How Fake Spies Ruin Real Intelligence

Espionage-themed entertainment is influencing policy makers, from soldiers fighting on the front lines to justices sitting on the nation’s highest court.

Illustration of spies from movies and CIA logo.
FOX / Everett; Amazon / Everett; Universal / Everett; The Atlantic

For fans of spy movies and television shows, a visit to CIA headquarters will be disappointing. The visitor center looks nothing like the high-tech offices of Jason Bourne and Carrie Mathison. Instead, the entry to America’s best-known intelligence agency has more of a shabby post-office feel. There are teller windows with bulletproof glass, soda machines, and an old-fashioned black landline phone mounted on the back wall. Once cleared by security, visitors head back outside, where they can walk down a winding road or take the rambling shuttle bus to the old headquarters building. There, lobby security has no retina scanners or fancy fingerprint devices, just a few turnstiles and a friendly security guard who takes cellphones and hands out paper claim checks.

The only clue that this is not a typical government building is the burn bags: Because classified documents cannot just be thrown away, instead of trash cans, striped burn bags that look weirdly like Trader Joe’s holiday shopping bags are scattered around the building to make incineration easier.

Book cover of Spies, Lies, and Algorithms.
This post is excerpted from Zegart’s forthcoming book.

The National Counterterrorism Center is another story. Created after 9/11 to fuse terrorism-threat reporting across the U.S., NCTC has an ultramodern operations center with giant wall monitors, an open floor plan, and computer stations tracking bad guys around the globe. It looks like it came straight out of Hollywood. Because it did. Government officials hired an engineer from Walt Disney Imagineering to design the agency’s offices, right down to the sleek consoles and lunchroom chairs.

In intelligence, art is imitating life and life is imitating art. The implications of this shift are far more serious than they appear. In the past two decades, the amount of spy-themed entertainment, or “spytainment,” has skyrocketed, while spy facts remain scarce and university professors teach courses on just about everything other than intelligence. The result: Spy-themed entertainment is standing in for adult education on the subject, and although the idea might seem far-fetched, fictional spies are actually shaping public opinion and real intelligence policy.

Most Americans don’t know much about the secret world of intelligence because they have never come into contact with it. Although many are concerned about the growing gulf between civilians and the all-volunteer military, far more Americans interact with soldiers than with intelligence officers. On a typical American street, military veterans live in two out of every 10 houses. But outside of the Washington, D.C., area, almost no one lives next door to an intelligence official—or, if they do, they don’t know it. Intelligence isn’t very present in Congress either. In 2020, just 18 of the 535 representatives and senators serving in Congress had ever worked in an intelligence agency.

In 2009, I started hunting for polling data about Americans’ knowledge of intelligence, as well as their attitudes toward intelligence issues. I didn’t find much, so I decided to gather my own small sample of rough data, surveying UCLA undergraduates enrolled in my U.S.-intelligence-history class. The results were illuminating. My students, even those who followed the news closely, knew almost nothing about intelligence agencies and how they worked. What’s more, the data seemed to show a disconcerting connection between students’ ideas about intelligence and their consumption of spy-themed television. Those who said they regularly watched the hit show 24, which depicted torture often and favorably, were statistically more likely than their peers to approve of harsh interrogation methods such as waterboarding, which simulates drowning and which many regard as torture.

Of course, the survey couldn’t prove that watching 24 caused these attitudes; my sample size was only about 100 and it was hardly representative. Maybe the show attracted viewers who had been more pro-waterboarding all along. In 2012 and 2013, I ran two national surveys through YouGov, a polling firm, gathering data from about 1,000 respondents per survey from a nationally representative pool.

The YouGov findings echoed my less-scientific student poll. I found that Americans’ knowledge of intelligence is generally poor. A majority of Americans did not know who the director of national intelligence was or how much of the information in a typical intelligence report came from secrets. Perhaps most interesting, I found that even in 2013, when the media was saturated with stories about secret NSA programs revealed by the former contractor Edward Snowden, most Americans still had no idea what the NSA actually did. Many (wrongly) thought that the agency interrogated detainees and ran operations to capture or kill suspected terrorists. One in four Americans thought that the NSA built spy satellites (it doesn’t). The NSA does make and break codes—but only half of Americans knew that. The biggest crisis in NSA history was unfolding against a backdrop of widespread public misperception and ignorance. (The NSA intercepts and analyzes foreign signals intelligence, including email, telephone calls, and encrypted data transmissions, and is also, as its website declares, “home to America’s codemakers and codebreakers.”)

