“Intelligence Matters”: What Hollywood gets right — and wrong — about the CIA

This week on “Intelligence Matters,” host Michael Morell speaks with John Sipher and Jerry O’Shea, former CIA officers and co-founders of Spycraft Entertainment, about what Hollywood gets right and wrong about its depictions of the CIA. Sipher and O’Shea review movies, TV series and books on how realistic their portrayals are of life in the agency. 


  • What Hollywood gets wrong: JERRY O’SHEA: “What Hollywood doesn’t get, one, is the work of the analysts. And what CIA guys don’t get right about the films is most people don’t want to hear about the case or its importance or the stakes. They want to hear about the characters. And so getting the characters and the stakes, putting them together just right is so important. Both sides struggle to get that right.” 
  • “Homeland” and “The Americans”: I think what’s really compelling about the two is that they both have interesting characters. And I think that people can relate to that. And there’s an agency officer, too, that I can relate to. I can relate to those characters as fictitious and flawed as they are, in a lot of ways. More than a James Bond who really doesn’t have those flaws, this Superman syndrome. And I think people are drawn to it.”
  • Sources and agents: JOHN SIPHER: “I think the thing that you have to most understand when you’re dealing with humans, when you’re dealing in human intelligence, the relationship between a source and a handler or someone that you’re trying to get to do something for you is no different than anybody else. You have to build trust and you have to build a relationship, and you can’t just tell people things to do in our business just like any other business.”

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MICHAEL MORELL: John, Jerry, it’s great to have you on our show. John, you were on Intelligence Matters in its very early days talking with us about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. So welcome back. Great to have you again.

JOHN SIPHER: Thank you very much.

MICHAEL MORELL: Jerry, you are a first time guest. So a very warm welcome to you as well.

JERRY O’SHEA: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.

MICHAEL MORELL:  As you know, we’re going to talk about the CIA intelligence and espionage in books, both fiction and nonfiction and in TV series and in the movies. And I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been asked, by any number of people, ‘what can I watch? What can I read that will give me a good sense of what the CIA is really like, what intelligence is really like, what espionage is really like?’  

Today we’re going to answer those questions. And I can’t think of two better people to do that with than the two of you, not only because you were both terrific CIA operations officers, but also because you are the co-founders of a company called Spycraft Entertainment. And that’s where that’s really where I’d like to start. What is Spycraft entertainment? What does the company do, and why did you start it? John, why don’t you go first and then Jerry can add?

JOHN SIPHER: There’s sort of a story of how we got started. But when Jerry retired a couple of years after I did, he was one of the great storytellers in the agency with a great experience in all kinds of crazy places. We had an in. In fact, you may remember at one point Rob Reiner called me out of the blue and he was very upset after the Trump election about Russian interference and wanted to do a video series with General Hayden and myself. And so I was with a group of my former colleagues and was bragging about my Hollywood contacts. And one thing led to another and we started to go and talk to people in Hollywood about maybe doing some version of a sort of a Bourdain like series where we travel around the world and tell old spy stories. And that morphed into actually creating a company where we would work with Hollywood writers to try to bring real and realistic stories to Hollywood. 

Our real goal is to be the place where Hollywood can come if they’re looking for a tie into the national security space or to the intelligence espionage space. And eventually, as we have success on the screen, a place where people like you and others who write books and have stories can come to get help navigating Hollywood. Hollywood has been very good about sort of taking people’s stories and not paying them very well for them. And so we want to get to the point where we’re producers on stories. And so we have our own stories. We’ve optioned books. We work with a wide variety of writers to do feature films, streaming series and even network TV.

MICHAEL MORELL: Jerry, you want to add?

JERRY O’SHEA: As with any company telling the story of how they began there are always two different versions, right? The version I would like to try out is the same as John’s but just a touch different. It actually, like so many good agency operations, started at a bar at a big table over perhaps one too many drinks. And we were telling the spy stories that agency officers, when we’re amongst ourselves actually tell. Which is, as you know well, aren’t like car chase scenes or finding some exotic, beautiful thing in your bag. Those things really don’t happen. And the stories we tell are of, you know, of success very early on, failure of something that you work really hard at that maybe worked out for reasons that it shouldn’t have. The stories of the hunt. And then the core of it really, I think, was ordinary people like the three of us on this call, being asked to do things and occasionally getting away with it. Occasionally pulling it off. But operating right in the very blurry edge of right and wrong and doable and not doable. Also with a high and fascinating failure rate. And the things that Hollywood doesn’t get, and one of them is sort of that human element, that element of absurdity and what it’s really like. And so we wanted to bring that as well. So it’s a bit of color to what you have to say. 

