Spies are everywhere – especially on TV. Thanks to streaming services such as Netflix and Apple TV+, these are boom times for fans of espionage thrillers. But it’s not only fans who are tuning in: viewers also include actual undercover agents whose roles range from collecting intelligence to recruiting spies for a living. And sometimes what they see onscreen leaves them cringing.
Key figures in a new tranche of espionage shows range from losers and lawyers to real-life spooks. In Apple TV+’s Slow Horses, the secret agents are sad-sack screwups banished to MI5’s administrative purgatory. In the ITVX drama A Spy Among Friends, the intelligence officers are Cambridge-educated liars in crisp tailored suits. And in Prime Video’s Jack Ryan, the CIA officials include paunchy lifers and Jason Bourne clones.
All these roles are ones that US national security and intelligence veterans consistently find fault with. “I’m hard pressed,” laments the former CIA analyst Gail Helt, “to come up with a show that gets it even in the ballpark in terms of what CIA officers do.”
If these shows really let us all the way in, she and other insiders stress, they would also make sure viewers understand the unglamorous side of the work – how mind-numbingly pedestrian it can be.
“My relationship with shows centred on law enforcement and intel agencies is a love/hate one,” says former FBI special agent Jeff Cortese. “I love it when they get it right, and I hate it when they get it wrong. I mean right and wrong in terms of it being authentic, not realistic. Realistic would be spending 90-95% of the show watching agency officials do paperwork. Nobody wants to see that. I want to see the other 5-10% of the job that is exciting.”
These aren’t blanket criticisms for the entire genre, especially given that new releases span everything from big-budget action romps (Netflix’s The Recruit) to ripped-from-the-headlines dramatisations of real-life events (Litvinenko and A Spy Among Friends) that imply a greater degree of verisimilitude. Some shows may get it completely wrong, while others get it … well, less wrong. That’s the assessment of John Sipher, who retired in 2014 after a 28-year career in the CIA’s National Clandestine Service. Only a few shows get his stamp of approval. “While no movie or show gets it all right, The Bureau captures the give-and-take between headquarters and the field, and both The Americans and The Spy give a good feel of street tradecraft and living under cover,” he says.
For Cortese, it’s particularly annoying when protagonists fail to handle firearms correctly – one of the most common complaints. “Characters often make the mistake of having their finger on the trigger while clearing a room, or even just holding the weapon,” he says. “In real life, your finger is along the barrel and you don’t touch the trigger until you plan on squeezing it. This is probably the single most irritating thing to those of us in the business. We always notice this one.”
Other common complaints from those in the know include: too much sex, too many gunfights, and the abilities of agents and officers too often being overblown. They also point out that real-life cases take much longer than what TV programme-makers squeeze into the confines of a half-hour or hour-long show.
For that reason, some veterans avoid the genre entirely. Tracy Walder is a former FBI special agent and a five-year covert operations veteran in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center – where she took on aliases and visited black sites to debrief captured terrorists. “I made it through one episode of Homeland and couldn’t watch any more,” she says. “What’s misleading is that our capabilities are viewed as omniscient. They certainly are not. Things take time. That can mean years.”
She adds that while the work can be “sexy” and exciting, much of it is of the mundane writing-reports-in-cubicles sort. This is also generally secret work, so an agent who is frequently getting caught up in gun battles – of the kind seen on TV – is doing something wrong.
“We do carry weapons in certain areas of operation, but that’s not the norm,” Walder says. “We are not law enforcement; therefore, it is actually not part of the job. Yes, we have weapons training and I did carry in some countries I served, but that’s it. Obviously, as an FBI agent I carried all the time.”
That said, there are some ex intelligence professionals, such as the former CIA analyst turned novelist David McCloskey and Christina Hillsberg (a veteran of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations), who choose to enjoy spy shows the way the unsuspecting public does. Sometimes, even the shadow warriors don’t mind watching something dumb and fun – or something that gets close to the mark.
“The Bureau,” McCloskey says, “does a wonderful job of capturing the human element and the idiosyncrasies of the intelligence business, particularly the bureaucracy and the frequent tension between the field and headquarters.
“The Little Drummer Girl excels in showing the long, slow burn of running intelligence-gathering operations. It also nails the frustrating lack of operational and moral clarity that can characterise the business.”
Hillsberg, whose CIA career included penning intelligence assessments for the White House, adds: “With any spy thriller, there’s often an element of suspending disbelief, especially if you’ve worked in espionage. At the end of the day, even we like to be entertained.”