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Spies in a deadly game

Spycraft examines the dangerous world of intelligence gathering


Spies in a deadly game
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In a new Netflix docuseries, former intelligence officers explain past and present tricks and tools of the spy trade. Spycraft serves as an informative short course on the intelligence game: basic terminology, operational strategies, exotic weapons, notorious cases, and the latest technology—all sorted into eight topical episodes.

Don’t expect top secrets, though. Some information seems straight from the evening news, but interesting tidbits do come to light. Warning: Spycraft is rated TV-MA for sex and nudity. Much of the objectionable material comes from grainy surveillance videos and gratuitous reenactments in the “Sexspionage” episode. Spycraft also covers subjects such as code-breaking, recruitment, and sabotage. In the “Deadly Poisons” episode, an umbrella fires a toxic ricin-laden pellet, and a perfume bottle sprays the deadly nerve agent Novichok. Watching this series, I couldn’t decide which is more dreadful—the lethal devices, or the devious people who wield them.

Three themes emerge that impart timely lessons, perhaps unintended by the show’s producers, for those of us not fitted with cloak and dagger. First, successful intelligence operations not only use high-tech gadgets but also typically exploit human weaknesses. “Honey traps” snare male targets in compromising positions, and blackmail follows. The Stasi, East Germany’s intelligence agency until 1989, deployed dozens of “Romeos” to woo West Germany–government secretaries who had access to sensitive information. Our undoing is more likely to result from our vices than from others’ devices.

Second, nations that employ spy tools against enemy governments may also ply them against their own citizens. Take China, for example: The first episode makes the case that the Chinese government “restricts, controls, and monitors their people” through ubiquitous surveillance. In America, however, Big Brother may not be Uncle Sam so much as Facebook, Amazon, and their kin. Social media platforms and cell phone–tracking businesses use the personal data we voluntarily surrender to manage our thinking and spending.

Third, patriots are at the mercy of traitors. Former CIA agent Aldrich Ames received millions of dollars for “betray[ing] every CIA operation he knew of in Moscow,” knowing the dozen sources involved would likely be executed. Spying has always been a precarious team effort. Although Spycraft doesn’t look any further back than the 1800s, an account from Numbers Chapters 13 and 14 comes to mind. Joshua and Caleb faithfully described the conditions inside Canaan, but the other 10 spies brought back a “bad report” that disheartened most Israelites. The result of that betrayal: 40 years of wilderness wandering and the deaths of almost everyone over age 20.

I think I’ve decided: Human deviousness is the more dreadful thing.

—This story appears in the Feb. 13, 2021, issue under the headline “Deadly game.”

Bob Brown

Bob is a movie reviewer for WORLD. He is a World Journalism Institute graduate and works as a math professor. Bob resides with his wife, Lisa, and five kids in Bel Air, Md.



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