This week we are thrilled to welcome Dr. Christopher Moran in from the cold. He is the author of Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain and was a historical consultant to the International Spy Museum in Washington DC, assisting on the popular exhibition ‘Exquisitely Evil: 50 Years of James Bond Villains’, sponsored by the makers of the Bond films, EON Productions.
His new book, Company Confessions: Revealing CIA Secrets, is out now and we took the opportunity to ask him about espionage, Ian Fleming and Bond.
1. How Much of a role did Ian Fleming play in the early formation of the C.I.A?
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 was an obvious ‘intelligence failure’. Accordingly, it was inevitable that serious questions would be raised about the state of America’s intelligence apparatus. Fleming contributed to this debate, albeit in secret. In his capacity as personal assistant to John Godfrey, Director of British Naval Intelligence, Fleming became fairly heavily involved in intelligence work. For example, he chaired meetings of the super-secretive Joint Intelligence Committee, Britain’s senior intelligence assessment body. He also set up the 30 Assault Unit Squad, an elite team of commandos that parachuted behind enemy lines to cause havoc and acquire precious intelligence. This did not go unnoticed in America’s secret corridors of power.
During the war, Fleming made numerous trips to the United States, to meet with General William J. Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS. By all accounts they got on extremely well, with the spy chief fascinated by Fleming’s ideas about special operations and gadgets. Fleming’s knowledge of the British intelligence community led Donovan to ask him to write a draft outline for a permanent US foreign intelligence service. Some have called this the first ‘blueprint’ for the CIA, which was created in 1947. Donovan was certainly impressed: indeed, as a thank you, he gave Fleming a .45 colt revolver inscribed with the words ‘For Special Services’.
In the 1950s Fleming became a friend of CIA Director Allen Dulles. Letters were often exchanged between the two, whilst Fleming would send signed copies of his latest Bond adventure to America’s top spy-master. Remarkably, we have evidence that Dulles was fascinated by Bond’s gadgets and gizmos, which he asked his CIA technicians to attempt to replicate. In one of his retirement writings, Dulles acknowledged that the CIA had successfully managed to reproduce Rosa Klebb’s infamous poison-tipped dagger shoe, although he did not reveal whether it had been used in the field.
2. Do you think people overlook the amount of genuine intelligence in the Bond books?
To a degree. There’s certainly a few diamonds in the rough. For example, in From Russia with Love (1957) Bond goes on the hunt for a Lector deciphering machine. The magic and mystery of cryptopography and signals intelligence was a closely guarded secret in Britain at that time. The secrets of Enigma, Colossus and Bletchley Park only emerged in the mid-1970s. Fleming, therefore, with the Lector, was sailing pretty close to the wind.
In some of the Bond novels, Fleming almost certainly drew inspiration from the real spy world. Take Thunderball (1961). At the centre of the story is underwater espionage. We know that Fleming was a friend of MI6 man Nicholas Elliot who was partly behind the fateful dive of naval frogman Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb in 1956. Coaxed out of retirement by MI6, Crabb went missing whilst on a mission to inspect the hull of a Russian cruiser, docked in Portsmouth harbour, with some speculating that he perished after an epic duel with scuba-equipped henchmen on the sea floor. It’s quite conceivable that Fleming based at least some of Thunderball from this.
One interesting thing to note. Look closely in the Bond novels and you’ll notice that ‘MI6’ or the ‘Secret Intelligence Service’ are never mentioned. Bond always works for British intelligence or is described as a British spy. This is almost certainly deliberate on Fleming’s part. MI6 and SIS were taboo phrases, covered by the Official Secrets Act and by standing Defence Notices. Indeed, I once saw a document hinting that Fleming had received a D-Notice forbidding him from using the terms MI6 or SIS in his novels.
Fleming lived in a world where the enemy was clear. In WWII, it was the Nazis. In the Cold War, it was Moscow. A certain safety came with this: you knew who to point the gun at. Today, however, the threats are more varied and operate much more in the shadows and at the penumbra of the system – drug cartels, international terrorists, serious organised crime etc. Interestingly, with the introduction of SPECTRE, it’s almost as if Fleming saw this world coming. Arguably, Bond was dealing with globalised transnational threats thirty years before his real-life counterparts in MI6.
What would have been completely alien to Fleming is the world of Edward Snowden and leaks. In Fleming’s universe, absolute secrecy in the intelligence field prevailed, although Bond often had an unfortunate knack of getting caught. Fleming would have had whistleblowers hanged, drawn and quartered, whilst the sight of Britain’s spy chiefs giving talks or appearing before parliamentary committees would have been anathema to him. Indeed, unless I’m mistaken*, in the novels “M” only ever appears in his office, hidden behind a locked door policed by Moneypenny, or Bond’s home.
In the latest Bond film, Spectre, it is possible to detect an undercurrent of sympathy for Snowden. If Fleming had been alive and written the film, Snowden would have been the villain and fed to a pet shark or castrated with a laser.
4. Do you have a favorite Bond novel and why?
Watch Dr. Moran give a lecture on James Bond and the CIA (C-Span)
[*Editor’s note: M does make an appearance at Blades in Moonraker]