Busting Bond: The myths of movie spycraft
Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions’ action adventure SKYFALL
November 9th, 2012
03:00 AM ET

Busting Bond: The myths of movie spycraft

By Suzanne Kelly

The latest James Bond movie, "Skyfall," delves into some tantalizing personal details about the world's favorite British spy, from formative events in his childhood to an up-close look at his relationship with M, the chief of the super-secret British spy service where Bond works.

The new film offers plenty of the heart-thumping chase scenes one expects from a Bond movie, and it also gives glimpses of Bond's well honed art of spycraft. Which begs the question: How realistic is today's Bond?

Some real-life former spies offered to help bust through some of the myths created by the movie:

Bond Myth 1: Spies have super human abilities

In the opening scene, a post-40-year-old Bond manages to survive a particularly wild car chase. He somehow ends up on top of a train, where he ducks through tunnels while engaging in a fist fight with the bad guy, only to be shot and fall to what appears to be his certain death, his body plunging into a lake.

"When you place it in the Hollywood context, his physical abilities don't exist," says Marty Martin, a former senior clandestine operations officer with the CIA, who one source of mine described as "one part" Bond.

"A guy can't take on six guys. He can't jump off bridges and trains. If you do it once, you're lucky, and it will likely blow your knee out, you know what I'm saying?" observed Martin.

And it's not just the physical skills, but add to that all of those other amazing talents that make Bond who he is, and you have just discovered why so many real-life spies admire the guy.

"A lot of people in our business wish we could do things like that," says Robert Richer, a former senior officer in the CIA's Clandestine Service. "He has the skills of a SEAL, He can play baccarat. He can move effortlessly in Monte Carlo, but the reality is it's hard to do all of those things combined."

"There are characteristics," says Martin. "But the whole James Bond, good-looking, suave, has good toys, speaks three or four languages, really?"

Bond Myth 2: Style is a spy's best weapon

Robert Grenier- Former senior CIA official

"Being suave does make a difference," said Robert Grenier, who spent much of his CIA career working undercover in overseas locations, including serving as the CIA's chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, on September 11, 2001. Grenier is described by some of my sources as being the best-dressed (former) spy in the world.

Grenier, of course, chuckled when I shared that piece of intel with him.

"Espionage is a people business, and at its essence is the ability to make people like you and trust you and being able to enter a social world whether it's nuclear scientists or the court of the king of Morocco or whatever it is, those are the sort of social skills that form a composite of Bond."

Bond Myth 3: It's easier to work alone

"I was operating at a time when we did believe in one range and one rider," says Martin, who has since retired from the world of official espionage. "Today, you're way more likely to work in teams."

Marty Martin – a former undercover CIA officer

But, argues Martin, there is still a lot of logic in keeping those teams small. "Because if you only have two people on the operation, there are only two people who can jack it up," says Martin. "If you have 25, the weakest one will do something stupid like call home and blow the whole deal."

"You want to keep the team as small as you can. The fewer points of failure you have, the better," adds Grenier. "The perception of what we do has changed a little bit because we're operating so much in war zones. But one of the things I've always noticed is that if you ever have two case officers in a room with an agent, a source, it's one too many case officers. It's amazing when you see it because right away they start competing with each other."

Bond Myth 4: Breaking the rules makes you bad

One thing Bond doesn't do while carrying out his mission is stop to call the lawyers. According to the real-life guys, the concept of breaking rules isn't all that off-base for operators working in the field, under increasingly stressful pressure, particularly post 9/11.

"Following a deeper set of rules, being devoted to the mission, sometimes means breaking the rules you're supposed to follow," says Grenier, who has had to make some tough calls during the course of his career. "Breaking the rules does happen in real life, but not for very long. Bond never consults lawyers. Right there, you know it's not very realistic."

"Sometimes you need somebody who can go 'downtown bad'," says Martin.

But just how far does "downtown bad" go? Would it ever involve targeted killing of the nondrone variety?
Britain's MI6 has publicly disavowed itself from carrying out assassinations, as has the CIA. In fact, when I asked a certain unidentified spy contact about that, he sent me a copy of Executive Order 12333, which "explicitly prohibits the CIA from engaging, either directly or indirectly, in assassinations."

Of course, in reality, we know that intelligence officers or agents sometimes embark on deadly missions. But in a world in which oversight committees and lawyers are part of the process, how would Bond hold up before an oversight committee?

If I were to wager a bet, my money would be on that being the most exciting congressional hearings I would ever see.

