Don’t get me wrong — I’m a fan of the Bond movies. I go to see them for the same reasons everyone else does: the gorgeous women, the most beautiful places on Earth and, of course, the roller-coaster ride of a plot. I delight in Bond’s complete defiance of gravity. His suits never wrinkle, his Aston Martin is never in the garage for repairs, the girls never say no.
But as a former spy, what I like most about the Bond movies is the way good always triumphs over evil. His cases end neatly, with the villain dispatched and the world safe for the good guys.
Real-life espionage is a lot less sexy — and a lot messier.
Sometimes, age-old wisdom notwithstanding, the enemy of our enemy turns out not to be our friend. Once, in the mid-1980s, I was handed the portfolio for Libya’s opposition leaders, many of whom were operating out of Khartoum, Sudan. At first, I had only a hazy idea of who Moammar Gaddafi’s opponents were. All I knew for sure was that the Reagan administration wanted Gaddafi to go.
Late one night, I woke up to the sound of the butts of assault rifles pounding my door. Two of my Libyan contacts were on the run from Gaddafi’s assassins and expected me to protect them. We talked most of the night — about Libya, history and Allah. By the time they could safely leave, I had come to understand that the people we’d picked to replace Gaddafi were militant Salafists determined to turn Libya into an Islamic republic. They didn’t succeed then, but you could argue that the people who attacked our diplomatic outpost in Benghazi in September were their linear descendents.
While occasionally I found myself in a Bond-like setting during my spying career, the story inevitably unfolded with a lot less panache.
One time, in pursuit of an elusive informant, the agency sent me to Monaco to troll the Casino de Monte-Carlo. The problems started before I even got on the plane. The CIA scoffed at the idea of buying me a tuxedo, and the dragon lady who did our accounting refused to give me a cent to put on the roulette table. Not surprisingly, as soon as I walked into the casino in my penny loafers, the security goons spotted me as an impostor and pulled me over for a polite interrogation. I never found our would-be informant, but I did come away with the certainty that I wasn’t James Bond.
Anyone who’s passed through Langley will tell you that a spy’s life is one of tedious endurance. It’s long hours of cubicle living, going through the same files everyone else in the office has gone through, hoping to catch a missed lead. Or it’s waiting by the phone hoping that the third secretary from the Ecuadorian Embassy will call you back. Or keeping your fingers crossed that your next three-year assignment isn’t in Chad. As CIA-operative-turned-novelist Charles McCarry said, spying is nothing more than an organized hunt for a windfall.That translates to waiting for that one “walk-in” who comes knocking on the agency’s door ready to hand over the crown jewels.