Espionage! Skullduggery! Shooting people in the face with silenced pistols! Modern spy movies have given us a very specific picture of what an agent's job should involve. And while we all know that James Bond is a silly exaggeration, the Cold War featured some real spies whose adventures were only slightly less insane.
But real spycraft has changed massively since the Cold War. To find out just how much, Cracked got in touch with a civilian spy who worked with the Defense Department in Afghanistan. He assured us that ...
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One of the most unrealistic things about James Bond -- that he goes around using his real name and showing his real face -- is actually the most accurate. The spy we spoke to spent years going in and out of Afghanistan, perfecting something he called "real name in plain sight." The "plain sight" part means you need a real reason to be wherever you're operating (say, running a fake charity). A fake beard and a forged ID don't go as far as they used to.
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In the '50s, this was as good as a passport.
This makes perfect sense, when you think about it -- every spot worth protecting features layers of technology that would make Ethan Hunt-style disguises pointless to the point of being laughable. Biometrics has done to clandestine tradecraft what the Internet did to newspapers -- spies today have to contend with iris scanners and facial recognition technology at airports and embassies.
But, fine, say you do come up with a disguise so sophisticated that it even fools scanners intended to look for your specific bone structure. You've now convinced the customs agent that you're really Chad Notaspy of TotallyRussian Boulevard, Moscow. The problem is that your cover will last right up until somebody on the other side opens up their Web browser.
"I'm allergic to social media. One 'Like' and I go into anaphylactic shock."
Yeah, Google and Facebook have also done their part to make Cold War-era tradecraft useless -- people today store every achievement of their life online. Imagine if you met some guy with no Facebook profile, no sort of digital footprint whatsoever: That dude would stick out in your mind, and "sticking out" is the worst thing an undercover operator can do. The government will sure as hell notice if someone with no credit or purchase history pops into existence, and that's something that can be checked instantly and effortlessly.
In the end, Jack NightPunch was brought down by his credit score.
So yes, you have to do your spying as yourself -- you just have to convince them that espionage isn't how you make your living. So how does a full-time secret agent pull off something like that? Well ...
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The spy we spoke to was a contractor for the Defense Department, which made him legally no different from any other American citizen. He lived "outside the wire" in Afghanistan (there were no American soldiers with machine guns watching his ass) and worked with a team of other civilian spy freelancers. In the world of modern espionage, they are the ones who do much of the work.
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On the plus side, they get to soak in more of the local culture.
That's because, in the real world, James Bond -- that is, an actual employee of the British Crown -- would be far too valuable to risk going out in the field and getting into snowmobile chases. He'd complete all his missions from the safety of an embassy, claiming to be a mere diplomat and knowing that diplomatic immunity can keep him clean from any sins.
Just this year, the Russians caught American "diplomat" Ryan Fogle trying to recruit one of their agents. Despite being arrested with disguises, money, maps, and a knife -- only slightly less damning than a CIA tramp stamp -- Fogle wasn't tortured or thrown in jail or even flown to Vladimir Putin's secret volcano lair for a monologue.
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"It's a black-tie lair, and my suit was at the cleaners."
Instead, Fogle was "asked to leave" and then gently shown the door. Like almost every spy in the employ of a modern government, Fogle had diplomatic immunity. The game has changed since the day when Her Majesty's Secret Service sent Christopher Lee out to stab people. Today, agents of the SIS (the real-life counterpart of Bond's MI6) are too valuable to risk.
So who is actually out in the field doing the dirty work? That would be the NOCs -- non-official cover workers, agents who exist in a nebulous position in which they work for a private company in a foreign country, secretly gather information for the CIA, but don't have the official protections that come with being a government agent. They range from former special ops folks who want to get back in the game to doctors who realize the greater good of whacking the bad guys to cyberpunk kids looking to get a thrill. They could turn up in any job -- they might run a bar and exchange free beer for information, for example.
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"Beard barber" isn't a great cover, but almost anything else could work.
Without NOCs, the modern CIA wouldn't be able to do things like infiltrate terror cells or hire double agents. Foreign governments are well aware that the embassies are full of spies, which is why Fogle got his ass caught the instant he tried something. NOCs don't have any protection, but that same lack of government connection makes them much harder to spot.
This guy sorta stands out.
And if you think it's weird that espionage has been outsourced to civilians, well, you don't know the half of it ...
We have good news: The spy we spoke to says the U.S. government doesn't do that much spying on its citizens. No, it has outsourced that task to private corporations. The United States spends an estimated 70 percent of its entire intelligence budget on private contractors -- 60 percent of the CIA's workers are not employees of the U.S. government.
Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty
"All this outsourcing freed up tons of space to store Arks of the Covenant and such."
For example, let's go back to the early 2000s, when DARPA started a project called Total Information Awareness. The goal: gather information on everything we do and say in order to pick out patterns and stop terrorism. If that sounds a lot like the recent scandal over the NSA's similar program (called PRISM), that's because TIA was PRISM's creepy great-uncle with a glass eye. And like your creepy uncle, it wasn't long before TIA was exposed to the world in all its twisted glory.
A hailstorm of frozen shit descended upon DARPA for daring to peek into our lives. This was 2003, and people cared exactly as much about privacy then as they don't today. TIA was scrapped, at which point, as our spy puts it, the program went "deep black, and then got farmed out to commercial entities."
The NSA then started a program called Project Groundbreaker with the express goal of paying private companies to hire away their employees. The NSA analysts left their government offices one day and started work in swanky corporate digs right down the next street. That's why today, the largest concentration of computing power on the planet lives not at the NSA headquarters, but one mile away. There you find the corporate networks of Booz Allen Hamilton, SAIC, Northrop Grumman, and every other private company sifting through the dick pics you just sent your girlfriend.
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A full 40 percent of their server space is dedicated to incriminating drunk texts.