Espionage: Fact and Fiction in Spy Novels

Do spy novels have anything to do with real espionage? And do spies from good spy novels make good spies? The other day, I ran across an article in the Huffington Post by a former CIA agent who discusses James Bond and Jason Bourne and the reality of spy work.

I love these movies and am fascinated by all things espionage related, so thought I’d go ask the question to our very own spy, Bernard Besson, the author of the upcoming The Greenland Breach, formerly chief of staff of the French equivalent of the FBI (I like to think of him as the for right hand man for the French M, but I don’t think that is entirely accurate). He was involved in dismantling Soviet spy rings in France and Western Europe when the USSR fell and is a specialist in economic intelligence, in addition to writing prizewinning thrillers. I figured he would have some inside information to share.

So just how accurate are spy novels and espionage movies?

Movie and book descriptions of intelligence work can be both exact and entertaining, but a good spy will not necessarily be as good a writer as say John Le Carré. He knew Cold War-espionage from the inside and painted very faithful pictures of it. His books show the shadows as well as more spectacular aspects, and his understanding of spy psychology is remarkable. He is proof that fiction can very well be realistic and riveting.

Bond and Bourne always seem to have firearms at hand. What are a spy’s best weapons?

Ninety-five percent of an intelligence officer’s assignments consist of gathering information and verifying it. Computers and software, along with general knowledge and conversational skills are more useful in this area than guns.

However, every intelligence agency has action units used to extract agents, remove people from threatening situations and commit sabotage. Their James Bond and Jason Bourne, if you will. These operations are generally carried out by well-trained military personnel. The French intelligence services are known to use Army paratroopers as well as commandos from the Foreign Legion, which has a very long-standing reputation for excellency in combat situations.

I love the chase scenes, but that’s not really what espionage is all about, is it?

Information is not a spy’s only target. Another real strategic objective is to understand the other’s intentions and way of thinking. In June 1944, Hitler had a large reserve of SS Panzers in Belgium. The Allies knew this, but was Hitler’s intention to send them to Normandy? If he had done it right away, he would have held off the Allies. Fortunately, he did not and lost the battle. The Allies did not need to chase cars through the streets of Berlin to find out this kind of information. A spy needs to be in the trust of well-informed people. The same applies today in Iran, North Korea and other countries.

I suppose the gadgets aren’t all they are made out to be either.

Gadgets and technology can come in handy, but since the times of Julius Caesar, King Louis XIV and Alexander the Great, spies have worked with their minds. The human brain has no equal as far as software goes, because of its capacity for emotion and its power of conviction. Spies are trying to guess the opponent’s strategy, confidence, personality and beliefs.

What makes a good intelligence service?

A good intelligence service is one that asks the right questions. Information itself is not hard to come by. What is difficult is knowing what you actually are looking for.

What makes a good spy?

A good spy is discreet, polite, attentive and has real common sense. He or she has to listen to the silence, what is not said, and notice the hesitations. A good spy is armed with patience and good general knowledge.

How would you characterize espionage today?

Today, keeping things top secret is less important than being quick to think and to gather information. One of the key battlegrounds is business, and both countries and multinational corporations are fighting for key strategic knowledge they hope to be the first to use. In my novel The Greenland Breach, which will soon come out in English, my heroes are little-known actors in this economic war for the future. Those with the best information will win the battle. The blood splattered on the ice sheets of Greenland belongs to shadow fighters, mercenaries fighting battles we don’t learn about on the evening news.

(Image courtesy of Kittikun Atsawintarangkul /