Monday, March 31, 2008

A Walter Mittyism—Secret Agent Man

I believe that it would be accurate to say that I am an intelligence buff; Intelligence (or intel, as we like to call it—we being other intelligence buffs) in this case referring to espionage, national security issues and, well, spy stuff in general. My interest has both a serious side and a less than serious side.

Regarding the less than serious side, I confess that I am, like so many, drawn to the romantic and exotic notions of the cloak and dagger world of spies and espionage as it is portrayed in popular books and movies, from James Bond to Jason Bourne. And, of course, Emma Peal.

Who could forget Emma Peal, the British super spy from the 1960s TV show, The Avengers? She had an English accent. She knew karate. Her standard issue spy uniform usually consisted of a form-revealing cat suit or harem girl outfit, or some such thing. More often than not, each episode featured her being bound, suspended in a birdcage, or stretched-out on a rack by some sinister villain. I was nine years old at the time, and male. I didn’t stand a chance. Fortunately for Western national security interests, I did not work for the KGB. I mean, honestly. Emma Peal.

Secrets? Shoot, I would have sold out my own grandmother.

In addition to the movies and TV, the spy world has an even older and even more illustrious literary tradition, going all the way back to the Bible. I’ll have a lot more to say about that in future posts.

Regarding the more serious side of my interests in intelligence, I have long had a keen interest in the field as a public policy issue, as a topic in international studies, and as a result of current events both at home and abroad. I am interested in the history, the politics, the process, the technology, and the personages of intelligence and espionage.

I think that it is safe to state that intelligence as a public policy issue has always been in the public eye, with the public’s interest rising and falling as a result of domestic and foreign events. I also think that it is safe to say that, not since the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly turned the Cold War hot, has intelligence been so much in the forefront of our daily lives as it has been since the 2001 terrorist attacks upon the U.S.

Over the years, I have been fortunate in that I have been be able to pursue my interests in international affairs in a variety of ways, through opportunities afforded me by school and work. Since late 1999, however, my interests in international affairs (and intelligence) have been pursued primarily through my work in the book trade. And the book trade has been pretty generous in that regard, too, I might add.

Outside of the book world, I am indebted to the University of Georgia Center for Continuing Education in Athens, Georgia, for allowing me to develop and conduct a series of classes--plus a summer camp (Spy Camp)--on the subject of intelligence. These were amazingly informative and great fun, primarily due to the generous support that was given by the many organizations, institutions, and speakers who volunteered their time and expertise to my students and I.

Among those lending a hand to my class at the Georgia Center was the Atlanta Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. On numerous occaisions, special agents from the Bureau’s Atlanta Division (and Athens) visited my class over in Athens to discuss everything from how to become a special agent to terrorism.

The folks at the Athens Banner Herald were good enough to send a reporter over to chat with us about the class. The resulting story can be read on-line at the Athens Banner Herald by clicking on the link below. It’s quite amazing how much interest there seems to be in the subject of intelligence, especially among young people.

One of the real perks for me from conducting the class at the Georgia Center was getting invited to participate in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Citizen's Academy Program. The Citizen’s Academy is one of the Bureau’s many community outreach activities. It is similar to Citizen Fire Academies and Citizen Police Academies that are offered by municipalities across the country. I am a graduate of the FBI Atlanta Divisions’ Citizen’s Academy Class of 2006.

Each year, the Citizen’s Academy invites a group of ordinary citizens from a particular division’s surrounding community to spend 8 to 10 weeks (one night a week) learning about the FBI, who it is, what it does, how it does it, and what it’s priorities are in a particular community, among other topics. There is also a range day, during which academy participants visit a local FBI firing range and get a chance to use—under VERY CLOSE SUPERVISION—several FBI standard issue firearms, plus take a turn in a firearms training simulator.

The program is really quite extraordinary, for any number of reasons. I honestly believe that it goes quite a ways in educating community members as to the reality—versus some of the perceptions—about the FBI. And it’s just pretty darn cool.

Each week during the Academy, special agents give presentations on everything from organized crime to mortgage fraud to internet scams to gang violence to international terrorism, and all within the context of the local community. I have been involved with the Academy program for three years now (there is also an alumni association), and one of the things that I like most about it is the variety of people who participate in the program (in my case, from the metro Atlanta area).

As an Academy alumnus, one also enjoys the perk of being able to attend a session or two with the current class. This past week, I attended Class of 2008’s sessions on international terrorism and international counter-espionage. I also attended the same sessions with the class of 2007. Between the Academy sessions, and the similar presentations made to my classes at the Georgia Center, I have heard the same material covered perhaps a half dozen times, by the professionals who know the most about it. I still find it absolutely intriguing (in an uneasy sort of way, I'll admit) that my hometown of Atlanta, as well as the State of Georgia, figure in so many ways into the worlds of international terrorism and espionage, but such is apparently the case.

One closing note on the FBI’s Citizens Academy—after three years I have yet to meet the Hollywood stereotype Special Agent (you know, the stiff bureaucrat Joe Friday character). I find the agents and other Bureau personnel to be a very professional and interesting group of people, and pretty "regular" people, to tell the truth.

For more information about the FBI Citizen’s Academy, or the Atlanta Chapter of the FBI Citizen’s Academy, click one of the links below.

FBI Citizen’s Academy

Atlanta FBI Citizen’s Academy Alumni Association

Recommended Reads:

The Bureau and the Mole by David A. Vise. The book examines the case of Robert Phillip Hanssen, an FBI Soviet analyst turned mole for the KGB and Russian intelligence services. The story was the subject of the 2007 film Breach.

Bombs, Bugs, Drugs and Thugs—Intelligence and America’s Quest for Security by Loch Johnson. Dr. Johnson is Regents Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia, and is the author of nearly a dozen books on intelligence. He is also one of the country’s leading scholars on the subject. I have attended a number of author events with Dr. Johnson over the years. At one such event—a discussion of the book recommended here, upon its release—Dr. Johnson expressed his opinion that one of the most significant security risks facing the U.S. was the risk of asymmetrical attacks by terrorist groups.
This was in January of 2001.

The following two titles are from Congressional Quarterly Publishing:

Intelligence—From Secrets to Policy by Mark M. Lowenthal

Intelligence Analysis: A Target-Centric Approach by Robert M. Clark

Publications by the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. are well worth a look, too.

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