Valerie Plame: The Real-life Spy Who Loved Him

Former CIA agent reveals what Bond pics get right

Who doesn’t remember seeing their first Bond movie in the theater? Mine was “The Spy Who Loved Me” in 1977 when I was 14. Brilliant, adrenaline-inducing opening sequence of Roger Moore being chased down a mountain on skis only to escape off a cliff with a Union Jack parachute; gorgeous, sensual Barbara Bach; the weird fascination of Jaws and his steel teeth glinting in the sun. Wow! What a way to be introduced to the spy world.

However, as clever, exotic, and pleasurable as the Bond movies are, they were not the spark (at least consciously) that made me consider espionage as a career.

I joined the CIA because I was taken with the idea of serving my country while working internationally. I love that Bond dispenses with his most evil, despicable enemies in an evening jacket that only occasionally gets rumpled. I wish! The reality of gathering human intelligence generally means the hard work building relationships and trust over time. Not easy to do while driving a car at breakneck speed down an Alpine pass or trying to avoid being eaten by a shark, or sliced to bits by a yacht’s propeller. Make no mistake — Bond is an assassin, as his special “00” code indicates. His job isn’t to form relationships, it’s to end them. But he does it so stylishly, doesn’t he?

Naturally, there are things about Bond that simply wouldn’t work in a real spy’s life. As a former covert CIA ops officer and female, I have had to spend more than a little time disabusing people of the notion that we sleep with men to get intelligence. Bond movies have done more than most to advance the myth that if you are female, you have to be horizontal to be effective. Sorry, as cinematic as it might be, the CIA doesn’t use “honey trap” methods, because they ultimately backfire.

Not surprisingly, the CIA divorce rate is astronomically high for all the reasons one might imagine: the pressures of a job you can’t talk about; being out most nights making clandestine meetings; unable to share the details of your job with your spouse. With so many enticements beckoning, too many intelligence officers think they are the real James Bond. They say that CIA training classes are the world’s biggest dating service. Certainly the most expensive. In any case, it’s probably similar to Hollywood in that if you are going to marry someone, it’s helpful that they understand the crazy business you’ve both found yourselves in.

I especially enjoy the complicated set pieces watching Bond on the prowl in a dinner jacket at some elegant affair. In fact, real intelligence operations sometimes do present opportunities where you need to mix and mingle. Perhaps out of a crowd of several hundred you need to make contact with just one person, so it’s certainly helpful if you know how to conduct yourself in polite company. However, the most important skill that any intelligence officer can possess is the ability to instantly assess and acclimate to a new situation. Whether it is a cocktail party brimming with potential targets, or being able to talk business so that a prospect’s bullshit meter doesn’t go off, a good officer must think fast on their feet.

When it’s all working right, it can be great fun and there is a deep satisfaction in doing the job right. There were times when I could not believe my good luck that the government was paying me to do this job. (The natural corollary are the moments of boredom, frustration, and wretched weather.) But something they got absolutely correct about Bond: he is able to leap from one situation to the other (sometimes literally) without breaking stride or a sweat. We don’t go see another Bond movie for its innovation or story-line, we line up because he takes us to exotic places and triumphs over evil with a twinkle in his eye and such style. It’s the Bond magic.

(Valerie Plame Wilson is former covert CIA operations officer and author of the book “Fair Game.” She is working on a fictional spy thriller “Blowback” which will be published in late 2012.)