Findings from my 2012 and 2013 YouGov polls also resonated with my student survey about the real influence of fictional spies. I found that the more frequently American viewers watched spy-themed TV shows and movies, the more likely they were to support aggressive counterterrorism tactics. Frequent spy-TV watchers were more willing than infrequent viewers to support assassinating known terrorists (84 percent versus 70 percent) and transferring suspected terrorists to a country known for using torture (60 percent versus 45 percent), and were more likely to believe that waterboarding suspected terrorists was the right thing to do (38 percent versus 28 percent).

Spytainment-viewing habits were also highly correlated with opinions about the NSA. The more that people watched spy-themed television shows and movies, the more they liked the NSA, the more they approved of NSA’s telephone- and internet-collection programs, and the more they believed that the NSA was telling them the truth about its surveillance activities.

Whatever one thinks about these activities—whether they are effective or ineffective, morally right or morally wrong—the fact that fiction may be significantly influencing public attitudes about them is unsettling.

There is good reason to believe that the relationship between spytainment and beliefs about intelligence could be causal. We know that entertainment has influenced popular culture and attitudes on plenty of other subjects. In the 1980s, law-school applications shot up when L.A. Law became a hit television show. Prosecutors have bemoaned the “CSI effect”—the way the popular television show has led jurors to expect fancy forensic evidence in court and to assume that the government’s case is weak without it. And the 1986 blockbuster Top Gun became a Navy-recruiting bonanza, boosting enlistments and applications to the Naval Academy. The film made the Navy so popular that recruiters even began setting up tables outside of movie theaters. If art can affect life in the legal profession, criminal investigations, and the military, imagining that the same thing could be happening in intelligence is not much of a stretch.

Evidence suggests that this is the case. Spytainment has ballooned in the past 20 years, becoming the predominant, and often only, way for Americans to understand the intelligence agencies that serve them.

Spy-themed entertainment is everywhere these days—in Robert Ludlum novels, Tom Clancy video games, the James Bond and Jason Bourne movie franchises, and hit television shows such as Homeland and 24.

To be sure, spies have been big business for a long time. Bond first appeared in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel, Casino Royale, and has been around so long that seven different actors have played him on the big screen. Clancy’s CIA hero, Jack Ryan, first turned up in the 1984 novel The Hunt for Red October, and Bourne first forgot his shady CIA past back in 1980, when Ludlum published The Bourne Identity. In fact, America’s first-ever best-selling novel was a fictional account of a double agent during the Revolutionary War that was published in 1821 and aptly titled The Spy.

The difference today is the quantity and variety of spy-themed entertainment surrounding us. A hundred years ago, American readers first discovered the allure of spytainment. Now they can’t get away from it.

Spies today corner a larger share of television and movie audiences than before. In the 1995–96 television season, only two shows remotely related to intelligence—The X-Files and JAG—made Nielsen’s list of the 100 most-watched programs. In the 2005–06 season, there were 12 spy shows on the list. As households have switched from traditional TV to internet streaming services, spy-themed shows have followed them—Jack Ryan made his Amazon Prime debut in 2019. Today, Hollywood studios are releasing twice as many spy blockbusters as they did in the 1980s.

Real spies have always had a complicated relationship with fictional ones. On the one hand, intelligence agencies have been courting Hollywood for decades in the hopes of getting favorable portrayals. On the other hand, they decry the negative and unrealistic depictions that often result.

No one promoted an agency’s reputation in the entertainment industry more assiduously than former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Presiding over the Bureau from 1924 until his death in 1972, Hoover was a one-man public-relations machine who cooperated only with producers and reporters who portrayed the Bureau in a positive light. By the 1930s, there were FBI-themed radio shows, comic strips, bubblegum cards, and especially movies, including the Warner Bros. film G-Men, starring the biggest tough guy in Hollywood, James Cagney. These films glorified FBI agents as intrepid heroes, guns in hand, who worked the streets to solve crimes and always got their man. Although Hoover was quick to say that he did not officially endorse G-Men, the Bureau was flooded with fan mail after the movie’s release.

Today, the FBI, CIA, and Defense Department all have public-affairs officers or entertainment-industry liaisons who work with Hollywood writers, directors, and producers behind the scenes to try to get them to favorably portray their organizations. In 2008, the FBI sponsored a special public-relations seminar called FBI 101 for the Writers Guild of America. The CIA has developed and pitched its own list of story lines for screenwriters to consider. The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines have deployed to Los Angeles, setting up entertainment-liaison offices there.

