Archive for the ‘Covert Operations’ Category

ImageIn one of the most original Spy-Dame personas that I have seen in either film, book, or TV, the incredibly nuanced performance by Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, a Russian sleeper-agent on FX’s 1980s themed “The Americans”, is remarkable for the fact that, one, Elizabeth is a rare example of a fully-realized female character, and two, for the fact that the character wrestles with the seemingly mundane and quintessential female problem of trying to have it all – but with a twist.

Elizabeth (actually “Nadezhda”), raised in post-war, Communist Russia by a single mother, is a young KGB agent assigned to pose as part of a suburban couple in America with another KGB agent, husband “Phillip”. Elizabeth and Phillip only know each other by their American names as a method of protection in case they are ever caught. They arrive in America in the late 1970s and the series follows them years later as the live as an established married couple, produce two children, and reside in the suburbs while running a travel agency in Washington DC. The perfect cover as the couple navigate their secret life as deep-cover spies.

And Elizabeth is one tough customer: a master of disguise, a talented wireless radio operator, a skilled tradesman in espionage, pretty good at hand-to-hand combat, and a consistent strategic thinker – and all while also dealing with the appropriate amount of stress of being a mother. But here is where Elizabeth diverges from the norm: however harried Elizabeth may be as a mom, it is not to comedic effect. Elizabeth struggles with the balance of work-home life because first and foremost, Elizabeth is a dedicated Soviet, a loyal servant to the cause. While her husband Phillip often suggests early they either defect or disappear permanently in America as the country is not all that bad and their kids are as American as they come, Elizabeth will not here of it. She is The Job and The Job is not over. If her children are “too American” it is simply because Elizabeth is “not finished with them yet”.

Elizabeth plays the maligned disciplinarian in the eyes of her children while her husband is the “fun parent”, a fairly typical story construct on any level, but there’s an interesting duality in this spy thriller. While she does love her children and has, if not love, but strong affection for Phillip, they are still part of The Job in her mind and that influences much of her actions, as her family life is part of her cover, part of her job. For example, we learn early on that Elizabeth was assaulted by a senior training officer in Russia, and while this is a certain catalyst for events in the pilot episode, it is not something that defines Elizabeth as a character because the only thing that does define her is her commitment to The Soviet Cause. So a predator in the Soviet ranks is almost something she took in stride, as part of the job, until she decides it is not.

So how does a Dame have it all? How does Elizabeth manage marriage, children, and home while trying to champion Mother Russia and maintain a secret identity? Most often through cold reserve, tenacity, big-picture thinking, and the ability to give a good beat-down when warranted.

The bigger question that will face Elizabeth in the series is the constant test of her ideology and whether it will uphold as Elizabeth realizes that her Russian counterparts are not quite the patriots she has held them out to be, and then, what will her actions be?

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I will be perfectly honest in saying that I had zero interest in Haywire and potentially seeing yet another film exploiting the sexed-up-killer-fembot stereotype that plagues modern Spy-Fi; but with the illustrious Steven Soderbergh at the helm, and not to mention an absolutely killer (pardon the pun) cast, there was no way not to see it. Result? Color me impressed.

Mallory Kane, former marine and private operations specialist, is at a cross-roads. She hates her boss/former lover, wants to quit her job, and move on with her life. However, when an op goes south, and by south I mean she is set-up to be taken out, she decides to put on her whoop-ass pants and open her big bag of tricks on those who have transgressed her.

Of course, this being a Soderbergh film, you have no sense of the plot until about 2/3 into the film; whereby the narrative starts somewhere in the middle, goes back to the beginning, and revisits the middle before plowing through to the end.

So here’s what to love about the character Mallory: she isn’t an angsty, girly, conflicted woman. She is an operative who contemplates her life goals and career, makes highly calculated decisions, and then goes about her business of assassinations and generally kicking ass in some of the best and most realistic fight scenes I have ever seen on film.

Here’s what’s to love about the actress, Gia Carano, who plays Mallory: she’s a champion mixed-martial artist with a body, and muscles, and who not only knows how to take a hit, but gives it back in spades. There’s a reality in that if you take a hit from a 6’5 guy, chances are you’re gonna feel it. This movie doesn’t shy away from Mallory taking an ass kicking. There’s also the reality that Mallory isn’t  a 90lbs fembot in stilettos with jutting ribs taking out guys 4 times her size and weight with a roundhouse kick (which by the way Hollywood – ISN’T. REMOTELY. POSSIBLE). But all that being said, I could have done without the Rambo-style make-up job at the end of the film.

