BOB GARFIELD: America's intelligence community has indulged in much finger-pointing in the wake of 9/11 and the president's badly informed case for war. But the seeming incompetence of the CIA is not only worrying; it's also rather shocking, and that's because it contradicts everything that books, television and especially the movies have led us to believe about how spies operate and what they can really accomplish. Some experts say that's a problem for the intelligence community too. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.
JIM ZARROLI: For most of his life, Danny Biederman has been collecting props and mementoes from TV shows and movies about spies -- things like the leather pants that Diana Rigg wore in The Avengers or a Walter PPK hand gun from You Only Live Twice. A few years ago, Biederman got a phone call from none other than the CIA, which wanted him to display his entire collection at the agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia. At first, Biederman couldn't believe that serious, real life intelligence professionals would be interested [GET SMART THEME UP AND UNDER] in the shoe phone used on Get Smart.
MAN: It was fascinating to me to discover that, in fact, many of the people working for the CIA and I'm sure other intelligence organizations in the United States love spy movies. They love spy thrillers, and in fact many of the people who I met actually disclosed to me that the reason they joined the CIA was because they grew up, like I did, on James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and I Spy and The Wild, Wild West.
JIM ZARROLI: Biederman, who's written a book called The Incredible World of Spy-Fi, grew up in the 1960s, the heyday of spy stories. They had been part of popular culture for a long time before that, stretching all the way back to the days of James Fenimore Cooper. But in 1962, a new kind of spy was born -- a spy for the Cold War. [MUSIC FROM JAMES BOND MOVIE, DR. NO] Based on Ian Fleming's novel, Dr. No introduced the movie audience to James Bond, the suave government agent who lived like a playboy and had a license to kill. He took on the Communists with ingenuity, double entendres, and a seemingly inexhaustible support of high tech gadgets. [TAPE PLAYS]
DR. NO: You were admiring my aquarium.
JAMES BOND: Yes. It's quite impressive.
DR. NO: A unique feat of engineering, if I may say so. I designed it myself. The glass is convex, 10 inches thick, which accounts for the magnifying effect.
JAMES BOND: Minnows pretending they're whales, just like you on this island, Dr. No.
DR. NO: It depends, Mr. Bond, on which side the glass you are. A medium dry Martini, lemon peel, shaken, not stirred. [TAPE ENDS]
JIM ZARROLI: Gary Hoppenstand is a professor of American studies at Michigan State University.
GARY HOPPENSTAND: What it did is it sort of made use of the Cold War kind of culture and paranoia that was in place in the late '50s and early '60s in terms of basically creating a super hero, and I use that term exactly. I mean James Bond is a kind of comic book super hero, cast as a spy.
JIM ZARROLI: Hoppenstand says that, unlike previous spy characters, Bond appealed to both male and female audiences and was wildly popular with both. Over the next few years, the series inspired an endless parade of imitators in TV and the movies, shows like Mission Impossible and Secret Agent. There were even female Bonds, like Emma Peel of The Avengers and Honey West, who hid smoke grenades in her earrings. [SPY SHOW THEME MUSIC] There was often something tongue in cheek about these shows. On The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Robert Vaughn played an agent for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, doing battle against a shadowy international group called Thrush. His boss was played by Leo G. Carroll. [TAPE PLAYS]
LEO G. CARROLL: We have to find her, before Thrush stumbles on to her.
ROBERT VAUGHN: We'll find her.
LEO G. CARROLL: Yes. Please. Do that, Mr. Solo. [MUSIC] [TAPE ENDS]
JIM ZARROLI: Within a few years, the genre tipped into parody, with Get Smart and the Matt Helm movies and burned itself out. In the '70s, revelations about CIA abuses changed the image of the spy in the popular imagination, and spy stories became much different in tone. Fred Hitz is a former CIA official who recently wrote a book about spy fiction called The Great Game. He says spy novels from that era often betrayed a moral ambivalence about spying. It's exemplified, he says, by the works of John Le Carre.
FRED HITZ: By the time the Cold War comes around, Le Carre has developed the view that the bureaucracy itself, the mechanism -- Control, MI-6, Headquarters -- is just as guilty of playing dirty tricks on its own people as it is in pursuit of the holy grail of espionage information from the Soviets. And his turn of the screw was to say hey - in, in, in terms of human qualities and behavior and loyalty, there's not a dime's worth of difference between the way the Soviets go about it and the way we do it, if we adopt their tactics.
JIM ZARROLI: In John Le Carre's Smiley's People, the protagonist, George Smiley, realizes that a former Soviet informant was allowed to die by the British government. [TAPE PLAYS]
GEORGE SMILEY: Vladimir was the best source we had on Soviet capabilities and intentions. He was close to their intelligence community and reported on that, too.
MAN: Oh, damn it, George; that whole era is dead.
GEORGE SMILEY: And so is Vladimir. And I wish to God we got half his courage and one tenth of his integrity.
MAN: George, we're pragmatists. We adapt. We are not the keepers of some sacred flame. [TAPE ENDS]
JIM ZARROLI: Le Carre's ambivalence about the spy world was echoed in American spy fiction, in stories like Three Days of the Condor and the Robert Ludlum books. The real threat facing the hero is no longer the Communists but murderous forces within the CIA itself. More recently, Tom Clancy has re-invented the spy story once again. Michigan State's Gary Hoppenstand says Clancy's protagonist, Jack Ryan is a heroic figure, and though he does battle with interfering politicians, he never doubts the morality of the CIA's mission. Hoppenstand says Clancy's personality is the antithesis of James Bond's.
GARY HOPPENSTAND: That is, he's a family man, he's not this, this 007 agent with a license to kill, that he's not trying to bed every beautiful woman around. He's very serious and dedicated in terms of what he wants to do for the U.S. government. I mean the CIA loved him. The CIA now were the good guys, rather than the bad guys.
JIM ZARROLI: But Fred Hitz says for all of the changes that have taken place in the spy genre, movies and books have left many people with an unrealistic sense of how spies work and what they can accomplish.
FRED HITZ: It's the James Bond image, the Q device that people think of that permits you to pierce a wall with a sensory system or look over buildings to, to surveil a target that we assume our spies can do. We also assume that our human source collectors, our on-the-ground spies, are able to gain entry to any circle if we work hard at it, and that remains to be seen.
JIM ZARROLI: In the current war on terror, U.S. intelligence operatives have had trouble penetrating a world that is culturally and politically very different from their own. Hitz says people who've seen a lot of spy movies probably wouldn't recognize real intelligence activity.
FRED HITZ: Drudgery, painstaking detailed work, much of which is tangential to the real decisions being made but is -- has to be pursued in the hope that there's a nugget there that'll guide the policymaker.
JIM ZARROLI: And by focusing on the derring-do and glamour of espionage work, Hitz says, people may be overlooking the really interesting spy stories out there. They include the breaking of the enigma code during World War II when a large team of mathematicians and intelligence agents were gradually able to crack a Nazi code machine that was once thought to be impenetrable. And they include the Robert Hansen story. Could Hollywood ever have imagined that a mild mannered conservative CIA agent who sent his kids to Catholic schools was secretly cavorting with a stripper and spying for the Soviets? In the espionage world, Hitz says, truth is very much stranger than fiction. For On the Media, I'm Jim Zarroli. [THEME MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was directed by Katya Rogers and produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York, and Mike Vuolo, and edited-- by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director, and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Anne Kosseff and Neil Rausch. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts and MP3 downloads at onthemedia.org, and email us at onthemedia@WNYC.org. This is On the Media, from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.