Pop Security: 'Covert Affairs' shows human side of CIA
December 5th, 2011
10:08 AM ET

Pop Security: 'Covert Affairs' shows human side of CIA

Editor's note: This story is part of a new Security Clearance blog series called "Pop Security" which looks at how national security is addressed in popular culture

by Henry Hanks

When Matt Corman and Chris Ord first came up with the idea for "Covert Affairs" – USA's hit series, finishing out its second season on Tuesday night – they didn't see it as your typical action adventure spy show.

"Our first way into this was looking at the CIA as a workplace," said Corman, who noted that Washington, D.C. as a setting for a series intrigued them. "Langley is enormous – anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 people go there to a job, the same way they go to an office park. We were interested in the confluence of a job as a spy, and the life of a spy."

The series focuses on Annie Walker, a new recruit to the CIA, who struggles to balance a personal life in between missions at home and around the world. A constant source of advice for her is Auggie Anderson, a tech operative, who was stricken blind while serving in Iraq.

"Yes, [CIA officers] do an extraordinary job and they have a different job from what most people do, but at the end of the day, they’re people and want the same things other people want. I don’t think we’ve seen that in the classic spy genre," said Ord.
Of course, creating a series that tried to adhere to the reality of the CIA wasn't easy.

"It took some digging but we found a way to get into Langley and get a tour and really see it for ourselves," said Ord. "That original research trip was huge for us creatively in terms of writing the pilot and really established a great relationship with the agency."

As Corman pointed out, "So many of the little nuggets and details of the show came from real life, like the fact that there’s a Starbucks at the CIA."

Viewers also rarely see Annie carrying a gun. "We heard oftentimes officers don’t carry firearms and that can be a liability," said Corman. "So we tried to embrace that and that becomes an interesting storytelling problem."

Another executive producer on the show is Doug Liman, best known for directing "The Bourne Identity," whose most recent film was last year's "Fair Game," about former CIA officer Valerie Plame, who ended up consulting on the series' pilot episode.
"She came up to Toronto as we were shooting the pilot," said Ord. "All the actors really appreciated her insight."

Two seasons in, Corman said they have contacts there whom they've been able to reach out to on specific questions.

"Last year, we brought our entire team of writers to Langley for a couple of days, and they got a lot of out of it," he said. "I think just being there and talking to actual covert officers was invaluable. You can read any number of spy novels, but until you actually you look someone in the eye who does the job, and ask them questions, you can’t really know what it is. We still really don’t know what it is. We know what they tell us it is and then we fill in the gaps. They've been very helpful to us, but they’re masterful at answering questions, and you think you’ve been satisfied, and then later you realize they really didn’t give us any information at all. Particularly when there’s issues of sensitivity, they dance around it in a way that’s professional."

Corman and Ord are keenly aware of how the public's perception of the CIA has changed in recent years. "You can’t really look at it anymore as just an intelligence gathering body. Clearly it’s much more proactive and some will accuse it of being a paramilitary organization at this point," said Corman. "We don’t come out on any sort of moral position on that, but the question itself is very good grist for storytelling."

Corman also pointed out how helpful members of the CIA have been when they point out parts of the show that could be made to be more accurate.

"By the same token, this isn’t propaganda. We’ll do stories about traitors in the CIA or the toll that the life of the CIA can take from people," he said. "We’re not out merely to promote it as a job option for people."

Either way, it's certainly a lot of fun to watch, and the duo promise that fans won't be disappointed by the finale.
Let me put it this way: There’s a lot we could give away [about it]," said Corman. "It’s a big episode and a lot of things are gonna change with it, and we’re gonna give the fans some of what they’ve been asking for."

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