Spies are everywhere it seems – at least on TV. Not since the 1960s have there been so many TV series focused on the intelligence community, and unlike the campy Man From Uncle or silly Get Smart, these shows are touted as being “grounded in reality,” and often feature storylines that mirror today’s real world geopolitics.
Homeland, Berlin Station and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan have seen operations officers from the CIA stop terrorist threats, but also engage with rival intelligence agencies. Instead of gizmos and gadgets, the analysts and operation officers rely on their wits and actually gather intelligence. Thanks to very real international co-production deals, today’s spy dramas don’t rely on hokey Hollywood sets but have the characters jet setting around the globe.
Along with a heavy dose of jargon, grounded villains, and at times downright confusing plotlines, these shows present a seemingly “realistic” look into the world of the intelligence community. Yet, it is still just a fantasy and even the best of these shows is far from what the real world of intelligence is like.
“These shows are really laughable, and in a way that makes it worse than James Bond where we know it is a fantasy,” said Dr. Vince Houghton, curator of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
“Spy shows that try to come across as gritty are a bigger problem than the James Bond version, where at least everyone knows that is ridiculous,” Houghton told ClearanceJobs. “At least with Bond we know it isn’t close to reality, and when someone at the real MI-6 sees the film they can laugh with it. With these shows, such as Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, it seems like it is gritty and realistic, but it really isn’t.”
cia agents In the Field
The Amazon Video series’ second season arrived last month, and (minor spoilers ahead) much like the late Tom Clancy’s books, the story mirrors our reality – in this case government corruption in a fictionalized Venezuela that is facing revolution. The nation’s socialist president is doing what he can to hang on to power, while the title character Jack Ryan tries to figure out how the nation is linked to a covert satellite launch and arms smuggling.
It is a far cry from the nefarious super villains seeking world domination in Ian Fleming’s Bond novels or the related films. Instead of world domination in this season of Jack Ryan, money from rare earth minerals in the developing world is what is at stake.
It makes sense that Ryan, an economics professor and CIA analyst, could put the pieces together. But then he’s in the field and of course gets involved in gunfights and other mayhem.
“This is all too common in TV shows to create some ‘action,'” said Houghton. “The first problem is that Ryan is an analyst, and he isn’t an operations officer. It is hammered home in the books and even in the movies – notably the Alec Baldwin (Hunt for Red October) and Harrison Ford (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger) versions.”
While Houghton admitted that the global war on terror changed how close to combat CIA operations officers and even analysts can get, never would it involve Ryan in gunfights.
“The Jack Ryan character even says, ‘we’re here to gather intelligence,’ and that’s what he starts out doing,” added Houghton. “But then the show goes off the rails. CIA analysts don’t carry a gun, and if you find yourself in a shootout you’ve done your job very badly.”
The CIA does have its Special Activities Division (SAD), which is its covert paramilitary operations unit – but the “off the books” missions as presented in the shows is something not likely to happen.
“SAD is who goes in there with the guns, but even operations officers are supposed to stay hidden,” explained Houghton. “The officers are supposed to stay under cover and recruit people to gain information. It doesn’t make for good TV.”
The other problem that Houghton said he had with this season of Jack Ryan was in the basic mistakes the “trained” analyst made.
“In the first episode Jack Ryan falls for a ‘honey trap’ but also left top secret documents out for her to find. This happens too in a hostile country. That would have him on the next plane back home.”
Another problem is the way the the role of the chief of station (COS) is presented. In Jack Ryan the COS in both Moscow and Caracas has a big office with windows to the street, and important conversations occur in those offices.
“In larger postings the COS is announced to the host country, so an office with a window isn’t impossible – but you’re not going to talk about anything sensitive,” said Houghton. “In smaller postings the COS could have a cover job, and that might be the deputy cultural attaché, but you’re still not going to have conversations about intelligence by the window.”
Jack Ryan isn’t the only show to have such problems either. Showtime’s Homeland has been also had many of the same issues, blurring the lines of what an analyst actually does.
“The bigger problem is how Carrie Mathison, the show’s main character, does her job,” Houghton told ClearanceJobs. “That depiction really set back women in the intelligence community. Women have been fighting for decades that they can be as effective case officers as men, and can use their cunning and tradecraft skills to recruit foreign assets. But then the show goes back to the stereotype from Mata Hari in the First World War that it is about sleeping with assets and that is what Carrie Mathison does in the show. That isn’t what case officer’s do.”
Houghton isn’t alone in his criticism of tradecraft in these shows.
ClearanceJobs contributor Christopher Burgess, who had a 30-year career with the CIA, said that FX’s The Americans, which concluded its six season run last year, “captured the tradecraft and stresses of an officer living under cover and the trials and tribulations of a source.”
However, Burgess found the violence to be an issue, but added, “Hollywood has long embellished the blood, sex and action. Espionage is more like LeCarrre’s George Smiley. Slow and steady, where 99% is preparation and one percent is adrenaline rush like no other when you are operational and on the street.”
When it comes to the gunplay, Burgess was also blunt, “I preferred wits to weapons.”
Yet, some efforts have still been made to capture the spirit of how the operations officers conduct their business in shows such as Jack Ryan.
A CIA spokesperson told ClearanceJobs that Michael Kelly, who played the CIA station chief Mike November in the show’s second season, was invited to CIA headquarters and given a crash course in how to act like a station chief in a situation that goes from bad to worse.
“The way that Jack Ryan presented the Moscow COS was wrong, and that guy seemed more like a pencil pushing bureaucrat, where COS is really a career intelligence officer,” said Houghton.
In the end, perhaps a healthy dose of “suspension of disbelief” is required to enjoy these shows. An attention to detail doesn’t signal factual accuracy.
“The problem as I see it is that a lot of effort went into these shows to get some of the details right,” said Houghton. “But that just lends this credence of reality. These shows are as fictional as Bond.”