Queerer Than We Can Suppose

Recently, Early Bird Books released a list of 15 Nonfiction Spy Books More Thrilling Than John le Carré, (it’s a good list, too) along with the observation that “when it comes to spy stories, the truth is often stranger—and more compelling—than fiction.”

It puts in mind the J.B.S. Haldane quote:

My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

Haldane was referring to science and future frontiers.

But the world of intelligence really is a different sort of frontier, one where, just like Vegas, what happens there, tends to stay there.

Even in this day of all-inclusive Internet and the decloaking of the true nature of public figures everywhere (here and here, for example), there are many places where intelligence and counter-intelligence professionals around the world talk about their work…and it even seems normal, after the frank in-the-buff revelations of the TV and entertainment world.

Only, in a profession that defines itself by its clandestine nature, those who really know the truth have been conditioned to not speak about it.  The real spies are unknown and invisible and prefer it that way.  Getting one of them to talk about their work–even the declassified stuff, and even just from the corner of their mouth–is next to impossible.

We think we know the spy world and can guess the rest.  I believe what we think we know is just a glimpse of a bigger picture from the corner of our eyes and that glimpse is blurred and out of focus, too.

Next time you watch or read a spy thriller that seems just too over-the-top to be believed…think about Haldane, and reconsider.

Overlooked and Underappreciated

I tend to catch up with TV shows long after it is sexy or trendy to be watching them. I like to binge watch a season, too—so I can absorb the structure of the story arcs as a whole That’s why I’m only just starting to watch Quantico, the ABC network’s TV series featuring new agents in training and a high-stakes conspiracy involving a nuclear bomb just to make it interesting.

I’ve spoken elsewhere about the general quality of the show (surprisingly good), and its watchability (engaging).

I did want to circle back to something that bothers the shit out of me about the show, however.

All the major characters in the show are training to be field agents.

So far, so good.

Halfway through the season, though, a cadre of analysts-in-training go nose-to-nose with the “nats” (new agent in training). Through three or four episodes, the analysts were portrayed as geeks or worse, nerds, good for nothing but staring at screens. They were disparaged. When one of the major characters was kicked out of nat training and placed with the analysts, everyone—including the character himself—considered the move to be a demotion. A second-best compromise.

Which makes me shake my head.

I do understand that there’s nothing sexy about analyzing data. Only, it saves lives.

It has been stated more than once, in dozens of sources, books and by even more experts, that many of the world’s crises and in particular, terrorist activities, are anticipated by the intelligence community. Like a fly making a cobweb tremble, alerting the spider in the center, intelligence operatives pick up rumors and rumbles, disparate facts and uninteresting data that, if put together in the correct way, would terrify the crap out of their governments. 9/11 was not so much a failure of the intelligence community, but an inability of the intelligence analysts to put the raw facts together correctly.

Name any major political event in the last one hundred years, and I bet solid money that operatives had most of the major facts in hand before the event, but failed to pool their data, which would present a complete picture, or the analysts failed to interpret the data correctly—and probably because they didn’t have all the major facts to do so.

While operates are sexy and Bondesque, and I can understand the entertainment world’s focus on them as the heroes, I think it’s wrong to paint the analysts as second-best, because they’re not. They’re at least equal with operatives, the yin to the operatives’ yang.

Without analysts, the world would be a scary place.

TV and movies have a huge social impact—their influence is undeniable, and provable. Yale researchers have demonstrated, for example, that the movie The Day After Tomorrow increased the awareness of global warming and environmental change in the movie-going public. With clout like that, shouldn’t entertainers pause to consider the message they’re giving, while they’re soliciting next season’s budget?