Quantum of Solace, the new James Bond movie scheduled for release in mid-November might be a fine movie, but something is missing. There is no Q.
James Bond without Q is like toast without butter. Over more than three decades, Q's work amazed audiences and saved Bond's life. Q's inventions confounded Bond's adversaries and inspired engineers at the CIA—really—to stretch the limits of physics and adapt the most advanced technology to espionage needs. I used to run that department, the CIA Office of Technical Service.
"Q was an inspiration," a long-time technical officer once told me. "When a new Bond movie was released, we always got calls asking, 'Do you have one of those?' If I answered 'no,' the next question was, 'How long will it take you to make it?' Folks didn't care about the laws of physics or that Q was an actor in a fictional movie—his character and inventiveness pushed our imagination."
Former Soviet intelligence officers have commented to American counterparts that Bond movies were carefully analysed by KGB technicians. The Soviets believed that Q's gadgets telegraphed the Western technical capabilities that Soviet counterintelligence would eventually face.
But Q's devices, unlike those available to American cold war spies, always worked exactly as they were designed.
The late Richard Helms, former Director of Central Intelligence, noted this contrast with Bond in writing, "[Our]operational plumbing...included...versions of some of the gadgets James Bond always had at hand. It sometimes seemed the more impressive a device appeared in the workshop, the more fragile it was. It took some experience before case officers learned not to fling these prima donna utensils into the back seat of an automobile, but to treat them with the delicate hand they required."
By the mid 1990's digital technology was revolutionising technical espionage just as the integrated circuit had done three decades earlier. IC's made possible tiny bugs for clandestine audio, electronic communications devices and new sensors for collection and detection. But by 1999, software code—visually unexciting strings of ones and zeros—buried in a computer or a PDA, rather than sleek concealments, tiny bugs and miniature cameras, had became the heart of spy gear. In QoS, fast cars, exotic weapons, brilliant explosions and smooth seduction apparently remain, but the inestimatible Q and his amazing gadgets are gone, possibly forever.
Robert Wallace, a retired CIA officer, is the former director of the CIA's Office of Technical Service and author of SPYCRAFT: The Secret History of the CIA's Spytechs from Communism to al-Qaeda. Having appeared on Gizmodo many times in the past, he may be reached at www.ciaspycraft.com.