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Is CNN's New Spy Show Telling You The Truth?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

CNN has launched a new television series titled "Declassified: Untold Stories of American Spies." The program, hosted and produced by former U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, is advertised as "revealing the unbelievable true stories of America's covert operations in the United States and around the world."


In case you think that the CIA is stripping down to its operational skivvies for your viewing pleasure, it's worth noting how difficult the agency typically makes such a thing. CIA officials are obligated to have everything they write vetted by the agency's Publications Review Board prior to publication, particularly if it deals with operational history.

It would be tempting to think that the word "declassified" implies whole truth. It doesn't. Good trade-craft methodology transcends time, and operational secrets aren't going to be revealed to the public -- and to potential enemies -- for the sake of entertainment.

Bad trade-craft often won't be acknowledged, as with the case where French counterintelligence busted a CIA economic espionage operation that resulted in a roll-up of the Paris station in the mid-1990s. Just try to get the agency to formally admit today that the operation involved spying in-country on a supposed European ally.

Which raises the question: How much of a show about declassified intelligence should be taken at face value, particularly in light of how carefully the CIA guards its operational history?


Another "Declassified" episode proclaims Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former al-Qaida leader in Iraq who died in 2006, to be the "godfather of the Islamic State." It's a nice fairy tale, but the godfather of ISIS isn't a guy who died about seven years before ISIS morphed into its current incarnation around April 2013, and whose jihadist movement had been quashed. If ISIS has parents, it would be the organization's Saudi Arabian and Qatari founders, its CIA trainers and its Turkish operational-staging hosts. And if any single Islamic figure could be identified as the modern leader of ISIS, it would be Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to whom jihadists have routinely pledged allegiance. Would it be too much to ask for some legitimate insight into the rise of the actual ISIS leader?

Indeed, it likely is too much to ask.

I routinely interview current and former front-line intelligence operatives for my current-affairs programs, and there are generally two types who are willing to talk on-air. The first are those whose statements and positions are nuanced, analytical and balanced. They seem more interested in deciphering the "ground truth" of any given situation rather than promoting a particular position. The second are the "true believer" types intent on ramming through obvious U.S. foreign policy talking points. Their performances are never convincing. You wonder whether they really believe what they're saying, or if they're simply hell-bent on peddling what they know to be propaganda and disinformation.


Intelligence work is a critical component of a hybrid war that involves both information collection and subversion. Influencing the course of action of a target is perhaps the most significant aspect of espionage. In some cases, that target may even be you. It's something to keep in mind whenever spies set out to entertain you.

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