Here’s what to love about the film: the back story. Covert Ops is a business. There are contract negotiations. Clauses. Addendums. Payment plans. Attempted poaching of employees. Jerky co-workers and territorial bosses. Operation specialists are not lone wolves. There’s a tedium to wet-work that necessitates team work and these teams come with a messy web of infrastructure supporting their every move. Mallory is keen on this end and makes sure to conduct some back door dealings of her own, not just running amok killing everyone who ruined her day.

This is a film about loose ends. Normally, loose ends are the bits of fluff in our life we mere mortals need to tie-off, but this being the movies, and one about assassins, means that loose ends are not tied-off as much as they are macheted. Mallory has to make a clean and permanent break with her past which invariably comes with quite the body count.

Miss Jenny is an interesting little mystery. Not as interesting nor as tragic as the drama surrounding Agent 355, but a nice little mystery all its own.

Miss Jenny, as we understand, was a French-speaking Loyalist during the American Revolutionary War who infiltrated the French camps during 1781 and passed information along to the British. Acting on intel that the French were moving troops in an impending attack on New York City, Miss Jenny was out and about trying to confirm the information when she was caught by a French guard.

The little minx held to her story that she was looking for her French-Canadian father, a story which did not appear to go over well, and consequently, Miss Jenny was turned over to none other than George Washington. Further questioning achieved nothing because she stuck to her story despite rigorous questioning. Washington handed her back over the French, who in a last ditch effort, attempted to make her talk but to no avail.

The French carried out a traditional punishment of the time, lobbing off a gal’s coif, as more stringent forms of punishment without proof would be unthinkable and mostly because the “wisdom” of the era saw women as not being intelligent enough to be spies. Hair cutting as punishment has a long and distinguished history in the Arab and Islamic world, the Europeans during the witch hunts in Medieval times, and the French and Dutch during World War II when humiliating female Nazi sympathizers.

Miss Jenny, sans hair, was released and immediately made her way back to the British camp in New York where she reported her findings. The British responded by holding their position in New York rather than the original plan to move on.

Luckily, the French and Americans switched gears and launched an attack on Yorktown, which proved a pivotal battle in the war. To date, the real-life identity of Miss Jenny has never been confirmed.

We only know of Miss Jenny due to the meticulous nature of the British and their OCD-like abilities in record keeping. Baron Ottendorf, a German mercenary whom Washington gave the boot thus inducing him to switch sides in the war, relayed the tale of Miss Jenny to Sir Henry Clinton, a British military commander, in the form of a letter which is in the keeping of the Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

I cannot believe I am about to blog about Lana Kane, aka sex-bomb super-agent of Archer‘s fictional spy-outfit “Isis”, but here we go…

If you haven’t seen the anachronistic FX animated Series “Archer”, then you’re in for a treat. The show is snappy, dirty, raucous (great word – don’t get to use it very often), and abso-freakin-lutlely hilarious. Of course, I can see where it would offend someone with more “delicate sensibilities”, so if you’re one of those, you best skip it altogether.

Lana Kane, voiced by the highly-nuanced Aisha Tyler, plays a constant second-fiddle to the slightly dumb and misogynistic Sterling Archer, spy extraordinaire!, of Isis, a security agency run by Archer’s fabulously wicked mother.

Lana is mostly a consummate pro when on the clock. She’s regimented, disciplined, and not above shooting Archer in the foot when he’s being an ass, which is pretty often. And the running joke on her monster paws is amusing. However, Lana does introduce a great point of contention in the co-ed workforce and that is the difficulties of “inter-office dating”.

Lana’s dating fiasco with Archer is followed up by her equally disastrous relationship with Cyril, agency comptroller, and further muddied by a fling with an agent from a rival outfit. Lana’s not about to let a bad-man get her down, but it does frustrate the beejeebers out of her when she can’t escape the idiocy that are her former flames.

Tune in for name drops on tradecraft and obscure pop-culture references, but mostly just tune in because it’s so damn funny.

“YUP!”

You have to admit, WWII for all its awfulness, was a great time for women in the spy trade. We’ve seen operatives, cryptographers, and inventors, and now, we have another to add to the list: human smugglers. Considering the heated American debate on illegal immigration in America, Ruth Klieger Aliav (19??-1979) is a worthy dame to examine.

Ruth was either born in 1914 or 1907 and she was either born in Romania proper or in what is now the Ukraine (a matter of semantics, I know, but people do go to war over this stuff). Ruth’s autobiography and documentation seem to be at odds concerning the official accounts of her life.

