Spy From Weights and Measures
One problem with being a member of the Government Agency of Fiction is that, at some point, you need to interact with the public or non-covert governmental agencies. This is where being a Spy From Weights and Measures comes in. This is where a covert group has a highly mundane front and it will sometimes be commented that their funding is hidden from the public within the low funding the front group officially receives. Sometimes this will be played for laughs, as characters will either make fun of the official organ the spies are supposed to come from, or else see the front for the Paper-Thin Disguise that it is. As a general note, it is very common for a cultural attache to be one of these ("travel to interesting places; kill interesting people").
Compare with the low rank/high power of the Almighty Janitor, as well as the Legitimate Businessmen's Social Club, which is when something similar is done by The Mafia, just not very well. See also Milkman Conspiracy and Overt Operative.
Not to be confused with the actual use of anti-terrorism powers to enforce weights and measures laws.
Anime & Manga
- The spy/assassin November 11 in Darker than Black is officially supposed to be a minister of some sort.
- In the second season, two Contractor assassins, Mina and Genma and Kirihara are officially clerks for Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, which is a front for a Black Ops group supposedly fighting against The Syndicate. Given that the actual Ministry is involved in things like managing civil service and telecommunications, this is a perfect example of a "boring" department providing cover for nefarious schemes.
- In Ghost in the Shell, Section 9 employee Togusa mentions his cover is that of working for a security firm. Maj. Kusanagi on the other hand, maintains that she works for the Military. Ishikawa actually owns a gambling hall for cover. Section 9 usually work in official capacity or undercover, so they rarely need consistent covers.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion. The Marduk Institute is a front for SEELE. It's also mentioned that Marduk itself has 108 fronts.
- Ryoji Kaji, who basically everybody knows is a spy, is officially cited as a "UN attaché" who had guardianship of Asuka.
- Weiss Kreuz has the four assassins working a cover job as florists, first alongside a little old lady and her cat, and later in a pink mobile trailer. In the sequel series, they're investigating suspicious suicides at prep schools, and go under cover as teachers and students.
- The Adventures of Barry Ween: The agency that tracks down Barry Ween is the Foliage Census. Their security clearance Goes to Eleven.
- The American agency devoted to looking into super-human crimes in the WildStorm universe was the National Park Service, which is actually a real organization.
- It is mentioned in Moon Knight that a toy store is owned and operated by S.H.I.E.L.D. as a cover.
- Get Smart CONTROL has its headquarters in the Smithsonian.... in a display about CONTROL. The display pretends CONTROL was disbanded at the end of the Cold War.
- Muppets From Space: The top-secret C.O.V.N.E.T. facility is "cleverly disguised as a cement factory". (This leads to a funny bit later when Bobo suggests taking his company car.)
- Spies Like Us. The Ace Tomato company. Plus Mission Control for the military's SDI weapon was hidden under a deserted Drive-In Theater.
- Undercover Brother. The headquarters of the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. are located beneath a barber shop.
- Men in Black. MIB headquarters is hidden in the ventilator building of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.
- Field agents also claimed to be Division 6 of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. This became a Running Gag in the cartoon where they'd claim they were from Division 6 of whatever organization vaguely applied to the jurisdiction. Which would often result in competent civil servants knowing such a division did not exist.
- The Woody Allen movie Small Time Crooks features a cookie shop set up as a front for a bank robbery attempt. The attempt fails, but the front business becomes wildly successful.
- Jumping Jack Flash. At a funeral for a dead spy it's mentioned that he was in the greeting card business, presumably a Shout-Out to Get Smart.
- In Mission: Impossible III, Tom Cruise's character claims to work for the Virginia Department of Transportation. (Later, when he escapes from IMF headquarters, it's implied that their base actually is hidden behind VDOT.)
- Alternatively, that's what every agent says, so they keep a stash of VDOT stuff to give out.
- The headquarters of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense in Hellboy is located below a Sanitation Department building.
- Which also happens to neatly explain the garbage truck they drive around in.
