Studies in Intelligence: Special Review Supplement, Summer 2009

  • Studies in Intelligence: Special Review Supplement, Summer 2009 [PDF Only 1.3MB*]


Intelligence in Contemporary Media: Views of Intelligence Officers

John McLaughlin

One of the least appreciated facts about the intelligence profession is that it exists in, and is influenced by, a very complex environment—one that includes everything from its relationships with policymakers, legislatures, military services, foreign partners, and last but not least, to its interaction with the public. How intelligence relates to all of these arenas—and how it is regarded within them— ultimately affects everything from intelligence performance to funding to recruitment of personnel. The public is a particularly important part of this environment. But unlike military services, intelligence organizations do not have recruitment centers in every mid-sized town; nor do most families have some member who has served in intelligence. Hence, what most in the public think about intelligence depends to a large extent on what they see in cinematic, documentary, and novelistic sources like those reviewed in this issue. This is particularly the case in the United States, but I suspect it is true by varying degree in all of the countries our reviewers represent or have spent time in.

As the reviewers make clear, what the public sees and reads is with rare exception fantasy mixed with a few kernels of truth. This is particularly true when it comes to American authors and directors. We have not yet produced an espionage novelist with the maturity and perfect pitch so frequently found in the work of British masters such as John le Carré—although American writers such as Charles McCarry and David Ignatius are edging into that circle.

Why is this not a better developed tradition in the United States? Part of the answer has to be that espionage is still a very new experience for us and that we are still a very young country. By contrast, countries such as Britain, France, and Russia have practiced spycraft in an organized way for centuries—and the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu was writing in sophisticated ways about espionage in the 6th century BC. We did not organize intelligence formally on the national level until 1947. So it is hardly surprising that authors and directors in the United States are still coming to terms with this most arcane of instruments in the national security tool kit. And they are doing so, after all, during the period—the years since the 9/11 attacks—when the US polity itself has been reflecting deeply but inconclusively on what it wants from intelligence, what it doesn’t want, and how to organize the effort most effectively.

As important as detail is to all art, what often lingers is a dominant impression—what you remember days, weeks, or years after seeing a film or reading a novel. And in that respect, what I take from these reviews is modestly reassuring. When you look, for example, at all of the recent films about espionage and subtract the pyrotechnics and action figure antics that strain credulity, what lingers are several broad impressions: intelligence officers are often courageous, prepared to stand on principle, forced frequently to deal with stressful or ambiguous circumstances, and quite willing to take risks. This is heartening.

Equally so is something that a real scholar of the genre, Ohio University Professor Emeritus of History Alan Booth, pointed out to his students: a great deal of complexity is embedded in the literature of espionage. As his course syllabus makes clear, various films and novels capture elements of heroism, ambiguity, illusion, and farce. For those of us who recoil against the oversimplification of the profession in the sound bite world of cable TV and modern journalism, this too is encouraging.

So enjoy the Intelligence in Contemporary Media section of this issue of Studies in Intelligence and take heart from the thought that if life truly does imitate art, that would not be an entirely bad thing in the case of espionage.


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Posted: Aug 24, 2009 10:35 AM
Last Updated: Dec 04, 2009 10:48 AM