One of my earliest career choices; getting involved in the intelligence community was a high priority straight out of high school.
I glamourised the role naturally. After all, as a Bond aficionado, I grew up idolising Pierce Brosnan’s portrayal of the world’s most famous spy, and subsequently fell in love with the character.
One thing led to another and I ended up buying all the books. It was the Ian Fleming novels that slowly opened my eyes to the fact that the intelligence community wasn’t quite as dramatic as the films portrayed. After all, in one of the short stories to feature the spy, The Property of a Lady, Bond does nothing more exciting than attend at Sotheby’s auction for a Faberge Egg and photograph a Soviet spy.
Then came the Bourne films which really shook my ideas about espionage. The gritty realism, the tense paranoid atmosphere and the idea of the government burning any ties with you disturbed me to the core. I became so much more aware of the consequences and yet somehow, even more invested in the idea of making it a career.
What I quickly learned in reality, is that a “spy” is actually a dreadfully dreary job. You mix the paranoid, slow boredom of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with bursts of frantic, terrifying action from Bourne and that is relatively accurate depiction of a spy.
When I initially applied for the Australian Intelligence Services, ASIS & ASIO, I was informed that there was going to be two primary roles. What I had set my eye on was an Intelligence Analyst. Whilst the Intelligence Officer role was more akin to genuine HUMINT (Human Intelligence) gathering and more of a dream for a Bond fan, it was actually in the Analyst role where I felt I was best suited.
I wanted to study overseas movement and track threats to Australian soil, so naturally I favoured ASIO for its “overseas focus” and there was something appealing about all the detective work I was going to have to do for the organisation in an Analyst role.
If there is one thing that I derive great pleasure from, it is detective work. I am no Sherlock Holmes, but I do practice a lot of the traits he exercises. From maintaining a high observational awareness to constantly analysing little clues around me, I have often found my deductive skills proving more correct than wrong in a lot of cases.
Whether it is human behaviour or noting how many steps are in the front of your house, I like to be constantly observing and watching, making up little stories about why the man in front of me is carrying an umbrella and a trilby or why the woman who got off the bus managed to get ahead of me, through a shortcut street.
I also would like to confess that I consider myself a bit of an actor, another valuable trait that would serve any spy well. After all, spies are the best actors in the world, able to sell accents, personal histories, physical traits and lives. Their very life depends on their ability to sell the lie as the truth.
The inherent qualities of a good spy is their ability to act, observe, manipulate and covertly operate under high-intensity environments for extended periods of time.
I only ticked some of those boxes. Perhaps with training I might be able to master it all, but that isn’t the topic we are discussing. After all, millions of people out there can be something, something if they got the proper training.
No, what I want to delve into is the lowly analyst, the faceless minion that doesn’t get the attractive femme fatale nor any of the respect that those field operatives receive.
Instead they are regulated to some listening post, hearing endless chatter and passing it onto the local station. This analyst might be called upon to organise a logistic run to some hidden spy cell in Beirut, then be tasked with data-mining a Chinese shell company before finally compiling a report on the movements of a certain foreign attaché at a local embassy and confirm whether they really are the “Vice President of a Swiss Export Minerals Company.”
This unglamorous job, comes with zero recognition, bizarre surrealist attitude to life, death and whatever lies between and is exactly the type of role that intrigued me, simply because who in the right mind would want to come home, knowing that they were responsible for staving off a terrorist attack and organising one overseas, to a bland meal of noodles and 2 day old duck meat.
The strange dichotomy of that job fascinated me. They can’t talk about their work, vent their anger, except within the confines of the thousands of other analysts who suffer from the same monotony. Yet without their contributions, SF units around the world wouldn’t have intelligence to operate on, countless innocent lives would be lost and the imminent sensation of World War 3 wouldn’t be a fear, but a reality.
But it was the detective work that really enthralled me. After all, analysts are paid to detect patterns, observe strange behaviour and piece together a puzzle.
That is what almost made me apply to be a spy. The greatest, most complex and global puzzle ever devised. A fragment of an intercepted phone call, would point in the direction of a bank account in Turin, before it would connect up to a chance meeting between a DJ and a rich oil Sheik. That DJ would then launder the cash into party narcotics which would then aim the rifle at the Narco syndicates in Columbia.
The trail would continue on and on and on … my every hour spent staring at multiple computer screens, desperately trying to keep pace of all the connections that a terror organisation would need to evade me.
It was that idea, of engaging on a global scale, the most frustrating, high-stakes, mental, anonymous chess that really sold me the idea of becoming an analyst.
I didn’t want to be the guy that got pointed in the direction of the bad guys.
I wanted to be the precursor to the arrow. I wanted to be the GPS.
Perhaps the only movie that really sold the importance of an stressed, determined and anonymous intelligence analyst is Zero Dark Thirty (2012) where Maya Harris is the one ultimately responsible for the take-down of UBL not the infamous SEAL Team Six.
In other forms of fiction, the character of Jack Ryan is not inherently an action hero type. He is meant to be a thoughtful professor who was a former Marine and an intelligence analyst in the CIA. That is his biggest appeal, his inherent stature as a civilian, not a super tough soldier, thrust into this world of espionage, half truths and constant lies.
I’ve had many an interest in so many fields over the years, but intelligence-gathering and the military branch have always ranked amongst my favourites to indulge in. For me, this wish fulfilment of becoming a spy, to be engaged in global affairs and become really immersed in an almost alternate reality, is so tempting because of how difficult the challenge would be.
But I know that I would leave the job, a cynical bitter person, robbed of any sense of fulfilment because for every attack you stop, another is only brewing weeks later. For every bad man you eliminate, his sons are there to pick up his arms.
That is the cyclical nature of the job though. It does not make your tenure unworthy nor useless.
I just couldn’t handle that feeling though.
To sum up, if I was to become a spy, I would prefer to be an analyst. There is nothing truly remotely sexy about that.
But the truth is, I would shun the stunning femme fatales, the Aston Martins, the death-defying stunts and Tom Ford suits if I could be the man who would be the true menace behind every plot uncovered and stopped early.
I would be OK knowing that I would go home to my boring home, and live an anonymous life, despite my extraordinary work. That is the ultimate humility after all … to silently watch and guard without any thanks.
The further we are from the last disaster, the closer we are to the next.