- James Bond occasionally claims to be working for Universal Exports in a few movies. It rarely lasts long.
- Licence to Kill. The televangelist Joe the Butcher actually makes a profit from his preaching, even though it's only meant to be a cover for the Big Bad's drug operation. And a mook working at a marine supply business gives himself away when he doesn't know what the latin name for the Great White Shark is.
- And finally lampshaded in Quantum of Solace: James Bond mocks Felix Leiter for the CIA's evident inability to do this competently.
You know, you should just answer, 'CIA,' Felix. A taxi driver told me where the office was.
- In Bugsy Malone Pop Becker's book store is the front for Fat Sam's Grand Slam Speakeasy (however this may only be in the stage version I can't remember)
- Played with in Austin Powers - the front organisation Virtucom makes more money legitimately than Dr Evil's criminal plans would bring in.
- This becomes a running gag, where each new movie would have Number Two suggest they focus on a front organization, which is by far more profitable (Starbucks in the second and a talent agency in the third), only to be dismissed.
Dr. Evil: "Why make trillions, when we can make billions?"
- Horace and Jasper try this in Disney's One Hundred and One Dalmatians, with a briefcase labeled "Electric Co.", although Horace introduces them as being from the gas company before Jasper corrects him.
- The bad guys in Under Siege 2 blow up a Chinese "fertiliser plant".
Penn: A fertiliser plant?
Travis Dane: Yeah, I'm gonna shock the world by spreading ca-ca all over the place. Guangzhou is a chemical weapons plant masquerading as a fertiliser plant. We know this. The Chinese know that we know. But we make-believe that we don't know and the Chinese make-believe that they believe that we don't know, but know that we know. Everybody knows.
- In Charlie Wilsons War, Gust claims to work for Department of Agriculture's Fruit and Plant Division, specializing in apple imports, though it's mostly played as a joke because Joanne is well-aware he's with the CIA.
- The Wildfire biological research laboratory in the 1971 movie The Andromeda Strain is an underground Defense Department secret facility buried underneath a Department of Agriculture research station.
- Sherlock Holmes Fanon has turned "The Diogenes Club", founded by Sherlocks brother Mycroft Holmes into one of these while recreated Mycroft Holmes from being a fat and lazy civil servant into a 19th century M. The ur-example comes from The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes:
Mycroft: It's come to my attention that you are interested in the whereabouts of a certain engineer.
Sherlock: Yes I am.
Mycroft: Well, I can save you a lot of trouble. My suggestion is that you pursue it no further. It involves the national security. We are handling the matter.
Watson: We? Who are we?
Sherlock: The Diogenes Club.
Mycroft: I didn't say that.
Sherlock: I've long suspected some underground connection between this stodgy and seemingly calcified establishment and he foreign offices in Whitehall.
Mycroft: That is neither here nor there.
Sherlock: Your club is here, there and everywhere! When there are rumblings of revolt in the Sudan an expedition funded by your club conveniently shows up to study the source of the Nile. If there's trouble along the Indian frontier, members pop up in the Himalayas, allegedly looking for the abominable snowman.
Mycroft: [chuckles] What a vivid imagination my brother has.
- In the Aubrey-Maturin series, Stephan Maturin is one of Britain's most effective intelligence agents. He uses his (real) status as a respected natural philosopher and physician to travel in wartime.
- In Discworld, The Fifth Elephant has Inigo Skimmer, an assassin posing as a clerk, and a later book, Going Postal references a whole group of "dark clerks", nondescript gentlemen who appear to be ordinary clerks until you meet their eyes. Despite being mostly prize-scholarship graduates of the Guild of Assassins, the majority of their workload is apparently desk-based (Truth in Television for real intelligence agencies), but they're all fully trained for field operations should the need arise.
- In the James Bond novels, the British Secret Service is based in a large office building with several cover companies, including a radio company to explain all the antennae on the roof. Field agents like 007 are supposed to work for "Universal Export". This was sometimes mentioned in the movies as well.
