What ‘The Americans’ Got Wrong (and Right) About Cold War Espionage

Real ex-CIA officers joined the show's cast to "demystify" the spy world.

June 1, 2018 5:00 am
What 'The Americans' Got Wrong (and Right) About Cold War Espionage (IMDb)
What 'The Americans' Got Wrong (and Right) About Cold War Espionage (IMDb)

Just hours before the final episode of FX’s hit Cold War-era espionage drama The Americans aired and threw #NatSecTwitter into convulsions Wednesday night, the stars of the show appeared on stage at UCLA alongside real-life ex-CIA undercover officers to talk tradecraft and what separates fact from fiction.

For the uninitiated, The Americans is set in the 1980s and follows two Soviet intelligence officers living secretly as a married couple with kids in Washington, D.C. as part of the KGB’s infamous “illegals” program. The show was one of the most tense dramas on television and gave off a particularly grounded feel.

Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, respectively) never drove invisible cars or made clever quips after dispatching a nameless enemy. But they did struggle with the moral ambiguity of their work as they manipulated and destroyed the lives of relatively innocent people and, occasionally, murdered others who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It was a somber portrayal of a secret, gruesome world, aided a great deal by the experience of show creator Joe Weisberg, himself a former CIA officer.

But that doesn’t mean The Americans got everything right. At Wednesday’s event at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations, former CIA officers and Cold Warriors Martha Peterson and Mark Kelton joined Weisberg, Russell, Rhys and Costa Ronin, who plays a Russian embassy official in the show, to set the record straight.

Here’s what the show got wrong and right:

WRONG: The Wigs Were Too Good

Early on the panel discussion turned to the use of wigs as part of disguises, which the Jennings used often. Weisberg asked if they looked silly, but the ex-officers said the wigs actually had the opposite problem: they were too good.

“They were the best-looking disguises I think I’ve ever seen,” Peterson said. “They were excellent, and they really did enhance the show I think.”

Kelton said, “The thing, watching the show, they were always well put on, they were too well put on.”

“Because when you’re actually working and you’re an officer, you’re putting them on yourself many times and you’re always worried about the damn thing falling off, your mustache peeling off at the wrong time,” he said.

Kelton said that unlike in the show’s portrayal of wigs being used up-close-and-personal, the disguises he used back in the day were only meant to trick people from a distance. “If you have someone sitting across the table from you, it’s unsustainable,” he said.

(Just a side note, when Russia arrested American official Ryan Fogle for allegedly spying in Moscow in 2013, he was reportedly carrying a disguise that included a blond wig.)

RIGHT: Telling the Kids

In the early seasons of The Americans, the elder Jennings conduct their secret operations and then return home to their two completely oblivious children. But once the older daughter begins to be suspicious and starts putting a few things together, the couple struggles with whether to tell her about their secret lives and, if so, how much to reveal.

This aspect of the show recalls the recent real-life example of the Foley family, a seemingly normal Boston family in which the parents were, unbeknownst to the children, Russian spies. The parents, Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley, were arrested in 2010 as part of the FBI’s Operation Ghost Stories that nabbed 10 total alleged spies.

But it’s a situation any parent working undercover may have to deal with, and one that was forced on Peterson and Kelton.

Peterson told the audience that when her children were teenagers, a Discovery Channel television series, presumably related to espionage, aired an episode that showed a photograph of her. Knowing her son, a fan of the network, could stumble on the show anytime, she decided to get ahead of the story and broke the news in the parking lot of a Roy Rogers in Virginia.

“What’s up mom?” her son asked when he and his sister arrived. When Peterson told them she worked for the CIA, not the State Department as they had always been told, her daughter said, “What’s that?”

“And then my son said, ‘Mom’s a spy…’” she said slowly, imitating her son’s dawning realization. “[The reaction] couldn’t have been scripted.”

Peterson said the kids were “thrilled” though when she gave them a tour of CIA headquarters and showed them the star on the CIA’s Memorial Wall that had been carved in honor of their father killed in the line of duty.

Kelton said he, too, was forced into revealing his secret while he and his family, including his 11-year-old son, were abroad. Other kids at the son’s school apparently started whispering about Kelton’s “secret work.”

“So we had to sit down” and Kelton’s my wife explained about the “secret work” and said the boy’s dad “works for the CIA.” “But you can’t go around talking about that, you can’t say anything about that,” Kelton’s wife said.

“About three months later, he comes back over breakfast and says, ‘So what are those three letters I’m supposed to forget?’ And my wife looked at him and said, “Well if you can’t remember I’m not going to remind you,” Kelton said.

Kelton said that the people that work at CIA “are just like you all. They got families and all, and they have to live their lives at the same time. And there is a great strain. I think the show depicted that quite well.”

WRONG: Pace of Operations

Perhaps the most forgivable offense for The Americans was the break-neck speed of operations. Seldom do the Jennings learn about the operation they’re expected to conduct, or make up on their own, more than a few hours or even a few minutes before they go straight in.

Kelton said that “hundreds of hours” of work go into operations like, for example, secret meetings with agents, which the show takes almost casually.

“There would be a lot of people involved, a lot of planning, a lot of preparations, a lot of ‘What ifs.’ If this happens, what happens? A lot of ‘Stump the Dummy’ questions. If he does this, what do you do? If he does that what do you do? Very thorough planning, very thorough,” he said.

“That’s the thing about the show, you all, you’re doing a lot of operations. We would never be able to sustain that pace of operations,” he said.

Kelton also said The Americans smartly avoided the mountain of paperwork that would go along with all those operations.

