There has never been a more exciting time for fans of espionage in film. John le Carré’s cloak and dagger series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was admirably reproduced on the big screen. Ben Affleck surprised audiences with his portrayal of a real-life CIA legend in Argo, which took the Oscar for best picture. Skyfall was arguably the most satisfying Bond movie in recent years. Zero Dark Thirty, based on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, opened to a mix of adulation and controversy. To cap it all off, HBO is releasing a tell-all documentary on that same operation: Manhunt, premiering tonight, one day before the second anniversary of the Bin Laden raid.
It’s clear that the public craves knowledge of the “secret” world of intelligence. This is partly a reflection of their search for answers to today’s security dilemmas, but also frustration with the seeming inability of leaders in Washington to do anything about them. The Senate recently finished compiling a staggering six-thousand-page review of the CIA's post-September 11 interrogation and detention program. But it remains classified, leaving unresolved the extent to which American intelligence officers used torture to obtain information from suspected terrorists.
It doesn’t help that Hollywood has often depicted U.S. intelligence officers in an unfavorable light. The cynical spoofs The Men Who Stare at Goats and Burn After Reading depicted freewheeling officers and analysts as misfits and rogues. At the other extreme, Bond films and the Bourne series portray the business of intelligence as something akin to a game between superhuman assassins. Newer films reflect a shift from caricature to an appreciation of the gritty and grey world of espionage. Movie stars now crave serious roles as spymasters practicing their “tradecraft,” the nuts and bolts of spying.
In Argo, Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a famed officer of the CIA’s technical services division, who orchestrated the escape of a number of U.S. Foreign Service officers from Tehran in the midst of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. The ruse included a fake Hollywood studio, forged passports, and costumes designed to fool the Iranian authorities and build up the confidence of the nervous American diplomats. This successful use of deception by a skillful CIA officer was a small victory for the United States during an otherwise humiliating episode.
Filmmakers’ fascination with spymasters is also evident in their portrayals of le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor stories. George Smiley is the drab, implacable protagonist and a senior officer of MI6, an alter ego of sorts to Ian Fleming’s Bond. Smiley patiently sorts through bits of information to uncover a Soviet mole, a revelation that could save the lives of dozens of agents throughout Europe. The unassuming, intelligent Smiley also reflects le Carré himself—an early opponent of the Iraq War and outspoken critic of the “war on terror.”
The hunt for Osama bin Laden was a ten-year-long enterprise involving thousands of analysts, spies and soldiers. Yet Zero Dark Thirty boils it down to the persistent efforts of one young, female targeting analyst at the CIA. In the real world, targeters sort through staggering amounts of information to paint a picture of foreign targets of espionage; the more you know about someone, the easier it is to convince them to spy for you. This kind of patient analytical work, which eventually tracked down Osama bin Laden’s courier, is a jarring contrast with the movie’s focus on the use of coercive interrogation to confirm the courier’s identity.
The new documentary Manhunt suggests that Zero Dark Thirty’s focus on torture is misleading. Based on an acclaimed book about the search for Al Qaeda’s top leaders by Peter Bergen, the film promises an unblinking look at how the U.S. national-security apparatus works. It seems that information obtained from the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program may have been used primarily to verify information obtained from electronic or other human sources about Al Qaeda. While it was a component of the country’s counterterrorism strategy after 9/11, it was not essential to finding bin Laden.
But Manhunt also explores the pressures placed on our national-security professionals to provide options for policymakers, and the risks associated with those recommendations. The difficult issues faced by the men and women paid to protect the United States deserve public scrutiny. Yet much remains classified. Americans’ closest interaction with the difficulties and challenges of the “war on terror” are thus limited to film or television dramas like 24 or Homeland, which are intended more to entertain than to inform.
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s review of the government’s interrogation and detention program should be brought to light. The document would expose abuses such as the use of clandestine “black sites” to detain suspects or the use of inhumane interrogation techniques. But the report also no doubt chronicles the admirable efforts of dedicated professionals trying to defend their country.
In a scene from Skyfall that should resonate with those concerned about partisanship and the decline of U.S. power, James Bond’s boss “M” (played by Judi Dench) defends her intelligence professionals before Parliament by quoting from a Tennyson poem:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved heaven and earth. That which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Americans would benefit from this kind of nuanced picture of the spies working to protect their interests. With an official accounting of past mistakes and a better understanding of the balance between our values and security, our intelligence professionals can confidently move forward with their important task. Congress must play its part in informing the people and push for the declassification of as much of the report as possible. World affairs are too complex and the stakes too high to rely solely on the spymasters of Hollywood.
Parke Nicholson is assistant director at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, D.C.