In the new James Bond thriller, Skyfall, the villain is a cyberterrorist named Raoul Silva, a disgruntled former British agent who’s trying to crash the known digital universe. It’s a nice touch, creating a very real, terrifying scenario that “could paralyze the nation,” as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned just last month.
And that is about the only aspect of the movie that is likely to be accurate. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a fan of the Bond movies. I go to see them for the same reasons everyone else does: the women, the most beautiful places on Earth and, of course, the roller-coaster ride of a plot.
But as a former spy, what I like most about the Bond movies is the way good always triumphs over evil. His cases end neatly, with the villain dispatched and the world safe for the good guys. Real-life espionage is a lot less sexy — and a lot messier.
Sometimes, age-old wisdom notwithstanding, the enemy of our enemy turns out not to be our friend. Once, in the mid-1980s, I was handed the portfolio for Libya’s opposition leaders, many of whom were operating out of Khartoum, Sudan. At first, I had only a hazy idea of who Moammar Gadhafi’s opponents were.
Late one night, I woke up to the sound of the butts of assault rifles pounding my door. Two of my Libyan contacts were on the run from Gadhafi’s assassins and expected me to protect them. By the time they could safely leave, I had come to understand that the people we’d picked to replace Gadhafi were militant Salafists determined to turn Libya into an Islamic republic.
They didn’t succeed then, but you could argue that the people who attacked our diplomatic outpost in Benghazi in September were their linear descendants.
While occasionally I found myself in a Bond-like setting during my spying career, the story inevitably unfolded with a lot less panache.
One time, in pursuit of an elusive informant, the agency sent me to Monaco to troll the Casino de Monte-Carlo. The problems started before I even got on the plane. The CIA scoffed at the idea of buying me a tuxedo, and the dragon lady who did our accounting refused to give me a cent to put on the roulette table.
Not surprisingly, as soon as I walked into the casino in my penny loafers, the security goons spotted me as an impostor and pulled me over for a polite interrogation. I never found our would-be informant.
Anyone who’s passed through Langley will tell you that a spy’s life is one of tedious endurance. It’s long hours of cubicle living, going through the same files everyone else in the office has gone through, hoping to catch a missed lead.
As CIA-operative-turned-novelist Charles McCarry said, spying is nothing more than an organized hunt for a windfall. That translates to waiting for that one “walk-in” who comes knocking on the agency’s door ready to hand over the crown jewels.
This is not to say that, now and then, Bond moments don’t come along. The CIA operatives who located Osama bin Laden and self-proclaimed Sept. 11, 2001, mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed can tell you all about them. And tragedies such as the recent attack in Benghazi are few and far between.
Still, usually the bad guys are humdrum, hiding in some impenetrable slum or village hanging on the side of a mountain. They’re the kind of places James Bond would only drop in on for a quick shootout. In fact, most spooks will never hear a shot fired in anger.
The real MI6 — Her Majesty’s Secret Service — isn’t all that different. British agents, too, spend their time sitting in offices rather than jumping out of airplanes or off speeding trains. And like CIA operatives, they’d all make better anthropologists than marksmen.
Much of a spy’s work these days is wading through data and breaking into computers. No doubt the geeks who threw the Stuxnet monkey wrench into the Iranian nuclear works didn’t move far from their computer screens for months.
Another recent Hollywood release evokes this ethos much better than any Bond movie. Argo, the tale of the CIA’s rescue of six Americans during the Iran hostage crisis, is grittier and grimmer and captures the air of monotonous procedure punctuated by moments of sheer terror.
I managed to end up on the periphery of the hostage crisis and spent a couple of days at the American Embassy in Tehran only months before the takeover. As I watched the opening sequences of Argo, I did a double-take; the embassy interiors were exactly as I remembered them.
The pictures that flash onscreen at the end of the movie show how hard the filmmakers worked to duplicate the conditions in Iran at the time. That body hanging from a crane? It was really there. The chanting mobs in the streets? Ditto.
And although those embassy employees in Argo really did get out, the larger story did not have such a neat ending. The Iran hostage crisis included a failed rescue attempt and ended with the United States humbled rather than triumphant. As for Argo’s protagonist, Tony Mendez, I’m sure he went back to his desk to file a monster expense account.
ROBERT BAER is a former CIA case officer and the author of several books on the Middle East. He is a special contributor to The Washington Post.