Priceonomics

When Zero Dark Thirty, Hollywood’s dramatization of the Bin Laden Raid, hit theaters, a number of Republicans accused the Obama Administration of providing director Kathryn Bigelow with information and access in order to curry fawning treatment of the president’s role in the raid. Discussion of intelligence matters is tricky business, but communication between the CIA and Hollywood, at least, is business as usual. 

Inside the Public Affairs Office of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Entertainment Industry Liaison facilitates “an accurate portrayal of the men and women of the CIA.” It can grant filmmakers and writers access to intelligence experts, filming time on location in Langley, and relevant stock footage. Skeptics contend that the military and CIA trade access to resources like fighter jets and aircraft carriers in exchange for influence over scripts. The official line, as former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin put it, is that “what most in the public think about intelligence depends to a large extent on what they see in cinematic, documentary, and novelistic sources.”

But in the 1950s and early 1960s, during the first years of the CIA, the agency had no such policy, and its secrecy was more of a fact than the punchline it is today. With journalists barely printing a word about the agency and books and films not imagining CIA-centric plots, that left the job of introducing the CIA to the American imagination to two men: author Ian Fleming and his fictional hero James Bond. 

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The story of how 007 shaped the public profile of the CIA is recounted by Dr. Christopher Moran, a scholar of the CIA and intelligence matters, in his (sadly paywalled) paper “Ian Fleming and the Public Profile of the Central Intelligence Agency.”

Although it may be hard to believe during the age of Homeland, Argot, and drone strikes, Moran recounts the near total ignorance of the activities of the CIA among the general public in the 1950s. Moran cites two reasons that explain how the CIA, which had just emerged out of the Office of Strategic Services, the intelligence agency created during World War II, remained publicly anonymous: deference to national security concerns and fear of being labelled a commie.   

Americans generally respected the security agencies’ belief that any publicity about the CIA would harm national security. Moran notes that politicians disapproved of discussing CIA matters and cites the chief historian of the CIA who describes congressional oversight of the CIA as “congressional overlook.” The New York Times pulled reporters abroad to protect CIA agents at the agency’s request and patriotic Hollywood producers understood “the types of subjects that were not fit for the big screen.”

Anyone thinking of breaking this consensus risked appearing to sympathize with communism. The 1950s were the height of McCarthyism, and jeopardizing national security by discussing or portraying the CIA would be easy fodder for the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Still, the CIA’s penchant for secrecy was not just protection against muckraking. The agency turned away producers seeking to film programs glorifying American intelligence. As a result, Moran writes, the CIA “was barely known by the public, let alone understood, and rarely mentioned in political and cultural discourse.” When two journalists wrote the first authoratiative history of the CIA in 1963, distraught CIA officials considered “buying up all 20,000 copies before they reached the bookshops.”

Ian Fleming published his first Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1953. Although 007 works for Great Britain’s secret service, he interacts regularly with his American counterpart, Felix Leiter of the CIA. The debut was a hit. Fleming wrote 11 additional Bond novels and 007 appeared on American television screens, reimagined as the American agent Jimmy Bond, by 1954.

Fleming’s work in intelligence during World War II provided the raw material for his books. The author described characters as amalgams of the men he met during the war. He even based the quartermaster “Q,” who provides Bond with an endless supply of spy gadgets, off a Londonite making self-described “Q gadgets” for British agents operating in occupied France. Several of his inventions, such as “a golf ball that contained a compass,” made it into Bond novels or films.

Fleming wrote the Bond novels in Goldeneye, a house he built in Jamaica that shared a name with both a later Bond novel and the actual Operation Golden Eye in which he took part, a plan to protect Allied communication through Spain in the event of a German takeover. His writing displayed much of the same level of fantasy. 

Moran writes that the productive, respectful partnership between Bond and Leiter smoothes over the disgruntled reality in which American officers often viewed British intelligence officers as snobby or distrusted them entirely. Moran quotes one former CIA officer who sums up the attitude toward Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) as “Don’t tell the bastards anything.” 

Fleming also plays up the SIS as the world’s premier intelligence service. In From Russia With Love, the Soviets plot to assassinate Bond and discredit the Secret Service, judging that they represent the strength of Western intelligence. Viewers who watched the recent Casino Royale film will be familiar with the contrast of American and British agents in Fleming’s novels. In the poker game that the plot centers on, Leiter cannot top the villainous Le Chiffre. But Leiter presents Bond with enough money to buy back into the game so that Bond can save the day, representing Fleming’s characterization of the CIA as well-financed, good intentioned, and bungling. 