MICHAEL MORELL: For the rest of the show, except at the very end, I’m going to throw out titles of books, TV, series, movies and I want to get your take on them as entertainment, if that’s what you want to do. But more importantly, as realistic portrayals into the business of intelligence. I want to start with the three most obvious candidates, because they may well be the most popular. I want to put them together for reasons you’ll understand in literally 5 seconds. The James Bond films, the Jason Bourne films and the Mission Impossible films. The Bond films were inspired, as you guys know, by the fictional work of Ian Fleming. The Bourne movies, by the novels of Robert Ludlum. And Mission Impossible by the 1960’s,1970’s TV series of the same name. Only one of those is about the CIA, the Bourne films. The Bond films are about the British Secret Intelligence Service. Mission Impossible Films are about an organization that does not really exist called the Impossible Mission Force. But what’s your take on those three incredibly popular sets of films? 

JERRY O’SHEA: First, just a slight detour into history, Mission Impossible, the initial TV show, was based off the writings of someone named Maheu who was a disgraced agency officer. Maheu and Fleming both understood the business and I think what they do capture is the occasional sort of tip of the iceberg. The times when things really are exciting, when they are on stakes and when it is do or die and and and very meaningful. What it misses of course is the other 99% that is also meaningful as well. But I think it does capture that sense of excitement we can be sometimes feel. 

JOHN SIPHER: One of the things about a lot of shows that are meant to show espionage or work in the intelligence field is they’re often too high stress, too serious. Everything is taken as live or die. And frankly, Michael, as you know, and Jerry as you know, is people don’t operate that way. You can’t operate that way. Sure, the work is important. Sure, the work actually does involve national security and important issues. But it is also fun and farcical and all kinds of crazy things happen. And you have to often keep a lightweight sense of humor to deal with things. So many Hollywood films, like the ones you mentioned, are often put into the category of action films. So they have car chases and kill teams and have rogue agents and murders. Whereas I think the realistic, more realistic portrayals are one sort of a little more like Le Carre or there’s some other novelists, Jason Matthews, David McCloskey, Charles McCarry, others who have experience in working in CIA and other intelligence services to tell the stories in a more nuanced way. Frankly, this is where Hollywood shines. The Hollywood writer wants to deal with human relationships, human factors, flawed individuals placed in tough situations dealing with trust, betrayal, ego manipulation, all of these kinds of things, rather than just sort of constant action. And so that’s the sweet spot that we’re trying to hit.

MICHAEL MORELL: What about two other very popular takes on intelligence, Homeland and The Americans? Both are TV series. Homeland is about the CIA, but it was adapted, I believe, from an Israeli TV series about Israeli intelligence. And The Americans is about the KGB. What’s your take on those two? John, your turn to go first and then Jerry.

JOHN SIPHER: At the end of the day, shows, whether they’re movies or streaming series, they have to be interesting. They have to have characters that you care about. And I think Homeland did a good job with that in terms of making a character that was sort of interesting and different and engaging the audience. But some of the stories are obviously farcical. There’s killings in the streets of America and all sorts of crazy things. But some of the feel, for example, when Carrie was in Pakistan and places like that, for someone who worked in those kinds of places like Jerry and I did, it did sort of feel right, the places that they set them in. 

In fact, Jerry and I will work with the writer of the original Israeli Homeland, Gidi Raff, who did The Spy with Sacha Baron Cohen. And we’re working on some shows with him. And then with The Americans. It’s interesting for me because I spent a lot of my career in Moscow working on Russian operations and counter espionage with the FBI and others. And The Americans is interesting because it deals with this unique thing that the Russians have called illegals, people who are under such deep cover that they’re not even Russians. They’re meant to be Canadians or Finns or Swedes or South Americans who are actually Russian intelligence officers living amongst us. And the things the Americans did, which I really enjoyed, is  the sense of tradecraft, of cover, of operating always in an enemy environment. And I think they did a nice job there. But again, the same thing is they added so much sort of killing in car chases and things that sort of got away from reality. But again, both of them have really good writing and good characters that engage the audience.

