How useful are spies?

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.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

21 thoughts on “How useful are spies?”

  1. “First, there are the spies themselves—11 fantastically well-trained Russians, linguistically skilled, psychologically agile, equipped with fake IDs, and sent off to blend in with the imperialist enemies for the purpose of prying loose their secrets. But a funny thing happens: The long-vanished Cold War fails to rematerialize. And meanwhile, the spies have snuggled up to the American dream and so keep playing the game—flashing encrypted e-mails, exchanging satchels and passwords, and passing on random tidbits disguised as inside dope—in order to keep getting the Moscow paychecks and, in at least one case, mortgage payments. (In a message intercepted by the FBI, one of the spies says a house is necessary in order “to ‘do as the Romans do’ in a society that values home ownership.” Nice touch. And their Moscow masters bought it!)

    Then there are those spymasters, ensconced in the SVR, the Russian Federation’s renamed KGB, identified in various memos as “C” for “Moscow Center.” They, too, had a vested interest in perpetuating this charade, citing—and no doubt embellishing—the agents’ reports to justify the preservation of their own jobs.

    In one of the intercepted memos, Moscow Center congratulates a spy for a report about the gold market, obtained (so the spy had said) from a well-connected financier, though it’s hard to imagine any such information that couldn’t have been gleaned from any number of gold-bug newsletters. “Info on gold—v[ery] usefull [sic],” the memo read, adding that “it was sent directly” to the ministries of finance and economic development “after due adaptation.” (Italics added.)

    Finally, there are the FBI agents, for whom the spies have been godsends as well. Both agents whose (impressively detailed) affidavits appear in the criminal complaints against the spies identify themselves as officials in “the counterespionage section” of the Justice Department’s national security division, with a special focus “on the foreign intelligence activities of the Russian Federation.””

  2. “There’s only one law in this game,” Leamas retorted. “Mundt is their man; he gives them what they need. That’s easy enough to understand, isn’t it? Leninism — the expediency of temporary alliances. What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play Cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London, balancing the rights and wrongs? I’d have killed Mundt if I could, I hate his guts; but not now. It so happens that they need him. They need him so that the great moronic mass you admire can sleep soundly in their beds at night. They need him for the safety of ordinary, crummy people like you and me.”
    Le Carre, John. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. p. 205 (paperback)

  3. Two Jewish merchants in Poland bump into one another at the train station in Warsaw one morning.

    Both are competitors in the same trade, so they eye each other suspiciously, and one of them asks: “So where are you traveling today?”

    “To Minsk,” comes the cautious answer.

    “To Minsk, eh?” the first says skeptically. “I know very well that you are only telling me that to make me think that you are actually going to Pinsk.  But – I happen to know that you really are going to Minsk…”

    And after a little pause he adds: “So tell me: why are you trying to deceive me?”

  4. Man whose WMD lies led to 100,000 deaths confesses all

    Defector tells how US officials ‘sexed up’ his fictions to make the case for 2003 invasion

    A man whose lies helped to make the case for invading Iraq – starting a nine-year war costing more than 100,000 lives and hundreds of billions of pounds – will come clean in his first British television interview tomorrow.

    “Curveball”, the Iraqi defector who fabricated claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, smiles as he confirms how he made the whole thing up. It was a confidence trick that changed the course of history, with Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi’s lies used to justify the Iraq war.

    He tries to defend his actions: “My main purpose was to topple the tyrant in Iraq because the longer this dictator remains in power, the more the Iraqi people will suffer from this regime’s oppression.”

    The chemical engineer claimed to have overseen the building of a mobile biological laboratory when he sought political asylum in Germany in 1999. His lies were presented as “facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence” by Colin Powell, US Secretary of State, when making the case for war at the UN Security Council in February 2003.

    But Mr Janabi, speaking in a two-part series, Modern Spies, starting tomorrow on BBC2, says none of it was true. When it is put to him “we went to war in Iraq on a lie. And that lie was your lie”, he simply replies: “Yes.”

  5. Before the fall of fascism, the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) had spent many months and a great deal of energy trying to find pockets of resistance in order to foment rebellion from within. But finding Italians—even among those who abhorred fascists—who were prepared to fight their own rulers was far from easy. This book is the official account, commissioned by the British Cabinet Office and sourced largely from the SOE’s own files, of a series of badly planned, poorly executed missions as the allies tried to get a toehold inside Mussolini’s Italy.

    Winston Churchill called the SOE’s activities “naughty deeds”, which just about sums up their Boy’s Own nature. Mr Bailey tells the tale with as straight a face as he can muster. He has an eye for the colourful characters drawn to undercover operations, but the absurdity of much that he recounts cannot be ignored.

  6. National security
    Intelligent intelligence
    Just how good are government analysts?

    In a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, David Mandel, of Defence Research and Development Canada, and Alan Barnes, a former intelligence analyst for the same country, take a stab at an answer. They analysed more than 1,500 intelligence forecasts produced by a nameless (but presumably Canadian) agency, covering the period from March 2005 to December 2011.

