Bond or Blofeld: war, espionage and secrecy in the twenty-first century

  • Themes: Innovation and Espionage

Intelligence services and their governments once sought to create a clear line between confidential information and common knowledge. Now, with the rise of brazen attacks and increasing PR concerns, these boundaries are blurred.

Sean Connery's James Bond in a scuffle with another of his nemesis' Goldfinger (played by Gert Frobe) in the 1965 film, Goldfinger. Credit: Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo.
Sean Connery's James Bond in a scuffle with another of his nemesis' Goldfinger (played by Gert Frobe) in the 1965 film, Goldfinger. Credit: Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo.

In 2009, a fascinating essay appeared on James Bond. Titled ‘The Spy Who Loved Globalization’, it was penned by David Earnest and James Rosenau, two top experts on international relations, who explored the connections between real-world security threats and spy fiction. They observed that as early as the 1960s, Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, had anticipated the messy post-Cold War world. Although Fleming’s first novels, such as Casino Royale, focused on chasing Russian spies, quite quickly his attention shifted and 007 was wrestling with global miscreants, ungoverned spaces and sprawling ‘new wars’. His Bond villains anticipated the bad boys of globalisation: part terrorist, part international financier, part global criminal and part spy. Remarkably, decades before political scientists debated these sorts of ideas, Fleming had begun to forecast our future enemies.

Today, the resonance of recent war and espionage with the world of 007 looks even stronger. In past decades, professional spies rather sniffily dismissed Bond movies as mere action thrillers that had little to do with the real world of patient intelligence collection and analysis. Richard Moore, the current head of MI6, recently showed his ambivalence to the franchise with the Twitter hashtag ‘#ForgetJamesBond’. However, changes in the nature of conflict, often associated with globalisation, terror and the internet, have not only reshaped our enemies but are also changing the intelligence and security agencies that seek to guard us. A ‘war on terror’ that has lasted 20 years, together with two long conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, have radically transformed our spies. All around the world, the boundary between espionage, special operations and online warfare has blurred, giving rise to a new typology that some have dubbed the ‘soldier- spy’. But are today’s secret operatives emulating James Bond, or his menacing enemy Ernst Blofeld?

One thing is clear: the new soldier-spy is barely hidden. Militarised and pumped up by vast spending on the war on terror, intelligence agencies have become much bigger and also noisier as they surge towards war zones, most recently Syria, Libya, Yemen and Ukraine. The Western intelligence community now boasts a budget of almost $100 billion a year and more than a million Americans have top secret clearances. As we have observed elsewhere, together with the fact that information is every- where, this also means lots of leaks, and so what was hush-hush on a Tuesday is often on the front page of the Washington Post on Thursday. Secrecy is in short supply, and agencies that once worked in the shadows are increasingly in the spotlight.

Secrecy, even more than intelligence, has long been a form of state power. So, while states have vastly inflated what some have called the ‘covert sphere’, full of espionage and special activities, this has inevitably made them more visible. If spies and special forces are everywhere, it is hardly surprising that they are also on the front pages of our newspapers. Yet leaders hate this decline of secrecy, especially when they are not controlling it. Under Barack Obama, the war on ‘national security leakers’ took on a ferocious intensity, with a record number of prosecutions. Biden reportedly shares this obsessive desire to protect secrets and is still in pursuit of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Britain is about to introduce a new Official Secrets Act designed to crack down on leakers. Remarkably, in December 2021, Denmark secretly detained one of its most distinguished intelligence chiefs, Lars Findsen, reportedly for talking to the press about internet interception.

Snowden’s famous revelations, made in the summer of 2013, seemed to focus on threats to citizen privacy. In fact, the most dramatic change these disclosures illuminated was the decline of government secrecy, especially around national security. While the ethics of whistle-blowing have been much debated, few have attempted to explain the dynamics of this growing climate of exposure. The changing nature of intelligence work, which is increasingly merging with big data and open source, is partly responsible for this. But there is also cultural change, since many intelligence contractors — such as Snowden — are at best agnostic about the national security state. The decline of secrecy has presented national security chiefs with one of their biggest future challenges since they have no choice but to embrace new technology, yet many technologists are fundamentally ‘Californian’ in outlook and believe that information should be free.

