|WHERE TO LOOK
According to Bearden, there is no shortage of great writing on the CIA and espionage. In addition to his own book, The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB, you might check out these two 9/11 histories: Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 or Steve Coll’s succinctly-titled Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.
He also recommends anything by Washington Post columnist and spy novelist David Ignatius.
If you’re looking on the Web, check out the CIA’s Web site because, well, it’s the CIA’s Web site. Of particular interest is the online version of their World Factbook, a bi-weekly updated resource containing everything you need to know about every country in the world, from general statistics to transnational issues. It’s the perfect place to find that perfect evil-nation-gone-wrong.
Another great site is Espionage Information: Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence and Security. The title explains it pretty well. You’ll find detailed articles as well as links to even more detailed articles on everything from the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) through Zoonoses.
In case you’re wondering, zoonoses is a disease that can be exploited by bioterrorists. Do your homework.
Written by Denis Faye
Among his other covert activities, as head of the CIA’s Soviet/Eastern European Division during the collapse of the USSR, Bearden would occasionally sneak off the grid for off-the-record pow-wows with his KGB counterparts. Not only would they discuss mutual threats such as terrorism, but Soviet agents were defecting right and left in those days, so to keep the peace, Bearden helped his counterparts connect the dots. “It would come down to ‘What’s happening to all our people?’” explains Bearden, author of The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB. “I’d have to say ‘Ivan Demisovic is well and safe and his family is with him. He’s in a country other than the one he disappeared from and, no, he doesn’t want to see you.’”
Bearden’s covert diplomacy probably did as much for world peace as any Reagan-era hardline tactics. “We spent a lot of time drinking tea and eating zakuski with these guys.”
A neat side benefit of these secret meetings presented itself when Bearden began his next career as a CIA technical advisor for Hollywood. In addition to working on Meet the Parents [Screenplay by Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg] and Charlie Wilson’s War [Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin], the former spy was the go-to guy for The Good Shepherd [Written by Eric Roth]. When director Robert De Niro wanted to get serious about research, Bearden knew just who to call. “I took De Niro over there and we ended up spending a lot of time with the old KGB guys,” says Bearden. “He’d just watch them and they… well, of course, he’s one of the more recognizable people around.”
Bearden took time recently for an on-the-record pow-wow with Technically Speaking about how the spy world is portrayed on film, why car chases aren’t as frequent as James Bond makes them out to be, and why writers need to give the CIA a break.
What do TV and movies get right when it comes to espionage?
TV doesn’t spend much time trying to get too much right about espionage, which after all, in many ways, is not as flashy as they need to attract viewership. Movies are probably in two categories. Some of the newer ones, like The Good Shepherd or Charlie Wilson’s War, try to get it very accurate when it comes down to everything from the organization to the set decoration to the way that people say things to props and on and on.
The other category is where CIA is sort of the underlying theme, like the Bourne movies. Not as much attention is paid to detail, but the movie is carried very well on its own. They don’t go out of their way to make CIA into a great evil thing. The whole Bourne thing is just a really entertaining yarn.
Oh, and there’s a third kind out there that I think is disappearing. The “this is how your government is trying to do you in”-type story, which I think Oliver Stone put together in JFK.
Does a movie in the spy genre have to be accurate to be good?
No. I went to CIA about the same time that the James Bond movies came out -- Dr. No and From Russia with Love. They were great fun. I felt neither inspired nor offended by them. Just very much entertained. They were great. Again, some of the others, like the Bourne series, they’re a lot of fun, and I like Matt Damon personally as a friend and immensely as an actor, and I’m not bothered by anything there. I must say some other movies might wander off and make CIA more evil than is really necessary. I think maybe you need to sell movie tickets, but you don’t need to go too far over, or to me, it begins to look like a very boring agenda.
Are there other things they get wrong?
The movies are much too driven to blow stuff up and have car chases, when the best spying I’ve ever seen in 30 years of CIA is always done more or less without a trace. But I don’t think that’s what sells big screen movies. Occasionally, people will take a shot. Eric Roth took a big shot with The Good Shepherd, and I think he did just fine.
What irritates me is to find the evil, dumb type of CIA guy. I think with the Bond series, whenever they got into CIA, they’d make them less intelligent than the dashing James Bond. And I must say le Carré always had an anti-CIA sense about him, whether it was Russia House or what.
What would you like to see in a CIA movie just once?
I think that you should try to capture the way CIA people are because they come from the American population. The young people who come into CIA and grow old in CIA are the same people that came from the same villages all across the great land. I think you can capture who and what they are without having to carry out some sort of an agenda, some sort of a preconceived notion.
If I told you that 95 percent of really good, solid professional intelligence work didn’t look too cool onscreen, that’d be true. I mean, goodness knows things have been blown up in the intelligence world, and there have been some car chases, but not so concentrated.
But when you’re writing about CIA and you say, “This is the CIA. This is an office. These are the badges they have on. This is sort of the thrust of what they were trying to do in life, which wasn’t to enslave everybody in the universe.” If you get that right and you overlay that with a very fine story, I’m not offended if you roll a few cars over and blow up a few things.
What one piece of advice would you give a writer embarking on a script about the CIA?
Zero-base your prejudices. Get them out of there. And do a little reading. There’s a lot of stuff out there. And then go have lunch or dinner a few times with a CIA guy who was in the clandestine services because you’re not usually writing about the analytical side.