We have all spied on someone at one point in our lives, but what about professionals that make a living at it? When your company car is an Aston Martin filled with buttons and gadgets to help you escape any danger or your mission for the day is to meet a connection and drop a bug into their pocket or briefcase, then jump off a bridge and onto a passing boat, who wouldn’t want to be a spy? A life of adventure, disguise, trickery, aliases and a chance to save the world from Doctor Evil, is more of a fantasy than a reality. Some movies and TV walk the line, but others have jumped over it and they brought the guns, the bombs and the blood because they really don’t know the logistics of Central Intelligence, nor the inner workings of negotiation. They glorify the good guy/bad guy hate and it becomes a fight to the death. How many gadgets are really out there and does one bug fit all?
When I’ve watched a spy/espionage film or TV show, I always wondered where they got their inside information, to simulate realistic operations within the CIA and the spy world. I got my answer from the source itself, retired CIA agent Darrell Blocker. He was an agent in the CIA for 28 years and has been out for 3 years. He was on Biden’s list of potentials for director of the CIA, was the lead at CIA’s legendary training facility, a multi station chief, an undercover operative and retired with a rank, equivalent to a three-star general… he also converted to Judaism. He now works for SPYEX and consults on Central Intelligence matters for film and television. If you are writing your next spy novel, screenplay or series, then you need authenticity. You can’t fake it till you make it in the spy movie world but there are examples that say otherwise. Great storytelling demands respect for the story, the characters and your audience. Ex CIA agents like Darrell Blocker are a commodity in todays over competitive entertainment industry.
SPYEX is a unique new talent agency with a roster of secret intelligence professionals from the world’s top agencies and institutions, including the CIA, FBI, KGB and Mossad. They can provide unrivaled access to experts trusted by world leaders – offering training, speaking and consulting services. Their aim is to create lasting value and a competitive advantage for every client, as well as perform risk-assessment, threat mitigation on strategic initiatives or to bring authentic insight to consult on a book, film or television project.
The SPYEX roster includes some of the most acclaimed professionals from the world of secrets, including the senior intelligence officer who brought Sergei Skripal from Moscow to London in the infamous 2010 spy swap, and the exceptional female analyst who helped President Obama to find Osama bin Laden. Clients can now tap a former Head of Training at British Intelligence and a Former Head of Training at CIA, alongside undercover hackers, special ops leaders and counter-terrorism experts.
Darrell Blocker spoke to me from his home in Santa Monica, but I think that was code, so I told him I was stationed in Hawaii, in case we were being secretly recorded. It was an amazing, incredibly insightful conversation filled with golden eggs throughout. Please enjoy, roll the tape!
HNMAG “Thank you for talking to us, it’s not everyday that we get the opportunity to speak with someone from the CIA or Intelligence Officer.”
DARRELL “What I found, coming out after 32 years in the business, was that the world outside – doesn’t really know a lot about the CIA. It’s one of the reasons I got involved with SPYEX and the entertainment side of it, because there are stories that need to be told. I’m not really talking about ‘spy stories’, I’m talking about good human-interest stories that have a lot of life lessons. I did a lot of leadership activities toward the end of my career. I’ve had people tell me, if someone was going to speak out about it, that I could be that face. When you see a spy in a movie, you see Bond, you see Bourne, you see the Pink Panther but you rarely see a Black male or a woman, along with all the other things that exist within the agency. As a former agent, I think we can do a better job of walking that line between reel and real. It’s been pretty interesting and quite frankly, it’s been fun.”
HNMAG “I’m a big fan of the show Homeland. I was curious how realistic the show really is.”
DARRELL “The cast and crew were in Washington DC in 2014 and they wanted to come to the CIA. I was one of 6-8 others invited from the CIA side to sit down with the cast and crew, who were about to launch season 3. That very same question came up – how realistic is the show? I told them they weren’t getting anything right… but that it was okay, because they don’t want to get it right. When you depict who we are and what we do, in a way that is so authentic – it only aids those that wish to do us harm. I love the storylines and Carrie Matheson. The fact that they have an agent with a mental health issue, that has to hide it from others within the CIA isn’t realistic but it’s a way to talk about an issue that others may see as verboten. It is accurate in the sense that we do have an overseas presence in stations, on bases and how we collaborate and cooperate with counterparts of the CIA, the FBI and the countries in which we operate. It does take a long time to pull off those operations, but I understand that it’s entertainment and it’s not supposed to be 100 percent accurate. For the most part, I’m a huge fan of Homeland.”
