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When It Comes to Spy Versus Spy, Is Fact Stranger Than Fiction?

A Review of Frederick Hitz's The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage


Friday, Jul. 09, 2004
Frederick P. Hitz, The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage (Alfred A. Knopf 2004)

"Espionage" and "spying" are terms now viewed as synonymous with "The Great Game" -- a term Rudyard Kipling coined in his 1901 spy novel Kim. And "The Great Game" itself is often referred to as the world's second-oldest profession.

Over the last century, in particular, people around the world have been tantalized by true tales of double agents and covert operations, as well as spy novels on the same topics. But are factual tales of espionage actually stranger than their fictional counterparts?

That is the question addressed in Frederick P. Hitz's new book, The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage.

Hitz's Distinguished Background - and the Genesis of His Book

Hitz comes to this topic with impressive credentials. He spent most of his career, following graduation from Harvard Law School, with the Central Intelligence Agency.

Most notably, Hitz served as the CIA's first statutory inspector general from 1990-1998. During that time, he oversaw many significant investigations - including the probe that asked how his fellow CIA classmate Aldrich Ames managed to serve as a double agent for the Soviets for nine years before he was finally arrested in 1994. In 1995, Hitz was even on the White House's short list for consideration as a successor to CIA Director R. James Woolsey.

Hitz's book has its origin in a freshman seminar entitled "The Myth and Reality of Espionage: The Spy Novel" that he taught at his alma mater, Princeton University. In the seminar, great works of spy fiction were compared to actual espionage operations. Hitz notes that, in the end, he and his students "concluded that if one leaves the more fantastic conceits of Ian Fleming and Tom Clancy aside, real espionage cases are often more bizarre, more deserving of a place in Ripley's than the fictional accounts."

The Book Adds Little, If Anything, to What Is Already In the Public Domain

Each chapter of Hitz's book discusses a distinct spying phenomenon such as "tradecraft," "spies and sex," "assassination," or "life after spying." Most chapters begin with a passage from a fictional spy novel which Hitz uses to segue into an analysis of the particulars of actual real-life cases.

Although the book is a very easy read, and certainly one that belongs in any decent spy library, it includes very little, if any, new information with respect to the stories surrounding the true spy accounts. Indeed, the information that is included appears to have been solely lifted directly from the public domain -- and it is too often repeated throughout different chapters.

In light of Hitz's background and experiences one would have thought, or at least hoped, he could have presented some new insight of his own, or analysis from the CIA's historical archives. Of course, Hitz was required to submit his manuscript for a classification review by the CIA in order to parse out any possible classified information and no doubt this was in the back of his mind when he penned his work.

A Good Book for Beginners, But Not Those With a Serious Interest in the Topic

In any event, notwithstanding the use of only public domain information, while the premise of Hitz's book would whet any spy aficionados' appetite, the reader comes away with a still rumbling stomach following completion of the book. That is because Hitz's book simply lacks the sophistication and depth necessary to satisfy anyone with a serious interest in the subject.

Furthermore, while enough factual background information is provided about the true spy cases, a reader will likely be somewhat confused by certain analogies if the reader is not sufficiently familiar with the fictional works discussed by Hitz.

Missed Opportunities: Spies Who Became Novelists, and Novelists' Influence

No doubt this book will serve as an exceptional assigned text for Hitz's future college seminars. But for the general community at large, much remains to be written on the topic.

In fact, what Hitz really missed, especially given his background, was the opportunity to truly compare factual espionage accounts with their fictional counterparts by delving deeper into the fictional works of real spies. Several of the esteemed novelists of whose works Hitz discusses, such as John Le Carré, Charles McCarry, Ian Fleming, and Graham Greene, served as actual covert operatives in their prior careers. But to the extent Hitz even mentions this intriguing fact, it is in passing only.

While these authors served in foreign intelligence services, Hitz had numerous CIA contemporaries to choose from who also pursued both the fact and fiction routes -- among them E. Howard Hunt, Milt Bearden, and John Stockwell, none of whom are even mentioned in the book.

An inquiry into how these novelists were influenced by their real-life spying activities, much of which has been publicly documented, would have been fascinating.

Hitz also missed the opportunity to analyze how fictional espionage operations influenced reality. Hitz does briefly mention the "cockamamie schemes" planned in the early 1960s by the CIA against Cuban Premier Fidel Castro, such as exploding cigars or making his beard fall out. But he misses the opportunity to explain that - as the story goes - these plans were modifications of operations that Ian Fleming actually suggested to the U.S. Government. (In fact, President Kennedy, during whose tenure these operations were to have occurred, was a huge Fleming fan).

Hitz's Conclusion: Fact Is Indeed Stranger Than Fiction In the World of Spying

Hitz introduces the book by stating he will leave it to the reader to decide "whether truth about espionage is stranger than fiction." But in the end, he also offers his own guidance on the topic.

Throughout the book, Hitz compares the ultimately failed exploits of real-life spies to the exploits of their fictional counterparts. The real-life spies include Oleg Penkovsky and Pyotr Popov, both of whom committed treason against the Soviet Union, and American traitors Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen. These four spies each significantly contributed to their own capture by being careless, overconfident or both.

Based on his comparisons, Hitz concludes that "the truth that makes you free in the real world of espionage is that no fictional account adequately captures the remarkable variety of twists and turns that a genuine human spy goes through in pursuit of his mission of treachery and betrayal."

If this is true, though, how can Hitz account for the fact that spy novels have hugely outsold biographies of real spies? At least from the average reader's perspective, spy novels are actually more satisfying, it seems, than true-life tales of spying.

Perhaps a more accurate assessment of the contrast between spy novels and real-life accounts of spying might be that if the truth were written as fiction, no one would believe it or perhaps be interested. Of course, no doubt accounts of many real covert operations about which we would all love to read remain hidden away in the CIA's classified vaults. Meanwhile, we are left for the time being to rely on the fictional accounts - and existing public domain spy accounts like those in Hitz's book -- to satisfy our insatiable appetite for spy stories.

Mark S. Zaid is the Managing Partner in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Krieger & Zaid, PLLC. He specializes in national security, FOIA and First and Fifth Amendment litigation, and is the Executive Director of The James Madison Project (, a non-profit organization that seeks to reduce secrecy and promote government accountability. Full Disclosure: Mr. Zaid represented CIA employees in matters before the CIA's Office of Inspector General while Mr. Hitz served as the Inspector General, but never had any personal interactions with Mr. Hitz.

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