The vexed relationship between James Bond and real-world intelligence work
13 Apr 2023|

James Bond first appeared 70 years ago today, playing roulette at three o’clock in the morning, in former British naval intelligence officer Ian Fleming’s debut novel, Casino Royale.

Rejected by three US publishers, the book didn’t threaten bestseller lists until 1955 after a paperback edition was released. Yet, by the time of his death in 1964, Fleming had published 11 Bond novels (The man with the golden gun was released posthumously) and sold 30 million copies—accelerated no doubt by the character’s screen breakthrough in 1962’s Dr No. Today, around half the world’s population has seen a Bond film, and Fleming’s creation defines espionage in popular culture.

At the same time, he is disavowed by actual intelligence agency heads. In 2019, for example, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s director-general, Mike Burgess, said: ‘You’ve got James Bond, Jason Bourne, you’ve got the Black Widow. I can tell you this world is nothing like that of the movies.’ Paul Symon, who headed the Australian Secret Intelligence Service from 2017 to 2022, told ASPI’s Graeme Dobell in 2020: ‘There’s so much wrong with the way [Bond] performs his function. He’s licensed to kill. We don’t give people a licence to kill. He has, one would suggest, an ego, aspects of narcissism that wouldn’t fit comfortably with my people.’

The Bond association can hamper agencies’ efforts to recruit diverse staff, including women, for whom the character’s image is a significant negative. As Richard Moore, the head of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), tweeted in 2021: ‘#ForgetJamesBond’.

But Bond, Symon notes, is both ‘a blessing and a curse’. Agencies also associate with him. Colin McColl dubbed Bond ‘the best recruiting sergeant in the world’, and Alex Younger admitted that Bond was a ‘powerful brand’. Both are former MI6 chiefs.

In 2008, MI6’s website claimed that staff who joined the agency would ‘have moments when the gap [to Bond] narrows just a little and the certainty of a stimulating and rewarding career which, like Bond’s, will be in the service of their country’.

Or, as author Alan Judd notes, thanks to Bond’s reach, ‘MI6 officers … can go to the most remote and enclosed communities in the world and say, “I’m from British intelligence and I’d like you to help me”, and get a response. It’s not like saying, “I’m from Belgian intelligence”, and then having to explain.’

This also reflects Bond’s origins in Fleming’s actual experience with the Naval Intelligence Division. Casino Royale was inspired by Fleming’s visit to a spy-infested casino in neutral Portugal, where he lost his travel allowance playing baccarat. The designation ‘007’ comes from the double-zero code applied to top-secret signals during World War II (itself derived from the 0075 ID number of the intercepted 1917 Zimmermann telegram). The characters of Bond, ‘M’ and Moneypenny were modelled on British intelligence figures. And the account in Casino Royale of Bond’s qualifying ‘double-O’ kills—a Norwegian working for the Germans in Sweden and a Japanese spy targeting the British in New York—mirrors much more prosaic case histories to which Fleming was privy.

It’s not just public perceptions that were shaped. John F. Kennedy was known to be Bond fan. Meeting Fleming at a 1960 dinner party, Kennedy, then a presidential candidate, sought his views on how to depose Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Bizarrely, Fleming’s tongue-in-cheek suggestions found their way into serious-minded reporting back to CIA headquarters (from a CIA officer, not Kennedy). Once in office, Kennedy’s predilection for Bond helped shape his (pre–Bay of Pigs) impressions of the CIA and its director, Allan Dulles.

This extends to intelligence professionals. In his book The real special relationship, Michael Smith cites one former MI6 officer recalling that Egyptian intelligence ‘held MI6 in such high regard that its training school used James Bond books as textbooks in tradecraft’. KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky claims that the Soviet Central Committee watched Bond films and that the KGB was instructed to source Bond gadgets, as if they were real.

A public understanding of espionage as modelled by Bond is one characterised by violence: he is more assassin and saboteur than spy. He’s also an incorrigible individualist, leaning occasionally on colleagues like ‘Q’ or the CIA’s Felix Leiter—when intelligence is fundamentally a team sport.

Part of Bond’s legacy is therefore that ‘many intelligent and otherwise well-informed people assume that intelligence consists in bumping people off rather than the more prosaic reality of talking to them in order to learn what they know; spies, after all, want living sources not dead ones,’ wrote Alan Judd in the introduction to the 2012 edition of Casino Royale.

This reveals a darker side to the distortional effects of the Bond franchise. What Amy Zegart calls ‘spytainment’ fills a vacuum in the public’s and policymakers’ understandings left by reticent US agencies and governments and exacerbated by the ‘culture of secrecy’ separating intelligence professionals from the community. (A point echoed by Dan Lomas about the UK.) At its most pernicious, this extends to those making policy about intelligence, and sometimes even to intelligence professionals themselves.

This blurring of myth and reality has led to a tendency to overstate intelligence capabilities, which can result in misperceived, simultaneous omnipotence and incompetence. Two examples are the disappointment engendered by the CIA’s inability to track down Osama bin Laden after the 11 September 2001 terror attacks and the conspiracy theories that arose in their wake. It has also led to the invocation of fake spies in efforts to make real policy, such as the citations of the ticking time bomb fallacy in US Supreme Court deliberations.

The answer, though, is not to completely eschew spy fiction. Rather, it needs to be balanced with an informed, necessarily prudent public understanding of those who act in the public’s name.

As Zegart concludes: ‘Using intelligence better starts with understanding intelligence better. Without developing a fundamental understanding of how intelligence agencies work and the trade-off involved in controversial intelligence policies, intelligence policy will suffer and the public will not know enough to demand better.’