The Great Spy’s Dream

by James McGirk

I asked Patrick if there was anything particularly useful he could pass on to me “about the CIA.” “The first thing to remember is that nobody connected to the Agency calls it the CIA. It’s plain CIA.”

—Harry Mathews, My Life in CIA.

Ciacoinb“The reason why these agencies are coming out of the shadows is that they want to tell their story to the extent that they can,” says Peter Earnest, the founding director of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. As to how an intelligence agency should go about telling its story when so much of that story is concealed from the public eye is easy, he says, “you simply don’t tell people the parts that are classified.” The problem with leaving holes in a story, however, particularly one as juicy as that of government espionage, is that those holes create a vacuum and that vacuum fills with rubbish, sinister, exceedingly compelling rubbish that supports an entire ecosystem of strange scavengers. The question is: are these scavengers a bug, a feature, or simply a sideshow to the story being told?

Given that bamboozlement is essentially an operational mandate for an intelligence agency, one wonders whether there might be something else going on. John le Carré called this addictive haze of paranoia the “Great Spy’s Dream.” Writing for the New Yorker in 2008, le Carré reflected on his first clandestine mission, a meeting with a Czechoslovakian double agent that was casually aborted when le Carré’s Browning automatic slipped from his waistband and dropped to the floor of an Austrian bar. Le Carré wonders whether his case officer might have invented the entire operation, “his composure astonished me. Not a word of rebuke.” Le Carré diagnoses a kind of delusional paranoia from the incident, “a condition that in the spook world, rather like a superbug in a hospital, is endemic, hard to detect, and harder still to eradicate.” He sees it contaminating the Iraq Dossier, pushing intelligence officers to produce the slam-dunk evidence for the Iraq War, and all because we, the public, want to believe in our spies, “no matter how many times they trip over their cloaks and leave their daggers on the train.” Yet something is going on out there.

Every American agency that employs someone other than a security guard to carry a gun has an unofficial fan club, with a character that is a funhouse reflection of its parent bureaucracy’s. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) the agency that built the Internet and invented stealth technology and god knows what else, attracts futurists with a sinister side, while the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attracts gun geeks and inveterate smokers, while the U.S. Border Patrol’s various fan clubs are slightly xenophobic and frankly downright hysterical. The web is riddled with chat-rooms, archives and clipping services discussing the minutia of these agencies. They come in all flavors though there is a definite paranoid crunch to most of them. A left-leaning paranoiac interested in intelligence might be drawn to, a storehouse of sinister government documents that predates Wikileaks, while his or her rightwing counterpart might visit a site like Belonging to and participating in these sites must be a sort of wish fulfillment. Particularly since the agencies with the most pull on the imagination belong to America’s intelligence community, especially Central Intelligence or CIA.


There has been an explosion of interest in all things spy-related since the end of the Cold War. Central Intelligence Agency now has an entertainment liaison to field the myriad requests from movie producers and journalists that come in, and there are online discussion boards devoted to every fragment of the clandestine experience, from tradecraft to getting into the agency; and a former Russian spy, Anne Chapman, a pneumatic redheaded femme fatale who was part of a massive – and massively incompetent (or so the FBI would have us believe) – spy network, deported back to Russia after being caught red-handed encoding airport blueprints in computer graphics (a process called steganography) and has since evolved into the sort of politician/pin-up girl hybrid that was previously only possible in hopelessly corrupt but fun-loving places like Italy and the gentler former Soviet satellites. On top of this, or perhaps beneath all of this, the U.S. government seems to be deliberately manipulating the relationship between its clandestine agencies and the general public.

