Spytainment: Fake spies influence perception of real intelligence

Zegart Youtube spytainment screenshot logo
Amy Zegart talks about "Spytainment" 92Y


A visit to CIA headquarters is nothing like Jack Bauer's CTU: the entrance has no retina or fingerprint scans. Agents do not look like Hollywood stars. 

"In fact, the place has something of a shabby post office feel," CISAC co-director Amy Zegart told nearly 200 Stanford alumni attending her "Class Without Quizzes" during alumni weekend. 

But shows such as "Homeland," "Blacklist" and "24," with the fictitious operative Jack Bauer, have dramatically changed Americans' perception of our intelligence agencies, Zegart told the class. 

Zegart, who is also associate director of academic affairs at the Hoover Institution, says the proliferation of  “spytainment” has skyrocketed in the last 15 years. Spy genre novelists Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy have sold 300 million books in the last 15 years, nearly one for every American. 

Spy-themed video games have gone from a $2 billion industry in 1996 to one of $16 billion in 2011. Spy movies have made the top-10 grossing U.S. film list every year since 2000. 

"Don't get me wrong," said Zegart, one of the country's leading intelligence experts. "I'm married to a Hollywood screenwriter and love being transported to an imaginary world where congressional oversight works and spies always look like Daniel Craig." 

Amy Zegart

Amy Zegart 
Photo Credit: Caleb Rau

But, she added, the blurring of fact and fiction makes for great entertainment at a hidden cost: “Americans are steeped in misperceptions about what intelligence agencies actually do – and misplaced expectations about how well they can do it.” 

Zegart and Hoover research fellow Marshall Erwin commissioned a YouGov National Poll in early October about public attitudes toward national intelligence. They found that many Americans don't really understand what our intelligence agencies do. 

When asked specifically about the National Security Agency, they found: 

  • About one-third believes NSA officials are responsible for interrogating terrorist detainees. They aren't.
  • About one-third thinks the NSA conducts operations to kill terrorists They don't.
  • Nearly 39% of those polled believe metadata – the information collected as part of its bulk phone records program – includes content of phone calls. It doesn’t.
  • Nearly half of those polled did not know that the NSA breaks foreign codes, even though that’s been one of its core missions since its founding in 1952 and why the NSA employs more mathematicians than any other U.S. organization.
  • Frequent wathers of spy TV (43%) are more likely to approve of government collection of telephone and Internet data than infrequent watchers (29%).

The finding that got the biggest laugh and loudest groan: While 43 percent of Americans could correctly name James Clapper as the director of national intelligence, 74 percent could identify Miley Cyrus as the young woman who created a global stir when she twerked on nationwide TV.

You can learn more about the poll in this video and their recent VIDEO: Is Spy-Themed Entertainment Affecting Public Opinion on Torture?, as well as in this Lawfare Blog posting and Walter Pincus column in the Washington Post.

The YouGov poll of 1,000 randomly selected people was conducted Oct. 5-7 with a margin of error of +/- 4.3.