If you want to dive into the world of sabotage and secret agents you’ll need to ace spy school first - pitting you against your peers, living under constant surveillance, and being pushed beyond your breaking point. If that sounds joyful, you’re a prime candidate for a very exclusive club.
SPYSCAPE toured the top spy schools to discover more about the world of playback and provocateurs.
CIA: The Farm, Virginia
Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) ricochets around black ops and terrorist cells in Homeland but is life as a CIA operative really so adrenaline-packed? Yes, and it starts at the CIA’s Virginia training school known as ‘the Farm’. Trainees spend six months roaming the fake Republic of Vertania (as it is known) and learning how to fire M4 rifles, race speedboats, flip cars, and recruit assets. Expect sleep to be interrupted by urgent walk-ins reporting ‘threats’ and ‘terror attacks’ - and keep an eye out for the fake roadside bombs around campus. You’ll need to be a velvet hammer with nerves of steel. The homeland really is at stake.
FBI: Quantico, Virginia
You’ll need to get comfortable wearing a tactical vest and carrying a gun if you’re a G-Man. Trainees live in a 50-person dorm. Aside from basic field training and a fitness test - push-ups, sit-ups, and a 1.5-mile run - there’s 800 hours of academics, tactics, law enforcement skills, and firearms ahead. Tactical training is in Hogan’s Alley, a mock town where the bank is robbed twice a week and mobsters rub shoulders with drug dealers and terrorists. You’ll hone your investigative skills, process evidence, and have gunfights with ‘criminals’. If you’re lucky, you may even have time for a damn fine cup of coffee.
DEA: Quantico, Virginia
If you’re hoping to take down drug cartels, the Drug Enforcement Agency has your back but you’ll need to be patient. It will take at least 12 months to pass the panel interview, polygraph, background checks, and psychological assessment. The DEA opened its own academy in 1999 where trainees spend 18 weeks conducting surveillance and undercover ops and executing drug raids. New agents also train on marksmanship, combat shooting, and conduct raids in low-light while using a shield. The DEA has a clandestine laboratory with its own raid house. And yes, you definitely need to pass the drug test.
MI6: Fort Monckton, England
Britain’s MI6 is secretive about training but the smart money is on Fort Monckton in Hampshire, England. Ex-MI6 officer Richard Tomlinson mentioned it in his controversial book The Big Breach. The Intelligence Officer's New Entry Course reportedly teaches recruits how to handle agents, operate under a cover identity, shoot weapons, and master tradecraft like dead drops, codes, surveillance, and counter-surveillance techniques. Tomlinson trained for six months before missions that included smuggling nuclear secrets out of Moscow. He also revealed that MI6 agents, like 007, really do have a license to kill.
British Secret Services: Scottish Highlands
Scotland’s historic ties to espionage are like its winters - long and dark - and Britain’s secret service is suspected of running more than one academy. Arisaig House (above) was HQ to the Special Operations Executive in WWII, teaching commandos ‘ungentlemanly warfare’. Their job was to wreak havoc behind enemy lines to undermine Germany and Japan. A disposal team was called to Arisaig several years ago to deal with five unexploded bombs. The bang and burn doesn't end there. Ken Connor, ex-SAS Special Forces, said he trained Mujahideen fighters at three secret camps in Scotland and England during the 1980s.
Sparrow School: Kazan, Russia
At the height of the Cold War, Soviets spoke in hushed tones about ‘Sparrow’ School, where women trained in the art of seduction, entrapment, blackmail, and how to open a champagne bottle. The fictional Kon Institute, where ballerina Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) trained, is based on State School 4 in Kazan, Tatarstan, near Moscow, according to Jason Matthews, an ex-CIA officer and author of Red Sparrow. If you think every Sparrow School closed when the Soviet Union collapsed, you may want to take a refresher course with Honey Traps 101.
401st KGB school: St. Petersburg
Russia’s Vladimir Putin trained for a year at the 401st KGB school in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg ) in 1977 but the curriculum was shrouded in secrecy. Did the Soviets really build ‘Coca-Cola City’ - a replica US city where KGB spies drove American cars and trained to blend in on Main Street USA? Some ex-spies insist the fake city existed, others disagree. What is certain is that Putin learned counterintelligence, martial arts, and German, then studied at the Academy of Foreign Intelligence in the 1980s. US intel indicates the institute also trained Libyan intelligence officers in dark arts for the Gaddafi regime.
The BND - Germany’s version of the CIA - teaches recruits how to deal with informants, foreign languages, and defensive driving. Twenty percent of the curriculum is spent studying intelligence law. According to Focus Magazine, trainees also learn how to lie successfully - which is where ex-president Bill Clinton comes in. BND psychology professor Markus Denzler said Clinton touched his nose 26 times while discussing Monica Lewinsky, a sign he wasn’t telling the truth. So, if you want to blag your way out of a difficult situation, try not to cover your mouth, touch your nose, nod too often, or breathe quickly. Failing that, you could try putting your enemy to sleep by discussing the finer points of intelligence law.
Actress Diane Kruger stars as an undercover Mossad officer in The Operative, a story about secrets, betrayal, and Iran's nuclear plans. To prepare, Kruger underwent five days of Mossad training where she had to enter Israel on a fake passport and persuade an apartment owner to let her stand on the balcony. Kruger saw more back alleys than she’d seen in her life and walked away in awe: “Mossad agents have an intelligence and an ability to manipulate people without them knowing they’re being manipulated. It’s extraordinary.”
ASIS: Swan Island, Australia
Little is known about Swan Island, Australia’s ‘ultra-secret clandestine warfare center’ but it is likely used for weapons training. Three Special Forces officers died while driving to the island during their month-long counterterrorism course in 2007. The Minister of Defense has described it as a venue for naval training in the use of radar flares. In 2010, Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) spies were said to be using Swan Island to train with overseas operatives but maybe they were just enjoying the golf course that adjoins the military base.