Want to know what CIA spooks really think of spy movies and books?
Tinker, tailor, soldier, critic
CIA spooks are attempting to prove they deserve the word intelligence in their job titles by moonlighting as arts critics.
Writing for the CIA's Studies in Intelligence house journal, spies have been scribbling reviews of books and films, sometimes taking on pseudonyms to mask their true identities.
Studies in Intelligence contains classified - and unclassified - discussions on the art of spycraft, along with articles on books and films likely to appeal to the average spook. The unclassified bits are published online every quarter.
Although most of the books the undercover authors review relate to the spy world in some way, a good deal of the writing is about popular fiction, including titles like The Kite Runner, a story about a young man growing up in Afghanistan before the Russian invasion, and films such as the Bourne Identity.
Each issue contains a section titled "The Intelligence Officer's Bookshelf", which features recommended reading for the erudite spy.
In the latest edition of the spooks' journal there is a wordy essay entitled "The Spy Who Made His Own Way: Ernest Hemingway, Wartime Spy" written by Nicholas Reynolds, a CIA Museum historian. He praises the great author's work but concludes: "Ernest Hemingway may have wanted to be a spy, but he never lived up to his potential."
An issue released at the end of 2012 contains a review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Michael Bradford, who writes under a pen name and describes himself as a "National Clandestine Service officer who has contributed several reviews of fiction to Studies".
His review considers the accuracy of John le Carré's portayal of the British secret service.
"In comparison with the book and BBC mini-series, the film treats much more directly and stridently the presumed prevalence of the British class system, which provides its upper class privilege and immunity from scrutiny and judgment."
However, he wasn't impressed enough with the film to suggest its incorporation into a screening session for new recruits, as it simply doesn't portray the shadowy world of intelligence effectively - a common gripe amongst the opinionated CIA critics.
"The movie is unlikely to change public perceptions [due to] its opacity. Except for intelligence professionals and le Carré aficionados, the film version is almost incomprehensible," Bradford wrote.
Despite this particular spook's concerns, John le Carré's output is a recurring theme amongst the CIA's literary reviews, with one critic bemoaning the lack of a good American spy writer to challenge the British.
John McLaughlin, who happens to share a name with a former director of the CIA, wrote:
"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."
Similarly, Michael S Goodman, a British professor who wrote in to educate the Americans about the British approach to teaching intelligence studies, moaned that Ian Fleming's famous fictional British spy has destroyed his students' perceptions of the intelligence world:
"I ask students what is the first thing that comes to mind when they think of intelligence. Invariably the answer is: 'James Bond.' This is a sad state of affairs. Not only is James Bond fictional, but he is not a fair representation of intelligence," the prof said.
A special reviews edition was published in 2009, featuring discussions of Body of Lies, Ridley Scott's film about the hunt for a terrorist, and Munich, Spielberg's film about Mossad's hunt for the Palestinian terrorists who murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics.
In this issue, a spy who served in South Asia before taking the nom de plume Elizabeth Darcy, writes of her disappointment at The Kite Runner.
"I have to admit that I wanted to like the movie far more than I actually did,” says Mrs Darcy. “The movie, while a good representation of the novel, doesn’t capture the rich narrative, the drama, or the emotional upheaval of the main characters in the story as they live through and survive (most of them anyway) Afghanistan’s modern history." ®