Mystery Month: Go Inside The CIA At Thrillerfest 2011

This afternoon I attended Thrillerfest and was able to speak with some of my favorite thriller and mystery authors. I also sat in on several panels including Ask The CIA: Insights from the Undercover Life. Hosted by mystery author Gayle Lynds, this panel allowed attendees to ask questions about everything from military contractors, to WikiLeaks and the CIA’s role in the Bin Laden operation. “Agent Chris” (no last name given) and CIA media spokesperson Marie E. Harf fielded a variety of questions, but in my opinion their most interesting answers revolved around the things that they say that authors and screenwriters get wrong when they create fictional characters in the CIA. For everyone out there who couldn’t attend the panel, here are some myths that Marie and Chris busted about the CIA’s operations.

Myth #1 – Undercover agents are independent operators that can make their own decisions. 

“There are no Jason Bourne’s out there going rogue,” says Marie. “We are not after the flashy, it is not best for intelligence. We want the guy you will see at a party and don’t remember, not James Bond.” Chris adds that in movies and books you might have a team of agents break down a door to force their way into a facility, which is entertaining but far from realistic. “We use stealth. We sneak in and out without anyone ever knowing that we are there. Oftentimes to find our ways into facilities, we recruit the lowest of the low personnel. The janitor that no one looks at is a perfect example.”

Myth #2 – CIA personnel have political agendas. 

Marie explains that the CIA is “policy-neutral.” “We don’t support one side or the other. Instead we are analysts. We don’t say if we should invade a country, instead we tell leaders what would happen if we did invade.” This is not always easy and there are cases of high-ranking officials leaving the agency when a decision they didn’t agree with was made. But in order to function within the organization, Chris says that when it comes to having a personal political opinion you have to “check it at the door.”

Myth #3 – TV, movies and books reveal the latest technology that the CIA employs.

Chris admitted when watching films he thinks to himself how great it would be if he had something like a real-time infrared camera that could allow him to use satellites to spy on “hot” targets, but the CIA just doesn’t have this capability. However, he also says that the stuff they do have is way better than anything we have ever seen or heard of — and no, he is not telling. 

Myth #4 – Top secret always means top secret. 

“More people know things that you think,” says Marie. Other than the Bin Laden operation, which was completely secretive, it is rare for anything to be off the radar in Washington. However, she was also quick to point out that the majority of intelligence leaks happen from other sources, like the Department of Defense or Congress rather than within the CIA.

Want to know the real scoop on the CIA and covert affairs? Marie recommends reading David Ignatius who is a fiction writer and Washington Post columnist who has the jargon down pat. And Chris recommends Mark Lowenthal’s Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy.

For more coverage of Thrillerfest you can check back next week and in the meantime be sure to take a look at our on-going genre coverage for Mystery Month and enter to win a five-book prize pack here