James Bond's spycraft wrapped in myth
Suave, superhuman spy not found in real world
The latest James Bond movie, "Skyfall," delves into some tantalizing personal details about the world's favorite British spy, from formative events in his childhood to an up-close look at his relationship with M, the chief of the super-secret British spy service where Bond works.
But while the new film offers plenty of the heart-thumping chase scenes one expects from a Bond movie, it doesn't focus so much on the old-fashioned art of spycraft. Which begs the question: How real is today's Bond?
Some real-life former spies offered to help bust through some of the myths created by the movie:
Bond Myth 1: Spies have super human abilities
In the opening scene, a post-40-year-old Bond manages to survive a particularly wild car chase. He somehow ends up on top of a train, where he ducks through tunnels while engaging in a fistfight with the bad guy, only to be shot and fall to what appears to be his certain death, his body plunging into a lake.
"When you place it in the Hollywood context, his physical abilities don't exist," says Marty Martin, a former senior clandestine operations officer with the CIA, who one source of mine described as "one part" Bond.
"A guy can't take on six guys. He can't jump off bridges and trains. If you do it once, you're lucky, and it will likely blow your knee out, you know what I'm saying?" observed Martin.
And it's not just the physical skills, but add to that all of those other amazing talents that make Bond who he is, and you have just discovered why so many real-life spies admire the guy.
"A lot of people in our business wish we could do things like that," says Robert Richer, a former senior officer in the CIA's Clandestine Service. "He has the skills of a SEAL, He can play baccarat. He can move effortlessly in Monte Carlo, but the reality is it's hard to do all of those things combined."
"There are characteristics," says Martin. "But the whole James Bond, good-looking, suave, has good toys, speaks three or four languages, really?"
Bond Myth 2: Style is a spy's best weapon
"Being suave does make a difference," said Robert Grenier, who spent much of his CIA career working undercover in overseas locations, including serving as the CIA's chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, on September 11, 2001. Grenier is described by some of my sources as being the best-dressed (former) spy in the world.
Grenier, of course, chuckled when I shared that piece of intel with him.
"Espionage is a people business, and at its essence is the ability to make people like you and trust you and being able to enter a social world whether it's nuclear scientists or the court of the king of Morocco or whatever it is, those are the sort of social skills that form a composite of Bond."
Bond Myth 3: It's easier to work alone
"I was operating at a time when we did believe in one range and one rider," says Martin, who has since retired from the world of official espionage. "Today, you're way more likely to work in teams."
But, argues Martin, there is still a lot of logic in keeping those teams small. "Because if you only have two people on the operation, there are only two people who can jack it up," says Martin. "If you have 25, the weakest one will do something stupid like call home and blow the whole deal."
"You want to keep the team as small as you can. The fewer points of failure you have, the better," adds Grenier. "The perception of what we do has changed a little bit because we're operating so much in war zones. But one of the things I've always noticed is that if you ever have two case officers in a room with an agent, a source, it's one too many case officers. It's amazing when you see it because right away they start competing with each other."
Bond Myth 4: Breaking the rules makes you bad
One thing Bond doesn't do while carrying out his mission is stop to call the lawyers. According to the real-life guys, the concept of breaking rules isn't all that off-base for operators working in the field, under increasingly stressful pressure, particularly post-9/11.
"Following a deeper set of rules, being devoted to the mission, sometimes means breaking the rules you're supposed to follow," says Grenier, who has had to make some tough calls during the course of his career. "Breaking the rules does happen in real life, but not for very long. Bond never consults lawyers. Right there, you know it's not very realistic."
"Sometimes you need somebody who can go 'downtown bad'," says Martin.
But just how far does "downtown bad" go? Would it ever involve targeted killing of the nondrone variety?
Britain's MI6 has publicly disavowed itself from carrying out assassinations, as has the CIA. In fact, when I asked a certain unidentified spy contact about that, he sent me a copy of Executive Order 12333, which "explicitly prohibits the CIA from engaging, either directly or indirectly, in assassinations."
Of course, in reality, we know that intelligence officers or agents sometimes embark on deadly missions. But in a world in which oversight committees and lawyers are part of the process, how would Bond hold up before an oversight committee?
If I were to wager a bet, my money would be on that being the most exciting congressional hearing I would ever see.
Bond Myth 5: Technology always makes the job easier
In "Skyfall," Bond moves from country to country with relative ease. Could that really happen? Not so much.
This is true in part because technology now allows him to be tracked, either by new border control measures being adopted around the world or by social media sites that account for a lot of today's intelligence gathering.
"Now we have biometrics. You can't just pop in and out of countries. It's getting increasingly hard," says Martin, who spent some of his time moving through countries in the Middle East. "Our world has gotten so much more difficult for espionage. Before, you could create a fake passport and you're off, but now, honestly really the first thing people do is google you, right?"
Author Jeffery Deaver agrees.
He wrote the latest Bond novel, "Carte Blanche," which is part of the continuing Ian Fleming series. In the book, published last year, Deaver writes about a Bond character who can no longer just waltz into any country and provide a credible cover story. In large part, says Deaver, that's because of the Internet.
"Any intelligence agent has more information about him or her out there than one would like," said Deaver on his cell phone from Brazil, where he's touting his latest non-Bond book.
"He (Bond) has to gin up an identity that will stand up to Internet groups, because covers can be blown so easily. It doesn't take very much at all, even for a 13-year-old hacker, to find out that you're not who you say you are."
Bond Myth 6: Sophisticated drinks and theme songs make you cooler
OK, this one is tough to argue with. But while Bond is legendary for unwinding with a martini, shaken, not stirred, it's a bit more gritty in the real world.
"Whiskey," says Martin. "When we were facing some tough times with al Qaeda, it was whiskey and listening to soundtracks from "Gladiator" and "Man on Fire."
But let's face it, in some places, getting a good bottle of whiskey could be tougher than the day job. So what's another, more practical alternative in those locations?
"Most real case officers, the ones doing the counterterrorism work, are beer drinkers or, a lesser number, vodka drinkers." says Richer. "Where we serve, getting a good mixed drink is difficult at best. Finding a beer is always easy. Few of us drink wine. Appreciating wine takes time and attention.
"Those who take on the trappings of being too sophisticated are generally more intel bureaucrats than field officers (which are where most of those of us who drink wine and like taking comfy postings rest). Those doing Yemen, Africa, Afghan, Iraq, Syria, North Africa, take simply joys and run with them."
And age is an important component here, too, because post-9/11, many of those serving in particularly dangerous overseas posts are on the younger side.
"Country music, hard rock are more the themes than soundtracks. Music which pumps the blood up for mission or private pursuits like the gym," adds Richer.
"I don't know of an officer current or former who would define Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift as those they listen to. They do listen to Aerosmith, Coldplay and a lot of independent music artists."
Copyright 2012 by CNN NewSource. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.