Hollywood may have long tried to glamorise the business of spycraft, but in real life, James Bond would be an analyst poring over reams of data, rather than a man of action causing havoc in the field, intelligence chiefs said.
Speaking at a talk at the Synergia Conclave 2019, a conference on the future of security, in Bengaluru on Saturday, former senior-level intelligence officers from India and Israel spoke about the complicated nature of intelligence gathering and the misconceptions surrounding spies and tradecraft.
Among the speakers was Uzi Arad, tall, bald and bull-like, who for 25 years worked the Israeli intelligence service, the Mossad. Rising to become the national security advisor for the government of Israel, Arad said that intelligence work is nothing like what is shown in the movies.
He was especially critical of Steven Speilberg’s 2005 historical drama, Munich. The film depicts Israeli intelligence officers given a green light to hunt down and kill members of the Palestinian terrorist group, Black September, in reprisal for killing 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
"I don’t know where Spielberg found the material to make this film. He must have seen too many movies," Arad said, triggering laughter.
"In real-life, intelligence work is mundane,” he explained, pointing out that in the 70 years of Mossad’s existence, the number of operatives who have been lost in the line of duty amounts to less than 10.
"The primary activity of intelligence is collection of data and an analysis of that data to inform policy makers,” he added.
It is a view that Rajiv Jain, the recently retired director of India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) concurs with, although Jain was quick to mention that while modern technology has made accessible a greater range of information, that it has also saddled intelligence agencies with greater amounts of fake data.
In this scenario, Jain said "while we are using cutting-edge technology to obtain information, it still comes down to a human element, specifically analysts, to determine the veracity of the information."
"Contrary to our initial apprehension that the machines would replace humans, has not happened. If anything, the demands for analysts has increased,” he said.
M K Narayanan, India's National Security Adviser from 2005 to 2010, described intelligence agencies as being on the cusp of a changing world situation dominated by social media, metadata and increasing sophisticated fake information.
"The agencies have to constantly come up with ways to deal with new threats. The industry must reinvent itself to tackle the challenges of the new era,” he said.