“Spytainment”: The Real Influence of Fake Spies

An excerpt from "Spytainment: The Real Influence of Fake Spies" (pp. 599-600):

For avid fans of the now-departed television show 24, a visit to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) headquarters will be disappointing. The visitors’ center looks nothing like the ultra high-tech rooms of CTU, Jack Bauer’s fictitious counterterrorist agency.

Instead, the entry to America’s best-known intelligence outfit has more of a shabby, post office feel. There are soda vending machines and an old pay phone against the back wall, with customer service–like teller windows in front. Once cleared by security, visitors can walk ten minutes down a winding road or take a rambling shuttle bus to the old Headquarters building. The lobby has no retina scans or fancy fingerprint devices, just a few turnstiles and a kind, elderly security guard who takes cell phones and hands out claim checks. Even the suite of executive offices where the CIA director sits seems strangely ordinary. The only clue that this is not a typical government building is the desks. They are all bare. Not a visible paper in sight. Documents are either locked away or burned at the end of each day.

Most people know deep down that real spying is different than what is portrayed on television and in the movies. But how different? And how much does it matter?

Today, the facts and fiction of the spy business are blurring, with important consequences for intelligence policy. In the past two decades, the Spytainment industry has skyrocketed. Government over-classification has continued to keep vital and timely public information about U.S. intelligence agencies out of the public domain. And Political Science professors have been busy researching and teaching about seemingly everything except intelligence. The results are serious. As the nonpartisan, expert Intelligence Science Board concluded in a 2006 report, spy-themed entertainment has become adult education. American citizens are steeped in misperceptions about what intelligence agencies actually do, and misplaced expectations about how well they can do it. Perhaps even more disturbing, evidence suggests that policymakers—from cadets at West Point to senators on the Intelligence Committee to Supreme Court Justices—are referencing fake spies to formulate and implement real intelligence policies.