#2. Almost All Foreign Spy Work Is Done by Locals
Massoud Hossaini / Stringer / AFP / Getty
The problem with sending American CIA agents into, say, Afghanistan on an undercover mission is that they look like American CIA agents. That's why 90 percent of CIA employees live and work in the U.S. That remaining 10 percent spend their time working as "case officers," managing foreigners who do the actual spy shit (also note: the guys who sneak around and the guys who get into gunfights are not the same guys -- the latter are kept on a tight leash until the shooting starts).
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Sadly, movies tend to ignore the heroic contributions of men like John Chairspy McEmbassy.
So in the real world, a random waitress or goatherd might have more valuable data for MI6 than everyone's favorite martini-swilling date rapist. (Oh, come on. You know he is.) For example, ever wonder how they confirmed that the dude we shot in Abbottabad was bin Laden and not just some harmless porn-loving old man who happened to look like him? They matched his blood to the DNA of bin Laden's living relatives. And why did the Americans have bin Laden family blood on hand?
Well, before the raid, the CIA tried to track bin Laden down by running a vaccine program in Abbottabad. They handed out hepatitis vaccines and -- at the same time -- tested the hell out of every drop of blood in hopes of proving that members of the bin Laden family lived nearby. The whole operation was made possible by a Pakistani doctor, who ran the program -- a white dude hanging around the clinic checking everyone's blood might possibly have aroused suspicion.
This guy blends in everywhere, up to and including a Magnum P.I. costume contest.
After the raid, Pakistan arrested the doctor and sentenced him to 33 years in jail for what they claimed were unrelated charges (he's currently awaiting a new trial).
#1. It's More Journalism Than James Bond
BSIP / UIG / Getty
OK, so we've probably all accepted that real secret agents very seldom fire machine guns from their car's front grill. But they definitely spend their time worried about proper secret agent stuff: tracking troop movements and intercepting communications from bad guys, right? Even if the methods are different from what we imagine, the goal is still to steal the secret plans for the terrorists' doomsday machine. Isn't it?
AFP / Stringer / Getty
If these guys had grown up watching G.I. Joe cartoons, they'd know how this "terrorism" stuff was supposed to work.
Well, that's what U.S. military intelligence thought, too. Our spies went into Afghanistan prepared to analyze the shit out of some insurgents. Alas, all of their in-depth research into the Taliban somehow failed to stop small groups of bearded nomads from burying bombs along highways. Their shortcomings exposed, the intelligence community leaped into action eight short years later.
In January of 2010, Major General Michael Flynn released a report called "Fixing Intel." Its starting premise was that the entire American intelligence community was no more than "marginally relevant" to the war in Afghanistan. All of the drones and listening posts were useless at persuading the locals not to murder American troops. This report was news to everyone but the people living and fighting in Afghanistan, including the spy we spoke to.
Robert Nickelsberg / Getty
"Yeah, no. Everything's working great here."
His work with the Defense Department was focused on gathering information more fit for a small town reporter than the cast of Homeland -- prices for local crops, who was marrying whom, which villages had access to clean water or sorta-reliable power -- that's the sort of information the military needed. And it also happened to be the kind of information armed men with a license to kill suck at gathering.
More and more, the most critical intel they're gathering is open source -- meaning little bits of information lying out in the open. Remember, insurgents don't have strict hierarchies, and there's no map in a room somewhere with pins stuck where all the roadside bombs live. So today the mission is less about getting lowered through an air-conditioning duct into secret headquarters and more about collecting thousands of newspapers, receipts, and pictures of graffiti, and overhearing drunken arguments about local politics.
AFP / Stringer / Getty
Mumtaz the Goat Herder is worth three secret agents.
And while all that can't point out where the bombs are buried either, it can give the military hints on who might be planting them. And open-source intel also lets them know what kind of everyday things the locals need ... and when you figure out what someone lacks and then give it to him, he's less likely to support the guys shooting at you.
Even though that sort of thing isn't as exciting as punching a terrorist off the top of a speeding train, it's still probably better for everyone involved.
Robert Evans is Cracked's head of dick joke journalism, and also manages the article captions. If you've got a whistle to blow or just want to give him money, he can be reached here.
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