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Reality can be stranger than myth when it comes to espionage

By Dimitra Kessenides

Princeton NJ -- A lifelong fan of spy novels, Woodrow Wilson School lecturer Fred Hitz is well versed in the characters and cases created by authors John le Carré and Graham Greene. As a long-time employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, he also knows plenty about real-life spies Kim Philby and Aldrich Ames.


Fred Hitz with students in freshman seminar


Since 1999, he has combined his two interests to teach a freshman seminar at Princeton on "The Myth and Reality of Espionage." This month, his book on the same topic is being published by Knopf. It compares the writings of authors of spy novels with actual espionage cases.

Is truth stranger than fiction? Hitz said he'll leave that to the reader to decide.

A 1961 Princeton graduate, Hitz returned to the University as a lecturer in public and international affairs in 1998 after retiring from the CIA. He joined the agency in 1967 as a case officer running agents in West Africa. For the next 31 years, he moved in and out of jobs with the CIA and other government agencies, including the Defense Department and the State Department. From 1978 to 1982, he served as chief legislative counsel for the director of central intelligence.


Fred Hitz will speak and sign copies of "The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage" at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 27, at the Princeton University Store.


Hitz was appointed by President George H.W. Bush as the agency's first statutory inspector general in 1990. He was charged with conducting internal investigations of CIA activities, including the case of Aldrich Ames. The CIA turncoat spied against the United States for Russia from 1985 to 1994 and is considered one of the most damaging spies to U.S. interests during the Cold War.

Despite recent negative reports of the agency's handling of intelligence information relating to Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq, Hitz says the United States needs a strong intelligence agency now more than ever. He talked to the Princeton Weekly Bulletin about his new book, "The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage," and the rapidly changing world of intelligence gathering.

Have you ever referred to yourself as a spy?

I never have. In American parlance, I was a case officer, essentially an intelligence officer -- we gather intelligence. In the vernacular it's spy runners. The CIA has people on the ground within an organization or governmental entity in a target community; they're the spies who actually supply the information. Obviously, we all kept our eyes and ears open, but what you think of as classic espionage is performed by the people who work for the spy runners.

So what's the best spy novel ever written, in your opinion?

The best pure Cold War spy novel is "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" by John le Carré. My two favorite writers are le Carré and Graham Greene. Greene is the hardest. In the seminar I teach, we just read "Our Man in Havana." It's a perfectly delicious though absurd, in some particulars, recounting of what Greene came to feel was the overwhelming weight of the business. He made fun of it because of its ability to delude itself. It's a wicked piece. But espionage is just the template, it's the genre. Greene's stories are about human beings, the bonds that draw people together, and institutions.

What about the best movie?

It's awfully hard to beat "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold." The lineup is Richard Burton as Alec Limas, Claire Bloom as his Jewish communist sweetheart and Oskar Werner as Fiedler, the East German spy chief who is done in by British intelligence. It's a beautifully done movie, all in sort of grainy black and white with great scenes of Checkpoint Charlie.

Your new book, "The Great Game," examines real-life espionage activities and considers how much real life is stranger than fiction. Can you give some examples of spy cases that not only were stranger, but also served as the inspiration for books or movies?

Well, I leave the central question to the reader, and I don't break it to the reader until the epilogue. So I think it's important to make up your own mind about whether the reality is stranger than the fiction; the reader has to posit this, rather than me articulating it. I consider the real cases of Kim Philby, Aldrich Ames, Pyotr Popov, Oleg Penkovsky and Robert Hanssen -- they were all Cold War spies. And I compare them to books like le Carre's "Tinker, Tailor" and the character of Bill Haydon in that book (he's a good representation of Kim Philby).

Turning from fiction to fact, what's the difference between information gathered through intelligence and information gathered through espionage?

Espionage is a discreet part of intelligence, and the definition that I use in the book is from Kim Philby -- one of the Soviet Union's most important spies during the Cold War. He wrote a very disingenuous book called "A Secret Life" that was published in 1968. In that he called espionage the collection of secret information from foreign nations by illegal means. Intelligence is the whole gamut of information on a subject of strategic importance.

Intelligence gathering has, of course, changed over the years. How much has the free flow of information on the Internet helped or hurt intelligence efforts?

It helps in one sense. During the Cold War, for example, when we were trying to gather intelligence about a closed society, our sources were few. Especially in the early days of the CIA in the late '40s and early '50s, when Stalin was in power, it was almost impossible to find out what was going on behind the Iron Curtain because they didn't want to share that information.

Now we have the opposite problem. There is so much information, almost more than can be absorbed by any human being on a daily basis, about so many things that an analyst of intelligence has to prioritize. Dealing with this overabundance of information is a real task. A lot of what we're trying to do now as a nation is organize our collection so that the analytical task can be done on a timely basis.

How necessary is intelligence gathering today? Can you make a case for intelligence, given that the threats we face, since 9/11 especially, are much more imminent? We don't really see that intelligence helped us in recent years.

It would be fallacious to argue that, just because in a couple of critical instances we didn't learn all that we ought to have, we should throw the whole scheme out. It would have been absolutely critical to know what Saddam possessed in Iraq that could do violence to Americans after we'd gone through 9/11. The fact that we didn't find it, or didn't get it right at least up to this point, doesn't mean we should abandon the struggle; we should just get better at doing it. That won't be easy since we're dealing with sub-national groups that aren't afraid to kill their own family members in order to preserve the secrecy that they work with. That's a difficult target. It's even more important to try to get it right now than it was before because there's so much at stake.

You'd agree, though, that the CIA's public image has taken a beating, especially with the recent finger pointing within government regarding the question over the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the U.S. invaded?

There were things we should have known or had a better understanding of -- we just have to do a better job. I'm pretty old-fashioned. I don't think you do it with structures and moving the boxes around so much as by getting first-class people in the business who know the languages, who understand the cultures and who can devote the majority of their working careers to trying to solve these problems. We can't turn our back on it and say, it didn't work in the past so we might as well just discard this as an option. We can't afford to do that.