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Driver's Seat
The ups and downs of the spy game
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If I were young and just starting out, I’d seriously consider applying for a position as a spy. It’s plain that America needs as many well-trained spies as we can develop. With terrorists of various stripes plotting to blow us up, we must send in our spies to foil their plans.

I recently searched the want ads in some newspapers and on Craig’s List for “Spies Wanted” openings, but found none. I don’t know of any colleges or technical schools that train spies. A next step might be to identify the agencies and companies who hire spies. However, I believe that “spying” is no longer an accepted term. What the big boys now talk about is “intelligence” and “security.”

At last count, the federal government had about sixty “intelligence-gathering” outfits. Some spy on terrorist groups; others steal secrets from foreign governments, including our allies; many government agencies spy on you and me. Politicians in power don’t trust the citizenry any more than we trust the politicians.

The Central Intelligence Agency is a major employer of spies. So is the National Security Agency. Computer and pharmaceutical companies are famous for spying on each other, attempting to steal industrial secrets. A few years ago someone tried to organize a national convention for spies, but nobody was willing to attend, even though the featured speaker was billed as “Nathan Fizrolvey, Famous Spy.”

To be successful a spy must remain unknown. He/she must also be a sneak. I’ve often thought that unfaithful spouses would make excellent spies; they’re good at covering their tracks, and saying “Who? Me?” when accused of committing hanky-panky.

The worst way to learn about the spy game is to watch TV spy programs. The most outrageous of these is “MI-5,” named for the top-secret British spy agency. The program’s producers ask us to believe that the intelligence operation for the entire British Empire is carried out by about a dozen agents and six computers. Each week this small band of spooks manages to outwit evildoers just minutes before the bad guys try to blow up Parliament or the London subway system. What makes the plots even more unbelievable is that the MI-5 people are successful despite the fact that they don’t really trust their colleagues. That’s because there’s usually a mole somewhere in the waxworks swiping secrets to sell to Iran, Al Qaeda or the Vatican.

Another flaw in most TV or movie spy stories is that the secret agents seldom meet in a dark alley where nobody can see them. Instead they usually hook up in a public park on the banks of the Thames, where any photographer or sniper within two miles can shoot them with a camera or a Barrett M98B bolt-action rifle.

A successful spy must be adept at shadowing people, staying in the background so that they don’t recognize him. Hulk Hogan and Sarah Palin would be no good as spies.

High on the CIA’s recruitment list are stalkers, those creepy people who hang around celebrities, hoping for a smile or an autograph. As Socrates once put it, “Deep within every stalker is a spy yearning to get out.”

If a spy’s identity is discovered by his target, the secret agent is said to be “burned.” Spies have their own special vocabulary. If your mother-in-law suddenly starts to talk about bugs, dead drops and safehouses, she is probably a spy. If she demands that you give her the correct password before she admits you to her house, you can be sure of it.

The best-known fictional spy is James Bond, also referred to as Agent 007. He is famous for ingratiating himself with beautiful women who work for international fiends. In real life, a spy has few female friends. That’s because sensible women seldom get the hots for a scruffy, non-descript man in a dirty trench coat who sits all day in a sidewalk café reading newspapers and drinking cheap gin. That’s the life of the typical spy.

The most frightening thing about spy work is that when the enemy catches you, you are a goner. Your own government denies knowing you. You have no friends to support you. It’s exactly like being fired from your job here in America after years of faithful service. “Jones, you’ve got an hour to clear out your desk, you useless insect!”

American intelligence agencies are notorious for not having courageous, Arabic-speaking, democracy-loving spies in their employ. If we had owned a few dozen such men and women stationed in the Mideast back in 2000 or so, we’d have known better than to get involved in that quagmire. Our spies would have warned us, “Stay out. Only death, destruction and hatred await you here!” But would we have listened?

Bob Driver is a former columnist and editorial page editor for the Clearwater Sun. Send him an email at
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