The wisdom of Maxwell Smart on the NSA and Syria

The '60s TV super-spy and his boss on trust, security theater, and protecting secrets.

AP
"Missed it by 'that' much."

I came across an old clip from Get Smart, Don Adam's hit '60s TV series about a bumbling American spy, that made me think about the news lately: Edward Snowden's defection to Russia with a trove of National Security Agency secrets, the role of trust in the debate over what the US should do about the war in Syria, and the security theater that continues to plague air travelers here in the US and abroad.

In the clip, the Chief is worried about a break-in at a secure conference room, thinking that listening devices might have been installed there ahead of a secret meeting. Smart tells him not to worry, saying he's got the only key and that since it's bolted to his pants, no one is going to be able to get it (of course the pants can be removed easily - just as Snowden, a man with classified access, was able to leave the country easily).

Smart's boss then declares that everything going forward should be "class A" security - the secretest of top secrets. Smart looks uneasily at a more junior agent in the room, and demands that the "cone of silence" be deployed. The plexiglas prop descends upon him and The Chief - making it impossible for them to hear each other, but the junior agent on the outside can hear them both and relays their comments to each other (sometimes security measures can make internal communication more difficult while not necessarily securing it from outsiders. The security theater aspect is reminiscent of the TSA, which continues to force millions of passengers to remove laptops from bags before they go into x-ray machines for no good reason whatsoever.).

After that farce ends, Smart asks the Chief why they don't just cancel the conference? He's told: "If I had to admit I was afraid to hold a meeting here in our own building, the very agency that's responsible for our nation's security, I'd be laughed right out of the business." (Some level of trust is needed within intelligence agencies - including vigorous counterintelligence work.)

Finally, he tasks Smart with sweeping the conference room for bugs and explosives, and warns him not to tell even his closest colleagues about their concerns. Smart is incredulous that senior agents can't be trusted. He has it explained to him that on some things, no one can be above suspicion - and then he tells Smart that he's the "only man I can trust... there's always someone in whom we must have faith." As he does so, two arms that looked like light sconces on the wall come alive and pat Smart down from behind. Only then does The Chief tell Smart "I trust you completely."  (the old "trust but verify." Consider how the Syria war is being discussed. Lots of people with possible agendas making claims about what is and is not so, but insufficient suspicion in US government circles about their various motives.)

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