Spy chiefs are fighting back. Unable to control the torrent of revelations about secret things, they have instead tried to shape it with public affairs. Every morning, on the seventh floor of the CIA’s main building at its leafy campus at Langley, Virginia, the director meets with key managers. Much of their time is devoted to what was said about them in the media the previous day. At first glance this seems like institutional vanity, but in fact it reflects a hard reality. Like it or not, the CIA is not just an intelligence agency, it is increasingly symbolic of wider debates in American foreign policy. Whether the issues are about interventionism versus isolationism, presidential versus democratic control of foreign policy, or core values versus national security imperatives, the CIA is often in the centre of a very public stage. Its recent trajectory is highly contested, and the arguments over signature strikes, torture and secret prisons, which have raged for nearly two decades, are only some examples. In this climate, the CIA has never been more anxious to sculpt its own image.

The directors of the CIA do this as top managers, and also in retirement. For more than 50 years, much of our knowledge about the agency has come from memoirs, often written by its former leaders. JFK’s legendary spy chief, Allen Dulles, was the first; frustrated by the way the Bay of Pigs hastened the end of his career, he resolved to publish a book defending his profession. As Jules Gaspard has observed, since 9/11, CIA chiefs have increasingly turned to writing to complete in public the unfinished business that privately dogged them during their careers. Former directors now team up with CIA publicists as ghostwriters to produce memoirs that are widely read and influential. Published in 2007, George Tenet’s memoir of his time in the Bush administration, At the Center of the Storm, was only beaten to the top slot in the bestseller lists by the seventh and final volume of the Harry Potter series.

The 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty underlines the manner in which both the CIA and Obama used Hollywood to embrace a new kind of secrecy. This film had multiple purposes: it celebrated the militarisation of the CIA and the fusion of its espionage activity with special forces, while also seeking to defend the role of torture. The film was boosted by the CIA’s public affairs office, which wanted to evoke the spirit of James Bond. Indeed, federal assistance to Zero Dark Thirty was so substantial that it stirred political controversy, and so the release of the film had to be delayed until after the presidential election. Remarkably, in 2013, Zero Dark Thirty missed the Oscar for Best Picture only because it was beaten by another CIA-assisted covert action film called Argoabout the rescue of hostages from Iran in 1979. The Oscars were announced by Michelle Obama from the West Wing of the White House. Secret activities had never been more un-secret or spectacular.

Zero Dark Thirty celebrated the CIA’s warrior tradition. In 2008, Michael Hayden, America’s most experienced intelligence chief, observed that the agency had begun to resemble its historical predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, a commando unit created by First World War veteran General ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan that gloried in special operations. In 2011, when the softly spoken Leon Panetta, former head of the Office of the Management of the Budget, took over as director of the CIA, he expected to be managing a rather actuarial intelligence organisation focused on analysis. To his surprise, he soon realised that he was now ‘the combatant commander in the war on terrorism’.

This transformation was not just about the CIA, but instead about the wider nature of war itself. It extended to new ways in which battles were being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the CIA had been busy embracing more war-fighting, the cutting-edge fighters of US special forces had borrowed the techniques of the CIA. The war on terror has transformed Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Driven by the ferocious challenge of suicide bombers in Baghdad and Basra, they had fused technical exploitation of seized computers and mobile phones with geolocation and midnight kill squads. Science was allowing the application of national resources to tactical events in real time. With a new global mandate, SOCOM has almost tripled in size since 9/11, commanding around 100,000 personnel. Presidents love US special forces, which now have a presence in over 100 countries; more importantly, their new approach to war is being emulated around the world.

Covert action is the shop window for a new kind of warfare. For generations, scholars have defined covert action as plausibly deniable interventions, so the sponsor’s hand is neither apparent nor acknowledged. But changes in technology and the media, combined with the rise of special forces and private military companies, mean that today we are entering a grey zone of ambiguous warfare or hybrid war. We are witnessing the rise of a remarkable new phenomenon that Rory Cormac has called ‘implausible deniability’. This does not mean the end of covert action. Instead, leaders are embracing a curious kind of performative secrecy and exploiting the fear that it creates to drive a new kind of interventionism.

