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July 2nd, 2010
12:00 PM ET

Look into my spies

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/OPINION/06/30/earnest.spy.russian/story.russian.spying.special.jpg
caption="Federal prosecutors have charged 11 people with being part of a Russian spy ring in the U.S."]

I live in the spy capital of the world.  Washington, D.C., is home to so many operators and agents, you can hardly grab a burrito without passing two or three on the way.  Accordingly, I often give perfect strangers the stink eye as they pass just to let them know that I’m on to their little tricks.  Which, btw, led to an unfortunate brush with the Secret Service once, but it was raining and I just didn’t realize it was Biden under that hat.

So I was hardly surprised to hear about the big Russian spy ring being uncovered this week.  And, knowing a thing or two about the spy business, I’m also not startled to find the rogue’s gallery of suspects not looking nearly as roguish as one might expect.  A socialite.  An engineer.  A legislative advisor. 

Spies, as a genre, enjoy extraordinarily good PR.  The men are always portrayed as dashing, handsome, party-hopping sophisticates who’ll throw you over a cliff, sure, but will also toast you on the way down with a perfectly mixed martini.  The women are always pictured as slinky, sexy, wait-here-while-I-slip-into-something-more comfortable, femme fatales with peculiar accents …which, ok, I’ll admit is a pretty much a spot on description of that Chapman woman.  Anna, not Tracy, I mean.

Real spies, however, are a much more mundane lot.  They spend endless hours having breathtakingly dull conversations with boring bureaucrats, windy politicians, underappreciated scientists and policy wonks.  Yes, they’ll take grand state secrets if someone is selling (“Nuclear blueprints!  Get your nuclear blueprints, here!”) but often as not they are simply looking for trade information; something to give their country’s tractor makers a leg up on ours, or inside knowledge on how to corner the world flea collar market.

Those spies whom I have met say most of their work is shockingly uneventful.  Most have never been involved in a car chase, never spirited a wily double-agent out of Asia inside a steamer trunk, and certainly never killed anyone with a poison crepe.  

Your average spy blends into the woodwork as surely as a beige curtain.  So if this latest bunch doesn’t look very Bondish, well that could be because they are not spies at all; or maybe because that’s the whole point.


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