Q&A: We speak with Australian spy-turned-comedian David Callan about his time working in counterintelligence and what he thinks of the new Call of Duty game.
Activision's Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is finally here, and one part of the military FPS that people are particularly enjoying is the campaign and its story. The Black Ops brand has always had a special flavor to it. It is less serious----and more narratively open-minded than the ripped-from-the-headlines storylines in the other historical and modern Call of Duty games.
With Black Ops Cold War, the game's story plays with history and covers real historical events, but with a healthy amount of conspiracy theories and deniable operations baked in.
With that in mind, we connected with former Australian Security Intelligence Organisation operative David Callan (who has since become a comedian, but more on that later), who told us about his experience as a counterintelligence officer. Callan worked for the ASIO in the '80s and '90s, which was a stormy time for international politics and clandestine operations. Callan shared stories and insight from his time in the service, and he also discussed what he thinks Black Ops Cold War, which is set in early 1980s, gets right about its depiction of the era.
"What Black Ops Cold War captures is the gravitas of the elite operators that are the pointy end of the intelligence spear," Callan said. "They don't tolerate fools; they [are] not afraid to go to the extreme, even in training; and they absolutely do not quit. Pure mission focus. Black Ops Cold War absolutely nails that."
You’re at the top of your game – but can you survive in the shadowy world of Call of Duty #BlackOpsColdWar?— Call of Duty ANZ (@CallofDuty_ANZ) November 10, 2020
Watch @NickKyrgios and @AlexVolkanovski go head-to-head in a battle of reflexes, wits & unconventional tactics. Who will keep their cool and come out on top? pic.twitter.com/R83PLaBgFd
Callan recently appeared in a video from Call of Duty ANZ where he provides instruction to professional Australian athletes Nick Kyrgios and MMA champion Alex Volkanovski on how best to manipulate their opponent during a match of Black Ops Cold War. You can check out the video above.
Regarding his own experience as a spy and a deceiver, Callan said the movies don't get it right. Intelligence officers like him don't wear fancy suits and watches, and they don't drive sports cars. The whole idea is to blend in.
"Do not be fooled by the trope that spies are glamourous," Callan said. "Your average intelligence officer is ordinary. They have to be! You don't want to intimidate a potential source; you want to put them at ease, even make them feel they have the whip hand in the relationship. Larger-than-life people don't blend in; they stand out, and that can be a real problem."
To be an effective intelligence officer, the most desirable and important skills pertain to mental acuity and a capability to lie, deceive, and manipulate. And then go home to your family, Callan said.
"Outwardly, they truly are quite ordinary, but exceptionally shrewd and focused," Callan said. "If you have that moral ambiguity and mental agility, you might just be someone ASIO is interested in, just don't expect martinis, tuxedos and edge-of-your seat thrills. No, your average spy looks like an accountant, drives like a grandad, and lies like a politician."
Be sure to read on to hear everything Callan had to say about his time in the ASIO and what he learned working clandestine operations. He also shares how he got his nickname, "Frosty," and why he moved on to pursue a new career in comedy.
"My training and experience have been invaluable as a comedian, as comedy relies on observation and analysis much like intelligence gathering," Callan said. "Taking seemingly unrelated bits of information to create a coherent picture of a target is the stock and trade of the average spy, and it is the same for a comedian, only you're creating jokes rather than intelligence reports."
The full interview follows below.
GameSpot: One of the most interesting parts of Black Ops Cold War is that it plays with history and tells us about conspiracies and stories about deniable operations and secret missions. You served as an intelligence officer for ASIO in the '80s and '90s, which was a turbulent time politically and internationally, so what can you tell us about what you learned about the real activities of intelligence and espionage operations?
David Callan: I worked as an intelligence officer with ASIO for more than 20 years. In the area of counterespionage, there was more watching and information gathering than Black Ops Cold War would suggest, but considering Australia’s geographic position, we were more of a terminus than a hub like Berlin or Beirut. The iconic cities of the Cold War were all either the capitals of the leading powers--Washington, Moscow, London--or cities where trade, culture, and ideologies met--Berlin, Istanbul, Hong Kong--essentially where the big players rubbed up against each other, and as such there was a lot more action in those locations.
Australia was regarded by some foreign powers--including some allies--as being something of a soft intelligence target. However, the Australian intelligence community, whilst small and seemingly isolated, was and remains incredibly effective in countering multiple attempts by adversarial powers to breach our national security.
