Sunday, April 14, 2013

Espionage, Reality, Smiley's People and Constitutional Law

If Hollywood holds one principle above all others, that principle would probably be "There is nothing in the world more important than making a fast buck and if in order to do that we compromise reality, history, truth, or ethics, even egregiously, then that is what we will do."

It is wrong to think therefore that when Hollywood distorts something that this indicates a lack of integrity or a failure in character or even a criminal misrepresentation of the facts. In fact, it is evidence of the most sincere devotion to the highest principles on which Hollywood was founded.

When it comes to the subgenre of espionage and the Cold War, Hollywood is pathetically out of its league. Off the top of my head, I can not think of a single American film that comes close to describing or portraying American intelligence in anything close to reality, (1) but they always revert to the lowest level of stereotype and vulgar misrepresentation. The latest in this proud tradition of stupidity is Zero Dark Thirty, but we will not dwell on it beyond making the following observation. The filmmakers claim that what they present is real, e.g. the facts. It isn't. Even Argo misrepresents important details of the situation in Iran and that portrayal had diplomatic blowback in the real world.

But thats OK.

One must set realistic expectations in life and expecting Hollywood to act responsibly or knowlegably in this area is clearly not realistic.

But hard as it may be to believe, there are other countries that make films, and one of them is the UK. They are also famously not realistic by the way, but they are perhaps more amusing while they are not realistic. After all, James Bond is a British creation with almost no basis in reality. Another author whose work is apparently a bit closer to reality is the work of David Cornwell, aka John LeCarre, and it is in reference to one of his novels, Smiley's People (1992), that this post is written. The BBC made a six episode teleplay out of it, and someone has put it on Youttube.

You can find the first episode here:

Is it totally realistic? Probably not. But it does go over in some colorful detail the role of emigres in the Cold War, the time scale of the work (e.g. years and decades), how individuals in the emigre community were used by both sides, the role of blackmail in turning agents, and how certain kinds of operations are done, or perhaps are done. The turning of the Soviet diplomat, Grigoriev is particularly interesting, as is the interview of the psychiatric patient, Tatiana, who may or may not be the daughter of the head of a special directorate of Moscow Center.

The former and current heads of foreign intelligence review a confession of a Soviet Spy

A Russian emigre meets a representative of the Riga Group and General Vladimir

I was surprised at how well this was done.  I have watched it several times since finding it on Youtube.

The story is the third in a series, but pretty much all you need to know of the backstory is (a) that Smiley used to be head of the British Foreign Intelligence, (b) that Karla is the bad guy, and (c) that Smiley's wife, Ann, famously cheated on him. A lot.

For those of you who think, as many American's probably do, that espionage agencies act outside the law and are guilty of the most heinous crimes, I refer you to the following paper I found on the Internet by a Georgetown Professor of Law who wrote a 56 page paper on the legality of certain espionage "deals" as found in Smiley's People in American constitutional law.

Second Guessing the Spymasters with a Judicial Role in Espionage Deals by John Radsan, Wm. Mitchell School of Law, Georgetown University.

Radsan makes several points in his paper, including first and foremost that the ending of Smiley's People may be the most unrealistic part.   George makes an offer to Karla in writing without any help from the Circus's legal staff.   I thought that was a very funny thing of Radsan to say, in reality, in the CIA at least, there would have been lawyers everywhere.

The bulk of the paper is taken up with the various rulings by our legal system of whether the courts can be used to enforce an agreement between an agency like the CIA and an agent.  The short answer seems to be no, they can not.  The agent either has to trust the agency or they have to get their cash up front as it were.

Among other anecdotes we learn that Pres. Abraham Lincoln personally hired a spy and then failed to pay him.

I am not the least bit surprised.

David Cornwell, aka John LeCarre on Wikipedia

Smiley's People on Youtube

Smiley's People on IMDB


1. Now that I think of it, there is one sequence in Patriot Games (1992) that seems pretty accurate, up to a point, and that is sequence in the basement where they watch a special operation by live satellite.  Accurate?  Maybe not.  But definitely amusing.

1 comment:

  1. Michael, accurate or not, Smiley's people was a great find. After you called my attention to it I burned through the entire series in a couple of evenings. Great stuff. Thanks.

    Jon Snoddy