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D.C. spies admire "Covert Affairs," question its realism

Piper Perabo as Annie Walker in USA's "Covert Affairs." (Robert Ascroft/USA Network)

How realistic is USA Network's popular new spy drama "Covert Affairs"? Hard to say. You can try asking real CIA agents -- but they're just so darned secretive about it!

The series has drawn something of a cult following among Washington-area spooks, who find it more plausible than "24" (the latter featuring its heavy dose of harsh interrogation tactics only Jack Bauer could endure and magical satellites that see everything). Yet our "Spy Talk" colleague Jeff Stein found even the most knowledgeable sources torn over the veracity of a recent "Covert Affairs" plot, where the CIA recruit played by Piper Perabo (a Valerie Plame-meets-"Alias" type) used a fake Smithsonian job as cover.

Is that allowed? "Shows Hollywood's imagination," sniffed one CIA operations veteran (speaking, of course, only on condition of anonymity), noting that the agency would need the Smithsonian's permission. Retired counterterrorism operative Arthur Keller told Stein he had never heard of anyone taking the museum as cover, but "I'd have used it without asking if I thought it would be effective."

A former station chief (again, anonymous!) said it probably wouldn't be done for the same reason the CIA never uses the Peace Corps as cover -- they wouldn't want to hurt its reputation overseas. All agreed, though, that a story line in which the adorable Perabo used her Smithsonian cover to investigate a senator suspected of leaking classified info was way off the rails.

That kind of stuff is hands-off for the CIA -- strictly the Justice Department's turf. If the CIA even thought about investigating a senator, another former station chief told Stein, "It would be against the law and cause a tidal wave of congressional anger."

Read more at Jeff Stein's Spy Talk blog: "'Covert Affairs' stretches for spy-world reality"

By The Reliable Source  |  September 3, 2010; 1:00 AM ET
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