Conventional wisdom suggests that states engage in covert action when they can plausibly deny sponsorship. The execution of the act itself may not necessarily be secret — assassinations are an all too visible example — but the authorship should be hidden both during and afterwards. To do these deeds, states must be able to deny involvement, and in a believable manner. This has created a conceptually neat but flawed understanding of covert action. In fact, many historic covert actions were an open secret: implausibly deniable. The CIA’s failed attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, together with large-scale paramilitary operations in Laos, Angola and Afghanistan, are examples where denials lacked plausibility. More recently, the Kremlin initially denied intervention in Ukraine in 2014 and still denies interference in the 2016 US presidential election. These denials were obviously false, yet these operations did not fall outside the boundaries of covert action, nor were they failures.

In reality, a spectrum of attribution now exists, since covert action has multiple audiences, both internal and external. Plausible deniability has long been flimsy, especially regarding paramilitary operations. This is even more the case today with the collapse of secrecy triggered by the proliferation of electronic whistle-blowing. Implausible deniability is also linked to the growth of special forces and private military actors, which have further increased the grey space between secrecy and visibility. Yet implausible deniability does not spell the end of covert action. Increasingly, political leaders wish to have their cake and eat it, avoiding constitutional accountability for risky operations while harnessing the benefits of open secrecy. Implausible deniability allows them to frighten enemies, exploit ambiguity and even ‘hang tough’ by boasting about deploying spies and special forces.

But as world leaders embrace their performative spies, do they love the dashing James Bond, or do they prefer Ernst Blofeld? The 2008 death of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko and the 2018 poisoning of former Russian GRU operative Sergei Skripal both point to a new and darker form of public covert action, designed as a deterrent to others who contemplate defection or disobedience. Putin’s love of visible revenge in the face of diplomatic reprisals and significant economic sanctions makes him important as a trendsetter in grey warfare. Michael Goodman and David Gioe have argued that because we have tended to view secret services as ‘secret’, there is a lack of ideas about overt intelligence-driven attacks as a form of strategic messaging.

Russia has led the way with theatrical murder, but others are rushing to catch up. An increasing number of states carry out assassinations. In October 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist working for the Washington Post, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and promptly disappeared. He was brutally murdered inside the building by a killer squad of 15, flown in specially by the Saudi regime. Months later, Gina Haspel, the director of the CIA, visited Turkey and listened to chilling audio recordings from bugs inside the Saudi consulate where the body was cut up by an operative wearing headphones and listening to music. Espionage has often been dark, but this was beyond anything imagined by Blofeld and was closer to Reservoir Dogs.

As with Putin, the denials were deliberately laughable. There can be no doubt that this was an orchestrated Saudi intelligence operation planned long in advance. Only a few hours after Khashoggi’s murder in Istanbul, Saudi internet trolls launched a coordinated propaganda campaign designed to frame him as a terrorist and a secret intelligence operative of Turkey. They even suggested the narrative of his disappearance was an internet fabrication by enemies of Riyadh. This bizarre campaign also focused on his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, alleging that she was a spy. Donald Trump did his best to dismiss the affair, while brazenly prioritising American arms sales.

In early 2020, Trump went further and ordered strikes that killed General Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, two Iranian special forces luminaries, with CIA drones, sparking a new round of debates about government assassination. Months later, the Israelis joined in with robot machine guns. The death of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a nuclear scientist, was not especially surprising since half a dozen of Teheran’s top technicians have been killed and injured since 2007. The notable thing about this attack, though, was the use of an artificial intelligence-assisted, remote-controlled machine gun aimed from a fake broken-down pick-up truck. All these episodes straddle the boundary between espionage, special forces and dark science. While public affairs departments have rushed to romanticise ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan and the warrior tradition, their critics have pointed to the use of technology for disinformation, interrogation or remote death. The warrior is ultimately about courage on the battlefield, but the Tuesday morning ‘kill list’ rather smacks of cowardly bureaucrats pushing buttons.

In the twenty-first century, war and espionage are changing fast because familiar boundaries are being ripped up. These include the barriers between spies and special forces, openness and secrecy, even public and private. Compared to the days before 9/11, the legal, political and technological infrastructures that now sustain our global ‘remote wars’ are almost unrecognisable. It is a matter of style as well as substance. More than ten countries have conducted deadly drone strikes, and twice that number of countries now have the capability. Robots and poisons are all the rage. Maybe James Bond was emblematic of yesterday’s spies, but Ernst Blofeld is the face of the future.


Richard Aldrich & Christopher Moran