HNMAG “Does that also mean that you consulted on the show?”
DARRELL “I have not consulted on that show, the first people willing to give me an opportunity were Jason Smilovic and Todd Katzberg, the showrunner and co-executive producers of Condor. It’s based on 6 Days of the Condor – the book and 3 Days of the Condor – the movie, starring Robert Redford. I came to consult on season 2 of Condor, the series on the EPIX network. Season 1, I was still in the CIA and wasn’t able to speak about these things. I was unable to speak about the CIA for 28 years and in the last 3 years, it’s all I’m really talking about. CIA in the business sense, CIA in the SPYEX III, the 3 categories of consulting, training and speaking. I’ve worked with 3 fabulous writers, almost exclusively Canadian cast and crew. I was up in Toronto consulting in the writer’s room for the first episode of season 2 of Condor. It comes out Nov. 7 on EPIX.”
Darrell told me about a film shoot with well known production designer/art director, Rocco Matteo. When he arrived on set in Toronto for Condor, the room they were using to simulate the internal CIA space was 100 percent wrong. Rocco had seen his face and asked what was wrong. Darrell replied, “Where do I start?” He proceeded to express to Rocco, the importance of the background. The CIA are huge on maps; they need to know where something is happening in the world, to get your brain on the same page. He understands that people love to watch shoot outs and car chases, but he says, in his 28 yrs. of service, he says, “I’ve never gotten into a knife fight, a gunfight or car chase (laughter).”
HNMAG “When you offer your services to a production, does it have to be rooted in counter-terrorism, counter-intelligence, etc. before you’d consider coming on board, or do you also get involved in a production looking for minimal direction/operating procedures with CIA scenario’s?”
DARRELL “I think the answer is both and it goes beyond the LEA (Law Enforcement Agency) and the IC (Intelligence Community). Much of it has to do with the interplay at a policy level within Washington and how we contact, engage or deconflict with our partners in Sweden, Switzerland, Slavonia or wherever they might be. By explaining the mishmash of nations and how the internal process would unfold, is helping writers, who are creatives. This is what I love about SPYEX, we’re all coming from different backgrounds, whether its a NASSAD background, FBI, CIA, NSA or whatever it is – we’re all creatives. Case Officers are born storytellers and creatives. They’re taking the most dangerous and impossible scenarios and figuring out how to make it possible to make it happen. I think the concept of SPYEX is long overdue and genius.”
HNMAG “In relation to filmmaking and episodic TV, which one is more demanding of your services?”
DARRELL “I’d have to say episodic TV based on 2 things. My girlfriend is a NY Times bestselling author and we have developed 6 of our own storylines in the last 3 years. Four of them are more television and 2 would lend themselves to the big screen. In addition to Condor, I sat in on the pilot for a new show – The Spook Who Sat by the Door, based on a fictional late ‘60’s book about the first Black CIA operative. I was also in the writers’ room for an American version of The Bureau, helping them scope out season 1 and how it might translate for an American audience. I’ve been contacted about a feature film but those discussions are still ongoing. I haven’t consulted on a feature film as of yet.”
HNMAG “This sounds like a fun gig, to continue to utilize your skills to contemplate a mission without the risk of peoples lives in danger.”
DARRELL “Exactly, you hit it. It’s my way of staying abreast with the craft and peoples’ interest in it. My areas of subject matter and expertise is North Korea, Iran and terrorism. I started as an analyst in the Air Force; Soviet weapons, Soviet disinformation and Soviet intelligence matters – from 1986 forward. I don’t claim to have an expertise on subject matter on Russia, but it’s hard to be in the intelligence community and not always come across a Warsaw pact or a former USSR and how that plays in, even to this day – despite the Soviet Union collapsing in ‘91’.”
