Spying isn’t stranger than fiction

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Spying isn’t stranger than fiction

For the last six months I have been working on a new novel in which I modeled one of the main characters on myself. At one point, an agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation asks this character’s permission to install cameras around his house and park a surveillance van down the street.

“I assumed you were already doing that,” he tells her.

The agent, a hint of contempt in her voice, says, “You’ve been writing spy novels too long.”

My novels are full of people who believe in the infinite awareness of intelligence agencies, certain not only that Big Brother is able to surveil them, but also that he is actively doing so - as if intelligence agencies had nothing better to do. When I give characters these beliefs, it isn’t because I think there are agents wearing headphones and sitting in front of computers monitoring all of us, but because I want the reader to understand how paranoid my characters have become by operating in the world I’ve created. In the case of my latest character, a writer of spy fiction, I wanted to show how paranoid a steady diet of such novels can make us.

We learned in June, shortly after the former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden went on the run and began releasing classified documents, that even though the National Security Agency isn’t all-knowing (if they were, Snowden never would have been able to divulge the information), it is at least making a credible stab at omniscience.

Some Americans vilified Snowden, labeling him a traitor. Others preferred to think of him as a whistle-blower - or even a hero - and rallied to his defense. Once it became clear the NSA had been gathering the data of entire nations and listening to the phone calls of their leaders, the outrage went global: spreading to Brazil, France, Germany and Mexico.

As an espionage novelist, I certainly had an opinion on the matter.

Like my fictional persona, I’d already guessed this sort of data-vacuuming was de rigueur.

We know now that the NSA spies on other world leaders and that other nations spy on U.S. leaders. Some nations don’t have the resources or capability to gather intelligence as effectively. But if they did, they would be spying, too. Call it satellite envy.

These revelations pose serious ethical questions. Simply because such practices have become institutionalized doesn’t mean they should remain in place. Voters and lawmakers may decide that future espionage should be more limited - not that agreeing to such limitations will curb spying. Whatever course of action we take, why did I, and many others, assume that the NSA was listening in on everything everyone did?

Most of us don’t pose a national security threat. I don’t believe we’re all suffering from paranoia, either. What links us, I think, is spy fiction. In the parallel world of fictional espionage there are few, if any, laws to restrain an agency that’s determined to get what it wants. (Remember “24”? How many servers did Chloe, the resident techie, blithely hack into?)

We’ve been led astray by fictional spies who have taught us that intelligence agencies are as dangerous as the Mob. James Bond fans may think secret agents resort to guns as often as they turn to analytical thought and “Homeland” suggests that Central Intelligence Agency operatives must be obsessive to the point of mental illness to uncover the truth. Read through some of the genre’s great novels - “Six Days of the Condor” and “Hopscotch,” for example - and you would be forgiven for coming away thinking that intelligence agencies spend as much time hiding their misdeeds as they do fighting security threats.

I’m guilty of propagating these myths. In my last few books, there was a prevailing theme: All of the allies actively spy on each other. (A reviewer from the CIA derided the lack of reality in my books - take that as you like.) I didn’t construct this idea based on privileged knowledge. I came to it because I’m almost cynical enough to believe the words of one of my paranoid characters: “If it can be imagined, then someone’s already tried it.”

If I were writing that line today, the rule might be: “If the intelligence-gathering technology exists, and it’s not cost-prohibitive, then someone’s using it to the hilt.” One assumes that not much is cost-prohibitive to the NSA.

My worry is that even when we recognize spy stories as fiction, they have the same effect on our world view that any decent literature does. We know that what we are reading is invented, and often fantastic, but if the stories are well written, verisimilitude can be mistaken for truth. At first we may be shocked by the violence and by the intensity of the surveillance we find in these story lines, but by the third “Bourne” film we’ve accepted them as old hat.

The revelations of a runaway 30-year-old contractor may shock us, but we’re already jaded. I won’t be writing to my congressman or hiding my face behind a Guy Fawkes mask as I march down Pennsylvania Avenue any time soon.

The best spy fiction creates the illusion it’s helping us understand the secretive workings of our governments. But in the process it robs us of our outrage. This side effect is more than worrying - it’s terrifying. In a world where banks have the power to cripple economies and politicians lie so often that fact checkers have become ubiquitous, it turns out that the tin-hat-wearing delusionists were at least half-right. Outrage is the only protection we have, and without it, today’s controversy becomes tomorrow’s accepted reality.

*The author is a novelist. His latest book, “The Cairo Affair,” will be available in March 2014.

by Olen Steinhauer
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