The show follows the lives of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, a seemingly all-American couple living in D.C. with two kids in the early '80s, who are really Russian-born Soviet spies.
It's a great story, but the question on everyone's mind after watching the show is whether anything like this actually happened.
To answer this question, we asked Peter Earnest, the founding executive director of D.C.'s International Spy Museum and a 35-year CIA spy veteran. He spent 25 years as a case officer in the agency's Clandestine Service, conducting intelligence collection and covert action operations.
He's also a fan of "The Americans," telling us he DVRs the episodes. Here's his take.
"Illegals" are a real problem
A Soviet stamp celebrating "R. I. Abel"
To Earnest, the concept of the show was fascinating. "I heard the show was going to be on, and I watched the pilot, and I was struck by [it]," he told Business Insider in a phone interview. "I thought 'Oh, they're trying to use some real trade craft.'"
Foreign national sleeper agents in the U.S. — what Earnest refers to as "Illegals" — were certainly used by the Soviets. Earnest points to Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher, a KGB officer better known as Rudolf Ivanovich Abel who was a spy in 1950s New York City.
"[Abel] was an illegal, and he settled in in this country, had a small business. The idea is to blend into your surroundings – so if that takes a small business and a pursuit that explains why you're there and how you're able to pay your rent, that's all you really need."
Earnest also points to modern day cases of illegals. You've undoubtedly heard of Anna Chapman, the Russian spy expelled from the U.S. a few years ago. Chapman had been living in New York, working in real estate, for over a year before she was caught (she had lived in London for years before that).
Chapman was just one of 10 "sleeper agents" in the U.S. caught by the FBI in 2010.
Earnest told us the techniques used in the show, like dead drops and multiple disguises, seem realistic and would have been used both during the Cold War and today. What isn't realistic is the amount the Jennings have to do.
"I've never heard of an illegal who would be so heavily tasked to do so many different things,"
"I've never heard of an illegal who would be so heavily tasked to do so many different things."
Earnest told us. "They're often saved for some extraordinary thing, or they may handle someone who can't be handled by someone under official cover in the embassy."
Another unlikely element is the combat training the spies in "The Americans" have. The couple, especially husband Philip, are shown to be experts in firearms and martial arts. This wasn't how any illegals he knew acted, Earnest says.
"Illegals typically were normal people," he explains. "They weren't expected to engage in martial arts – in many cases they didn't even carry weapons."
That the Jennings would speak such flawless, American-accented English is also unusual. Some kind of accent would usually be noticeable, Earnest explained, and the illegal would have some sort of foreign background that explained it.
The reasoning behind this may simply be practical — how many foreign nationals do you know who can speak English without a hint of any accent? According to the Chicago Tribune, most experts agree that non-natives find accents "virtually impossible" to lose after they reach puberty (the show clearly shows both Jennings in Russia speaking accented English as young adults).
Other tactics shown in the show are more plausible. Both Philip and wife Elizabeth are shown to seduce people and be sexually active with people in a bid to get information. He points to Karl and Hana Koecher, Czech intelligence officers for the CIA in the 1970s.
"They were active in the '60s in the sex clubs, the key clubs – people hooking up with other couples," Earnest said. "And they frequented places here in Washington. There was a restaurant on G Street near the White House, frequented by staff members from the White House and congressional types."
Earnest says that the Koechers' activity seemed to be just "for the sex" ("I don't know of any instance in which they developed a source out of that, but they certainly got to meet some interesting people," he explained), but in other cases it was more clearly a tactic. Anna Chapman herself was reportedly apprehended as she was thought to be close to seducing an Obama cabinet official — what's known as a honey trap.
The CIA link to the show
To Earnest, it seemed the show represented an exaggerated picture, but there were still traces of reality.
"It's like any dramatization of a story," he says. "It's sort of over the top."
This link to reality is likely a product of the show's creator, Joe Weisburg, who worked in the CIA’s directorate of operations from 1990 to 1994.
In a recent interview with Slate, Weisberg argued that his background allowed him to more accurately portray the real "trade craft" of the profession.
"A lot of what you see of spies in TV and movies has to do with blowing things up," he told June Thomas. "In the real world, there’s a lot more recruiting and handling and running agents."
Weisburg also admitted that he was obliged to send anything he'd written to the Publications Review Board at the CIA. Earnest explained that the reasoning behind this was simple — to make sure that Weisberg wasn't revealing any secrets.
"They could care less (sic) about the accuracy," Earnest explained. "Their only concern, by law, is what's called sources and methods. They're reviewing it to make sure it contains no classified information."
Would would anyone want to know what the reality is?
It's possible that the general public will never know the full extent to which a show like "The Americans" is accurate — spying, by its nature, is secret, even to people within the profession.
However, there's one factor that most spies appear to agree on — most of the time, spying is really, really boring.
"[Being a spy is] ultimately very dull work," Former CIA officer and author Robert Baer said in an interview last year. "You’re lucky if it is interspersed with serious accomplishment or danger. It is generally waiting for things to happen. And you run into the same kind of mediocrity that you encounter anywhere else in life."
"[Being a spy is] ultimately very dull work."
Weisburg knows this, and told Slate, "If you showed the way things really work, it would be boring." This probably explains any inaccuracies and exaggerations in the show.
However, Earnest believes that shows like "The Americans" — even if they are exaggerated or over the top — have a positive effect for the espionage community by showing the human side of the industry.
"I had dinner with someone the other night — with a couple — and I asked the woman if she'd seen 'The Americans.' She said yes, and I asked her, 'What's your impression?,'" he explained. "And she said, 'I never thought about people living like that, living normal lives, in our country.'"
"And that's someone who never would have grasped the actuality of an illegal, and that still, in its way, enabled her to see that. She knew about the illegals who had been arrested [in 2010] but it didn't mean anything to her. But seeing that dramatization brought that home to her in a different way. So I think popular culture plays a role in the way."
So which is better?
So which is better, "The Americans" or Showtime's spy drama "Homeland"?
Earnest balked at the question. "You know, I didn't stay with Homeland — it would go on and on and on because we couldn't determine whether this guy was a double or not," he explained. "But I liked the cast. I think Obama watches it, I understand."
However, when Earnest was pressed on which he preferred, he had an unexpected answer.
"This will disappoint you enormously," he said contritely, "but the one program I tried to catch regularly was 'Downton Abbey.'"
Many thanks to Peter for talking to us. Make sure to visit the International Spy Museum next time you are in D.C.
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