The sudden and swift exchange of spies between two nations in the midst of a politely tense diplomatic dance – as the US and Russia have been in – is no accident, say spy novelists, ex-spies, and government officials.
“The spy is one of the most potent figures of the imagination,” says author Steve Berry, president of International Thriller Writers. “They live in a world of deep personal conflict, wrestling with betraying everyone and everything they know and love just by doing their job. And so they are a perfect figure to hang these large stories of nations in conflict on.”
Every generation in history has put forth its own version of the vital information-gathering agent for popular consumption, he adds. “James Bond was the perfect cold warrior, but that genre pretty much died in 1990 and 1991 when the Soviet Union fell.” Since then, he adds, “We’ve all been developing the international thriller.”
When spies become news, there is often a disparity between real-life espionage and the images spun by popular film and fiction.
“Hollywood pushes and exaggerates all the things that make a spy compelling,” says Mr. Berry. All the tools of the trade, from the cool gadgets to the personal ability to live a double life with charm and ease, make for great stories and form our expectations.
Spies can come in handy when things go wrong behind the doors of international relations, says Michael Diaz, an assistant state attorney in the Clinton administration.
“It’s usually because something has gone wrong and now it’s time to fix it,” says Mr. Diaz, a lawyer who specializes in espionage cases. A neat narrative – a spy swap! – with characters everyone understands is much more potent than a government report or commission. “Who knows what’s broken down behind the scenes or what isn’t going right?”
Diaz points out that most Americans can’t follow the reasons and details for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s visit to remote areas of the former Soviet Union. But, he says, “pull out that raven-haired beauty living the New York high life while she slips secrets back to Mother Russia, and you have another story altogether.”
The often prosaic activities of day-to-day spying may actually hang on the somewhat dry reasons behind a remote crop failure in a troubled region of the world, but that begs the point, says Antiwar.com editorial director Justin Raimond. Spies – especially in the context of Russian-versus-American spies – are part of a larger narrative of the sort that most, if not all, war propaganda is made of, he says.
“The novels of Ian Fleming are the perfect example: super-villains in league with America's enemies versus equally glamorous superheroes such as Agent 007,” he says. “The recent Russian spy scare revives this narrative and tries to place it in a contemporary context. The result is that a rather prosaic reality – the apparent decision by the powers that be to prod the Russians – is masked by a fictional narrative: Russian pod people may be living next door to you.”