5 Ways Modern Espionage Has Left James Bond Behind
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 ...
Secret Identities Are Meaningless
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.
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 ...
"James Bond" Sits in an Embassy While NOCs Do the Work
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.
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.
"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.
"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 ...
Everything Has Been Outsourced to Private Contractors
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.
"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.
A full 40 percent of their server space is dedicated to incriminating drunk texts.
Almost All Foreign Spy Work Is Done by Locals
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).
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).
It's More Journalism Than James Bond
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?
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.
"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.
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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