In Black Ops Cold War we get to see the history we know but with a Black Ops lens that puts enough truth in it to make the player wonder if these things might have actually happened. The game developers can use a lot of creative license to play with this. Based on what you know of the game and spy operations in real life having served, what's your take on it?
What Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War captures is the texture of the times. It looks magnificent and truly reflects the grim austerity that surrounded the era. There was, on the other hand, a lot less gunplay, especially for people like ASIO officers. That kind of duty was the job of what are essentially special forces--soldiers trained in intelligence work but only ever deployed in the most extreme of circumstances.
"No one is going to want to play a game where you sit at a desk, going through transcripts of telephone intercepts" -- David Callan, former ASIO spy
But this is Call of Duty! No one is going to want to play a game where you sit at a desk, going through transcripts of telephone intercepts. That is the true work of an intelligence officer, while the force projection and glory is the realm of an elite few.
People often think about spies as fictional agents who only exist in movies, but they are real, and you were one of them. What did you learn in the service about how spies infiltrate the everyday lives of people?
Do not be fooled by the trope that spies are glamourous. Your average intelligence officer is ordinary. They have to be! You don’t want to intimidate a potential source; you want to put them at ease, even make them feel they have the whip hand in the relationship. Larger-than-life people don’t blend in; they stand out, and that can be a real problem. While intelligence officers are ordinary in appearance and attitude, intellectually they are as sharp as razors. It takes a very specific personality to lie, deceive, manipulate and then go home to the family…
Yes, spies do have families, and credit card bills, mortgages and all the other everyday concerns of your average citizen. Outwardly, they truly are quite ordinary, but exceptionally shrewd and focused. If you have that moral ambiguity and mental agility, you might just be someone ASIO is interested in, just don't expect martinis, tuxedos, and edge-of-your seat thrills. No, your average spy looks like an accountant, drives like a grandad, and lies like a politician.
There is also the idea that spies wear fancy suits and watches and drive sports cars, but I'm guessing this is not the case? What other myths about spies can you dispel?
You are bang on about the cars. If you’re being tailed by a guy driving an Aston Martin or better yet, a Lotus Esprit Turbo that converts into a submarine, you are going to tend to notice them. Spies drive very ordinary cars, and they drive them at the speed limit or slower. There were no high-speed chases in mobile surveillance because the best way to shake a tail is to slow down. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but if you slow down to under the speed limit, the car following you has to slow down or overtake you. Methodical and patient driving is the key to counter surveillance in a vehicle.
"Your average spy looks like an accountant, drives like a grandad, and lies like a politician." -- David Callan, former ASIO spy
With Black Ops Cold War specifically, how did you find the game's modern representation of espionage and wider spy culture?
In essence, what Black Ops Cold War captures is the gravitas of the elite operators that are the pointy end of the intelligence spear. They don’t tolerate fools; they [are] not afraid to go to the extreme, even in training; and they absolutely do not quit. Pure mission focus. Black Ops Cold War absolutely nails that.
What's behind your nickname, Frosty?
According to the ASIO House Security Rules, whenever there was a visitor in the building, we weren’t meant to use each other’s names; we were instructed to use the number of our house security passes. Well, who wants to do that?! As such, we all quickly started creating nicknames for each other. There was Slugger, Dazzlin’, Cammo, HATS… HATS was a great nickname. It was an acronym for 'Hundreds and Thousands Sandwiches.' because that’s what HATS insisted we serve him at his birthday morning tea each year. Oh yeah, we may have been protecting the country from espionage, sabotage and terrorism, but we still had time for a bit of cake on your birthday.
My nickname was Frosty because I was so cool… literally, not figuratively. When I first started with the Organisation I wanted to get fit and save money, so I decided to ride my bicycle to work each day. Bad, bad idea.
Canberra winters are brutal and after I arrived one morning blue and shivering from the cold, someone in the office shouted: “Someone’s looking a little Frosty!” Boom! Prestige nickname acquired.
Since leaving ASIO you've gotten into comedy; can you talk about what drove that change in direction and how you apply your spy skills to the comedy scene?
My training and experience have been invaluable as a comedian, as comedy relies on observation and analysis much like intelligence gathering. Taking seemingly unrelated bits of information to create a coherent picture of a target is the stock and trade of the average spy, and it is the same for a comedian, only you’re creating jokes rather than intelligence reports.
ASIO was also great training as an actor. Seriously, when you consider acting is just lying with flair, what better place to learn how to do that than in a building full of spies?