I usually love a good piece of fiction about CIA operations. That is despite the fact that many of them are mostly inaccurate in depicting the reality of intelligence work. Sure, some get things right, some of the time. The film Zero Dark Thirty, for example, does a pretty good job of showing the years-long process of finding Osama bin Ladin, even if it got it wrong in the number of people actually involved, or the complexity of the work. In reality, it took far more than one determined analyst to lay the groundwork for Neptune Spear.
As another example, Six Days of the Condor, a great spy novel in its own right, has a relatively absurd plot revolving around a deadly conspiracy within the CIA. However, the depiction of analysts and their daily work at the beginning of the novel gets the atmospherics right. The movie Charlie Wilson’s War, probably my favorite CIA movie of all time, gets all kinds of things right, from the crusty old case officer and his battle with Headquarters drones to its depiction of how lethal arms might be provided to foreign insurgents. It’s still not perfect, though.
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The CIA you won’t see in fiction
With a few exceptions, most fictional CIA stories revolve around gun battles, fistfights, cool tech, assassinations, sabotage, and harrowing clandestine meetings in hostile environments. Those are by no means unheard of events in the CIA’s history, but they do not define the day-to-day reality of most intelligence work.
Being a civil servant
So what are these works of fiction leaving out? First, most CIA fiction never shows us the intrepid clandestine officer writing intelligence reports and operational cables. We have a saying at the Agency, and that is: if you don’t write it, it didn’t happen. CIA officers in the operations directorate write a ton of cable traffic. They have to document meetings with sources, intelligence information received, and how things are going in their efforts to recruit a foreign spy. For every one hour of operational activity, there are about two hours of writing involved. I do not remember ever seeing Jason Bourne sitting behind his computer at Headquarters, banging out a report.
You also rarely ever see CIA officers having to do basic administrative tasks. In the real world, CIA officers have to account for the money they hand out, and their travel expenses. They also have to occasionally battle with HR over pay and benefits. Mundane? Sure. But the CIA is a bureaucracy. It is a highly streamlined and effective bureaucracy, but still, it gets hung up on some of the same things that all bureaucracies get hung up on.
Related: American Spies: How the US collects intelligence around the world
Another piece often missing is asset recruitment. I have said it a few times, usually in partial jest, but one of the best depictions of developing and recruiting an asset I have seen on film is in the third Star Wars prequel, Revenge of the Sith. In the movie, we see Emperor Palpatine play on Anakin Skywalker’s fears, motivations, and desires, to convince him to come over to the Dark Side. Those scenes are not far off in terms of the accuracy of convincing someone to spy on their country on behalf of the United States. We rarely see that delicate dance on film or in books, probably because it is slow, deliberate, drawn out, and subtle. It would probably make for a better romance movie plot than it would for a spy film.
Going deeper into the weeds of intelligence work, once a source is fully recruited, actively on the books, and regularly reporting intelligence information to the CIA, the case officer’s job is not done. In fact, in many ways, it has just begun. Not only does the CIA officer have to conduct a clandestine relationship with the source, and document the intelligence they provide, but the officer also has to go about making sure the asset is reliable, provides accurate information, and is not trying to deceive the CIA. It is a sensitive area, so I will not go into it too much but the CIA case officer has to put some effort into validating the source for honesty, access to information, and reliability. It is methodical and detailed work, and rarely ever shown in CIA fiction.
Preparation work for an operation
We also don’t often see the prep work that goes into CIA operations. Sure, we see the cool-guy op carried out, but the hours of preparation that went into that single operational act are rarely ever appreciated in fiction. There are surveillance detection preparations and measures to employ, intelligence and operational reports to review, communications plans to tweak, and future meeting arrangements to work out. CIA operations work is detailed and meticulous, and that level of planning hardly ever makes it onto the page or screen.
Related: A former CIA officer reviews ‘The Old Man’ – You only grow old when you stop killing
Relationships with foreign intelligence agencies
Finally, CIA fiction rarely ever depicts what is called “liaison work” in the intelligence world. Relationships between the American intelligence community and foreign intelligence services all over the world are critical to America’s national security, and to the CIA’s work. Foreign liaison services — those countries’ intelligence services — are a force multiplier for the United States, and the CIA takes those relationships with the utmost seriousness and purpose. We could not do many of the things we do without the help of our foreign partners. There is a lot of on-the-ground work that goes into those relationships, and we do not usually see it in CIA fiction.
I am sure that the countless authors and screenwriters out there who write CIA fiction know what they are doing when crafting entertaining espionage narratives. I myself enjoy a lot of their work. However, maybe they can incorporate some of the above into future works, you know, between gun battles and explosions.
Feature Image: A U.S. Army Special Forces Soldier takes a photograph of a mock enemy during a training exercise, Boston, Mass., Apr. 28, 2021. USSF, known by many as the Green Berets, are among the most elite Soldiers in the U.S. Military and specialize in Unconventional Warfare tactics, foreign internal defense, special reconnaissance, direct action, and counter-terrorism. (U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Justin P. Morelli)
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Also, there are plenty of examples of movie IOs persuading people to engage in espionage. Not so much in the action blockbusters, but often in more dramatic films. “The Courier” is one recent example.
Who chose these pictures? A naval aviation maintenance administrationman at his desk? Defense attachés chatting? National guardsmen jumping out of a plane? These pictures are more appropriate for a DOD recruitment brochure.
Harley Shoaff says
I wondered why the photos which are only tangentially relevant were posted.
Sean P Walsh says
On doing paperwork, I once heard a talk by a retired CIA officer who had served overseas under official cover as an agricultural attaché. He not only had to do reports for the CIA but also all those expected by someone doing his cover job.
Anthony Pandolfino says
Do you wanna know something that’s not so fiction that is absolutely crazy-
In the 1960s the CIA as civil servants Central intelligence agency a.k.a. a bunch of cIvilians- Created battery in designated where the government ends up in their jobs!
CIvilians designate the military jobs!