JERRY O’SHEA: I agree with John. I think what’s really compelling about the two is that they both have interesting characters. And I think that people can relate to that. And there’s an agency officer, too, that I can relate to. I can relate to those characters as fictitious and flawed as they are, in a lot of ways. More than a James Bond who really doesn’t have those flaws, this Superman syndrome. And I think people are drawn to it. What Hollywood does well taking people in extraordinarily difficult situations who are real and the kind of people who populate the world.  Which one encapsulates like the real CIA or the real world of espionage best. My general answer is none of them get it all right. But all the ones we mention in here get a piece of it right. And I think these two do as well.

MICHAEL MORELL: What strikes me is one of the things that Homeland gets right is Carrie’s passion for the mission that defines nearly every agency officer. That passion for getting the job done and that’s her defining characteristic.

JERRY O’SHEA: Absolutely.

MICHAEL MORELL: Next on my list are Argo and Zero Dark 30. Both are films that are based on actual events. Argo was adapted from the non-fiction books of Tony Mendez, a legendary CIA technical operations officer and the main character in the film. And Zero Dark 30 literally went from the actual events to a screenplay within a matter of weeks of the bin Laden operation. Jerry, let’s start with you with these two.

JERRY O’SHEA: There’s a term I use from time to time. And it’s true fiction. And I think both of these fall into that, they are true. They’re a fictionalized truth and one blends into the other. And I think both of them create something both greater and lesser than the actual fact if you were to do this as a documentary. And so both of these, I think, are creating myths. And I don’t mean that in a bad sense. They’re creating a sort of myth as to what happened both with the bin Laden issue and with what happened in Tehran. I enjoyed them enormously. And I think they both come close in their own ways to getting it right, even though the facts, which we all know are sort of mixed in and matched and slightly airbrushed a little bit. 

JOHN SIPHER: It’s very interesting to me in the sense of, now that we’re learning a little bit about this industry as we deal with Hollywood writers and producers and such. And what’s interesting, Argo was actually a study and intelligence article, was an article inside a CIA sort of journal that got an outside interest. And frankly, it took like 8 to 10 years for it to get made. And that’s one of the things we’re finding is just Hollywood would operates on a different time schedule and things take a long time to get all the pieces together. To get writers and get the right people who want to act in the thing and directors and people to get things made. 

But I think Argo did a nice job of taking a CIA case and portraying it in a realistic but still in a sort of humorous way. One thing they did- a lot of these shows are too serious, too much action. I think Argo gets that mix right where it’s still serious business, but it’s lighthearted from time to time. And Zero Dark 30, I think was originally they were starting to write about the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed case when, of course, bin Laden was captured. And it sort of morphed over to be more about the bin Laden raid. And I thought it was okay. But I think they tried to smush so much stuff into a feature film. It might have been better as a streaming series. And that’s one thing that’s sort of new in the last 10, 15 years of Hollywood, too. In the old days, you had one way to tell a complicated story and it was in a two or three hour movie, whereas now obviously, you can draw that out into an 8 to 10 episode series and tell it in a longer way. I think there’s a lot around the effort to get bin Laden about counterterrorism operations that could have been told in a longer way, I think.

MICHAEL MORELL: How do you decide as filmmakers, how do you decide whether to do something as a two hour movie or as a ten episode series?

JOHN SIPHER: It’s interesting. There’s a whole different industry for each. There’s people who have better experiences with them. There’s writers that have more experience in a series. They have a thing called a showrunner. There’s almost like the chief of Station who is in charge of the general look and feel of the show, and then recruiting writers to work in a writer’s room and then divvying up which writers write which episodes, and then making sure it all holds together. Whereas with a feature film, you tend to have one writer who’s at least the main writer. Sometimes someone might come in and edit it and fix it up. They’re different animals. And you almost have to decide that early on as you find interested partners, writers or directors or producers to do things. There’s some stories that just need the time to draw them out. And there’s others that can be told in a much tighter window.

