Murdering reality: the spurious spies of fiction

Hollywood lacks the wit and the will to convey the complexities of the secret world

John Sipher

I recently watched the second season of Amazon’s series Jack Ryan. To be accurate: I managed only the first few episodes. As a career CIA officer, I found the disconnect between my experience running espionage operations and the Hollywood portrayal too fanciful to stomach.

The screen version of the intelligence world displays a perplexing interest in getting a few, small details right while otherwise throwing common sense to the wind. Why hire some ex-intelligence officer to assure that Ryan’s badge looks real and the file folders are the right colour, if the basic story has no connection with reality whatsoever? The handful of people who know what a real burn bag for classified papers looks like will also be those most critical of the show’s other failings.

Hollywood’s primary interest is to entertain the audience. Car chases,  explosions, escapes across rooftops and murders—lots of murders—do provide a sugar high, but they fail as more enduring stories. Placing the espionage genre inside the category of “action films” has been a disservice to quality writers who know how to tell a real story, and ultimately a disservice to the audience. It is possible, indeed realistic, to explore high-stakes issues with life and death consequences without having a lone intelligence officer chase someone or shoot them.

The underpinnings of the spy game are exactly what Hollywood (and literature) does best: human relationships. Real espionage is about the human factor. It explores flawed individuals, trust, betrayal, ego, manipulation, secrecy, psychology, cowardice, bravery and vulnerability, all placed within the pressure cooker of international politics and national security. It is less a story of good against evil than a constant balance of moral and ethical dilemmas in an environment with no obvious answers. Each situation is different and worthy of exploration.

Anyone who has lived in the clandestine world knows that the relationship between source and handler is often the most intense non-romantic connection that two people can share. A source betraying his country cannot share his opinions and feelings with anyone else in his life. Living with the knowledge that you could be arrested and killed at any moment provides an atmosphere of intensity to those few times when you meet the one person who knows your reality.

The Soviet spy Adolph Tolkachev was so committed to damaging the communist state that he insisted on stealing and passing secret documents to his CIA handler even as he feared he was coming under scrutiny. Every time he was called to his boss’s office, he would place a CIA-issued suicide pill into his mouth, between his cheek and gums, for fear that it might be a KGB ambush to have him arrested. He wanted to be able to bite down at any minute so that he would not give the KGB the satisfaction of interrogating and torturing him. Following the meeting, he would hide the pill and continue spying. Imagine the intensity of the covert relationship with his CIA handler.

A former colleague tells the story of a burgeoning relationship with a senior official of a country with state-mandated religion. After building trust, the official shared something that he could not tell anyone, not even his wife. He did not believe in God. Unable to discuss his doubts with his friends, he continued to pray with his family, friends and co-workers, always wondering if they too had doubts. Confiding in the wrong person could mean the loss of his job and family. The one place he could be himself was in his relationship with the CIA. The failure to depict the asset’s perspective is a common lapse in the Hollywood approach.  He or she is the one in real danger and many, unlike us, do not have any training. We have the PACE (which stands for Primary Alternate Contingency and Emergency) in the communications plan drilled into us. They are struggling to remember it, when any lapse puts their lives (and their family’s safety) in our hands.

By far, the most-asked question to anyone with experience in the intelligence community is, “how close is Homeland to reality?” After explaining that real intelligence work does not involve shootouts on American streets, or dependence on officers with mental problems, it is nonetheless difficult to offer an alternative that is closer to reality. Some shows get parts correct. The Americans included elements of street tradecraft and a reliance on sources that did not stray too far from reality. The Spy, with Sacha Baron Cohen, provided a reasonable look at how intelligence agencies and policy-makers can pressure operatives to produce results. The Little Drummer Girl gave a good sense of the slow planning and rehearsal that precede a successful operation.

