- An agent employed by a state to obtain secret information, especially of a military nature, concerning its potential or actual enemies.
- One employed by a company to obtain confidential information about its competitors.
- One who secretly keeps watch on another or others. (American Heritage Dictionary)
Say “intelligence” and whoever hears you will come up with the usual associations: James Bond, Jason Bourne, Napoleon Solo (if they’re old enough and American), John Drake (if they’re old enough and British). A gun, a tuxedo, explosions, bad guys in red jumpsuits.
Needless to say, that ain’t how it is.
The worldwide intelligence community is huge. In the U.S. alone, 17 intelligence agencies and a growing number of specialty offices and task forces employing an unknowable number of people (“employ” is a slippery word here, given the number of contractors involved) spent roughly $68 billion in 2014 (down from $80 billion in 2010). Most every industrialized nation has at least a couple intelligence agencies, and most have many more. A lot of guys in tuxedos waving guns around?
Not quite. Nearly all of these people make their living sitting at a desk, reading. In many cases, these analysts specialize in some fairly narrow or arcane topic (Southeast Asian money flows, for instance) and may have advanced degrees in the subject. They read cable traffic, diplomatic reports, imagery analysis, communications intercepts, reports from other agencies, and open-source data (things published in newspapers, academic or business journals, broadcast on television, posted on the Internet, and so on), think about it all, try to distill it into some kind of coherent form, then write reports about it. These reports go to people who (at least in theory) have some interest in the topic.
That’s what I used to do for my last few years in the Air Force Reserve. Actually, for the final four years or so, I supervised other people sitting at desks, reading.
So who are the spies?
There are, indeed, “spies” in the sense of the definition at the top of the page, although there aren’t very many of them. The typical CIA case officer (the preferred term of art, although Mossad uses katsa) isn’t the one breaking into Blofeld’s lair to get the codes to the doomsday machine; he or she instead persuades or suborns one of Blofeld’s henchpeople to do the stealing. Nearly all physical secret-snatching is done by insiders who have volunteered or have been roped into betraying whatever organization they work for or have access to. The spy/case officer receives and passes on the information. Think of Our Antiheroes in The Americans, meeting their sources in empty warehouses, and you have a good picture of what this looks like.
If you read accounts written by former “spies” (such as Ishmael Jones’s The Human Factor or Victor Ostrovsky’s By Way of Deception), the case officer’s life is a series of meetings in cheap hotels with sometimes unpleasant and usually at least mildly desperate people, playing paymaster, drinking buddy, psychiatrist, cheerleader or bad cop as needed. In between, there’s agency business (administration, reporting, working the next assignment, trying to get paid), maintaining whatever cover the case officer has, and basic living.
Case officers under official cover (i.e. posing as embassy or government officials) actually get/have to go to embassy parties and possibly even wear tuxedos from time to time. (BTW, the host nation almost always knows who they are.) Case officers under non-official cover–meaning they’re in the target country under false pretenses, usually as businesspeople–live on the economy and are basically on their own; because of this, they’re even less likely to go skulking around in secret places. In either instance, the case officer leaves the skulking, arrests, torture, and prison time to the local sources under his/her control.
Much secret-snatching doesn’t involve lockpicks or safecrackers these days. The people in, for instance, the U.S. National Security Agency or Britain’s General Communications HQ could be considered spies even though their work is accomplished by tending to the massive electronic infrastructure they created to intercept, store, and analyze communications–your phone conversations, emails, web surfing, and so on, as well as those of other governments, military units, and corporations. The mechanical spies in orbit or attached to drones photograph much of the world’s surface, the results of which are analyzed by a small army of people who look at pictures for a living.
The Jason Bourne types usually aren’t out to discover or steal secrets. These special-forces operators use the intelligence that analysts have assembled from what the case officers have squeezed from their sources to carry out covert missions involving killing or capturing people and breaking other people’s stuff. Call them soldiers or assassins or whatever, but don’t call them spies.
Spy movies and spy thrillers don’t reflect most of this reality because, like with most occupations, real-life intelligence work isn’t very interesting to watch or read about. That said, go see The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Just don’t mistake it for a documentary.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article appeared on Lance Charnes' website in January 2013.
Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. His international thriller Doha 12 features lots of shooters but hardly any spies. There’s not a spy to be found in his near-future thriller South, but lots of intel. He tweets (@lcharnes) about scuba diving, shipwrecks, art crime and archaeology, among other things.
Read all of Lance Charnes' posts for Criminal Element.