It is a peculiar strength of American democracy, even by Western standards, that journalists are empowered by the First Amendment to pry into even the most protected government secrets with, generally speaking, little to fear. Skulking around the secret world over the years, I interviewed William Colby, the retired C.I.A. director, not long before he took a canoe trip on the Chesapeake Bay from which he would never return. I was among the first journalists to get inside the K.G.B. headquarters in Moscow during a brief experiment in glasnost. I traveled to Switzerland to understand how American intelligence had infiltrated a Swiss company that supplied encryption machines to many countries.
I was detained by the N.S.A.’s police force while peering through a fence, trying to figure out what the eavesdroppers did where. I took a joy ride with a former C.I.A. pilot who rolled his little plane and flew it upside down until I assured him I was impressed with his skills.
And there have been dark moments: I watched a former intelligence officer who had helped me with a few stories, and who in my view had revealed nothing that could harm national security, go to prison for disclosing classified information.
Many reporters have such spy stories, and people like to hear them. What is the universal appeal of spying? What makes it such rich fodder for fiction and movies?
Part of it is pure Walter Mitty — we envy those who go incognito to steal secrets or meddle in affairs of state. After watching a Jason Bourne spectacular or reading a novel by Graham Greene or John le Carré, who among us does not play with the idea that the headlights in the rearview mirror are tailing us, or spot the perfect place for a dead drop in the alley behind the office?
To cash in on such popular appeal, former intelligence officers often cross over into spy fiction — Greene and le Carré both served in MI6. Jason Matthews, who retired as a C.I.A. operations officer, has just completed a best-selling trilogy of spy novels, and a movie based on his first book, “Red Sparrow,” is about to debut.
Entertainment exaggerates, of course, even when it’s created by real spies. On the FX show “The Americans,” created by a former C.I.A. officer, the photogenic Elizabeth and Philip rarely get through an episode without a car chase and a murder or two. By contrast, their real-life counterparts, the Russian sleeper agents who spent years living in the United States before their splashy arrests in 2010, were notable mainly for their unremarkable suburban lives. They seemed to have accomplished little beyond blending in.
Reporters and spooks have an unlikely professional kinship. Both spend their days trying to gather information, by talking to the people who have it or getting hold of documents that reveal it. Spies have their agents to safeguard; we have our sources to protect. In recent years even the technology has begun to merge, as reporters shift to encrypted email and secure apps like Signal to leave a less obvious trail for leak investigators.
But the differences between us are far more profound. The spies hoard information for the power it confers. We publish what we find out — and what we find out is often about the spies’ dubious operations, ethical lapses or covered-up failures. That’s the nature of news.
From time to time, I have wondered about that weird letter. What if I’d gone to the interview at Langley? What if I’d joined that secret world? There would have been the satisfaction of witnessing, rather than having to pry loose, what the agencies are up to.
But I’ve never regretted choosing the better-lit side of democracy over the dark side. Spying on the spies is a distinctly American job, and a satisfying one for a journalist.
A national security reporter for The Times and a former Moscow correspondent, Scott Shane will moderate a discussion about real-life Russian espionage and its Hollywood counterpart on Thursday night, Feb. 15, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. His guests will be the Academy Award-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence, starring in the forthcoming spy thriller “Red Sparrow”; Francis Lawrence, the movie’s director; and Jonna Hiestand Mendez, former chief of disguise at the C.I.A., who worked with the author of the book upon which the film is based.
To join the live webcast of this sold-out event or watch the video later, click here.