- In Thunderball SPECTRE uses the cover of a refugee aid agency -- "Firco" in the novels; "International Brotherhood for the Assistance of Stateless Persons" in the film.
- In Charles Stross's The Laundry Series, starting with The Atrocity Archives, the supernatural math-magician enforcement/spy agency is fronted as, and always referred to as, "The Laundry", as it was at one time situated above (or behind) a Chinese laundry.
- Bill the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison. A frozen-food kosher ham store is literally a 'front' -- just a cardboard wall attached to the front of a tank used to ambush the revolutionaries, as Bill finds out when he tries to open the door. The unconvincing cover of a Jewish ham store makes no difference, as it turns out all the 'revolutionaries' are government spies anyway.
- Locke Lamora of the Gentlemen Bastard sequence claims to be one of these in the second book... as in, he tells another character that he used to work in the weights and measures department until he was recruited as a spy by the Archon, a position he's now supposedly on the run from. (The part about weights and measures is a complete fiction, and he's actually working for the Archon, under threat of blackmail, at the time he says this.)
- Michael Kurland uses almost this exact trope as a cover for his two agents in The Whenabouts of Burr.
- MI 6 fronts as a bank office in the Alex Rider series.
- Tom Clancy usually has super-paramilitary spy John Clark covering himself as a geologist. Clear and Present Danger implies that he's also knowledgeable enough to cover himself other ways as well. Debt of Honor actually has him and his partner pretending to be Russians to infiltrate Japan. When the paramilitary anti-terrorist organization Rainbow is established in Rainbow Six, they're listed as belonging to the Special Air Service in a case of Hiding In Plain Sight.
- In The Middleman, the title character and Wendy do this, such as claiming to be from Sanitation in the first episode and climatologists in the second. Rule of Funny is the operating factor, as in another episode, the heavily WASPy Middleman claims he, and Latina Wendy, are Mossad agents. (Then again, Mossad undoubtedly has agents who don't look recognizably Israeli/Jewish...) Also, Wendy's family and friends think she works for the Jolly Fats Weehauken Temp Agency. In fact, even the Middle Men claim not to know who they work for. They just came up with the acronym OTSTK (Organization To Secret To Know) to use when referring to the organization employing them.
- The Stargate program has the official cover of "deep-space radar telemetry". When Carter claims she's doing astronomy in an underground bunker, she gets some funny looks. O'Neill or Teal'c claiming likewise elicits outright disbelief.
- It also serves as a Mythology Gag. In the original movie the mention using radar to track the end of the wormhole, you can still see the mapping device in the show a few times.
- UFO. SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization) operated under the cover of a film studio.
- Parodied in the Monty Python's Flying Circus "Mr. Neutron" sketch. The U.S. government had F.E.A.R. (Federal Egg Answering Room) as a front group for F.E.E.B.L.E. (the Free world Extra-Earthly Bodies Location and Extermination centre).
- Heroes. The Company has Primatech Paper, the Deveaux Building and the Linderman Group.
- The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. U.N.C.L.E. headquarters is located behind Del Floria's Tailor Shop, while another entrance is via The Masque Club. U.N.C.L.E.'s "Section VII: Public Relations and Propaganda" had a charity fundraising group as a front.
- Deep Space Nine. Cardassian spy Garak operates from "Garak's Clothiers", a tailor shop. There is also a Del Floria's Tailor Shop listed on the Promenade businesses in a tongue-in-cheek homage to The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
- Garak is also an excellent tailor.
- Wiseguy. "Lifeguard" (Vinnie Terranova's Mission Control) answers the telephone as "Sailor Hardware", run by Vinnie's "Uncle Mike".
- The title Special Unit in Special Unit 2 uses a dry cleaners for cover.
- In one episode, a guy tries to rob the place with a handgun. Cue all the undercover cops taking out their oversized guns in a scene reminiscent of Robo Cop 3.
- Lost. The Others recruit Juliet through Mittelos Bioscience. The Lost Experience probably had dozens of these, too.