    Their results suggest that the old joke about “military intelligence” being an oxymoron is unfair. When they compared what the analysts had said with what actually came to pass, they found that the predictions were right about three-quarters of the time. Cynics might wonder if the analysts merely restricted themselves to easy cases, but Dr Mandel and Dr Barnes also found they were good at calibrating their judgments. Events they deemed unlikely did not happen often, whereas those they thought likely occurred frequently. Indeed, if anything they were underselling themselves, tending to err more than necessary on the side of uncertainty. And there was evidence that their skills could be learnt—for more-experienced analysts tended to do better than their junior counterparts.

  7. The Germans did not realize—until it was too late—that “William Martin” was a fiction. The man they took to be a high-level courier was a mentally ill vagrant who had eaten rat poison; his body had been liberated from a London morgue and dressed up in officer’s clothing. The letter was a fake, and the frantic messages between London and Madrid a carefully choreographed act. When a hundred and sixty thousand Allied troops invaded Sicily on July 10, 1943, it became clear that the Germans had fallen victim to one of the most remarkable deceptions in modern military history.

  8. The biggest problem with confirming the details of the Steele “dossier” is obvious: We do not know his sources other than via the short descriptions in the reports. In CIA’s clandestine service, we spent by far the bulk of our work finding, recruiting and validating sources. Before we would ever consider disseminating an intelligence report, we would move heaven and earth to understand the access, reliability, trustworthiness, motivation, and dependability of our source. We believe it is critical to validate the source before we can validate the reliability of the source’s information. How does the source know about what he/she is reporting? How did the source get the information? Who are his/her sub-sources? What do we know about the sub-sources? Why is the source sharing the information? Is the source a serious person who has taken appropriate measures to protect their efforts?

    One clue as to the credibility of the sources in these reports is that Steele shared them with the FBI. The fact that the FBI reportedly sought to work with him and to pay him to develop additional information on the sources suggest that at least some of them were worth taking seriously. At the very least, the FBI will be able to validate the credibility of the sources, and therefore better judge the information. As one recently retired senior intelligence officer with deep experience in espionage investigations quipped, “I assign more credence to the Steele report knowing that the FBI paid him for his research. From my experience, there is nobody more miserly than the FBI. If they were willing to pay Mr. Steele, they must have seen something of real value.”

  9. Espionage act

    Your review of John le Carré’s latest book described the mission that was the subject of “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” as “botched” (“George Smiley returns. Really?”, September 9th). To the contrary, it was a huge success in that it saved Britain’s “mole” in the Stasi from exposure and destroyed his rival. The death of the two British operatives was unfortunate but irrelevant to the outcome of the mission.

    Washington, DC

  10. Yet that is what he was. Sorge befriended a German military officer named Eugen Ott—after first seducing his wife, a characteristic Sorge move. With time, Ott rose to become Hitler’s ambassador in Tokyo. As Mr Matthews points out, what made Sorge such a dizzyingly successful spy was that he didn’t so much steal secrets as trade them. Thanks to a member of the ring who was also an adviser to the Japanese prime minister, Sorge had access to the inner sanctum of Japanese politics; he passed this information to Ott, who would share the latest in Nazi strategy from Berlin. All the while, the sum total of this intelligence haul was cabled back to Moscow.

    Yet as “An Impeccable Spy” makes clear, intelligence is only as good as those at headquarters who interpret it. And in Moscow in the 1930s, the apparatchiks’ priority was self-preservation. Five successive heads of the Fourth Department were shot in the purges. The survivors’ only hope to avoid a similar fate was to tell Stalin what he wanted to hear: that Hitler would refrain from invading the Soviet Union, and that any suggestions to the contrary were malevolent disinformation.

  11. Nonetheless, the intelligence community still works under a flawed assumption of exclusivity. Agencies require users to be in secure facilities just to access intelligence the community creates, and the system, which spends the bulk of its budget on expensive collection methods, expects analysts to justify the expense by maximizing the amount of highly classified material in their papers and presentations. Analysts have little, if any, incentive to make their product more accessible. But the emphasis on secretly collected information is usually unnecessary: the same or similar information that was gathered through secret means can often be found in open sources that require no security protections and that intelligence officers might fruitfully explore if they were not discouraged from doing so. To reverse this isolating trend, open-source information and open-access research and analysis techniques must become a routine part of intelligence work—the foundation, not the exception.

  12. He gave a diagnosis for what had gone wrong. “Secrecy keeps mistakes secret,” he said. “Secrecy is a disease. It causes a hardening of the arteries of the mind.” He quoted John le Carré on that point, adding that the best information actually came from the likes of area specialists, diplomats, historians, and journalists. If the C.I.A. was disbanded, he said, the State Department could pick up the intelligence work, and do a better job.

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