Don’t carry anything you don’t control

Saturday, December 24th, 2022

Alma Katsu — who spent 30+ years working for CIA and NSA and went on to write spy novels, like Red Widow — noticed that — spoiler alert!Andor incorporates spycraft into its story better and more subtly than many spy shows:

Spies Everywhere

Andor made it abundantly clear that when you’re involved in a conflict like this, you are always being watched. There are spies and watchers everywhere. Senator Mon Mothma, who knows her driver is an Internal Security Bureau (ISB) plant, complains there is “a new spy every day at the Senate” as well as at the bank where she is trying to discreetly move funds to the rebellion. Free agents, or volunteers, roam the streets of Ferrix, hoping to luck into information they might be able to sell. It becomes quickly apparent that Luthen, architect of the rebellion, has developed a vast network of spies. Spies are such a given that it’s almost humorous when Saw, leader of a partisan group, becomes outraged when he finds out Luthen even has a spy inside Saw’s own ranks.


Covert Communications

Covcomm is essential to running a spy network: it enables you to communicate securely with your assets without the risks that come with meeting in person (a risk Luthen mentions this when a highly-placed agent that he hasn’t laid eyes on in a year requests a meeting.) Covcomm was featured prominently in the show: we see Bix shimmy up a hidden tower to send broadcasts to the handler on a special transmitter (obviously designed to elude detection by the Empire). On the other end, we see Luthen and Kleya, his lieutenant, in the backroom of their antiques shop, the front for their operations, glued to their receiver, listening for messages from agents dispersed all over the galaxy.

Disguise and Persona

Operations officers often must wear a disguise in order to get to a meeting undetected or slip behind enemy lines. This is less about fooling a close observer than it is about slipping past the enemy’s army of watchers. We didn’t see too much in the disguise department in Andor except for Luthen, and it was like something out of The Americans as he alternated between his true self and his false persona, the proprietor of a high-end antiques shop on Coruscant, for which he dons a flamboyant wig and clothing.

Good Tradecraft

The spies of Andor practice good discipline as they ply their trade, from not carrying commercial communications equipment (“don’t carry anything you don’t control”) and always having an exit strategy (“build your exit on the way in,” Luthen warns Cassian), to the chalk marks on the sidewalk that Kleya follows to know where to meet insurgent team leader Vel.

The Destructive Culture of a Toxic Security Organization

Andor’s writers did a superb job depicting the atmosphere and culture of a Gestapo-like security bureaucracy. It is eat-or-be-eaten, and often management is missing-in-action, out of design rather than incompetence. You’re rewarded for affirming management’s viewpoint, not for rocking the boat or pointing out problems. Officers compete for turf and to move up the ladder, all under the watchful eye of ruthless supervisors who are themselves afraid of putting a foot wrong or being eaten alive by their underlings.


Protecting Sources

One of the toughest aspects of the espionage business is the protection of assets. When an important asset is at risk, do you leave him in place to continue receiving intelligence or do you pull him out for his own safety? To what lengths do you go in order to protect that asset?

In Andor, the ISB stumbles across a rebel plan to attack a facility. Lonni Jung, an ISB supervisor and embedded asset for the rebels, tells Luthen that their man is going to walk into a trap. But if the rebels warn the man off, the ISB will see there’s a mole in their midst. Luthen makes the decision to let their man (and his entire squad) be slaughtered by the ISB rather than risk exposing their asset. Andor’s writers did a superb job depicting the sometimes cold-hearted calculations spymasters are forced to make. Not only does this sub-plot reveal a lot about Luthen, but it left Lonni, the embedded asset, with the knowledge that 30 men died to protect him — a sacrifice he didn’t ask for.


  1. Jim says:

    It doesn’t matter what you carry or don’t carry when there’s a real-time and historical, AI-annotated Google Earth, a face- and gait-recognizing camera blanket, a universal audio pickup, and a remote biometric reading (uninterrupted) of every human being on the surface of the earth.

    The game has changed…so to speak.

  2. Lu An Li says:

    I hope this Alma got approval from CIA and NSA both before she published she would have had to have needed her manuscripts scanned over and gotten approval before the books went to print at least I hope so

  3. McChuck says:

    Lu An Li,

    It is far easier to gain forgiveness than permission. And novels aren’t generally covered, because they are works of fiction. Besides, the CIA itself is one of the worst source of leaks around. As a former counterintelligence agent, I despise them.

    None of this is new information. All of it has been widely knows for decades, centuries, or millennia.

  4. Jim says:

    McChuck: “As a former counterintelligence agent…”

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