Immediately following the Second World War, according to Tim Weiner in his Legacy of Ashes (2008), as the Communist menace loomed large for the Western world and it became clear to President Eisenhower, particularly after the devastating Korean War, that the United States and Western Europe simply did not have the manpower or resources to hold off an aggressive Soviet or Chinese state for very long and that the only way to remain in the geopolitical catbird seat was to multiply the effect of their existing forces by rapidly escalating America’s nuclear arsenal and its clandestine forces. The former would function as the geopolitical equivalent of porcupine quills, turning the United States into something so prickly to take a bite out of no matter how delicious it may have been, while the latter would allow the United States to outmaneuver its enemies. Occasionally this meant covert undertakings, such as toppling governments (like Guatemala or Iran) and funding modern art exhibitions and multi-megawatt radio stations playing contagiously cool American music, but mostly it meant gathering and analyzing intelligence, knowing an enemy’s moves before it knew them itself, in effect exerting control through narrative.

Though we know now that the Cold War was winding down in the 1980s, for those on its shadowy frontlines a secret war was roiling. According to Tim Weiner, the agency was at its peak strength under Director Robert Gates, with several active agents on the Soviet side who produced excellent intelligence for the American government, and a series of successful clandestine operations — operations being the more James-Bond-like side of intelligence – had produced real results, American funding and munitions were keeping the Soviets bogged down in Afghanistan and NATO had infiltrated a top secret Russian program that was using the hard currency largesse accumulated during the oil shocks in the 1970s to purchase advanced Western computer technology and industrial equipment. Western intelligence agencies began inserting malicious programming code into electronic components that were being used to remotely control oil pipelines. In 1982 the pressure inside of a remote stretch of pipeline in Siberia was gradually and undetectably increased by Western agents. Nothing showed up on Russian monitors until there was a massive explosion, one large enough to be mistaken for a tactical nuclear weapon.

On the information front, American intelligence agencies were also beginning to score victories – they had found evidence in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia that the Russians were continuing to test biological weapons and threatened to openly confront them. The Russians were determined to strike back. As chronicled in Thomas Boghardt’s amazing “Soviet Bloc Intelligence and its AIDS Disinformation Campaign” (Studies in Intelligence, 2009), the Russians began designating a quarter of their operating budget toward what the director of East Germany’s Department X of the Stasi’s foreign intelligence bureau, Col. Rolf Wagenbreth described as what “Our friends in Moscow call ‘dezinformatsiya,’ our enemies in America call ‘active measures’ and I, dear friends, call ‘my favorite pastime.”

The most effective attempt at hijacking the narrative was a project named OPERATION INFEKTION, which claimed that the HIV virus, the one that causes AIDS, was created in a U.S. government laboratory. It remains an enduring example the destabilizing damage that an intelligence agency can do through narrative alone, particularly one created by knowing its enemy’s weaknesses intimately and striking at a issue. The idea remains a serious problem for social workers and humanitarian agencies to this day. For foreigners the idea that there might be something sinister to the missions of mercy the United States and its allies were conducting, that the syringes they insisted on poking into the arms of their children might contain something other than the miraculous medicines they were being promised, particularly as a virulent sexually transmitted disease was streaking through the presumably populations of Africa, Southeast Asia and America’s presumably undesirable subcultures, while leaving the majority of Westerners unscathed. And it fit in perfectly with the perception of Western culture being morally bankrupt in a sexually voracious way, and technologically advanced to the point of having near-magical power. And after all it was not so long ago that the American government had been busted testing mind-bending drugs on its own citizens and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments of the 1930s were not so far away. Naturally the Soviet campaign drew upon all of this.

Thomas Boghardt describes how the Soviets attempted to pin AIDS on the Pentagon, even before the HIV virus was isolated. Their first platform was to accuse the United States of conducting eugenics. Soviet writers cited prior instances of “American perfidity,” that is Freedom of Information Act documents detailing experiments performed on U.S. citizens such as MKULTRA (which tested the hallucinogenic drug LSD on unwitting soldiers and Harvard students, including a young Ted Kaczynski), tests of aerosolized biowarfare systems that sprayed benign bacteria into the San Francisco and New York City subway systems, and they pointed out America’s support of South Africa (then under Apartheid) and noted that AIDS seemed to be radiating out of East Coast cities, such as Washington D.C., Boston, and New York City, cities that not only had large ghettos, but were also conveniently close to nearby biological warfare laboratories. This time the story didn’t quite stick but the next one did.