Movie posters decorate the public-affairs conference room at Langley. In 2004, the CIA had the Alias actress Jennifer Garner appear in a recruitment video. For years, the CIA’s kid website featured a cartoon spy, Junior Officer Ava Shoephone, who wore bright-red lipstick and a trench coat, and spoke through a secret telephone embedded in her high-heeled shoe. The agency even named its venture-capital firm In-Q-Tel after Q, the gadgets master from the James Bond series.

At the same time, the CIA dislikes the sinister depictions of agency life that ride shotgun with all the Hollywood glamour. Perhaps no movie captures the risks that arise when Hollywood writes history like Zero Dark Thirty, the Academy Award–nominated film about the CIA’s 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. The film received significant assistance from the CIA and portrays the agency in a very flattering light. According to declassified documents, CIA officials met with the movie’s makers on repeated occasions, reviewed draft scripts, and provided access to a number of key people involved in the hunt for bin Laden. Yet when the film was released, it generated so much controversy about what was real and what wasn’t that the then-acting director of the CIA, Michael Morell, had to issue a memo to his workforce clarifying the facts.

“The film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Laden. That impression is false,” Morell wrote. This was a big deal. Both the efficacy and morality of harsh interrogation techniques have been the subjects of intense debate: Defenders argue that these methods produced some useful information that contributed to finding bin Laden, and critics emphasize the way that harsh interrogations produced false and misleading information that hindered progress and raised deep ethical concerns. Reality is nuanced. The movie was not. The result was deeply misleading.

Yet the film’s writer, Mark Boal, and its director, Kathryn Bigelow, marketed Zero Dark Thirty as a faithful reporting of the facts, calling it a “reported film” and a “docudrama.” The film’s opening frame declares that it is “based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” These are strong words. Bigelow kept using them, including when she went on the comedy show The Colbert Report. It was a surreal moment: a filmmaker masquerading as a journalist telling a comedian masquerading as a news anchor that her fictional film masquerading as a documentary was a “first draft of history.”

The proliferation of spytainment has generated two policy problems. The first is a public mindset that sees intelligence agencies as far more powerful, capable, and unaccountable than they actually are. In its most extreme form, the tendency to believe that intelligence agencies are omnipotent has fueled conspiracy theories that a “deep state” is out there, running rogue. The second problem is a policy-making elite that invokes fictional spies and unrealistic scenarios to formulate real intelligence policy. From the heartland to the Beltway, a little knowledge of intelligence turns out to be a dangerous thing.

Conspiracy theories may make for great entertainment, but they are also believed by more and more Americans. A 2006 Scripps poll found that 36 percent of Americans considered it “likely” or “somewhat likely” that U.S. government officials either carried out the 9/11 attacks or knowingly allowed them to occur. Ten years later, a YouGov/Economist survey found that 25 percent of Americans still believed it was “probably” or “definitely” true that the “U.S. government helped plan the attacks of 9/11.” There’s absolutely no evidence that this is true and overwhelming evidence that it’s not.

Scratch the surface of any conspiracy theory and you’ll find a prevailing belief that intelligence agencies are too high-tech, too powerful, too secretive, and reach too far to make mistakes. Bad events don’t just happen. They are intended and carefully planned. The government’s penchant for secrecy is used as further proof; conspiracy theorists argue that if government officials were telling the truth, they’d let us see the classified documents.

More recently, connective technologies have created an online ecosystem tailor-made for spreading false narratives at lightning speed and unprecedented scale. The internet has become a misinformation superhighway where conspiracy theories can be conjured up by anyone, posted on social media, spread by hashtag, amplified by bots, and picked up by mainstream media—all at the touch of a button. In this new arena, conspiracy theories are being peddled by everyone from radical bloggers to Kremlin cyberproxies.

The 2020 election revealed the powerful grip of conspiracy thinking and the very real dangers that it poses. The following year, Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, was so concerned about myths and misperceptions that he gave a short tutorial about what intelligence actually is during the committee’s public intelligence-threat hearing. “There’s a lot of TV shows about intelligence, there’s a lot of movies,” warned Rubio. “The work of our intelligence agencies is depicted in all kinds of ways in the popular culture, in the media, in the darkest recesses of the internet.”

I do not mean to suggest that intelligence agencies and officials never overstep their legal authorities, keep information from Congress, or engage in objectionable activities. They have. And even programs deemed to be legal—such as CIA drone strikes targeting American citizens without judicial review—bring up unsettling issues related to ethics and policy. But the allure of conspiracy theories and deep-state thinking raises serious questions about how well intelligence agencies will be able to fulfill their mission in the future if large swaths of the public, and even the president, view them with such suspicion.

So long as citizens believe that intelligence agencies can track anyone, go anywhere, and do anything—whether for good or for ill—real intelligence weaknesses are less likely to get fixed and real excesses are more likely to go unchecked.