That said, most productions fall into the trap of providing constant motion and action. Of course, intelligence agencies accrue some benefit in allowing the myth to remain. A smaller intelligence service like the British SIS benefits from the reputation of James Bond. Many a potential source may have been swayed to speak to British diplomats and spies having been brought up with the fantasy that the British maintain some special skill in the art of espionage. Likewise, foes of the Israelis probably lose some effectiveness due to their need to hide in fear of being assassinated.

Intelligence officers like to see ourselves as the fit, attractive and multi-talented actors on the screen. But the actual skills required to succeed are more mundane—and also rarer. A good officer must be comfortable dealing with ambiguity. They must have a honed sense of judgment, be able to develop deep relationships and engender trust, be a good listener, have a facility with foreign languages, have a sense of spatial awareness and ability to operate on the street, write effectively, be comfortable in foreign cultures and keep up-to-date on political, diplomatic, scientific and military issues. We may need to carry a gun or trek to places our military colleagues cannot go, but shooting our way out of trouble or using our sexual wiles to infiltrate a closed facility are not taught at our training facilities—and we watch them on screen with amusement and bafflement.


Spy fiction

A dozen tropes in the espionage genre that drive practitioners crazy

  1.  Accounting
    We work for the taxpayers and are held
    accountable for all the things that we use and destroy. James Bond never seems to fill in his expense forms.

  2. All-knowing, all-seeing
    The State Department once lost a colleague’s household goods for six weeks, but the CIA can find Jason Bourne hiding in an isolated home in the south of France from one phone call and then get a hit team there in the blink of an eye. If only!

  3. Basic security failures
    The prime responsibility of any intelligence officer is to protect their sources. No one would engage in cellphone conversations with sources, or from the field to headquarters. Anyone who has public meetings with clandestine sources, or brings sensitive documents to public places or hotel rooms, would have a very short career.

  4. Blackmail
    A staple tension-builder in spy films—but it is  drilled into us from day one that we just don’t do it. Like torture: not only is it wrong, it doesn’t work. Anyone strong-armed into cooperating looks for a means to get out of it. We would not be successful if those people working for us despised us and were looking for revenge.
  5. High-level involvement
    Senior officials make policy and run large programmes. They do not micro-manage complex operations taking place thousands of miles from home. Likewise, most senior leaders and Congressional overseers do not really grasp the art of espionage. When practitioners meet to swap stories, tales of silly Congressional questions are a favourite topic.

  6. High-tech gizmos
    Good intelligence involves data analysis, surveillance, encryption and occasionally a gadget. Unlike on film, our offices are rarely filled with multiple TV screens and feeds; we must be able to lock everything up at night. The crux of the business is people-to-people communication, and technology offers no shortcut to building trust.

  7. “Losing” surveillance
    Trying to speed away from those watching you in a foreign country guarantees that you will become a prime target for that country’s spy-catchers, and will never be able to meet sources there again.

  8. Rogue operatives
    Good intelligence is highly organised, coordinated and planned. An intelligence officer who takes action without fully informing the team will find themselves without the support they need to succeed. At the CIA, we say that if it isn’t written and communicated, it didn’t happen. Does anybody ever do a write-up? 
  9. “Sweeping” for bugs
    Finding hidden microphones and cameras is the job of experts. It is slow and often destructive.

  10. Sex with sources
    Sleeping with a source or prospective source is not just a career killer. It is against everything we learn and preach.

  11. The singleton hero
    He/she recognises some form of evil (often involving his own bosses), and, unbound by regulation or law, fights against the system, personally taking down the bad guy, usually via gunfire, and often displaying near-superhuman powers. Real spy agencies succeed only by teamwork, which brings a variety of experience and expertise to bear.

  12. Weapons galore
    Everyone has a gun and is ready to use it at any time. I know more field officers who sent guns home from their overseas offices for fear they might be misused, than colleagues who shot someone. Most clandestine operatives have had only a few days familiarisation with a couple of weapons. The paperwork from an accidental discharge is monstrous, by the way. 

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