The Soviets tried again in 1983, using their government propaganda wing to seed a letter in the July 17th issue of a left-wing Indian newspaper called The Patriot. The anonymous letter claimed to have been written by a “prominent American anthropologist” and again cited well established facts about AIDS, described U.S. testing on American citizens then claimed that the U.S. had never abandoned bacteriological weapons research as they had claimed in 1969, claimed that researchers at Fort Detrick created AIDS “by ‘analyzing samples of highly pathogenic viruses in Africa and Latin America,’” and concluded by citing well-known articles warning of the threat AIDS posed to developing nations.

The story languished for several years until it was cited in the KGB paper in 1985 (“Panic in the West or What is Hiding behind the Sensation Surrounding AIDS” in the 30 October 1985 issue of Literaturnya Gazeta). By now the United States had increased pressure on the Soviet Union, accusing them of breaking the Geneva Convention over their continued bio-warfare programs and blocking international AIDS relief. OPERATION INFEKION began again in earnest, this time with the East Germans providing back up support, which included leaking information to an unwitting agent, a highly respected but also highly ideological scientist named Dr. Jakob Segal. Segal latched onto the story and became fixated with the idea of American-made AIDS and spent the rest of his career spreading the idea at international conferences, writing peer-reviewed papers that cited American AIDS as fact and essentially collaring anyone who would listen to him and forcing the idea down their throat. He converted masses of people, including an Austrian author named Johannes Mario Simmel who wrote a best-selling novel (Along with the Clowns came the Tears) spin-off TV miniseries about the Segal’s ideas. According to Boghardt, the KGB called people like this – the uncompensated evangelists of propaganda – subconscious multiplicators that is when they didn’t just refer to them as “useful idiots.”

The damage wrought endures to this day. A 1992 survey found that 15 percent of Americans still believe that Pentagon created AIDS, while a RAND Foundation and Oregon State University poll taken in 2005 found that 50 percent of African Americans “thought AIDS was manmade,” “25 percent believed AIDS was the product of a government laboratory,” and “12 percent believed it was created and spread by the CIA.” Respectable academics still sometimes debate the veracity of this myth. Accusations eugenics-by-intentional-infection continue to pepper the opinion pages of third world newspapers and first world free papers. Humanitarian and social workers are occasionally killed because of this idea, even though in 2008 the KGB’s replacement admitted it was a hoax (and had walked away from the story as early as 1992).

OPERATION INFEKION was hardly the only disinformation campaign conducted against the CIA, according to Boghardt, among the many Soviet campaigns the agency was accused of committing the Jonestown Massacre and running baby farms in Latin America to supply North Americans with organs for transplant. Though Soviet propaganda had an effect on the public perception of the clandestine community, the very worst damage ever done was self-inflicted.

Boghardt maintains in his article that the CIA conducted no equivalent to the U.S.S.R’s active measures. That said, propaganda is said to come in three flavors: black propaganda is entirely fabricated and includes stories like the laboratory AIDS one; grey propaganda is true but willfully slanted, an example of this might be blaming the recent financial collapse on impoverished, irresponsible subprime mortgage holders. Certainly they have had some agency in the crisis but to leave out the downright predatory behavior of banks, reckless valuations, and speculation gone berserk would be misleading, to say the least. The last category is white, and these are stories that meant to be unvarnished truth. White propaganda is by definition nearly impossible to refute and is by the far the most damaging. There is a reason why the most persistent paranoid conspiracies about the United States government are clustered around its greatest failures. That people believe the U.S. government was behind September 11th, that the CIA was complicit in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, concealing alien technologies, or actively trying to control the minds of American citizens is basically the result of people trying to fill the holes between the idea of omnipotent, mysterious government agencies and the gross arrogance and incompetence behind some of the U.S.’s government’s misreadings of intelligence and poorly conceived clandestine operations, for example the revelation of national security funding on campus in the 1960s by Ramparts magazine, the revelations of domestic espionage and experimentation with LSD by the Church Committee in 1975, and the Pentagon Papers revelations of undeclared wars in Southeast Asia and the Kennedy brothers assassination attempts against Cuban leader Fidel Castro.


