Tuesday, November 18, 2008

James Bond: Now More Than Ever (Part 2)

...continued from Part One...

Will the Real James Bond Please Stand Up?

With this larger realization, many smaller ones finally begin to fall into place. The first is that the real James Bond is not the literary one that Ian Fleming created: it's the ever-changing succession of movie Bonds who have appeared in the decades since. Without the movies James Bond would now be just another nearly forgotten fifty-year-old hard-boiled pulp thriller character, right up there with Sexton Blake or the Black Bat. Ian Fleming may have supplied the original template, but as with the tales of King Arthur or Charlemagne, it is the subsequent retelling and reshaping of these stories by others that has made Bond a legend.

The second realization is that there is no one true Bond. They are all true; even David Niven in the 1967 version of Casino Royale. Like all good legendary characters, Bond is profoundly malleable and often allegorical. He is an ageless hero, with no reliably fixed beginning and no apparent end in sight. His movies function as mirrors to their respective times, and the tales of Bond's many adventures most strongly reflect the worries, hopes, fears, and joys of those who are telling the tales, and those who are eagerly listening. When considering the question of whether the world still needs Bond, then, it's important not to let the then-contemporary trappings of previous tellings of his deeds interfere with the essential truths that he embodies.

But again, we'll come back to this one in a bit.

The third realization is that deep down, in his heart of hearts, the real James Bond is not a spy. Yes, he ostensibly is an employee of a real intelligence agency, MI6, and his adventures take place in countries with real names and cities you can find on a map. But disregarding for a moment the oxymoronic concept of a famous secret agent, any attempt to draw a correlation between Bond's gallivanting about the globe on a seemingly bottomless expense account and the tedious process of real covert intelligence work —

A Smart Slap in the Face with the Cold Wet Washcloth of Reality

Okay, look. We could do the whole Tom Clancy thing here, get bogged down in acronymspeak, and lard this discussion with terms like HUMINT, ELINT, and SIGINT. We could discuss the relative effectiveness of various KGB and Mossad "wet work" methods, debate the usefulness of the Mersenne Twister 19337 algorithm in cryptography, or wander off into a long and tedious explication of cut-outs, dead drops, false flag operations, and all the other baroque feints and shadows that are the tools of the trade in the espionage business. But before we go any further, there are a few essential concepts that you simply must understand.

Intelligence is all about discovering what your potential enemy's plans and abilities are before he can use them against you. Counterintelligence is all about preventing your enemy from doing the same to you. Now, the perfect intelligence operation is one in which the enemy's secrets are learned without his ever suspecting that his secrets are no longer secret. The perfect counterintelligence operation is one in which the enemy's plans are disrupted before he can put them into effect and he blames only himself for their failure. Never should you let your enemy know just who exactly it is who has foiled his plans or how, because, like a parlor magic trick, an intelligence method that has been stripped of its veil of secrecy is an intelligence method that no longer works.

And yes, while even "nice" governments have from time to time used assassins as instruments of policy, no one in their right mind would ever employ a man such as Bond in this role, if only for fear that he might someday retire from the service and publish his memoirs. Instead, the grisly truth is that assassins should be disposable people. The ideal assassin in an illiterate and mute suicide bomber: he can't talk if captured, there's little risk he'll abort the mission if he finds that his escape route is blocked, and if he succeeds there is absolutely no chance of his ever coming back later and demanding more money to stay silent. A passable second choice is a man such as Mehmet Ali Agca, the attempted assassin of Pope John Paul II. While many believe this operation was run by the Bulgarian Secret Service acting as a cut-out for the KGB, and Agca himself was captured and has talked at length, there is little chance of ever learning the truth from his testimony. Agca has spun tales of enormous conspiracies-within-conspiracies, and has at various times claimed to be a Bulgarian agent, a CIA agent, a Palestinian militant, an Italian military intelligence agent, an employee of a dissident faction in the Vatican Bank, and the second coming of Jesus Christ, here to fulfill the Third Prophecy of Fatima.

As I've said before: when it comes to the world of espionage, the truth is as slippery as a salamander in a jar of Vaseline.

In any case, a well-executed intelligence, counter-intelligence, or assassination operation never requires sending in a lone agent to perform feats of derring-do, effect hair's-breadth escapes, fight desperate battles against legions of hapless minions, completely demolish the enemy's citadel in a cataclysmic fiery blast, or end up in a rubber life-raft with a rescued beautiful maiden. Are we all clear on this?

Good, because here is a case in point. In April of 1943, U.S. naval intelligence codebreakers intercepted and decrypted radio messages giving the exact whereabouts and travel plans of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Japan's supreme naval commander and the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Now, if Bond had even a tenuous rooting in reality, the British Secret Service's Special Operations Executive clearly would have responded to this information by sending in a lone undercover agent equipped with an underpowered handgun. Posing as Dutch East Indian rubber plantation owner, this British agent would no doubt have easily dispatched several dim-witted henchmen, had a quick but torrid roll on the futon with Yamamoto's personal secretary and mistress, Kissy Suzuki, fought a thrilling katana duel with Yamamoto's master assassin, Oddjob, been captured and then rescued from certain death at the last moment by the beautiful French Polynesian girl, Improbable Chance, and in the final nick of time completed his mission by killing Yamamoto and narrowly escaping from the subsequent fiery explosion of Yamamoto's secret lair to end up floating in a rubber lift-raft with Ms. Chance, somewhere in the Java Sea.

As it happened, though, the Americans were in charge of this operation, so they instead sent in a squadron of P-38 fighters with orders to blast the living daylights out of Yamamoto's military transport, the decoy transport, his fighter escort, and anyone else who happened to be in the general vicinity at about the same time. Yet for the remainder of the war, the Japanese continued to believe that Yamamoto's flight plan had been discovered and betrayed by native coast-watchers, and failed to realize that the Americans had broken their naval codes and were reading their most-secret communiques.

There. This is what a successful license-to-kill intelligence operation looks like in the real world.

...to be concluded...