded. If special equipment is needed, experts must be hired to design and create it. Your agent needs a supply of money which is not only unlimited but also untraceable.

To develop such supporting influence and financial networks, your super agent must be able to unerringly sway others to the cause. Simply by sharing the knowledge, the agent must be able to transform anyone into an ally regardless of their original beliefs or loyalties.

This is where the transcendent motivator comes in. Imagine some fact, which if shared with you, would instantly convert you from hesitant bystander to enthusiastic supporter. Something that could convince you in an instance, that any action other than compliance is a hopeless waste. You've probably encountered many such facts before in fiction. The movies, The Cabin in the Woods and Jupiter Ascending both contain good examples of powerful hidden truths. An even better example is in the movie Deep Impact, where knowledge of an impending extinction level event instantly forged a cooperative link between a cub reporter and POTUS.

Knowledge is powerful stuff.

And the nice part of all of this, the part that drags this fanciful answer back into the realms of reality, is that the hidden truth doesn't even need to be factually true. It just needs to be overwhelmingly dire and easily verifiable. Your super spy's college roommate could be a hacker who has falsified the space telemetry reports. Whatever the hidden transcendent motivator threatens never actually has to come true. You can just engineer it out of your story in the end.

In that context, the "truth" becomes a tool in the hands of your super spy, rather than your spy being a tool of the transcendent truth.

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I think in books, movies, and folklore, when things are attributed to a single super spy, they would be done in real life by a group of unrelated sleeper spies who each only serve one role, unaware of the master plan.

Think of someone picking up and delivering a package, one time, ever, without an idea of what the purpose was. They would be living a normal life possibly for years, until given the command via number station or something similar. If caught, they could be tortured without ever being able to confess to what they actually did. When in actuality. for example, they delivered a bomb/poison/hostage/passwords from the agent that acquired it, to the person that intends to use it, so those two parties would be left unaware of each other and anything larger than their own role.

What things have to be thrown away? The idea of the individual spy doing all the work.

What really has to be thrown away? The spy announcing his name, the same name, every time he meets someone!

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    $\begingroup$ What really has to be thrown away? The spy announcing his name, the same name, every time he meets someone! More to that point, in the real world, once a special forces operator or covert agent gets his cover blown, he's done with covert operations, permanently. It's happened from something as innocuous as a photographer taking a picture with a covert agent's face in the background while on a mission or working a cover. $\endgroup$ – HopelessN00b Aug 10 '16 at 17:02
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I'm not familiar enough with the original show to know if it explored their training/development at all or not, but the Mission Impossible team seems like a much more plausible spy scenario. No single point of failure, but a team of experts in their respective fields who can, together, manage to overcome just about any situation, especially with the support of other friends & allies they have cultivated on their own.

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Huge amounts of luck, and insanely incompetent opposition

You ask...

How far (and in what ways) can someone follow this trope

Short answer is: they cannot. Look through the history of all real life spies and you find that espionage is next to always a very dreary and squalid affair.

The main problem is that the superagent is always an outsider, meaning that he should not have access to anything sensitive at all. Only way he can get that is to through incredible incompetence of his opponents.

Next look at all the narrow escapes that these characters always effect, over and over and over. One stray ricochet in a rain of bullets and it would be all over. Their luck is astronomical, once all these lucky escapes multiply their respective improbabilities.

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    $\begingroup$ It's all to down to the side effects of the infinite improbability drive $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Aug 10 '16 at 13:48
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    $\begingroup$ > Look through the history of all real life spies and you find that espionage is next to always a very dreary and squalid affair Most people can only look through history of failed real spies, which gives some selection bias tbh. $\endgroup$ – Daerdemandt Aug 10 '16 at 18:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Daerdemandt Or retired/expired spies of course; people like John Le Carre who wrote fictionalised accounts of his time in the secret service post "retirement" or the official history of MI5 that was published some time ago. Remembering that the Cold war is over (sort of) published accounts of that time are printed with very little redaction. (See the 30 year rule in the UK) $\endgroup$ – MD-Tech Aug 11 '16 at 11:02
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Skill/capability wise someone around Bond's level of skill is possible. Using steroids and other drugs (Russia should be good at that) and/or an extreme training regime a human with similar physical capabilities to Bond is possible. Marksmanship may be slightly worse than in films but someone could still probably be trained to shoot very accurately at moderate distances and even hit a moving target. I doubt anyone could do the shooting the pilot of a plane while you are falling off a skyscraper level of accuracy but a person who can kill 9 times out of 10 over a moderate distance is plausible.

Sending these spies out on missions where they have to kill Soviet soldiers or obviously attack a foreign nation in a big way would probably alter history to some extent but limiting the spies activity to being sent up against terrorists and private individuals would avoid history being changed.

Stoping the public finding out in the Cold War era isn't hard. Just make sure the spy leaves before media coverage arrives and then set up a fake terrorist group or gang to claim responsibility. Nowadays it would be harder due to mobile phone footage and sites like YouTube but as long as the spies are very discreet it should be possible.

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If you want to see a more realistic portrayal of a Bond-like secret agent, I recommend you view the old BBC series 'Danger Man'. Good show.

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Early in grade-school I was tested, along with a small group, by the NSA/CIA. That's where it starts. There was a small group of us with exceptional abilities.

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  • $\begingroup$ this needs more detail and to answer the question directly $\endgroup$ – Chris J Aug 11 '16 at 8:59
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisJ Not being completely fabricated would be a plus too. This sounds like the backstory to the kind of B.S. Hollywood superspy tropes the OP is asking how to avoid. $\endgroup$ – HopelessN00b Aug 11 '16 at 13:28

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