For a clandestine agency to be effective it must command a sterling reputation both within and outside its organization. “No one else can understand it,” said Colin Thompson who had served in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam [to Tim Weiner in Legacy of Ashes]. “It’s a mist you dip into and hide behind. You believe have become an elite person in the world of American government, and the agency encourages that belief from the moment you come in. They make you a believer.” The CIA’s perceived invulnerability and prestige goes double for the recruitment of agents. “Contrary to popular jargon, a CIA agent is not the actual employee of the CIA but rather the hapless schlub who has been recruited by a CIA case officer to spy on behalf of the United States, usually in exchange for money,” writes former CIA case officer Lindsay Moran in Blowing My Cover (2005). To commit treason against your motherland an agent has to trust that the agency he or she is doing it for will be able to protect them.

The first half of Moran’s book is a meticulously observed description of the author’s own yearlong training by Central Intelligence. Moran describes how she learned the Recruitment Cycle, “the process of spotting, assessing, developing and enlisting foreign agents.” She learned to diagnose a potential recruit’s vulnerabilities and then “play upon those weaknesses and introduce ways in which ‘our organization’ might help;” and if there were no weaknesses, to “wine and dine him [N.B. she notes earlier that most agents are men], ply him with alcohol and glimpses of the good life [and] if all went well, ultimately… weaken his resolve.” A classic article from Central Intelligence Agency’s electronic archives “More On The Recruitment of Soviets” (Studies in Intelligence, 1965) describes the traits to look out for in greater detail:

“[The] single, simple, self-evident explanation is that the enormous act of defection, of betrayal, treason, is almost invariably the act of a warped, emotionally maladjusted personality. It is compelled by a fear, hatred, a deep sense of grievance, or obsession with revenge far exceeding in intensity these emotions as experienced by normal, reasonably well-integrated and well-adjusted individuals… All [Soviet defectors] in the writer’s experience have manifest some behavioral problem – such as alcoholism, satyriasis, morbid depression, a psychopathic behavior pattern of one type or another, an evasion of adult responsibility – which was adequate evidence for an underlying personality defect decisive in their defection. It is only mild hyperbole to say that no one can consider himself a Soviet operations officer until he has gone through the sordid experience of holding his Soviet “friend’s” head while he vomits five days of drinking into the sink.”

The final stage of Lindsay Moran’s training as a CIA case officer was to travel to a nearby city, usually Richmond or Williamsburg, Virginia where she had to spend hours driving around the city trying to detect and evade surveillance while securing meetings with promising “agents,” who were all retired case officers in the game literally for a free lunch. Moran would wine and dine her quarry, gradually prying from them the crucial details that would allow her to convince the agents to work for the U.S. government. The last stage of the recruitment cycle (for the case officer) is to have the agent sign a receipt after accepting payment, starting a paper trail and committing them to the agency (not to mention adding a not-so-subtle threat of blackmail to the equation). To Moran, the paper trail and the mountains of calcified government bureaucracy devoted to processing it constrains the real work of espionage. In the second half of the book, Moran is dispatched to Eastern Europe where she learns that life as a real spy is that it is nothing at all like the courtly diplomatic parlor games she learned to play in the United States. Instead it is a chaotic and increasingly morally ambiguous mess. There are moments of extreme danger Moran began to question the agency after September 11th, wondering whether the massive resources spent on espionage yet still hopelessly snarled in government bureaucracy might better be spent elsewhere. She eventually quits the agency and becomes a journalist (she had earlier earned an MFA at Columbia University).