“Some of these things you did, you would’ve spent days typing,” he said.

RIGHT: The Moral Struggle and Attachment to Agents

In June 1977 Aleksandr Ogorodnik was caught red-handed by Soviet counter-intelligence officers with spy equipment he had been using to pass secrets to the CIA. Surrounded by Soviet agents in his home, Ogorondnik admitted he was a spy and told the agents he would write out a full confession with the paper and pen on his table.

What the Soviet officials didn’t know was that hidden in the pen was a suicide pill. When no one was looking, Ogorodnik bit into it and killed himself on the spot. By committing suicide, he likely avoided interrogation and execution in the Kremlin’s infamous Lubyanka prison.

To this day, that gives Peterson just a little comfort. Ogorodnik was her agent.

“When I heard [the story] a couple of years later, it went to my heart,” Peterson said, “because I had provided that pen.”

It was an example of the emotional attachment CIA officer can develop to their agents. In the show, the Jennings often struggle with keeping an emotional distance from the sources they’ve recruited, some of whom they’re sleeping with or, in one case, married to.

“One thing about if you’re in human operations, and you’re dealing with human beings at the other end, you feel a compelling obligation to that person,” Kelton said. “That person has put everything they are in your hands. To have someone look in your eyes and say, ‘I’m trusting you with my life, keep me alive.’ That is something that is palpable when you’re out working.”

That kind of trust and dependence, Kelton said, can lead to officers “falling in love” with their agents.

“That doesn’t mean literally falling in love physically,” he said. “It means being unable to see the flaws in the person in the case. You need to see those in order to protect the case and protect yourself.”

“So it is a danger. People do get too close to their agent. They become advocates for them. That ultimately is a problem,” he said.

WRONG: All Those Stabbings/Street Fighting/Shootings

The very first episode of The Americans features — spoiler alert from six years ago — a fatal stabbing and a vicious running street fight on the streets of D.C. And the violence doesn’t abate as the show progresses.

That’s another Hollywood-ism, according to Peterson and Kelton.

Peterson said that during her undercover work, the only bit of violence she encountered was when she was arrested by Soviet authorities after Ogorodnik was blown. She, in the words of a Soviet official, “fought like a tiger.”

She said she didn’t remember the encounter being that violent but later said she heard the guy she kicked claimed that he couldn’t have sex “for several months.”

There’s also a lot of shooting on the show, but Kelton said he’s never fired a weapon at anybody, “Thank God.”

“You know, generally, the experience is more psychological tension and strain than physical confrontation,” he said. “Physical confrontations are very rare.”

RIGHT: Leveraging Ego to Recruit Agents

There is an old acronym that the CIA has used for decades to describe why, generally, anyone would agree to steal their own country’s secrets at risk of imprisonment or worse: MICE.

That stands for Money, Ideology, Coercion, and Ego — meaning the CIA could simply bribe someone, play on their distaste for their current government’s policies, blackmail or otherwise threaten them, or stroke their ego. More often, it’s a combination of some of these.

In The Americans, Russian spies and the FBI’s counter-intelligence agents use all four to get others to do their bidding, but in the quieter moments, particular emphasis is put on ego. A common refrain just before an operation goes something like, “You’re the only one who can do this for us.” It makes the agent feel needed and powerful, and it’s an intoxicating drug that works in real-life, the ex-spies said.

“Money is obviously a factor. Ideology in Soviet times was a big one … they were disaffected with their own system. But ego was a constant in virtually all these instances,” Kelton said. “People who decide to be agents aren’t normal people and they want to see themselves as special and usually they are special.”

Peterson said sometimes CIA officer will appeal to a target’s “desire to be the best, to be better than their boss who was maybe not approving of their work.”

“I think the positive aspects of attention is a very clear motivator,” she said.

BOTH? All That Sex

There is a lot of sex in The Americans. From the first episode on, both Elizabeth and Philip and seemingly everyone else are sleeping with someone for something — either seducing them into revealing secrets, to reassure them as agents, to blackmail them as targets or, on occasion, for love.

Sadly, Kelton said such R-rated escapades were “very rare in [his] experience,” especially with an eye towards blackmail.

“The reason is that blackmailing people generally is not a good way to have a good personal relationship with someone,” he said. “If you want somebody to go in and do something very dangerous for you and work with you and you’re compelling them to do it, that’s not sustainable. People resent it very deeply.”

But Kelton was talking about the CIA using sex in espionage, and the show is about the KGB doing it. That, the ex-spies said, happened more often, so maybe the show wasn’t that far off.

“Sure, it had been done a lot by the KGB. The CIA’s posture was totally different. KGB had a different viewpoint on it,” Kelton said.

Weisberg said that one of the relationships in the show, between Philip and an FBI secretary, was based on real-life cases of so-called Romeo spies, KGB and other Soviet officers going as far as marrying young women with access to secrets.

Kelton said the East Germans used it “quite a lot” against West German targets.

Talking about these stories, Weisberg summed up the show pretty well when he said, “You can’t make up stuff as good as true stuff.”

UPDATE June 4, 2018: Former CIA disguise artist Emily Brandwin, after reading this report, said on Twitter that there are disguises meant for “close” scrutiny, not just long distance, so she thought the show’s use of wigs in more intimate situations was “plausible.” Also, she said she “appreciated the times they showed Elizabeth & Philip using wig caps, hair pins (the details) of what goes into wearing a disguise.”

Lee Ferran is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist and the founder of Code and Dagger, a foreign affairs and national security news website.

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