Summer movies raise fascination in spying

Sunday, June 8, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:53 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Byron Scott: Today we’re talking about the current and future status of what many call the second-oldest profession: spying. We’re doing this in part because it’s summertime, and that’s a time of year when new spy movies, such as Indiana Jones, and new spy novels, such as the latest James Bond, are released. Our guests can tell us what’s behind these books and films and what’s behind our fascination with spies. They can also give us a look into the future. If we were looking for an example of a modern spy, what would be his profile?

Peter Earnest, founding executive director, International Spy Museum, Washington, D.C., formerly CIA: It would probably be a visiting businessman. Spying is nothing more than gathering information. People do it all the time, but the difference is intelligence agencies engage in it covertly, often paying their agents in gold and diamonds. Sometimes spies do it for ideological reasons. And there is globalized spying, other countries interested in one another’s technology, intentions and military prowess.

Jeff Stein, national security editor and SpyTalk columnist, Congressional Quarterly, Washington, D.C.: I did a stint as a spy many years ago in the army, and it’s not glamorous. I remember sitting on a bench on the way to meet my spy and laughing to myself thinking,’ This is supposed to be glamorous?’ I was too nervous to think it was glamorous. It was scary work.

Scott: What makes the U.K. such a fount for spy novels and spy writing?

Charles Cumming, author, “A Spy By Nature,” London: A good reason is the relationship between the U.K. and the U.S., the shared intelligence that links the two countries. Ian Fleming is also responsible for it in large part because of the massive success of James Bond in novels and films.

Scott: Twenty-six people, most identified as CIA agents, are on trial in absentia for spy activities in Italy. How do Italians view spying?

Alessandro Di Maio, owner and editor,, Sicily: For Italians, spies don’t have a big face like James Bond. A spy isn’t the gentleman we see in Fleming’s novels. Italians are scared of hidden things, and spies work in hidden spaces. So Italians don’t have great ideas about spies, but they are attracted to them.

Scott: What is the Washington perspective on spying, and what will we see in the future?

Earnest: In dealing with al-Qaida and other forms of extremism, we’ll see action in different parts of the world. It almost falls under what law enforcement would call the doctrine of hot pursuit: going after people who’ve inflicted enormous damage like 9/11 and who continue to inflict damage. Another thing to keep in mind is the number of people who have spied for ideological reasons. Those who resisted German fascism during World War II often engaged in spying, and they did it for extraordinarily patriotic reasons.

Stein: James Bond was more like a hit man than a spy, a commando in a silk suit with speedboats and good-looking women. It’s the same with the 26 Americans who are on trial for kidnapping in Italy. A spy gathers information, but that was an operation to kidnap someone off Milan’s streets. Spying is the drudgery of finding someone who will commit treason against his country and gather information for the U.S. To get information about your foes, you have to hire someone in a country to steal documents and to report on government officials. The CIA people on trial in Italy are more like a Mission Impossible scheme to pick up a suspect and render him to Egypt for interrogation.

Cumming: After 9/11, it came to light the CIA didn’t have a single useful agent in the Middle East who might have given information leading to 9/11 being averted. My understanding is there is a great sense of dismay that the CIA has more or less abandoned what’s called human intelligence and is almost entirely relying on signals intelligence, information from satellites and e-mails. It isn’t cultivating sources during a long period of time and generating trust between an officer and an agent to get information the agency requires.

Earnest: As a former senior operations officer in the CIA, I take issue with the comment the agency has abandoned human intelligence. It hasn’t. There was a letup after the fall of the Soviet Union, when some stations were closed overseas. Democracies often do that in the wake of conflicts like the Cold War. Because the CIA functions covertly, it’s often tasked with paramilitary operations, commando-like in nature. Pursuing penetrations of al-Qaida is far more difficult than the adversary represented by the Cold War.

Scott: The current pop culture trend seems to regard the Cold War with nostalgia. Are we going to be faced with more Cold War spy genre?

Earnest: The U.S. has a great nostalgia for its past, whether it’s spy wars or world wars. It’s a business decision on one side because movies about terrorism and Iraq haven’t been doing well. Reaching back to an older enemy may have been a safe bet for the creators of the Indiana Jones film. As professionals, most of us don’t have nostalgia for the Cold War, but the adversaries were clearer. There were powerful ideological differences between the West and the Soviet Union.

Cumming: The great cliché after the Berlin Wall went down and the Soviet Union collapsed is that the spy novel would have nowhere to go once there was no longer the great enemy in the East, but that hasn’t been the case. If anything, there is more to write about than during the Cold War. Certainly there are more levels, more shades of gray, than there were in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

Di Maio: The Cold War was the best moment for spy activities because there was one bloc in the West and the Soviet bloc in the East. The best way to make the world work within these two blocs was with intelligence services, not with weapons.

Scott: A Department of Defense think tank, the Defense Personnel Security Research Center, published a study last week about American citizens who have been caught in espionage against the U.S. during a 60-year period. It seems to show spies of the future may increasingly be females, more technological and more tied to split loyalties.

Stein: In my brief period as a case officer, which is what they are called, not spies, there were no women in my class of 1967. Now women case officers are common. Women are even station chiefs for the CIA in foreign countries and in the U.S.

Earnest: We all have lived through the age of women breaking the glass ceiling. In the past, women in spy stories were attractive, luring men to their fate. Now women are not just analysts, but they are senior analysts and senior case officers. They are running stations. So there is no reason to think women won’t break the glass ceiling of being spies, even against the U.S. They’re holding positions that make them more attractive to the opposition, and therefore we can expect to see the opposition mounting more operations with them.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Eunjung Kim, Mark Stanley and Catherine Wolf.

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