Encounters with spies

Interviewing a secret agent to get a story is every bit as complicated as it might seem – but not for the reasons you’d expect.

“The thing about interviewing spies is that it’s almost impossible to tell if they are who they say they are,” says former journalist (and SIM7’s founder), Simeon de la Torre. “I’ve spoken to half a dozen of them (Mossad to MI6) and they’re all full of amazing stories, but I’ve walked away from at least one encounter feeling like I’ve just been fed a fantasy by a narcissist.”

“Robert Baer definitely was a spy. He was a former CIA case officer who was primarily assigned to the Middle East and is probably one of the sharpest people I’ve ever spoken to, with a nuanced and extensive knowledge of geopolitics. He was the real deal and – happily – didn’t mind recanting a few tales of subterfuge for the readers of FHM.

“Later, for Nuts magazine, I interviewed one of the agents who was involved in extricating a group of American hostages from Tehran (later dramatized for the film, Fargo). Again, he was strategically-minded, articulate and incisive.

“But one guy I interviewed was a nut.

“He’d been ‘sold’ to me as a former agent from Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service. He summoned me to a restaurant in Mayfair for the interview and when I arrived, he was sat in the shadows with his back to the wall. He dropped the brand of my watch and shoes into the conversation within the first few minutes, as if he wanted to demonstrate his situational awareness. Bit weird. And then he just started spewing stories.

“There was the microfilm hidden in a horse’s hoof. The time he was stricken on a yacht in a storm off the Cape of Good Hope. Or the high-speed, high drama intercontinental chases he’d been involved in. It all felt a bit much. So I pushed back a bit and asked him how he managed to dodge the many bullets he’d faced in shootouts in the world’s major cities.

“He looked to the ceiling and made the classic face of someone making something up. ‘We had the Spy Hotels, of course,’ he replied. He elaborated, saying that there was a place in every city in the world where spies of every stripe could stay without fear of retribution. ‘You crossed the threshold, handed in your gun to the ‘madam behind the counter’ and you were safe until you left again.’ FSB agents would sit in the lounge and watch TV with their CIA equivalents, apparently. MI6 operatives would rest up for a few days in rooms on the same floor as the enemy.

“’Wow’, I replied, clearly not buying this claptrap for a second. ‘There must be some Spy Hotels in London then, will you take me to one now?’

“Amazingly, he agreed, paid for lunch and we stepped out into the London streets, where he shook me off at the first possible opportunity and slipped away into the crowds.

“But not gracefully, like a spy; hastily, like a charlatan.

“As an aside, I also interviewed Monty Norman, the composer behind the James Bond theme. He was a much more fascinating person to talk to, especially when he sang the original calypso version of the theme down the phone. Lovely stuff.”

Simeon de la Torre is the owner of SIM7, we specialise in using language to create effective brands and campaigns. Follow us on LinkedIn for more.