September 11th was a public disgrace for the Central Intelligence Agency and was quickly followed by another, even more heinous debacle – the mis-reading and exaggeration of the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which was the rationale for going to War in Iraq. In the years that followed, the intelligence community in the United States was reorganized under a central bureaucracy, and the Central Intelligence Agency was bled of funds. At the same time as the agency was coming under attack from the government, there was a flood of entertainment products devoted to intelligence, much of it casting them in a very good light, at least when compared with the depictions of the secret government activity from only a few years prior. An intriguing comparison might be drawn between Chris Carter’s X-Files, which ran from 1993 to 2002 and imagined a sinister shadow government attempting to take over the world on behalf of UFO-borne aliens, another FOX series, 24 which debuted in November 2001 and depicted a far more vulnerable if much more kickass version of the U.S. government. The X-Files began in the wake of the siege of the Branch Dravidians compound at Waco, Texas (February 1993) and Ruby Ridge (1992), a time when suspicion toward the government was peaking. Many wondered why, after the end of Cold War, the U.S. government needed any paramilitary federal agency at all. The bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 restored a measure of sympathy. Meanwhile 24, with its ticking clock and frenetic pacing began only a few months after September 11th. The government became a system on the verge of collapse held together by a few courageous rogue agents.

Many branches of the U.S. military employ an entertainment liaison. What these offices do is provide a point person for anyone wanting to make a movie about the U.S. military, offering what some might call a Faustian bargain, providing access to real equipment (like tanks and airplanes) and government facilities in exchange for a chance to edit a script, presumably redacting any especially unflattering depictions of the military. Central Intelligence now employs an entertainment liaison as well. Since the CIA vets any document published by an agent after they retire from the agency, it is quite shocking that Moran’s book contains such a detailed account of her training, particularly given her critiques of the agency’s cloying bureaucracy. Perhaps Moran’s book reflected a new sort of propaganda for the agency, not that she intended it to be propaganda, but that her book told the CIA’s story in a new and particularly compelling way – it was almost like a police procedural, underlining how much expertise and teamwork goes into espionage, even if that meant that the agency might have to swallow an occasional swipe against its bloated administration. After all, those stories about rogue detectives flouting the orders of their blindered chiefs ultimately reinforce the idea of the policeman as a force for order and good.

Since September 11th there seems to have been an increasing appetite for depictions of the procedural side of intelligence, and these have been welcomed by agencies. A somewhat recent review in the declassified version of the CIA’s Intelligence Studies journal actually wondered whether there might some day be a movie that depicts the intense anxiety and pressures associated with the analysis side of intelligence. In a way there is: Eye Spy Intelligence Magazine, which bills itself as the “world’s only independent publication about espionage and intelligence” and a “bridge between officialdom and the public” has been in publication since May 2001 and has a circulation of 100,000. The International Spy Museum was founded the following year.


The International Spy Museum is the second museum devoted to espionage to open in the Washington D.C, and while the International Spy Museum is not affiliated with the government in any official capacity, its connections to the clandestine community run deep. Museum Director Peter Earnest is a former Central Intelligence agent who concluded a 36-year long career in intelligence as Central Intelligence Agency’s public relations director, and the International Spy Museum was funded by Milton Maltz, a broadcasting tycoon who began his career at the National Security Agency (NSA), the U.S. government’s code-cracking and signals intelligence agency. Like all things espionage-related, Maltz’s funding of the spy museum may seem as benign or sinister as you could possibly wish it to be. On the one hand Maltz’ company, The Malrite Company, is responsible for such benign and friendly entities as The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, the Jupiter theatre, and the Spy Museum is “committed to the apolitical presentation of the history of espionage in order to provide visitors with nonbiased, accurate information…” and the museum seems targeted toward a younger demographic; but the history of espionage in the United States is a strange and brutal subject to whitewash, and since there are former spies on the board of directors, could this be a government agency’s back channel way of manipulating the American public? It might even be a backchannel created with the best of intentions.