- Get Smart. Maxwell Smart pretends to be in the greeting card business.
- He also mentions that to keep his landlord from getting wise, he told him he works for the IRS to explain at the attempts on his life.
- The protagonists of the Syfy's The Invisible Man belong to "The Agency", a covert organization that due to defense budget cuts ended up being absorbed by the Department of Fish & Game. In the second season, The Agency ends up being absorbed by several similar unrelated departments, such as the Department Of Indian Affairs, the Department Of Health And Human Services and the United States Postal Service until finally settling in... the Bureau of Weights and Measures.
- Which becomes awkward in one episode where they go to a physics lab, and the scientists are actually expecting people from BWM to re-calibrate their equipment.
- Torchwood Three's main entrance is in the back of a Cardiff Tourist Bureau.
- The team from The Unit use the cover of being in logistics. To be fair, though, they do in fact do logistical work—in fact, one episode begins with Brown being tested in such. Subverted in that the cover is entirely believable; no one ever questions why the obviously badass soldiers are working in logistics, they simply believe, or are told by someone and then believe, that the operators have earned safe, cushy deskjobs after serving multiple tours in the Middle East as part of the regular Army.
- The eponymous artifact-collecting Warehouse from Warehouse 13 was officially operated by the Secret Service, and they get somebody giving them trouble over it about Once an Episode. Reality Is Unrealistic in this case: protecting the President is the most well-known duty of the Secret Service, but they were originally (and still are) the enforcement arm of the US Treasury, among other things.
- Warehouse 13 itself is out in a remote part of South Dakota, and is officially an IRS warehouse. Good cover, except that everyone in the small town hates the protagonists.
- Burn Notice: Carla uses one of these as a cover. Michael uses these occasionally, but he prefers private organizations. According to the narration, being in geological fieldwork is a good cover, getting used by multiple people in various episodes.
- When Michael gets on a semi-friendly relationship with the CIA again, the base of operations is a subsection shared with a more mundane government agency. It's more than just a front or a handy cover ID, as the real reason is simply practical business sense by sharing location costs and having a similar level of security.
- Doctor Who. In the first episode involving the Jon Pertwee Doctor, it's mentioned that UNIT HQ is pretending to be a branch of the Pensions Dept.
- A villainous example occurs in Alias with the terrorist group SD-6 masquerading behind the name of a bank, Credit Dauphine.
- Covert Affairs: As far as anyone outside the CIA knows, Annie works for the Smithsonian, and she often uses this as a cover while traveling abroad. In one episode, her niece's class is supposed to take a field trip to the Smithsonian while Annie is on an overseas mission, and Auggie has to smooth things over by giving them a tour.
- Chuck: Chuck and Casey's jobs at the Buy More are more or less genuine, but Casey has all sorts of weapons and gadgets hidden around the store, and the ice cream parlor where Sarah works is a front for a secret CIA base. It's not clear if the owners know this; presumably the place is run by the CIA, since Sarah is always away on missions and would probably be fired if it were a real job. Chuck's excuse is that he has to leave the store to answer tech support calls.
- And as of Season 4, the Buy More has been entirely taken over by the CIA and is a full-fledged secret base.
- JAG: Special Agent Clayton Webb insists that he works for the State Department, but none of the heroes buy it for a second.
- In the TV show 'The Unit', the official cover of the unit, which does highly secretive and dangerous missions, has the official cover of the 303rd Logistical Studies Unit. Logistical Studies involve studying the best and most efficient way of movement of cargo and supply.
- Another Case of Milton Jones. Inevitably, Milton suspects the National Trust of being a front. For the National Front. (They aren't, but they are sinister.)
- In Nebulous, K.E.N.T.'s cover is that they're a laundry. Much to Professor Nebulous's annoyance, their sponsors in the Government seem more inclined to buy equipment for the laundry than for eco-troubleshooting operations.