Now Ruth not only sported a big-bad-brain, but also a talent for linguistics. Upon graduation of the University of Vienna, she had her law degree and was fluent in 9 languages.

In 1935, our gal emigrated to Israel fulfilling a life-long dream. She married and settled down on a kibbutz and had a child. However, neither the marriage or the life seem to have satisfied Ruth, and after the death of her child from meningitis, she moved to Tel-Aviv where she was recruited into the Mossad.

In 1939, Ruth was sent into Romania and with her style, wits and connections, she not only helped smuggle out Jews but also to import arms and coordinate resistance activities.

In 1942, saw Ruth landing in Egypt where she was taking Jews overland into Palestine. During her stop-over, she discovered a corp of Egyptian Officers sympathetic to the Nazis. Ruth called in French Freedom forces, helped land Anwar el Sadat in jail, and continued on her merry way.

At the end of the war, Ruth was sent back into France in time for liberation, and during this period, she helped minister Jewish displaced persons and refugees. In 1945, she was bestowed the rank of honorary colonel in the US Army by none other than Eisenhower himself. She also managed to convince an American officer in charge of displaced Jews to “lend” her a boat to take Jewish orphans to Palestine. However, when the ship arrived in Haifa, it also contained 2600 older, displaced persons as well.

So here’s where Ruth’s activities become messy. During the entire war, there was a covert-operation sponsored by Mossad called Aliya Bet. Aliya Bet was the coordinated effort of Jews to illegally populate Palestine in direct violation of British Mandate.

Now, depending on how and where you come down on this subject, this leads to very different views of Ruth and her activities. One, is that Ruth is a sort of Harriet Tubman in leading Jews to freedom during a decidedly horrific time in history. The other view is that the Aliya Bet’s intentions was to usurp the Palestinians with a Jewish population long before the war occurred, hence, the war and its atrocities further served to achieve that goal. Now considering there are over 3 million Palestinians today, living refugee camps for the last 60 years with no state and no citizenship and their food, water,  electricity and general living conditions controlled by the Jewish state, you could also see where some people would see Ruth in terms of what we Americans would call Coyote, and illegal trafficker of immigrants.

Unfortunately, this is also where America begins a long, sad, and strained relationship with the Middle East. While the British were none too pleased at Ruth’s activities, the publicity could not allow them to deny the entry of the refugees in Haifa. However, Eisenhower, or at least those on his staff, had become convinced of the necessity of Aliya Bet and wanted more ships with more refugees to be allowed into Palestine. Eisenhower eventually shot down this plan because of the pressure exerted by the British in this matter.

Following the war, Ruth became a fundraiser for Mossad in both South and North America. She also continued her work with immigrants entering Israel, but, after 10 frustrating years of ill-treatment simply due to being a woman, Ruth went on to work with the Israeli shipping company ZIM.

Ruth’s work in public relations with ZIM brought her into contact with Hollywood luminaries, painters, and even Helen Keller when they toured Israel. During these years, Ruth also changed her last name to add “Aliav”, a variation on Aliya Bet, to her official passport. She wrote her memoirs shortly before her death and it sold over 2 million copies.

Ruth passed on in 1979. She is buried in Israel.

Oh, boy. Here we ago again. The fourth reiteration of “Nikita”, a juvenile delinquent taken into the folds of a secret government agency and turned into a cold-blooded assassin extraordinaire! has premiered on television…again…

Of course, the 1990 original (and best) has already been covered, and I refuse, absolutely refuse, to discuss the 1993 American remake, or it’s bastard-step-sister, the 1997 television series. Because, really, they were poor and unsatisfying imitations of the French classic, so they do not bear mentioning let alone any sort of analysis. That being said, let’s just get on to the new girl in town.

So Nikita is back. She is Asian-American and embodied by the martial arts star Maggie Q. That alone is enough to spike my interest since I really liked her character in the severely underrated Mission Impossible 3. Unfortunately, it seems the show is heading in the direction of sexed-killer-fembottery and you need only to glance at the promotional poster to ascertain that. The plot, this time, picks up three years after Nikita leaves/escapes the agency and shows her as a woman returned, scorned, and hellbent on revenge.

In the film versions, Nikita leaves not only the  agency, but leaves behind her boyfriend as well because she sees herself as dangerous, damaged goods and beyond redemption. And I liked this ending because it doesn’t tie everything up with a pink bow, white wedding, and a house in the ‘burbs. Nikita is a messy character, she has enough control to take a life but no control when it comes to managing her own affairs. So, I rather dislike Nikita 4.0 because now the boyfriend has been killed by “Division” and Nikita wants to avenge not only his death but avenge her perceived ruin life, and save those in the evil agency’s evil clutches.

