An Intelligence Officer’s 10 Most Instructive Spy Movies

Title:                      An Intelligence Officer’s 10 Most Instructive Spy Movies

Author:                 Kenneth A. Daigler

Date Posted:      March 23, 2017

Review by Kenneth A. Daigler[1]

Since intelligence professionals know the realities of the business, most spy genre movies have little professional appeal to them. While occasionally it is amusing to see one’s self glorified in some death-defying feats and involved with seductive female adversaries, these scenes have little to do with the practical application of the trade. However, there are a few movies which have managed to capture some of the realities of the profession and make the film a teachable tool. In no particular order of priority, below are ten films that pretty accurately demonstrate tradecraft techniques. Some of these films have been used as focal points for tradecraft discussions during basic training of case officers.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy[2]: (Note: My favorite treatment is the 1979 BBC TV miniseries, which while not actually a movie, certainly is a film.) This adaption of John Le Carre’s 1974 novel brings to life the complexity of agent operations during the Cold War. It mentions, and often describes, many of the elements of agent handling and counterintelligence methodology. It also realistically portrays the bureaucratic and interpersonal issues that affect intelligence organizations.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965): This adaption of Le Carre’s 1963 novel[3] takes you into the murky, complex and often amoral world of offensive counterintelligence. It demonstrates methods of developing a false identity and the planning of an intricate operation to enhance the access of a British agent in the East German service. It shows the professional and personal pressures on an intelligence officer as he attempts to move his career forward.

The Day of the Jackal (1973): Based on Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 novel[4], the drama follows a professional killer as he attempts to assassinate the French President [de Gaulle]. It is a realistic treatment of the methodologies of how to change identities and personalities, while attempting to outwit a national internal security service attempting to identify and catch you. The drama also shows how an internal security service pulls together information required to neutralize a threat such as this.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)[5]: This dark look at Cold War evil adversaries, excessive, politically-oriented counterintelligence scares, and high level political penetrations of the US. Government also shows agent handling techniques and how individuals’ perceptions can be influenced for intelligence purposes. While the actual plot was based upon North Korean attempts at “brain washing,” the concepts of psychological indoctrination remotely for later activation are coming to light in the international terrorist field. Also of educational value is the recognition that the obsessive “ideological leader” of a cause may not always be what he seems.

The French Connection (1971)[6]: This movie provides a realistic portrayal of street surveillance, from both the perspective of the surveillants and that of the target(s). It clearly identifies the physical and mental strains placed on all those involved, as well as the sheer drudgery and intense boredom which must be overcome to maintain a successful surveillance. It also demonstrates methods of identifying and subsequently breaking a surveillance operation. While the theme of the movie is a police drug operation, the surveillance techniques shown are equally valid for intelligence operations.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)[7]: Based, loosely, on a true story of two young Americans who pass secrets to the Soviets, this drama is filled with various tradecraft elements. From planning and verification measures for personal meetings to instructions to agents on how to operate securely, the storylines show the interjection of professional intelligence techniques into an operation in the face of an agent who is less than disciplined and responsible. The interaction between the Soviet KGB officers and the two Americans, trying to bring them into a more controlled and secure operation, mirrors what intelligence officers face with agents all the time.

ARGO (2012): Based upon a surprisingly revealing book[8] written by a retired CIA Disguise Officer, with Agency approval, the story provides details of how to create a false company in support of a cover story to allow the clandestine exfiltration of American diplomats hiding in Iran after the coup against the Shah. It also describes the preparations required to produce alias identities and train individuals to assume convincingly those identities. This is almost a “Building Cover for Dummies” guide.

The Little Drummer Girl (1984): From the 1983 Le Carré novel[9], this is an anti-terrorist story. Tradecraft elements in the story consist of ploys to manipulate feelings, develop and utilize “actionable” intelligence, and the importance of careful and disciplined planning in all intelligence operations. Of special interest is the scene where “Charlie” becomes integrated into the Israeli viewpoint by classic “good guy—bad guy” reinforcement by her then-current peer group.

Russia House (1990): Yet another adaption of a 1989 Le Carré novel. This one highlights the use of business cover and non-official contacts to promote intelligence collection. It also presents an insightful picture into the capabilities of an internal security force and the abilities of a foreign intelligence service to operate in a “denied area” of heavy security. It also demonstrates the value of careful follow-up and exploitation of sources who take significant risks to contact you. By the way, the photography in the film is quite stunning.

You may have noticed that I am partial to dramas from the writings of Le Carré. The reason is simple; he was in the British intelligence Service for a time and, sometimes, has been able to incorporate basic elements of tradecraft into his story line.

[1] Kenneth A. Daigler in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (21, 3, Fall/Winter 2015, pp. 131-132). Kenneth A. Daigler is a former CIA senior Operations Officer. His particular field of history focuses on American espionage activities from 1775 through 1865. His most recent publication is Daigler, Kenneth A.Spies (2014). Patriots, and Traitors: American Intelligence in the Revolutionary War. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

[2] For the book on which Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is based, see Le Carré, John (1974). Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. London: Hodder and Stoughton

[3] Le Carré, John (1964). The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. New York, Coward-McCann

[4] Forsyth, Frederick (1971). The Day of the Jackal. New York: Viking Press

[5] Based on Condon, Richard (1959). The Manchurian Candidate. New York: McGraw-Hill

[6] Based on Moore, Robin (1969). The French Connection: The World’s Most Crucial Narcotics Investigation. Boston, MA: Little, Brown

[7] Based on the non-fiction book, Lindsey, Robert (2002). The Falcon and the Snowman: a true story of friendship and espionage. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press

[8] Mendez, Antonio J.(2012) and Matt Baglio. Argo: How The CIA And Hollywood Pulled Off The Most Audacious Rescue in History. New York: Viking

[9] Le Carré, John (2004). The Little Drummer Girl. New York: Scribner