Fictional spies are influencing policy makers, too, from soldiers fighting on the front lines to justices sitting on the nation’s highest court.

In the fall of 2002, Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver, the staff judge advocate general at Guantanamo Bay, ran a series of brainstorming sessions to come up with interrogation techniques that could be used on terrorist detainees held there. She later admitted that Jack Bauer, the lead character on 24 “gave people lots of ideas.” On the show, Bauer, a federal counterterrorism agent played by Kiefer Sutherland, repeatedly used torture to elicit information that would save the United States from an imminent terrorist attack, using the mantra “Whatever it takes.” Beaver ultimately approved the use of dogs, sexual humiliation, waterboarding, and other controversial interrogation techniques. The dean of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, became so concerned that 24 was hurting cadet training by glamorizing the efficacy and morality of torture that he visited the show’s creative team in Los Angeles to request that they produce episodes where torture backfires. (In a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moment, the show’s crew thought that General Finnegan, who came wearing his military uniform, was an actor.)

Other military educators became similarly concerned that soldiers in the field could not differentiate what they were seeing on television—in shows that included 24, Lost, The Wire, and Alias, where interrogators faced imminent threats and torture always worked—from how they were supposed to behave in the field. Military leaders and FBI interrogators have long argued that other tactics work better; academic studies, for example, have found that prolonged sleep deprivation makes respondents unable to provide accurate information even if they want to. Rising concerns about spytainment’s influence on the military eventually led to an unusual partnership among military educators, Hollywood producers and writers, and the nonprofit organization Human Rights First to create a military-training film aimed at educating junior soldiers about the differences between fictionalized interrogations and their real-life jobs.

The military is not suffering this problem alone. Members of Congress, presidential candidates, and even former CIA Director Leon Panetta have all debated serious issues of policy by contemplating Jack Bauer plotlines, particularly ones involving so-called ticking-time-bomb scenarios, in which a suspected terrorist in custody is thought to hold vital information about an imminent threat to large numbers of people. In reality, these ticking-time-bomb situations have never occurred, and national-security experts have long argued that they are unrealistic.

And yet both Jack Bauer and ticking time bombs have been real considerations in the creation of national-security policy. In 2005, the Senate Judiciary Committee delved into ticking time bombs during its confirmation hearing of Alberto Gonzales, the nominee for attorney general. In a 2006 Heritage Foundation panel discussion of 24, former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff praised Jack Bauer and the show as “reflecting real life.” John Yoo, the George W. Bush–administration lawyer who wrote the memos justifying the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques, wrote a book about his time in government that referenced Jack Bauer and considered the ticking-time-bomb scenario to be plausible. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia even suggested—twice, in public—that he would sometimes turn to TV operative Jack Bauer to resolve legal questions about interrogation methods.

One week, during the 2008 presidential campaign, Jack Bauer was a major topic of conversation on Washington’s most venerated Sunday news show, Meet the Press. The guest was not a Hollywood producer or actor, but former President Bill Clinton, who was asked to comment on public statements made by his wife, the presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, on interrogation policy. In 2009, several members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence pressed Panetta about what interrogation techniques he might use if confronted with a “ticking-time-bomb situation.” Panetta took the hypothetical seriously, telling the intelligence committee that he would seek “whatever additional authority” he needed to get information that would protect Americans from imminent harm. The press quickly dubbed the policy the “Jack Bauer exception” to President Barack Obama’s ban on the use of harsh interrogation techniques.

Spy fiction has also affected congressional policy making. Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising inspired Vice President Dan Quayle’s support for the development of anti-satellite weapons during his time in the Senate. Of Clancy’s stories, Quayle said, “They’re not just novels … They’re read as the real thing.” Quayle later recommended Clancy as a consultant for the White House Space Council.

Spytainment isn’t all fun and games. Mounting evidence suggests that fiction too often substitutes for fact, creating fertile ground for conspiracy theories to grow and influencing the formulation of real intelligence policy. Most Americans, including members of Congress, cabinet officials, and judges making policies that affect national security, don’t know much about the secret world of intelligence. The costs are hidden but significant.

In the 21st century, the tip of the spear isn’t a spear. It’s intelligence—the ability to find, acquire, and analyze information to give us decision advantage against adversaries in physical space, outer space, and cyberspace. But secret agencies in democratic societies cannot succeed without trust. And trust requires knowledge. As the former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden once put it, “The American people have to trust us, and in order to trust us they have to know about us.”

This post is adapted from Zegart’s book Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence.

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