JERRY O’SHEA:  Far be it from me to agree with John, but I think he got it exactly right/ There’s three aspects to it. One is the artistic aspect. How long to take whatever the plot is, can you tell it best in 10 hours or can you tell it best within an hour and a half or two? So that’s one question. I think the other is there is different financial incentives inside of the industry for how you do it. And one is also on talent. When you got actors, it’s much easier to get somebody to sit down, and especially a big actor, to sit down for a two hour feature than to write like 10 hours and take much longer. It’s much more of a commitment to make because there’s a lot of factors in that. And with Zero Dark 30, I’ll say, and Michael, you know better than anybody, there was so much inside baseball in there that they never really touched on. They sort of mentioned it and moved on. They could have easily made it into 10 hours. 

MICHAEL MORELL: John, I think you wanted to add a point to the discussion here about movies versus TV series.

JOHN SIPHER: I think a lot of writers like the idea of writing longer streaming series, although there’s downsides for them in terms of how long it takes. But a good example for me is the movie The Good Shepherd, which was with Robert De Niro years ago, and it was an effort to talk about the early days of the CIA. A lot if really big, interesting characters. There were counterintelligence chiefs and there was a mole hunt and all these things, and it was sort of squeezed into a two and a half hour movie. The movie failed on a lot of fronts. And I think it’s almost that there was just too much content for a feature film. Whereas I think on a streaming series, you can take those bigger than life characters, you can take those bigger than life historical issues they were dealing with and pull it out into a longer single season or even multi season story and tell it more effectively.

MICHAEL MORELL: Let me ask you guys about one particular moment in Argo that’s always stuck with me. So the main character is with the hostages who have escaped and they’re in the home of the Canadian ambassador. And the main character is an alias. It’s not his true name, but he has to earn the trust of these hostages for them to follow him. To follow him out. And so he breaks alias and he tells them his true name. And I always found that to be a profound moment in that movie. I just want to get your take on it. Whoever wants to go.

JOHN SIPHER:  I think the thing that you have to most understand when you’re dealing with humans, when you’re dealing in human intelligence, the relationship between a source and a handler or someone that you’re trying to get to do something for you is no different than anybody else. You have to build trust and you have to build a relationship, and you can’t just tell people things to do in our business just like any other business. And so I think that was a very good way of showing how you have to show some vulnerability sometimes. Sometimes you have to put yourself out there, you have to put some risk for you so that others can see that, so that they can develop a sense of trust. It’s an odd business because we’re dealing with big issues and there’s parts related to undercover or betrayal or things you’re trying to do. Sometimes you have to use people and manipulate relationships, but you’re not successful unless you’re able to build those human relationships. And human relationships are built on trust.

JERRY O’SHEA: That is really a central issue to what we started with which is what does Hollywood not get right? And I think the one place that they get it almost unerringly wrong with the exception of maybe Le Carre is the intimacy of the art of espionage. It is arguably one of the most intimate relationships between two human beings outside of romance or anything like that. This is something where absolute trust between people is extraordinarily necessary to to stay alive and to do what you need to. 

One quick anecdote. What people don’t understand and not seen in Hollywood is there was a particular person, his raison d’etre of his country was a very orthodox and violent view of the religion that they had. And we started to become close and eventually in a long car ride. And I’m sort of wondering why he’s talking to me. He asks something that was really sort of gnawing at his soul. The question was, do you think there’s a God? And he wanted to know the answer, and it turns out he wasn’t certain. So if you just think at four in the morning, he gets up and he prays and he looks at his wife, he thinks, is she thinking it? And he’s with his parents and he’s with his co-workers and he’s wondering, am I the only one? And so this was his chance to have a father, confessor, or friend, someone he could talk to, someone he could talk to about something that he couldn’t even talk to his wife, whom he loved. That interaction between the case officer and the agent isn’t manipulative at all. But it is really deep. And your point about Argo touches on that.

