Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote a very interesting piece for The New Yorker about the extreme difficulty of interpreting information from spies properly. You can never really know whether a promising nugget information is actually that, or whether it was cleverly planted by an enemy. In the end, both intelligence agencies and those who rely on them must remain simultaneously aware of the possibility that actionable intelligence is genuine and accurate, and of the possibility that it is intentionally erroneous. As Gladwell concludes: “the proper function of spies is to remind those who rely on spies that the kinds of thing found out by spies can’t be trusted.”
The funniest bit of the story describes the plot of Peter Ustinov’s 1956 play, “Romanoff and Juliet:’
a crafty general is the head of a tiny European country being squabbled over by the United States and the Soviet Union, and is determined to play one off against the other. He tells the U.S. Ambassador that the Soviets have broken the Americans’ secret code. “We know they know our code,” the Ambassador, Moulsworth, replies, beaming. “We only give them things we want them to know.” The general pauses, during which, the play’s stage directions say, “he tries to make head or tail of this intelligence.” Then he crosses the street to the Russian Embassy, where he tells the Soviet Ambassador, Romanoff, “They know you know their code.” Romanoff is unfazed: “We have known for some time that they knew we knew their code. We have acted accordingly—by pretending to be duped.” The general returns to the American Embassy and confronts Moulsworth: “They know you know they know you know.” Moulsworth (genuinely alarmed): “What? Are you sure?”
This reminds me of a short story I once read, but which I cannot remember the name of. It concerned an American spy who was undercover in the Soviet Union. He was preparing for retirement, and genuinely addled about which side he had really been working for. Each had reason to suspect he was a spy, and so each had reason to feed him misleading information for the other side (or accurate information that they wouldn’t trust, given what they thought about him). He was left in the state of being unable to remember whether his proper retirement rewards was a gold Rolex from the CIA or a dacha from the KGB.