Bond Myth 5: Technology always makes the job easier

In "Skyfall," Bond moves from country to country with relative ease. Could that really happen? Not so much.

This is true in part because technology now allows him to be tracked, either by new border control measures being adopted around the world or by social media sites that account for a lot of today's intelligence gathering.

"Now we have biometrics. You can't just pop in and out of countries. It's getting increasingly hard," says Martin, who spent some of his time moving through countries in the Middle East. "Our world has gotten so much more difficult for espionage. Before, you could create a fake passport and you're off, but now, honestly really the first thing people do is google you, right?"

Author Jeffery Deaver agrees.

He wrote the latest Bond novel, "Carte Blanche," which is part of the continuing Ian Fleming series. In the book, published last year, Deaver writes about a Bond character who can no longer just waltz into any country and provide a credible cover story. In large part, says Deaver, that's because of the Internet.

"Any intelligence agent has more information about him or her out there than one would like," said Deaver on his cell phone from Brazil, where he's touting his latest non-Bond book.

"He (Bond) has to gin up an identity that will stand up to Internet groups, because covers can be blown so easily. It doesn't take very much at all, even for a 13-year-old hacker, to find out that you're not who you say you are."

Bond Myth 6: Sophisticated drinks and theme songs make you cooler

OK, this one is tough to argue with. But while Bond is legendary for unwinding with a martini, shaken, not stirred, it's a bit more gritty in the real world.

"Whiskey," says Martin. "When we were facing some tough times with al Qaeda, it was whiskey and listening to soundtracks from "Gladiator" and "Man on Fire."

But let's face it, in some places, getting a good bottle of whiskey could be tougher than the day job. So what's another, more practical alternative in those locations?

"Most real case officers, the ones doing the counterterrorism work, are beer drinkers or, a lesser number, vodka drinkers." says Richer. "Where we serve, getting a good mixed drink is difficult at best. Finding a beer is always easy. Few of us drink wine. Appreciating wine takes time and attention.

"Those who take on the trappings of being too sophisticated are generally more intel bureaucrats than field officers (which are where most of those of us who drink wine and like taking comfy postings rest). Those doing Yemen, Africa, Afghan, Iraq, Syria, North Africa, take simply joys and run with them."

And age is an important component here, too, because post-9/11, many of those serving in particularly dangerous overseas posts are on the younger side.

"Country music, hard rock are more the themes than soundtracks. Music which pumps the blood up for mission or private pursuits like the gym," adds Richer.

"I don't know of an officer current or former who would define Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift as those they listen to. They do listen to Aerosmith, Coldplay and a lot of independent music artists."

soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. Spycraft

    Any intelligence agent has more information about him or her out there than one would like," said Deaver on his cell phone from Brazil, where he's touting his latest non-Bond book.

    November 9, 2013 at 1:08 am | Reply
  2. John

    This is the most flaccid myth busting ever. The only myth that really seems to stand up to the definition is the first. All of the others are opinionated and objective. You can't say Bond is "cooler" because he gets the sophisticated drinks and has a motif to his name. If you think in the context of his world, he doesn't hear that crap and he's enjoying his favorite beverage before he has to accomplish his mission, task, etc. #5, technology- is only as good as the operator using it. Automation works, but can be fooled, operators with experience, but a keen-brain (i.e. Alert and aware) have a better chance than a computer that is in-essence "guessing" anyways. Also, Bond never works entirely alone. He has many resources from his fellows at MI6 to give him far-reaching assistance, as well as, the occasional conjugal visit. Just the facts people.

    December 1, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Reply
  3. Oscar Pitchfork

    SO, IN SHORT, in the old days of The Cold War, The Bay of Pigs, Radio Americas, etc., the agent himself travelled faster than the knowledge about him; not so, these days. The internet has rendered that unusable. So, his next best bet is to look likje someone eklse, or change the information about himself.

    November 16, 2012 at 7:31 am | Reply
  4. valsor

    I do not expect the James Bond story to be 100% realistic, or else there is no point watching it, LOL. All I need is that is reflects a bit of what real James Bonds do. Great article though, I especially like the quotes from real-life operatives.

    November 11, 2012 at 11:39 am | Reply
  5. ronald vegliano


    November 11, 2012 at 8:59 am | Reply
  6. jimmy9000

    Skyfall was awesome.