- Hunter: The Vigil has Task Force VALKYRIE, the high-priority special ops group that deals with supernatural incursions. Like the Secret Service, they're based out of the Treasury Department.
- In Max Payne, the title character infiltrates the Cold Steel Foundry at the start of the third act, a facility which Max notes is "a perfect front for all kinds of illegal activities." It turns out to hide a top secret military bunker called the Deep Six, which is the home of Project Valhalla and Valkyr.
- In the second game, "Squeaky Cleaners" are a bunch of hitmen serving as the Big Bad's private army.
- The Bumani Exchange Corporation in Knights of the Old Republic II is a poorly-concealed front for the Exchange.
- RED and BLU in Team Fortress 2 have several of these, and might be considered to be front companies themselves since even though they claim to be demolition and construction companies respectively, they've basically turned into PMCs.
- The original Milkman Conspiracy from Psychonauts uses a cookie-selling girl scout organization for cover.
- In Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines, the Ventrue prince of Los Angelos rules from a skyscraper named Venture Tower (notice that the name is a misspelling that is still easily recognizable to any newly arrived Kindred who needs to know where the local prince is based,) which hosts a number of high-class banking and corporate offices, all of which serve as a cover for him.
- In the original Pokémon games, the criminal organization Team Rocket runs the Rocket Game Corner and Viridian City Gym. This is played completely straight in the game, despite Team Rocket having constructed a secret base beneath the casino, through which they must enter. Considering that Team Rocket members wear all-black matching uniforms wherever they go, this may be enough to raise suspicions of corruption or willful blindness on the part of the police.
- The secret service player runs in the game Floor 13 is officially a part of the Home Office Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.
- The Order of Denderah in Lonelygirl15 uses the Hymn of One, Verdus Phamaceuticals, the Wyman Foundation, the Lullaby Project, Bio-Therapy Report LLC and Sacred Spirit.
- In Kate Modern, the Order's covers are the Hymn of One and St. Grinstead Psychiatric Research Institution.
- The SCP Foundation has several front organizations including the Soap from Corpses Products inc.
- In the Men in Black cartoon, the agents are officially working for the Department of Weights And Measures. The cover they give always takes the form: "<Situationally-Appropriate Government Agency>, Division Six", so they've been hotel inspectors, immigration, coast guard, and a host of others.
- Ben 10: Ben's grandad belongs to the Plumbers, an MIB-like organization. In the latter series, it's revealed they're basically the Galactic Police, with every government on Earth respecting their authority in situations involving aliens.
- Lampooned in The Simpsons, with intelligence agency vans disguised as "Two Guys From Quantico Pizza" and "Flowers By Irene".
- There are cases, such as that of Stella Rimington, former head of MI 5, where all of one's friends know that she works for the government, but her actual position is a secret.
- Completely averted in the case of real-life MI 6, whose headquarters are a very nice building on the river Thames that is actually listed in guidebooks as the headquarters of British Intelligence.
- Contrary to certain media, most Intelligence Officers ("Spies" work for the enemy) take advantage of Diplomatic Immunity by officially being the "Assistant Press Attache" or a similar non-job in an embassy.
- Three quarters of the people in Soviet embassies were spies - with every single one in the military section being a GRU officer, and most of the remaining quarter working for KGB in their free time. The sole exception to the above was often the Military Attache himself, who was often an older man, not always in perfect sound mind, but with a chestful of medals won in World War II. He literally did nothing - not secret, not open - except participate in memorial ceremonies. One of the Soviet military attaches in Canada in The Eighties didn't even bother with that; he acted like his posting was a never-ending vacation. The scuttlebutt of the time was that he had something on someone, and given his standing and great age maybe he did.
- A CIA officer's cover (whether working abroad or at headquarters) might be (theoretically) assigned not only to the usual suspects (Department of State, Defense, Homeland Security) but also some weirder ones (e.g. Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, and yes, perhaps even the Bureau of Weights and Measures), as well as private US corporations (not naming names). Similarly, an SIS officer might easily be assigned to a quango with business abroad (the British Council in any country is notorious for being riddled with spies—probably even more so than even the British Embassy) or at home (if working at Vauxhall Cross).