MICHAEL MORELL:  It is an amazingly human business, isn’t it? Let me throw out some TV series here. And whoever wants to go first, just jump right in. But just give me your sense for what you think about it. And the first is one that I like a lot called The Bureau. It’s a series about a French intelligence officer.

JERRY O’SHEA: That’s a softball one. I love this. It’s great. I’ll let John continue to rave about it.

JERRY O’SHEA: I think The Bureau’s interesting because I think the DGSE, the French service, actually worked with the writers and producers of that show, which is interesting. They found that that actually helps their service as they operate around the world. And I agree with that, too. They did a nice job of getting the bureaucratic interplay. There’s some scenes in Paris, in their headquarters and how headquarters operates with the people that are at the far end in the field. And they get a lot of details right in a lot of places where the French service operates in Syria and in Russia, in other places. And so I think it’s one of the shows that is more realistic than any other. And I think they did a very good job, in my opinion.

MICHAEL MORELL: And then another is The Spy about an Israeli intelligence operation.

JOHN SIPHER: As I mentioned before, we work with the writer of The Spy with Sacha Baron Cohen. And I think that is also an intense thing. And what that it points out is just that they had, the Israelis had a spy in place in Syria that was collecting information that was of great importance to sort of the success of Israel. And he got more and more into a dangerous, precarious position. And I think that show does a good job of explaining that tension of policymakers and people in Tel Aviv wanting more and more and trying to push this person, this source to get greater and greater granularity of information, whereas this guy on the ground is getting himself closer and closer to danger. And where is that line? At what point if you’re running spy cases, do you actually stop? When do you pull back? When is it a point where you’ve got enough? And that’s a difficult issue. People, once they’re getting information, they can’t get in the way. It’s intoxicating. You want that. You sort of need that. But on the other hand, cases like this can’t go on forever. And if you run on a case until your source dies, you’re also not an effective espionage service.

JERRY O’SHEA: This was an existential case. There were really lives and international border riding on this so  the moral dilemma when to write this case is one that A I think they got that right. And the other thing I think that got right is the difficulty that human beings have of having second identities. I’ve operated in alias, but nothing like his. But in the Sacha Baron Cohen movie it really captures well the essence of him trying to live two lives. And I think in a way he was a Syrian official. I think he really was, he could switch his brain around to do that, although he always knew he was Israeli at the end of it. And I think that it is fascinating to look at people’s ability to take these two identities, two competing realities and hold them in their head and operate at the same time. Extraordinarily difficult. 

MICHAEL MORELL: The Little Drummer Girl, a book by John le Carre, a movie and a TV series. What’s your sense of that?

JERRY O’SHEA: I saw this before I joined the agency. I’ll just jump ahead. And what I love about it and what I think it gets great is that there are no or very few very clear lines in the intelligence world. And I think she sees two different truths, two different causes. And I think she understands both. She is influenced by both. Although at the end of the day, she has to pick one over the other. And that moral dilemma, and moral dilemmas in general that we as agency officers dealt with, I think is one of the real things that keeps the espionage genre of interest to a greater public. And as a former espionage officer myself, it was something that we always struggled with and that I still look back on. I think you got it right.

JOHN SIPHER:  One of the things that The Little Drummer Girl did well is it got the headquarters piece of it. It got the sort of behind the scenes piece of it, the amount of planning and detailed rehearsal and trying to make sure that people had the right covers and background and plan ahead and those things. I think it captured it pretty well, too.

MICHAEL MORELL: It got the tension right, too, between the field and headquarters.

JOHN SIPHER:  Tension? What are you talking about? There was no tension.

JERRY O’SHEA: The field was always right, Michael.

MICHAEL MORELL: Healthy tension, healthy tension. Interestingly, we haven’t talked about a lot of books here. In fact, we haven’t talked about any books about analysts. And I think for obvious reasons. But one that comes close and I know it’s not analysts, but it’s close and I want to get your take on it, is The Assets about CIA spy catchers. The work is inherently analytic. Can you talk about The Assets, which I think is an amazing series.

JOHN SIPHER: I don’t think I’ve seen it. Tell me more about it.

MICHAEL MORELL: So it’s about two counter-intelligence officers who piece together that Rick Ames is a spy for the Russians.

