Sunday 18 February 2018

Always been bit of Carrie on among the spooks

Women in the CIA are complaining about the way they are being portrayed in the hit TV show ‘Homeland’. But hasn’t a bit of sex invariably been part of the spying game

RUFFLING FEATHERS: Actress Claire Danes as the brilliant but troubled CIA spy Carrie Mathisonbean
RUFFLING FEATHERS: Actress Claire Danes as the brilliant but troubled CIA spy Carrie Mathisonbean

Anna Maxted

The antics of bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison, portrayed by Claire Danes in the hit US series Homeland, makes riveting television. Every last drop of drama, and melodrama, is squeezed out of her mental frailty.

So often is Mathison seen despairing that her ‘cry face’ has spawned dedicated fan sites. In the most recent series, her tactical affair with a Pakistani medical student led her colleague, Quinn, to accuse her of seducing “a child”. Yes, it made for queasy viewing at times. But who wants to watch a show starring a well-adjusted, morally impeccable female operative who never makes a stupid decision and retires alone to bed at 9.30pm with a non-caffeinated cocoa? Real female spies, apparently.

The depiction of Carrie —often brilliant, but also pitiful, lonely, promiscuous — has angered America’s non-fictional female intelligence officers, who feel they have been grossly misrepresented. Gina Bennett, a 25-year veteran of the CIA Counterterrorism Centre, complained to The New York Times that the drama had created “a very distinct understanding of women at the agency — how we function, how we relate to men, how we engage in national security — that is pretty off”.

“Off” in the sense that, presumably, a successful career in espionage requires a woman to boast mental faculties as sharp and lethal as a hunting knife, plus a reasonably solid moral compass. Possibly these qualities are more desirable and useful in real-life intelligence than a pretty face, a mind that swings from mania to depression, and the ability to hop into bed to extract some treacherous pillow-talk.

No wonder the CIA sisterhood is peeved. Despite the efforts of director Kathryn Bigelow to redress the balance with the tough CIA analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain) in Zero Dark Thirty, it’s a bit galling to have your collective character portrayed on television as highly sexed, ball-breaking, but close to a breakdown. Carrie is fiercely intelligent, but her flaws often overshadow her fine qualities. The portrayal also undermines the truth: that many of the most successful spies in history have been women whose courage and gumption, rather than the stretchiness of their knicker elastic, have been key to their efficacy.

One such, Lt Violette Szabo — raised in London by her French mother and English father — was recruited as a secret agent for the SOE (Special Operations Executive) during World War II and sent into France. She was captured on her second mission, driving a leader of the Maquis to a rendezvous. Her covering fire enabled him to escape. Despite torture, she refused to give any classified information to the Nazis, and was executed in 1944 at Ravensbruck concentration camp. She was 23.

Szabo was posthumously awarded the George Cross and Croix de Guerre, and the Violette Szabo Museum in Herefordshire honours her memory, as does her biography, Young, Brave Beautiful, written by her daughter. However, one suspects her name has reached a far wider audience (albeit with a great pinch of artistic licence) via the Xbox 360 video game Velvet Assassin, which is “inspired by [her] fascinating story and unbreakable spirit”. For the game’s plot and fantasy purposes, Szabo is renamed Violette Summers, given a series of dominatrix-style, skin-tight, zip-heavy outfits, and her CV altered — this alter ego “started her working life in a beauty salon”.

And yet, despite the girly gloss of these re-imaginings of reality, the reality is that Dame Stella Rimington will always have been the formidable director general of MI5 for four years, just as Lady Eliza Manningham-Buller was for four. Popular culture, largely shaped by the male gaze, has re-framed the image of the female spy — pushed her into little boxes that don’t bruise the male ego.

Had Mata Hari started life as a librarian or an accountant, she’d have excited less interest, but, as her Wikipedia entry states, “the idea of an exotic dancer working as a lethal double agent using her powers of seduction to extract military secrets from her many lovers make Mata Hari an enduring archetype of the femme fatale”. In other words, beautiful, bit of a goer, but also might kill you. Apparently, this is terribly exciting to men.

From my civilian viewpoint, despite the saving grace of Judi Dench’s M — pleasingly unsentimental, would send you to your death — James Bond films are pure fantasy: lousy with female spies popping out of their tight white bikinis, before they attempt to strangle the goodies with their fabulously taut thigh muscles.

The tradition, I presume, reflects the fact that weak men feel threatened by intelligent women who thrive in a male-dominated area: they need this reductive caricature. Former CIA agent Valerie Plame says fictional female spies are “just paper dolls or they’re used as props or the focus is on their sexuality or they’re a victim”. She added sternly: “There are much more effective ways of getting intelligence.”

And yet. Anthony Glees, professor of politics at the University of Buckingham, and director of its Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies, has been an expert in the field of espionage for more than 40 years and says a seductive James (or Jane) Bond is far more common in the British intelligence service than a George Smiley. He believes the CIA officers “protest too much”, adding: “I can think of many instances where sex has been used by male and female intelligence officers to get access to secrets.”

He says that the question to ask is: “What is the purpose of using a human being to collect secret intelligence? You do it because you cannot derive that intelligence from electronic means, by intercepting emails, or wireless messages, or other conventional means.

“You need, secretly, to get the secrets that your government requires, so it can make policy, and a rather obvious way of getting secrets secretly is to employ a woman, possibly a man, to use sexual allure to gain those secrets. The point being that where there is sex involved, the target is far less likely to go to their own counter-intelligence agency, and say, ‘I’ve been stung’, because they obviously will be implicated and lose their job.”

So, while in real life there may be more paperwork and ambassadorial dinners with rubbishy chocolates, fewer casino evenings and less speed-boating around Caribbean islands, it appears that there’s no smoke without fire.

Prof Glees adds: “While I don’t think that any intelligence officer in MI6 would be required to use sexual allure to gain secret information, if secret info were gained by sexual allure, rather than by money or other means, I don’t think they would be seen as shabby or cheap. Far from it. I think they would be seen as doing very good service by this country.”

Perhaps we could compromise, and say we know it’s all True Lies.

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