    November 11, 2012 at 3:24 am | Reply
  7. CeterumCenseo

    Great value addition.. 🙂

    November 11, 2012 at 3:01 am | Reply
  8. geckopelli

    Mr. Bond is not a spy.

    He is an Agent Provocateur.

    November 11, 2012 at 1:50 am | Reply
  9. Paul Martin

    Real intelligence agents are not anything like bond. They are tightly controlled and mostly involved in infiltration, covert missions and analysis stuff. Unless they had full diplomatic protection they could never carry a weapon either. Fleming was a foreign corespondent and a M16 wannabe at the end of ww2 in vienna. He penned his 007 fantasies out of sheer boredom and frustration nothing like reality of intelligence work at all !

    November 11, 2012 at 1:26 am | Reply
  10. terrix2000

    Your myths mean nothing to me. James Bond Rocks!

    November 10, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Reply
  11. bob

    What ? James Bond isn't real ? ! ? Damn you Ian Fleming. All of the fan boys are now weeping.

    November 10, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Reply
  12. Hasai

    Fun article. Instructional, as well, for those who can't tell reality from fantasy.

    November 10, 2012 at 11:49 am | Reply
  13. Biggabond

    To point #4 -Bond Myth 4: Breaking the rules makes you bad

    Dont they remember Bond has 'License to Kill' and do whatever ? Also, when Bond was formed, British ruled most part of the world, so getting in and out of their colonies or friendly countries had to be easier.

    November 10, 2012 at 10:47 am | Reply
  14. Marty in MA

    Movies are supposed to be an escape from reality. What's the problem?

    November 10, 2012 at 10:22 am | Reply
  15. John Brocklyn

    So the FBI is investigating a 4 star General who happens to be the head of the CIA, and they find... Man, people are really gullible to believe that one.

    November 10, 2012 at 9:32 am | Reply
  16. Gene

    @thomas, who cares how realistic bond is, Movies take you to places, and shows you things you might never dare to see in real life. Bond is not my hero, but he is pretty impressive considering he lives in fiction, much like Spiderman and Iron man. Mr and Mrs Smith were shot hundreds of times and a make believe bulletproof vest saved them, really!

    November 10, 2012 at 6:38 am | Reply
  17. Nik without a C

    I remember when I watched bond movies from 1965-up to present. I always liked his drink line, "Shaken not stirred" James bond is a greatest spy person, the music for different movies. I want to say the Brocolli family has done this one very well. If I let any secrets out, I would be shot at first, then all questions. He He. I believe fact rather than fiction. You have been watching too many Law and Order orginals.

    November 9, 2012 at 11:44 pm | Reply
  18. Theo Prinse

    Well Chris Stevens played jazz and had great looks and style. He was helping Obama in committing High Treason in smuggling arms to the enemy Al Qaeda. His boss miss Scarlett .. sorry I mean Clinton said Stevens sometimes did things the military would not do ... meaning he send more ships from Libya to Syria via Turkey with surface to air missiles and manpads, RPGs etc than the one that was confisqated in a Turkish harbor. Oh I got it. Stevens was a double agent ! The boss of Clinton Obama is indicted for leaking intellgence to the enemy ..

    November 9, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Reply
    • Svenghooli

      You are a pathetic heap of s.h.i.t......please shoot yourself in the head....

      November 9, 2012 at 11:08 pm | Reply
    • Huh?

      Glenn Beck, is that you?

      November 10, 2012 at 12:24 am | Reply
  19. Thomas

    "Which begs the question: How realistic is today's Bond?"


    It does not beg the question. It may raise the question.

    November 9, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Reply
    • Tamerlane

      Begging the question in the context of logic is the fallacy of proving something by assuming it is true. But in everyday language it has become synonymous with "raise the question". Language changes – it's inevitable. I don't lament the fact that we no longer speaker like Chaucer – and I don't have a problem with replacing the meaning of an outdated phrase with one that fits better in a modern context.

      November 10, 2012 at 3:49 am | Reply
  20. Susan

    Susan Kelly – Too bad you don't report the truth on Benghazi. Obviously fiction is more important to you than fact.

    November 9, 2012 at 8:46 am | Reply
    • Svenghooli

      all you Benghazi hanger ons are traitors and should kill yourselves........

      November 9, 2012 at 11:07 pm | Reply
    • Frank

      There are the n u t j o b "truthers" out there. What do we call you n u t s? How about "Benghazers"? "BenGhonzos"?

      November 10, 2012 at 12:33 am | Reply

Leave a Reply to Hasai


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.