Fictional spies are making real intelligence policy

I’ve been tracking the rise of spy-themed entertainment and its influence on real life intelligence policy. The picture ain’t pretty.

The back-to-school message for college students paying hefty bills: if you want to learn what’s really going on in the intelligence world instead of just watching Jason Bourne movies, you will have to look hard. Most top-25 universities offer zero undergraduate classes on intelligence. And since 9/11, political scientists have written nearly 2,000 articles in the top three academic journals, only three of which examined intelligence topics. While policymakers have been grappling with warrantless wiretapping, targeted killing, interrogation techniques, detainee policy, and intelligence reform, political scientists have been busy researching just about everything else.

Author: Amy Zegart

Amy Zegart is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. She is also a faculty affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (by courtesy). Her research examines national security agencies, American foreign policy, and anything scary. Academic publications include two award-winning books: Spying Blind, which examines intelligence adaptation failures before 9/11, and Flawed by Design, which chronicles the evolution of America’s national security architecture. She is currently working on a book about intelligence in the post-9/11 world. Zegart writes an intelligence column at, and her pieces have also appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times. Previously, she taught at UCLA and worked at McKinsey & Company. A former Fulbright Scholar, she received an A.B. in East Asian Studies from Harvard and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford. A native Kentuckian, she loves to watch good college football and bad reality TV.

6 thoughts on “Fictional spies are making real intelligence policy”

  1. Also, many social scientists are actually helping, directly or indirectly, with the development of data mining techniques that are being used by the intelligence community, but no one is really publishing about the implications or the ethics of that. See: anything about “big data.”

  2. The difficulty here is that the objectionable 24 hours looks like an outlier. Most Hollywood CIA movies (the Bourne series is just the latest) represent the agency as sinister, corrupt, and out of control. They can’t both be right, and swaying the public to their viewpoint.

  3. Did the survey include law journals? Because if they’re not covering all the human rights abuses we are committing, somebody needs to get fired.

  4. There’s a very simple reason that “classes on intelligence” are not offered to undergraduates: It’s very, very difficult, graduate-level material that requires quite a bit of “laboratory experience” to fully understand… let alone teach. “Being a spy” is maybe 10% of “intelligence,” on a particularly exciting day. With very rare exceptions, undergraduates don’t know enough, in detail, about any particular area to understand both what intelligence seeks to obtain and how it would obtain that information in the real-world context of that particular objective and existing relationship. Consider, for example, how “intelligence” will differ if the target is a lukewarm, relatively economically developed, Western-looking occasional ally; a usually hostile, highly developed, anti-Western historical nemesis; and a chaotically post-colonial/post-dictatorial, underdeveloped, indistinct-outlook “new” nation.

    It’s not just about the methods, which could easily fill a year-long graduate-level course by themselves. It’s about the nature of the inquiry. And that’s a tough question even at the graduate level, let alone when the messiness of limited information is imposed!

    N.B. This is not a defense of the intelligence community’s claim that “nobody except us spies understands what we do, so just let us self-regulate.” It is only an objection that the chosen illustration — the absence of an undergraduate course — is largely irrelevant.

  5. I took a class at Brown with Prof Minh Luong on intelligence. It’s what sent me to grad school and ultimately into my career (local law enforcement intel work). Plus he was a great professor.

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