JOHN SIPHER: Interesting. Well, I know they know the issue in books about that quite well. In fact, I was in Moscow when Rick Ames was arrested and I worked on counter espionage investigations with our Russia house and counterintelligence officials in the FBI. I found that the place where I work most closely with analysts was in the counter intelligence realm, because it takes that sort of meticulous planning and it takes a lot of digging through in history and experience and really, really is important to understanding these issues and catching spies. And so I’m eager to watch that for an example. And there’s some other books that talk about analysts. Guy Bird wrote a book about Robert Ames. There’s people, obviously academics, who write about the agency, Robert Jervis, Why Intelligence Fails. David Preiss wrote a book, The President’s Book of Secrets. I think authors and Hollywood people need to do a better job of sort of incorporating how important the analytic piece is to the overall intelligence mission.

MICHAEL MORELL: Jerry, did you know The Assets? Have you seen it?

JERRY O’SHEA: I’m afraid I don’t. I’m afraid to say.  But I will say that Three Days of the Condor, while not particularly reflecting truth is a great film with Robert Redford as an analyst. 

MICHAEL MORELL: I am so excited that I have given you guys something that you two can go watch. I think that’s really cool. I’m really happy about that.

JOHN SIPHER: One of the things that’s interesting, when we first started going out to Hollywood, as you can imagine, like you’ve seen shows about Hollywood. Everybody wants to say this is like Argo meets something or other. And at first we go out there and people would be talking about shows and movies. And Jerry and I had essentially spent 30 years living overseas. And so we were like- people would bring up these shows. And is your show like this one? And we would be looking at each other sort of dumbfounded, having to admit like we’ve never watched any of these things that we’re talking about. We are getting better.

MICHAEL MORELL: Let me ask you guys about two nonfiction books, Ghost Wars and Billion Dollar Spy.

JOHN SIPHER: Let me start there because I think those are both excellent books. I think Ghost Wars is probably the best at contextualizing the background on the lead into the war on terror and what happened with 9/11 and al Qaeda. I think it does a really fine job of explaining that background to bin Laden and other things. And Billion Dollar Spy is really good about explaining the kind of work that takes place in a place like Moscow where the counter espionage service, their version of the FBI that tries to stop the CIA collecting intelligence and collecting information overseas is very, very aggressive. And so how to plan to meet a source. You might have planned literally for months to meet a source for one or 2 minutes in a dark alley to exchange information for money or what have you. 

It a story about a Soviet military electronics engineer. And to give a sense about the things we were talking about earlier, Michael, about how intense that relationship can be. The people who met him met him literally for minutes at a time. But the intensity was there. He was so engaged in trying to destroy the Soviet system, he wanted to pass the most damaging information he could to the United States. So much so that he insisted on having a suicide pill. And it was a lot of back and forth with him in writing and dealing with him and with trying to talk him out of that. But he insisted, he understood what would happen if he was caught. 

And as the case went on and he continued to work with the CIA, it became clearer and clearer and clearer that people were sort of, if not on to him, they were looking for a spy, a mole in that area. So much so that every time he would get called in by his boss into his boss’s office, he would take this spy pill, this suicide pill, and put it in his mouth between his cheek and gums to walk in to see his boss. Worried that this is the time he was going to be caught and he would have to have to kill himself himself. And then his boss would tell him to do something normal and he’d walk back out. He’d take the suicide pill, back out, put it away for next time. So you can imagine the intensity of when you have that final time that 2 or 3 minutes where you’re going to meet your CIA handler. The intensity of that relationship, how important it is for that person to to get information to the Americans and to defeat the Soviets. 

MICHAEL MORELL: Finally, what did I miss here? What are the one or two movies or TV series that we did not talk about that you would recommend to our listeners? Jerry, you wanna go first?

JERRY O’SHEA:  Let me take your question just a little differently. The two things that Hollywood doesn’t get, one is the work of the analysts. And what CIA guys don’t get right about the film is most people don’t want to hear about the case or its importance or the stakes. They want to hear about the characters. And so getting the characters and the stakes, putting them together just right is so important. Both sides struggle to get that right. Agency guys don’t understand how to build characters. When I briefed you in Anbar Province and outside Fallujah overlooking the Al Qaeda lines with possible snipers in the area, it was all about, here’s what’s going on. Not about the people. 