It seems extremely unlikely that the Maltz or the International Spy Museum have ulterior motives. But the National Security Agency does have a particularly weird relationship with the public. The NSA has long had a reputation for being the U.S. government’s most secretive agency, and it remains exceedingly secretive, for example, they refused an interview request for this piece, which would not be unusual were it not for a highly confrontational follow-up telephone call to the author. A brusque voice – the imperative “command voice” – demanded to know the author’s name, rank, academic affiliation, and standing in the pantheon of journalists. He was found wanting. Central Intelligence was delighted to answer questions but then delayed and didn’t send responses until long this after the story was due. Yet for all of its clandestine camouflage, the NSA maintains the nation’s only official spy museum, the National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade, Maryland. (Though the National Cryptologic Museum is the only official spy museum open to the public, most agencies do have museums of their own, albeit in restricted areas the public is not allowed to enter, despite owning the collections, which are officially are held in perpetual “public trust”.) The National Cryptologic Museum bills itself as “the National Security Agency's principal gateway to the public.”

The relationship between the public and its agencies is still being negotiated. Even a declassified museum exhibits are a fraught with the leylines of clandestine intrigue and bureaucracy. The two hottest tickets on the museum circuit last year were Cold War space machines. Naturally the cute one attracted the most attention: museums all over the country fought to show the sweet porpoise-nosed Space Shuttle, while the KH-9 Hexagon, a spy satellite that the National Reconnaissance Office declassified last September for its 50th Anniversary celebration went almost unnoticed. The thing was a bristling tube with the approximate dimensions of a subway car. Its gargantuan twin cameras swept back and forth exposing hourglass-shaped panoramas on drums of chemical film. When the drums were full, it disgorged “exploded-buckets” the size of “garbage-cans” into the atmosphere to be snatched by the U.S. Air Force’s 6594th Test Group, i.e. the “Catch a Falling Star” squadron. The photos were known as Exemplar to those who actually saw them, and Cue Ball to those who only knew that such intelligence existed. As America’s aeronautic museums squabbled over the remaining Space Shuttles, the National Reconnaissance Office put Hexagon on display at the Smithsonian Museum. At first they placed the satellite on public display for a single day before replacing it in its crate and presumably whisking it back to a top-secret hangar not unlike the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark. (That is not entirely true, the satellite was displayed to several air force bases off limits to the public.)

For a government office whose existence was classified for the first 31 years of operation this seems like the equivalent of barking at the moon. What was the point letting the public glimpse the satellite for a single day? There was barely any attention paid in the media, so it couldn’t have been publicity they were after, and if they wanted to keep the project a secret why declassify in the first place? There is a clue on the 6594th Test Group’s website (which contains amazing footage of an aerial recovery). An invitation to the Smithsonian’s exhibit displays an enormous list of contractors. No matter what the awareness of Hexagon was to the public at large, there was still an audience of tens of thousands of people were involved with the project who had been sworn on pain of prison (or even execution) to stay silent about what was an awesome engineering, logistics and analysis achievement. In an investigation for the Washington Post (“Top Secret America”) exposing the vast expansion of the intelligence community since Sept. 11th, Dana Priest calculated that 854,000 people hold top-secret clearance in the United States and that there are “1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work[ing] on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence.” It seems possible that the sheer number of these millions of contractors and government employees pressing upon society, whether they’re clamoring for recognition, blabbing to their spouses and friends about their jobs, attempting to recruit new members, may well be flooding the collective unconsciousness with ghostly stories about espionage, and besides, in a culture inundated with data and knowledge of all kinds, what could be more delicious than secrecy? Harry Mathew’s line about CIA is a lie, by the way, unless that is what they want us to think.