Ex-agent sleuths truth, fiction about TV spies

Ex-agent sleuths truth, fiction about TV spies

By Maureen Ryan
Chicago Tribune


Three of our favorite secret-agent shows return this week (a new season of ABC's "Alias" kicked off yesterday, A&E's "MI-5" returns Saturday and Fox's "24" comes back Sunday), so we thought we'd ask an expert in the field how accurate the shows are when it comes to the doings of clandestine agents.

Mike Baker worked as a covert field-operations officer for the CIA for 14 years, before becoming the CEO of Veritas Global, a security and risk-management firm. Here's his take on what's real and what's not when it comes to TV spy guys and gals: 


Main character: CIA agent Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner).

What's her deal? Secret agent Syd, who dresses in supersnazzy "undercover" disguises, has an on-and-off relationship with one of her fellow agents and also works with her dad.

What's real: Dating a co-worker, working with dad? Some of it's not so far-fetched, it turns out. The recruiters at various spy agencies tend to act as "the best dating service I've ever seen in my life," Baker says. "You've got a ready-made pool of single women, all Type A and, in theory, they have the same interests you have and understand what you are doing and going through." The end result? "You do get a lot of people dating and marrying inside an organization like that." As for family members working together, the spy agencies "try to avoid it," but it can happen, Baker says.

What's not so real: Syd's constant gun battles with baddies and her flashy "undercover" outfits. "The high-speed chases, the firefights, the hand-to-hand combat — generally you want to stay away from that," Baker says. "Your goal is not to be noticed."



Main character: Tom Quinn (Matthew Macfadyen).

What's his deal? Quinn and a team of British MI-5 officers work on cases involving terrorism, bank robbery, domestic security, etc.

What's real: Since he works as a consultant on the show, Baker is a bit biased toward "MI-5," but he says the classy Brit import does the best job of showing what it's like to be a spy on a day-to-day basis. "They're not going the route of the spy extravaganza," Baker notes. "Their focus is on the impact of the [spy] business on a person's life." And despite the excitement of the work, that impact can be not great; Quinn's had relationship troubles because of the secretive and all-consuming nature of his job. The spy biz "can be very difficult on anyone trying to live a normal life outside of work," Baker said. "It can be difficult to kind of turn the key and switch off" at the end of a day.

What's not so real: The conflicts MI-5 types sometimes have with American operatives in England can be a little overblown, perhaps. "We've got great relationships with some of the [foreign] allied [spy] services," Baker says, but those relationships "can sometimes be skewed by politics" at a higher level.



Main character: Counterterrorism expert Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland).

What's his deal? Bauer tracks and hunts bad guys over the course of a single season-long, very bad day.

What's real: Though Bauer's 24-hour bad days are at the extreme end of the spectrum, Baker says secret-agent work "can be nonstop if you're out in the field, depending on what you're involved in."

As for an agent's family being put at risk (Bauer's wife was shot by a bad guy in Season 1, and at other times other loved ones have been at risk), Baker says the danger to families isn't usually very great, but it does exist — so it's common for undercover types not to tell the neighbors what they really do for a living.

What's not so real: Jack's known for his rule-breaking ways, but spy agencies and anti-terrorist squads "are not lawbreaking organizations, despite what some conspiracy theorists want you to believe," Baker says.

The least believable thing about "24"? The shocking lack of paperwork. "An independent operator like Jack would get beaten over the head with boxes of forms in triplicate," Baker says. "I've never seen the guy do an expense report!"


Thursday, January 6, 2005 - 12:00 AM