This fits in with the narrative of Britain clinging to its identity as a premier power while its empire declined. It stands in stark contrast to Britain’s response to Iran nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951, Moran argues, when the vaunted SIS responded by lobbying the United States for help by pointing to Iran’s communications with the Soviets. (In 1953, the U.S. led a joint operation that overthrew Iran’s leaders and replaced them with a puppet government.)  

But the dominant characteristic of the CIA and Western intelligence that Bond presented to the American public was simply a very flattering one. 

Fleming, who was known to travel with “a commando fighting knife and a fountain pen loaded with a cyanide cartridge,” wrote Bond novels with all the ambiguity of a boy living out his childhood dreams. “Through the character of Leiter, a roman à clef of US intelligence trailblazer William Donovan,” Moran writes, “CIA officials were shown to be dedicated patriots, doing a job with high risk and little reward.” While the real CIA orchestrated coups, engaged in dirty business, and operated in moral grey areas, Bond and Leiter simply fought the good fight. This is hardly unusual in films and popular novels, but it contrasted strongly with the more realistic intelligence novels by Graham Greene and John Le Carre coming out of Britain at the time. 

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In a stranger than fiction moment, Ian Fleming also seems to have influenced the CIA. 

The agency’s director at the time, Allen Dulles, loved the Bond novels. Despite the derision most agents held for the series, Moran notes that he had a signed copy of each and every novel. Dulles and Fleming struck up a relationship that at times seemed mutually beneficial. Dulles peppered his public remarks with references to Bond, while Fleming dropped positive mentions of Dulles into the mouths of his characters. 

The two met in 1959 at an event organized by members of British intelligence. With Fleming theorizing about the role of technology in the future of intelligence and Dulles describing the CIA’s new U-2 spy plane, Fleming revealed the real-world roots of Q Branch. An inspired Dulles took the bait. Moran writes:

Speaking to Life magazine in August 1964, Dulles reported that the CIA had successfully managed to reproduce Rosa Klebb’s infamous assassination tool, a spring-loaded poison knife shoe. Scientists had less luck trying to replicate automobile technology. Dulles was particularly eager for the CIA to develop a homing-beacon, seen in Goldfinger, which could be fitted to a car and used to track its whereabouts: “I put my people in CIA to work on this as a serious project, but they came up with the answer that it had too many bugs in it. The device really didn’t work very well when the enemy got into a crowded city”.

Dulles hoped to meet Fleming a second time at a dinner hosted by the Kennedy’s in 1960. He had to miss the event, but asked a CIA official in attendance to report back. During dinner, Kennedy asked Fleming how he would topple Fidel Castro. Moran writes of his reply:

As Fleming saw it, it was not enough simply to kill Castro; he had to be humiliated as well. To do this, he suggested flooding the streets of Havana with pamphlets explaining that radioactive fallout from atomic testing caused impotence and was known to be drawn to men who had beards. As a result, Cuban men would be forced to shave off their facial hair, thus severing a symbolic link to Castro and to the revolution. If this did not work, he suggested that the CIA should build a religious manifestation, ideally a cross of sorts, and fly it over the Havana skyline in order to induce the Cubans to look skyward. Everyone, including the President-elect, burst into laughter. The next day, Bross informed Dulles of Fleming’s madcap scheme, fully expecting his superior to see it as poppycock. To his astonishment, Dulles thought it was a wonderful idea and raced to the telephone to speak to the author.

Not long after Fleming made his fantastical suggestions, the CIA launched a number of Hollywood-worthy operations against Castro. The agency contaminated Castro’s frogman’s suit with a fatal tropical disease called Madura Foot, sent Castro an exploding cigar, and considered “starting a whispering campaign in Havana that Castro was the anti-Christ and that a Second Coming was imminent; to signify that the hour was at hand, an American submarine would surface off the coast at night and fill the heavens with starbursts.” 

Moran cautions that there is no direct audience of Fleming’s influence. But the Soviets at least saw his hand at work. After the Bay of Pigs, Moran writes, Soviet propagandists gloated that Allen Dulles “even attempted (but unsuccessfully) to try methods recommended by Fleming in his books. Obviously American propagandists must be in a bad way if they have recourse to the help of an English retired spy turned mediocre writer.” 

While an American public deprived of nearly all mention of the CIA from the 1950s to the mid 1960s may have imagined Bond and Leiter when they thought of the CIA, they may not have been the only ones mistaking fiction for reality.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google PlusTo get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list. More information on "Ian Fleming and the Public Profile of the CIA" by Christopher Moran is available here.



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