- One of the few exceptions: You will never, ever find a CIA agent under Peace Corps cover. Never. That would detract from the legitimacy of the Peace Corps (goes the argument), and so if you want to serve in both the Peace Corps and the CIA, you have to do your two years at the Peace Corps, wait five whole years, and then you can apply. Applications to join the CIA take at least six months to process.
- The only reason many countries allow the Peace Corps in is that they're emphatically not a CIA front. Ever. If they tried it and got caught it would mean the Peace Corps would be pulled from those countries, the US would take a terrible diplomatic blow, and a bunch of innocent, skilled and altruistic people would get hurt arrested and/or killed. It's just not worth it, especially when there are much more discreet alternatives.
- The fact that America is not in a major war helps. There is a always a minor war going on, and despite the media flashiness the War On Terror is more closely akin to the "chastising of tribalistic bandits" that is a historical constant. But there is no existential threat in the opening. During World War II the OSS was perfectly willing to hire missionaries and oil men and others with jobs in foreign countries who would be in serious danger of compromising other Americans abroad by their action but whose local knowledge was to useful to turn down.
- While we're on that topic, Pan-American Airlines (AKA "Pan-Am") was first organized by military and naval officers with an idea not only of increasing America's commercial aerial capacity but creating an infrastructure that could be leveraged into military purposes. Naturally it took part in the "more obscure" operations before and during World War 2. It was known for the famous China Clipper line which evoked the earlier sailing ships -- and, by the way, implied that their company could use speed to compete with capacity. It must be noted that its operations were not strictly or even primarily covert: in fact its chief job was logistical. However, anything that needed to move so fast that going by ship was out of the question might fly with them.
- Among Pan-Am's sneakier ops include arranging control of the air routes by setting up infrastructure in neutral countries (with an under-the-table hand out by Uncle Sam) in a manner that looks suspiciously like a viral takeover. This was done with a series of shell companies that would please any spy novel fan. The Germans were of course trying to do the same thing by importing spies. In South America this involved a rather brutal (if downplayed by World War II standards) counter-subversion op by the simple method of downsizing all crewmen of German ancestry on the "Let God sort them out" principle.
- Israel's (only known) nuclear plant is officially a textile factory, although it's reached the point where, after the disguise stopped working in the seventies, they don't even cover it up any more.
- Subverted when the United States bombed a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory in 1999 that turned out to be ... a completely innocuous pharmaceutical factory.
- The US Secret Service used to be this way. They were originally part of the United States Department of the Treasury and tasked with tracking and catching counterfeit currency. Then in 1901 the Treasury agents were given the job of protecting the President of the United States and a long list of other people, which is the public image of the Secret Service these days. Since 2003 they've been shifted over to Homeland Security, so the trope no longer applies.
- Some 9/11 conspiracy theorists claim that the NIST evaluation of and whitepaper about the WTC 7 collapse was doctored by the government to obscure the evidence of explosives/thermite/nanothermite/whatever Unobtanium the theorists think was used this week. NIST is the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Their domain literally involves weights and measures.
- India's main secret intelligence agency has the innocuous-sounding title "Research and Analysis Wing."
- Technically, they are correct: they are researching and analyzing.
- An acronym no doubt familiar to anyone who has played Call of Duty: Black Ops, the main wet work program in the Vietnam War was titled MACV-SOG... Military Assistance Command Vietnam, Studies and Observations Group.
- The US atomic bomb program began within the Bureau of Standards (predecessor of the aforementioned NIST). After it was transferred to the Army's Corps of Engineers, it was renamed the "Manhattan District", following the form of the Corps' many civil engineering divisions.
- Important to note, the INS itself no longer exists; it was dissolved post-9/11 and its former duties are now handled by the Dept. of Homeland Security.
- Absolutely no relation to Scientology, which has its UK headquarters in the town of East Grinstead