Darrell told me that his daughter is in love with Canada and attends McGill University in Montreal. He says that she is a huge fan of all things Canada and keeps him informed on the goings on over here.
HNMAG “Would you have a protocol for every outside threat to the country, including a terrestrial threat from a UAP (formerly UFO) invasion?”
DARRELL “(Laughing) If there is, it would not be under the purview of CIA, which only has an external mandate. If extraterrestrials landed in Beijing, do we have a scenario? That’s a good question. I doubt it though, because the CIA does 3 things; we collect, we analyze and we execute covert action at the direction of the President of the United States. Collecting can be a lot of different things – collecting on the Russians, collecting on Syria, Iran or proliferation, whatever the topic is. It does have to have a foreign or international nexus and can’t be Area 51 because that falls under the FBI, it’s internal. If it happens in Nova Scotia, then the CIA might have some role, as a monitoring entity. However, I doubt that the CIA has a protocol for coming under alien attack. (Laughing) That might be a good movie.”
Darrell continued to help me fill in some of the blanks, in terms of his country’s jurisdiction. “Title 10 is military, title 18 is Law Enforcement and title 50 is CIA. Those are the codes that tell those institutions/organizations to stay within their boxes/boundaries. We’re the first line and the last line of defense. Every country in the world relies on their intelligence agencies to keep them from going to war/avoid border problems with neighbouring countries, nobody wants to go to war. They rely on people like us, that are more A – political, middle of the road and who are not left or right. We have to be above the fray and sometimes that’s not well received by either side. We are the foreign service and are the advisors to kings, presidents and prime ministers, because we’re looking at the 360 view and not just the political view or the military view. What do the people want?”
HNMAG “In films and television, we always see agents planting a bug in an office or in clothing. Have you ever personally planted a bug/listening device?”
DARRELL “You can ask, I just can’t answer (laughing). I will tell you this – planting a bug is never as easy as slapping a magnet on the bumper of a car. I wish technology was that simple. I would rather not answer that question.”
HNMAG “When you’re in a writer’s room, would you ever find yourself having to deny the writers some details of the next phase of a scenario, due to sworn secrecy?”
DARRELL “Honestly no, because I always find a different way. I’ll ask them to tell me where they’re going with the story and I’ll tell them the best way to get there, in a way that’s consistent, in a way that’s authentic and in a way that’s even entertaining. I’ve been blessed with 3 writers’ rooms with writers that got me and knew that I wasn’t trying to stand in their way from telling their story. I’m just there to help them tell the story better.”
HNMAG “Have you ever met with a high-ranking terrorist for negotiations?”
DARRELL “Not for negotiations but there was an operation that was coordinated with CSIS in the Pakistan theatre and it was the most senior official rendered into custody from that terrorist organization to this day, which was 7 years ago. He was the most senior I had sat down with, but it wasn’t for negotiations. We were done negotiating and he had crossed a lot of lines, so we had to neutralize him. That does not mean we killed him, it means that we took him off the battlefield. Through what we call liaison, our Pakistan and Canadian people were talking together in the theatre, when we realized Canada had the last piece of the puzzle that we needed to capture this guy. It took about 8 months to bring him to justice, but it was only possible because of CSIS and the very forward-thinking station chief they had, and my boss. It resulted in phone calls from the Director of the CIA calling the Director of CSIS and acknowledging each other’s help in the operation. It’s always cool when there’s a thank you to the other service for an operation that went well.”
Darrell added, “Wherever the Canadians have an intelligence presence outside of Canada, I guarantee they’re dealing with and talking to the CIA on a monthly basis. We’re a part of the Five Eyes, which are the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. We share most of the transnational threat issues; proliferation, terrorism, China, Russia. It’s so much better to have 5 Intelligent services looking at one set problem, rather than each of them looking at it differently and not communicating with each other. Canada has been a part of that all day, every day since WWII.”
Darrell Blocker was a thrill to talk to and SPYEX has really tapped the best of the best. What a terrific concept that fulfills a demand that had gone unanswered for far too long. Thank you Darrell and SPYEX for your contributions to the Spy entertainment scene.