Marco Werman: Extremist groups, like the Taliban and al Qaeda, are having a field day with all the revelations about the NSA's surveillance methods. That's what the heads of Britain's three main intelligence agencies told lawmakers today. One of the officials even said his spies have intercepted extremists talking about how to switch to safer communication methods. Another British official said, "Spying doesn't work like James Bond."
So how would James Bond respond to all of this? Alex Berenson might know. He's the author of the John Wells series of spy novels. Berenson says the NSA revelations prove that reality and fiction are not really that far apart.
Alex Berenson: I think that the people out there who said that the Panopticon is real have been right.
Werman: That's scary.
Berenson: I keep thinking about the scene in 'Enemy of the State', or any of these movies that have been made in the last fifteen years, where it's like, you know, the analysts are in a giant room and there's 83 screens they can toggle between anywhere in the world and pull up the data. It's very hard to escape the net of surveillance once they have locked in on you. That seems absolutely clear.
Werman: How has the spy novel genre changed throughout the last, say, 20 years?
Berenson: Well, you know, at the end of the cold war there was a... it was a difficult time for the genre. Post 9/11, I think it picked up again. At first becauseâ€¦ you know, I think there was a lot of interest in Arab and Muslim terrorist organizations, and who they were and how we would fight them. I mean, that's sort of the red meat, the red state novel. And now, with the backlash against our own outsized capabilities. But certainly it's a good time to be a spy novelist.
Werman: Alex, for a fiction writer, what has all of this done to your world view. Especially today. You know, these big spy chiefs in Britain, who used to enjoy anonymity, are all out there in the name of transparency. Will it make writing spy novels a little tougher, a little less mysterious?
Berenson: I don't think so. I think it gives us more of opportunity. Again, because you can play from inside or outside now. There's a little bit more information, now, about what the capabilities of these agencies are, so you can try to write a novel about what it's like to work inside, especially if you have qualms, especially if you're a Snowden-type character. Or, you can write from the outside, which is the person who is on the run, whether for a good reason for bad. And you know, that person, for that person to survive now, that person has to be very... has to be exceptional.
Werman: So the spy would have to be exceptional, perhaps more like Quantum of Solace, the Daniel Craig James Bond flick in there. What if we took Sean Connery as James Bond and plopped him in 2013, how would he react?
Berenson: [Laughs] You know, it is funny that the guys... I mean, we now rely so heavily on... on the one hand, the computer guys. Right, the software guys, for lack of a better word, the nerds, the Snowdens. And on the other hand, you know, the CIA has its special operations group which is essentially paramilitary. But the man in the middle, the Sean Connery, who could handle a gun, who could go to a cocktail party, who could romance, to use a euphemism. [Laughs] But who was sort of a jack of all trades, that guy is gone. Which is sort of sad, because the James Bonds of the world... there's an elegance there that people like.
Werman: Alex Berenson's latest book, 'The Counterfeit Agent', comes out early next year. Alex, thanks so much for your time.
Berenson: Marco, it was a pleasure.