Now to me, this flattens Nikita, makes her boring and predictable. The whole “girl-meets-boy, boy-gets-killed, girl-gets-revenge” plot is tired and played out. Been there. Done That. Bought the T-Shirt. What made the original Nikita so interesting is that she really didn’t have a problem with the killing as much as she had problems between managing her day job and managing her cover. And that’s interesting. Why not run with that? Oh yeah, because that, too, has already been done…

Have Nikita return simply because she bored and she can. Or because she wants to take over. Or because she’s out of her ever-livin-gourd. The impetus of the dead boyfriend cheapens the original little sociopath we have come to love. That, and it rips off another girl-gone-rogue show, ALIAS, big time. And the bit about the planted protegé/mole? Really? I’m not hopeful of that plot element, I guess we’ll just have to see where it goes.

But I think this issue with Nikita and her new-found nobility is an extension of this blog’s last post. When it comes to the dames, popular culture portrays them as the Madonnas or the Whores with the heart of gold. Mass media, and maybe people in general, are not prepared to see women as unconscionable killers. Too bad, because if you want to do something fresh with this character, or the personality of an assassin, then you need to explore that dark side no matter how ugly or uncomfortable it may be.

Let me begin this entry by writing that I really, really wanted to like this museum because not only is it a fabulous idea, but I believe the history of intelligence to be extremely important to our understanding of the geopolitical, political, and cultural history of America.

That being said, the museum, sadly, is a bit of a mess, but of course, that may be entirely dependent upon level of interest in the topic…

The International Spy Museum is located in the Penn Quarter of Washington DC. The museum is privately owned (part of the problem perhaps?) and is conveniently located across the street from National Portrait Gallery. Which was a good thing because the day I went, it was cold, windy, and sleeting, and due to the horribly vague policies about tickets on their website, I didn’t realize you needed to buy tickets for an entrance time.  Nonetheless, I was not going to be deterred, waited for my entrance time at the gallery across the street (perfection as always, I love DC museums) and finally entered the museum.

First impression is that the owners are trying to make this a slick and flashy carnival ride. The interior is dark with an overly engineered lighting concept with a lot of dark, shiny surfaces. It really felt like someone had watched the opening credits of “ALIAS” one too many times. A museum attendant directs you to an elevator, you are crammed in a slew of people, and promptly lifted to the next floor.

The room you enter upon leaving the elevator is waiting space where you are encouraged to browse names, pick one, memorize the background info, and make it your cover.

The thread of a “cover” that you are supposed to carry through the museum doesn’t make much sense when there is no direction where to go, where to use it, and if you do know where to go, then it is three people deep at any given station. Actually, “three people deep” ends up being the overriding theme of the museum because the architecture of the building in which the museum is housed in a old and narrow building with a lot of weird angles and hallways.

The displays are crammed together, oddly organized, and of course, one room – one tiny room – is devoted to the dames and it’s a mess…and set-up like a bedroom…and a badly planned cliche…

Other exhibits are set up in hallways, one even is a stairwell, and really, what the hell are these people thinking?

Oh, yeah! Money! Because the gift shop is the most spacious and well organized space in the joint, all designed for you to purchase over-priced knick-knacks to your heart’s content.

It’s too bad really, the museum is a fabulous idea. It’s the just the blatant desire to make a buck here makes it all go so very wrong.

muriel_byck_00_photo_tnSOE agent,  Muriel Byck (1981-1944), reminds us that while war may be a messy business, it is quite literally, also a dirty and germy business as well.

Muriel was born to French Jews in London although she was primarily raised on the continent, first Germany, then later, France. Muriel appears to have bounced back and forth between England and France for college and university, but eventually settled in England  in the mid-1930’s.

Byck took on a number of different jobs, none too remarkable. She worked in a theater, then as a Red Cross volunteer, and later a secretary. The secretarial work seemed to lead into war-related work as she also became an Air Raid Precautions warden.

Muriel then transitioned into the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and was promoted to an officer position. Naturally, Muriel spoke excellent French so it wasn’t too far a jump for her to eventually be recruited for the Special Operations Executive.

After training and three abortive attempts to jump into France, Muriel (Codename: Violette) arrived April 9, 1944. She performed duties as a wireless operator and trained local talent for the task.

