'Red Sparrow' used to be an actual phenomenon during the Cold War, and in some ways still is: Author

Key Points
  • "Red Sparrow" is based on what intelligence operatives say used to be a 'school' run by Soviet Russia, author Jason Matthews told CNBC.
  • While much of spying nowadays is digital, Matthews said that human intelligence, and forming relationships, is the "gold standard" of getting confidential information.
Jennifer Lawrence (c) stars in Red Sparrow.
Source: 20th Century Fox

"Red Sparrow," a dark, complex and violent thriller debuting this weekend, is a fresh take on an old trope: The Cold War between Russia and the United States.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a ballerina in modern day Russia who suffers a career-ending injury that leads her into the shadowy world of espionage. The film is a throwback to the years when spycraft was steeped in the concept of "kompromat" – using seduction instead of computers to lure diplomats and businessmen into divulging sensitive information, or blackmailing them outright.

The plot, seemingly anachronistic during a time when sophisticated digital hacking is the weapon of choice among geopolitical rivals, revolves around Lawrence's character being trained at a secret school that prepares her for a career in psychological and sexual manipulation.

Yet according to Jason Matthews, a best-selling author and a CIA veteran with more than three decades of national security experience, the movie's narrative is in fact art imitating real life. "Red Sparrow" is based on Matthews' book series, and the idea of using sex as a linchpin of human intelligence (HUMINT) gathering is something he euphemistically refers to as "sexpionage."

As it happens, according to intelligence sources, the Soviet Union once ran a school to train young women in being professional "honey pots" to entrap diplomats. The events of "Red Sparrow", which was published in book form in 2013, are an amalgam of Matthews' own anecdotes from his years as a clandestine officer.

"The Russians have for many, many years, used women to try and sexually entrap [high-ranking foreign officials] for blackmail purposes, to try and tell their secrets," Matthews told CNBC in an interview this week.

"If the conditions are right, in Moscow, someone with access to secrets is having one too many drinks in a Moscow bar, and a young lady for sure will sidle up to them and see how far it goes," said the 66-year-old Connecticut native.

Jason Matthews, author Red Sparrow.
Source: Jason Matthews

Conversation and champagne

At the height of the Iron Curtain years of the 1960s and 70s, Matthews said Russian sources spoke of "a 'Sparrow' school, a state school where women trained in these arts. I think that's long since closed, but if a diplomat or a businessman traveled to Moscow and the Russians thought that he could be compromised, they probably have a lot of independent contractors in the bars of Moscow."

The training consisted of a few months of instruction in "how to elicit conversation, how to open a bottle of champagne, little things like that," at a time when the average woman in the Soviet Union wasn't groomed in such worldly things," said Matthews, who retired from the CIA in 2010.

"Now I don't know if anybody is getting trained to do this, now they probably have working girls that do it naturally," he added.

Image from Twentieth Century Fox’s Red Sparrow.
Source: 20th Century Fox

The idea of "sexiponage" might strain credulity, at a time when cyber warfare between America and antagonists like Russia and North Korea dominate the headlines. Yet Matthews argued that forming human relationships remains the "gold standard" of intelligence gathering – even in an era of high-tech surveillance and cyber breaches.

"You establish a thumbnail sketch of your human target, then establish a true authentic relationship," he said, calling the recruitment process "counterintuitive."

The author — who himself studied journalism as a graduate student at the University of Missouri — said intelligence officers are akin to "Clandestine journalists: They look for stories, they look for people who can talk to them, they convince them to talk, and then they protect their sources. There are a lot of parallels."

Chief among them, of course, is asking high-ranking officials to disclose sensitive information that, in all likelihood, will tarnish the organization they work for.

"You're asking a foreigner to commit treason and betray his or her country," said Matthews. "At times it is a very difficult and delicate sell."