washingtonpost.com  > Nation > National Security > Espionage

Ex-CIA Operative Demystifies Spies

By Kelly DiNardo
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page Y07

Glance over your shoulder and you just might see a spy lurking in the shadows of your television.

From "24" to "Alias" to "MI-5," it's no secret that clandestine shows have captured and captivated millions of viewers. But is there any reality in the spook genre, where narrowly escaping explosions, donning bright red wigs and chasing bad guys to exotic locales seem like part of the job description?

"It's not all fast-paced action and chases," said Mike Baker, 44, a former covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency. "In fact, if your car is blowing up, then you haven't done your planning properly."

Baker should know. After about 15 years with the CIA, the Vienna resident moved to the private sector to become CEO of security firm Veritas Global. Like any good spy, he developed and nurtured a variety of contacts -- some of which led to his consulting for A&E's British spy import "MI-5."

Having worked with both real-life and TV operatives, Baker understands the pop-culture boom in the spy trade.

"The spy business on TV is reassuring," Baker said. "The bad guy is always caught. People watch '24' and think, 'Put Jack on bin Laden, and he'll have him in an hour and a half.' You put a show about the real intelligence business on television, and it's going to frustrate a lot of people. It's not black and white. It's murky."

Even with their shows' neat endings, creators on "MI-5" work to make the shows plausible. Writers pepper Baker with questions: How would this agent react? What would the command center look like? What should agents do when inside a surveillance vehicle? Baker also looks over scripts and offers insider intelligence on the real spy world.

So how real are the shows' gadgets?

"Actually I'm talking to you right now on my shoe phone," Baker joked. While spies do have some of "the best gadgets in the world," he said, the tools that get characters out of sticky situations are often dreamed up.

"A lot of times they're taking creative license with something, but it's based on something we've talked about before," said Baker, whose favorite over-the-top TV gadgets were the "bombs MacGyver could make with a paper clip, honeydew melon and a can of Coke."

His biggest laughs come from the communications gear today's TV spies sport. Even with amazing equipment, real-life agents don't like to depend on communications gear, he said.

"You spend a lot of time figuring out how not to use all this great gear because you worry it won't work right when you need it to," Baker said. "So the receiver planted in the guy's wisdom tooth that always works properly is funny. At the end of the day we often relied on finding a pay phone."

The most important tool real spies have isn't a gadget -- it's their identity. Real spies are more like actors than actors are like real spies.

"Your identity, the documents that support your identity and your ability to play that role is the most important thing you've got," Baker said. "If you're persuasive, creative and have some sort of dramatic capability -- that's an invaluable skill."

CONTINUED    1 2    Next >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company