Needless to say, the usually activities of evading German detection by moving around from time to time while working one’s tail off to aid the war effort takes its toll on anyone. However, a little over a month in country and Muriel began exhibiting signs of serious illness. She collapsed in the field and a doctor working for the Resistance diagnosed her with meningitis, a serious disease that affects the brain and spinal cord.

muriel_byck_01_photo_tnThe problem here, is that the Germans kept sharp tabs on hospital patients, so just traipsing in the door was out of the question and sneakier means became necessary. Muriel was admitted as the niece of her uncle (read: supervisor), both of whom were evacuees from Paris. Muriel was finally admitted to a hospital but it was too late. Not six weeks after landing in France,  Muriel Byck, aged 25,  died in the arms of her supervisor.

The local population of Romarantin, France, where Byck was laid to rest,  heralded her passing as a heroine of the Resistance and commemorated the anniversary of her death  until she was moved to the Pornic War Cemetery, the burial grounds for many British servicemen who died during the war.

I’ve always heard it that Hell hath no fury like a women scorned, but lately I’m more inclined to think it is that Hell hath no fury like a woman with a cause.

Anna Montes (1957-) is the daughter of the career Army doctor. Born in West Germany and bounced around a bit as a kid, Ana grew up, became extremely well educated with degrees from University of Virginia and John Hopkins University. Montes upon graduation was snapped up by the Defense Intelligence Agency in 1985 where she went to work as an analyst.

Like all good spy-dames, Montes proved herself early on to be exceptionally capable which moved her up the ranks fairly quickly. In 1992 she was assigned to Cuba where she studied the Cuban military. So here’s where is gets interesting, the government believes that Montes was recruited by Cuba prior to ever working for the DIA. Seven years is a damn long haul to wait for an agent to be placed in the perfect position for counterintelligence, but that shouldn’t surprise you really. If the agent is to remain under the radar, then the transition needs to be organic.

What is fascinating about the Montes affair is that this is some good old-fashioned cloak and dagger kind of stuff. Montes received orders via shortwave radio and she communicated back to her handlers via numerically coded messages placed at phone booths around the DC area. All messages were printed on water-soluble paper that could be easily destroyed on contact.

Federal prosecutors of Montes’ case claim among all the info she passed along, included were the identity of four spies and classified intel that resulted in the death of an operative in Central America.

Montes was very clearly being watched for sometime and was eventually arrested September 21, 2001, ten days after the 9/11 attacks. It has been reported that Montes had access to the Afghanistan invasion plans and the government picked her up before it could be leaked.

Montes avoided the death penalty and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. She’s serving her time in Texas where I’m sure she is well-regarded. So this leads us to the question of why? What was her motive?

When we’ve talked of motives for treason previously, the theory of MICE always comes into play. Money. Ideology. Compromise. Ego. When you break it down, Montes never received a dime for activities, she wasn’t coerced via evidence of illicit behavior and an inflated sense of self importance doesn’t appear to be the case. This leaves us with ideology.

Montes is of Puerto Rican descent, not Cuban. She did apparently maintain radical views that alienated her from her conservative military dad. So in the end, what we’re left with is the ideology that Cuba was treated unfairly by America. That’s it.

Montes is eligible for parole in 2023. She will be 66 years old.

Won Jeong-hwa (1974-), a North Korean expatriate to South Korea was arrested over the summer for being a spy-dame.

Nothing is truly known of Won’s early life or her possible motives. What is known is that Won defected to South Korea seven years ago and was exemplified as the ideal defector from the North. She was employed touring military bases lecturing on the evils of the communist regime and this is where things get sticky.

Won is accused of photographing military bases, weapons, gathering intel on South Korean military officers, and keeping tabs on other North Korean defectors. There’s some speculation that she was sent in to assassinate another high-profile defector, but evidence is shaky at best.

However, as patrons of NOC agents are wont to do, North Korea is disavowing Won and leaving her to her own devices.

In the meantime, this mother of one is asking for leniency. She claims to have been arrested for theft in North Korea and forced into the trade when the state made threats against her family. It should also be mentioned that Won is a second generation spy. Her father was killed years before during an operation gone sour in South Korea.

To date: Won has been sentenced to 5 years imprisonment. I think this is telling in that South Korea is quick to execute when they are absolutely certain of guilt. But this incident has really shaken up intelligence in South Korea in that they believe Won is the tip of the iceberg of North Korean agents running amuck in the country, and for a government that prides itself on being able to spot the baddies, this is a big deal.

Let’s hope they don’t let pride get in the way of good intel work and start rounding up “the usual suspects”.