Pretty popular in fiction is the sleeper agent who is "activated" by a particular phrase, picture, or sound, and who then carries out a pretty complex mission or terroristic act. Are there any real world examples?

I'm pretty sure the actually unaware, hypnotized type isn't possible (correct me if I'm wrong). But is there a documented case of a deep cover, long term spy seeing an ad in a newspaper or receiving a phone call with only one innocuous phrase and then embarking on a complex mission without further interaction? For example, hearing the phrase "my dog is brown", and bang, carrying out the Madrid train bombing?

Here are some websites that talk about this, as per request.

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    Have you ever heard of this sort of thing outside of fiction? Would help if you could at least quote some sort of nutty conspiracy site as part of your question.
    – JasonR
    Commented Mar 13, 2011 at 16:47
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    @Brightblades: Why bother? You can find people who will claim everything
    – Casebash
    Commented Mar 16, 2011 at 10:42
  • @Casebash, I think it is so we can focus our efforts - I want claims that are widely known or are made by influential people to be tackled before claims made around a campfire by kids.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented May 22, 2011 at 13:34
  • Would Anna Chapman and others from The Illegals Program qualify? The were sleeper agents.
    – vartec
    Commented Oct 8, 2012 at 8:29

4 Answers 4


The murderer of Robert Kennedy, Sirhan Sirhan, claimed he was hypnotized and in a trance.

To investigate whether it is possible to hypnotize someone to carry out a murder, Derren Brown made a man in the show Experiments shoot at Stephen Fry at a public event with a gun. The bullets were of course not real, but the participants believed they were. One can watch the episode on youtube.

The participant was prepped for month and select from a large group for being particularly suggestive (and not being a priori violent). Of course a TV show is not scientific evidence, so you have to make up your mind what to make of it.

  • I would note that even if Derren Brown's stunt is completely authentic, doing it with real bullet's is harder than what Derren Brown did. If Derren Brown would have known that the stunt kills someone that would have likely created anxiety in him. That anxiety could interfer with hypnosis.
    – Christian
    Commented Oct 20, 2012 at 14:54

Unsichtbare Ketten by Hans Ulrich Gresch is a book that summarizes most of the publically known research into questionable use of post hypnotic suggestions.

According to Grensch there no documented case of such use of hypnosis. If someone would however do such a thing they would probably want to keep it secret.


Probably happened

Actually, I think Operation Gladio is a great example of something that could have very conceivably meet your criteria. Gladio is NATO's oldest covert mission. It was also one of the first missions that CIA cooperated on -- the CIA having largely been started to throw the free elections in Post-WWII Italy.

Gladio was a Stay-behind operation. That means that it was a fall-back. It's an ambitious plan B that involved installing covert agents by way of natural (ideally) elevation and promotion so in the event of a regime change they have already established trust within the new regime to carry out the initiative.

The only questions are (1) how did Gladio operatives receive their instructions and (2) what would those instructions have looked like?

To answer the second question, it's quite clear Gladio was an operation of death, terrorism, assassination and infiltration. Just read about the operation in Italy. There were 127 weapons caches the Italians had to dismantle from this operation.

And, on to the first question.. Who really cares? It's logical with a weapon cache in another country the action would have had to be triggered remotely on the command of whomever set up or participated in the secret op. Did the trigger come by way of a mass communication? It'd have been more conceivable in 1950's with a mission the size of Gladio, but I don't have any evidence that it was so. Now with SSL and IPSEC it's highly unlikely to permit the message to traverse an unsecured medium. If such an operation ever happened with mass media used in the trigger you should be reading about the years of 1900-1975.

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    It would be awesome if you could complement the Wikipedia links by more notable sources since Wikipedia itself isn’t notable enough. It should be possible to find newspaper articles on this – maybe it’s even enough to include one or two references from the respective Wikipedia articles. Commented Oct 8, 2012 at 12:27
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    P2 was run by Licio Gelli who publically admitted to be part of Gladio. P2 had real power in Italy that wouldn't have suddenly vanished if the communists would have won an election in Italy. On a more speculative note Gladio might have had links to the Cosa Nostra which helped the US to overtake Sicily in WW2. Such organisations have far more power than lone sleepers.
    – Christian
    Commented Oct 20, 2012 at 14:40

Yes, there have been.

The US CIA project MKUltra specifically dealt with hypnotic techniques, particularly involving drugs to augment the programming.

Understanding that:

  • espionage practices are not public record (national security),
  • assassination practices are even further shielded from public record,
  • the CIA is an agency for:

    1. intelligence gathering
    2. executing foreign policy 'to dismantle threats'

We can logically understand that creating assassination-capable assets is part of the agency's mandate.

It's important to remember that the successfulness of hypnotized-assassination-agent programming is not determinable at this time. Movies may be sensationalizing the attempts to do so. Evidence otherwise is quite welcome.

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