MICHAEL MORELL: Jerry, what I remember was it was raining and it was really cold. That’s what I remember.

JERRY O’SHEA: It was raining and it was really cold and the map melted. 

MICHAEL MORELL:  The map melted literally. John, what would you recommend to our listeners?

JOHN SIPHER: That’s exactly why we got into this business. We wanted to create movies that give a real feel of work and we do it. Frankly, I have to say, it’s kind of hard because so many of the people in Hollywood are younger and there’s this aversion sometimes to what they called period pieces. But there’s so many stories. Even just in general, we talked about the early years in the CIA and the kind of people that were trying to fend off the Soviets and fend off World War Three at the time. There’s just a plethora of stories that I think can get made into movies. And so what we’re trying to do now is work on some stories of issues we’ve been involved with or books that we found particularly interesting to get those made into movies. And as we do that and get our brand new forward, we’ll have a it better, easier to try to pull back some of the older stories and get them made. 

MICHAEL MORELL: Let me just ask one more question, guys. Since you sparked this in my mind, the analysts are really good, right? They have a tremendous amount of expertise, but they can only take an issue so far. And what they really need to fully understand an issue and give the policymakers what they need are those secrets, right, that the adversary is trying to keep from us. And human intelligence is a big part of acquiring those secrets. And I just wonder how you think we’re doing on that front. Have we lost something over the past 40, 50 years or even over the past 20, because of the war on terror. Are you worried at all about where we are with our capabilities of recruiting other human beings to provide information to the United States that we need to keep us safe? 

JOHN SIPHER: I think Hollywood has in many ways defined what intelligence is. And oftentimes it focuses on the kind of jobs that Jerry and I did in the field. The human espionage part of it. But frankly, the human piece, the human espionage part is essentially usually a very, very small part of a much larger intelligence picture. We are value add. If the U.S. can’t get information in any other way, we will try to steal it. There’s ways of stealing it that isn’t just having a spy, a source in place. If we can do that, that’s wonderful. But those are small pieces that may go deep and they may prove themselves critical. 

But there’s also, as you well know, the NSA technical collection, expertise, academics, diplomats, all this stuff sort of has to pull together. And frankly, our business of running spies is getting harder. The technology that’s out there, the cameras on the street, the quantum computing and these things make it harder. In the past, for example, if I had a source and we met and met briefly on the street in an alley somewhere, or we were sending messages or some sort of encrypted secret communications. That’s great. But now I have to worry that when I told that source, the one thing I’m going to do is protect them for the rest of their lives and the rest of my life. Can I say that anymore when there might be a way now that computing is getting to a point that it can go back and find messages from 5, 10, 15 years ago and can maybe break those messages and decrypt them. And we will never know if the person is safe one day and not safe the next day, what it was that made that happen. Or cameras on the street. If I’m meeting someone, I have to know with 100% assurance that nobody is watching, that nobody is seeing that meeting and it’s getting harder and harder to do.

JERRY O’SHEA: Taking a different tack here. My last was Chief in Baghdad. And I have to say, the young women and men who worked for me in the agency, onsite analysts, case officers, reports officers, security officers. These were people who I was in awe of. Young people, they were taking pay cuts, working 18 hours a day, in dangerous and difficult circumstances. And yet what I saw was really some of what this country can produce. Some of our very best people who could and wanted to sacrifice. People of enormous talent. And so I’m positive about the people coming into the agency and taking on those challenges. We really are getting great people. And the second is what’s going on in Ukraine. I think that really brings into stark contrast that there is evil in this world. There are authoritarian, dangerous countries and ideologies and leaders out there. And I think people do realize that the agency does play a critical role in revealing plans and intentions of dangerous adversaries who are completely at odds with the ideals of what our country stands for.

MICHAEL MORELL: Jerry, that’s a great way to end here. Jerry, John, thank you so much for joining us. Terrific discussion and good luck with Spycraft Entertainment.

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/what-hollywood-gets-right-wrong-about-cia-intelligence-matters/ “Intelligence Matters”: What Hollywood gets right — and wrong — about the CIA

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