Spies are mysterious, intriguing, and the subject of endless speculation. Ian Fleming’s James Bond—introduced in 1953—has been influencing thriller novels and films for seven decades. We all have our favorite 007 novel, Bond actor, and big screen adaptation. With larger-than-life villains, scantily clad assets, suspend-your-disbelief gadgets, and epic action scenes no spy has made a bigger impression.
But is there any truth to the world of James Bond? Do spies really carry laser pens and drive Aston Martins with machine gun headlights and ejector seats? Well, read on because this is “Spy Week” at Career Authors!
Trope #1: Being a Spy is Glamorous
REALITY: Espionage is a stressful, emotional, difficult business. In the 007 movies, Bond jet sets off to exotic locations, puts on his tuxedo, and hobnobs with the rich and beautiful. In real life, the best and brightest intelligence officers are stationed in some of the worlds most dangerous and decidedly unglamorous locations. I can’t imagine how a tuxedo would help with the assignment of keeping tabs on Boko Haram in Nigeria. And I suspect the opportunity to order a martini “shaken not stirred” while embedded as a journalist in the rubble of Aleppo is non-existent.
Okay, so maybe I’m laying the sarcasm on pretty thick, but it’s something you need to understand and remember if you want to write an espionage thriller. In real life, spies spend most of their time trying not to be noticed, wearing practical clothing, and safeguarding their NOC (more on NOCs later). Real spooks couldn’t care less whether a martini is shaken or stirred.
In real life, spies spend most of their time trying not to be noticed, wearing practical clothing, and safeguarding their NOC.
Oh one more thing…spies don’t call themselves spies and neither does anyone else in the business for that matter. The CIA and DIA calls their field operatives “officers” and the FBI calls them “agents.” And if you’ve read any of my novels, you know that military types affectionately refer to their intelligence collecting counterparts as “spooks.”
Trope #2: Spies have laser watches, exploding pens, and other mind-blowing gadgets.
REALITY: Spies do have access to some incredibly cool tech, but instead of laser watches that can cut through steel doors, think laser microphones can listen to conversations using vibrations from a glass of water left on a table. While Bond cruises around in an Aston Martin with machine gun headlights, if a real intelligence officer needs firepower they’ll hop in a white panel van with a half dozen ground branch operators kitted up with body armor and assault rifles.
Yes, high tech bugs and body wires are still a thing, but these days the National Security Agency (NSA) located in Fort Meade, Maryland, does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to intercepting, decrypting, and analyzing communications. The NSA has satellites, supercomputers, the ability to hack into computers, and intercept mobile phone communications around the world.
In the 007 movies, Bond collects the human intelligence (HUMIT) needed to solve the case all by himself. In real life, HUMINT is supplemented and/or supplanted by Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) collection activities that are happening in parallel. In the modern world of espionage, interagency coordination and intelligence sharing is the name of the game. Today’s spies work closely with partner agencies in the United States IC (Intelligence Community) as well as foreign intelligence services to gain access to SIGINT that would be difficult or impossible to collect single-handedly.
Trope #3: All spies go undercover
REALITY: First of all “undercover” is a Hollywood expression. Real life spies use different terms of art such as Official Cover and Non-Official Cover to describe the very complex and sophisticated ways that agents and officers navigate the realm of identity. Let’s go over the basics…
A Tale of Two Aliases: Official Cover versus Non-Official Cover.
Sometimes an intelligence officer, agent or asset hides in plain sight by hiring on in a legitimate job, at a legitimate company or organization, and has real duties and responsibilities in addition to their intelligence collection demands. An example of this would be if an intelligence officer were to apply for a job at Company A, with an office in Country B, that specializes in work in field C. In such cases, A, B, and C are selected specifically because it will give the spy potential access to a particular person or organization of interest. While living and working under an official cover, the spy is embedded in a network of legitimacy and has plausible deniability if challenged. The downside is that Official Cover roles take longer to develop, limit flexibility, and the real job requirements interfere with the amount of time an agent or officer can devote solely to espionage activities.
Conversely, think of a Non-Official Cover, commonly referred to as a NOC (spoken “knock”) as an alias. NOCs should be familiar to you from most spy movies where the spy assumes a temporary alternate identity, often working for a make believe company or organization. Field officers and agents regularly utilize NOCs as they move from one assignment to the next. Just because NOCs are usually temporary, does not mean they can’t be robust aliases with a paper trail and facade of legitimacy that is difficult to pierce. Some examples of typical NOC’s include—journalists, consultants, photographers, medical personnel, NGO workers, pilots, subject matter experts, technicians, and inspectors.
Trope #4: Spies seduce people
REALITY: This is true, but not in the way you might be thinking. Yes, honeytraps are real, but these types of operations comprise only a tiny fraction of the “seduction” activity going on in the espionage business. The real seduction happening out there is called asset management. An asset is a person, often a civilian, who is recruited by an intelligence officer or FBI agent to function as a source. If you ask any retired case officer what the most dangerous job in the espionage business is the answer you’ll likely get might surprise you—assets. These people are the real spies of the world and they are typically risking their life and livelihood to provide HUMINT not accessible to an outsider.
Espionage is a relationship business, never forget that.
So when you think about spies and seduction, it typically has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with figuring out how to recruit a reluctant asset and then manage a healthy and productive relationship with that person for the long term to harvest as much actionable intelligence as possible. Soft skills like communication, risk management, motivation, and empathetic listening are way more important than having a sexy figure. Espionage is a relationship business, never forget that.
Trope #5: Spies kill people
REALITY: Intelligence officers are not assassins. While 007 is happy to gun down his adversaries at every opportunity, real life spies have no interest in gun battles in the streets of Rome, motorcycle chases in Paris, or jumping between rooftops in Morocco. Real life spies are responsible for information collection and analysis. They are strategists and relationship managers. Their charter is to stop those who commit pointless death and violence, not facilitate it.
That’s not to say that spies take a “live and let live” approach to the bad guys, it’s just that they leave the capture/kill component of the operation up to the specialists. There’s a reason why CIA Ground Branch exists. As tempting as it is to write your spy protagonist as a jack of all trades who can fight like an MMA champion and shoot like a sniper, resist this compulsion.
To craft the best spy possible, reject the tropes and write with realism. Today’s readers are savvy and knowledgeable, so stick to the facts and they will thank you.
Let’s continue the conversation on tropes and truths on Facebook and be sure to check back Wednesday when the author of RED WIDOW, Alma Katsu talks how to Write a Spy Thriller without Being a Spy.