If the success of the James Bond franchise is anything to go on, few things are more intriguing than the world of espionage. And though 007 lives in a fast-paced world of car chases, explosions and seduction, the adventures of his real-life counterparts can be just as thrilling.
“We have something we call the Bond moment, because so many of us, like me, who were in espionage had certain times that something happened that was sort of Bond-like,” said Peter Earnest, executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
A new exhibit takes a look at those moments, just in time for Bond’s 50th anniversary and the museum’s 10th. Called “Exquisitely Evil,” it explores the Bond phenomenon through the series’ ever-changing villains.
This is just one part of a museum dedicated to the world of espionage. Earnest is, appropriately, a 35-year veteran of the CIA. He was active during the Cold War in Europe and the Middle East.
“Think of spying primarily as collecting intelligence to give the policymakers, the president and his advisers, a view of what’s going on in the world,” said Earnest. “A good spy has curiosity, an intense curiosity about the world, how it works, why people do what they do.”
More than 6 million visitors have come to the museum over the past decade, lured by the promise of secrets revealed and deceptions unmasked.
“Espionage and spying is a hidden world. I think people welcome the opportunity to see behind the curtain,” said Earnest. “At least it gives them a sense of how that world works and relates to their own daily lives.”
The daily life of an agent may not have the minute-by-minute thrills of James Bond, but there are parallels.
“Bond is largely a one-man thing. Typically, CIA officers are the lead persons in a case, with several other people helping them,” said Earnest. “Sometimes in the real world, there are dramatic cases, people’s lives have been lost, there have been close calls, there have been turncoats.”
The fancy gadgets created by Q, a hallmark of every Bond film, do have an actual counterpart: the CIA’s office of technical services.
“They did everything from false documentation to concealment devices, concealed cameras,” said Earnest. “I’ve been told from the CIA, that whenever a Bond film would show, agents would go running to that office and say, ‘Can you make one of those for us?’”
And just as in fiction, the intelligence agency is subject to scandal, as in the recent resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus.
“The problem is, it’s not a moral issue,” said Earnest. “The problem is when you have someone who is head of the spy agency, or even a member of the spy agency, and they’re engaged in something which they would not want exposed. That places them in a vulnerable position. It just opens them up to pressure and influence that would exist solely because of the activity they’re involved in.”
That pressure is something to balance with the inherently tough role of being a spy.