Spies and the media

2010-09-10

in Geek stuff, Politics

Earlier, I raised the question of whether spies are useful given that you cannot fully trust them.

The other night, I realized that much of what spies did for monarchs in the past is now done by the media. Rather than having a person in a foreign capital who you trust to relay current information, you can count on a vast media apparatus doing so in a reasonably open and effective way. The media is better than a spy because they have more resources and are unlikely to be feeding false information specifically to you (though they do get things wrong at times).

Indeed, it is a fair bet that most of the fantastic volume of reports produced by America’s new intelligence apparatus are primarily recycled from unclassified news sources and the internet.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

. October 22, 2017 at 11:18 pm

Novel intelligence

I enjoyed Bagehot’s column, “Spies like us” (September 9th). He is right. The relationship between SIS/MI6 and the literary establishment has historically been close, if turbulent. We have attracted some great writers; some have become famous, many more have set aside their vocation and remained in the service. Some of the operational correspondence I have seen during my career would grace many an anthology were it not for its classification.

Despite inevitable tensions between the secret and published world, the relationship has generally been of mutual benefit. Literature gains an edgy genre. We are painted in the minds of a global audience as some form of ubiquitous intelligence presence. This can be quite a force multiplier, even if it means we are blamed for an astonishing range of phenomena in which we have no involvement at all.

I leave your readers to judge whether or not a country’s spy fiction provides an accurate guide to the country itself. But it is certainly true that a country’s intelligence service can offer an unvarnished reflection of the values of the country it serves. The Stasi told you all you needed to know about the East German regime. SIS, and our sister services, GCHQ and MI5, tell you a lot about modern Britain. My staff are representative of the British public, firmly rooted in the values of our liberal democracy, doing some extraordinary and highly effective work in the face of a set of forbidding modern threats. Our fictional portrayal, by contrast, can be pretty wild, and often downright cynical. We are humans and we make mistakes, but I work on the principle that the more the public knew of what we did, the prouder they would be.

Which brings me to Bagehot’s contention that British spies are the “mavericks” of government. Not really. We do things in defence of national security that would not be justified in pursuit of private interest. But only when they are judged by ministers to be necessary and proportionate. We break the rules, certainly; we do not break the law. And if we are not maverick, we are not all establishment or male either; ask my deputy. What I will allow, is that alongside our values of courage, respect and integrity, we place a premium on creativity. Although we are growing, we will always be of limited size compared with our adversaries. We will never prevail through scale or force of numbers. It is creativity, innovation and sheer guile that give us the edge.

It seems that we are destined always to have an ambivalent relationship with our public alter ego, MI6. But I have learnt to live with it. Indeed, I have determined to take advantage of it. They say that life follows art. I do not think that this is the case exactly. But I accept that there is a strong feedback loop. In which case, I should make it clear that, despite bridling at the implication of a moral equivalence between us and our opponents that runs through John le Carré’s novels, I’ll take the quiet courage and integrity of George Smiley over the brash antics of 007, any day.

ALEX YOUNGER (“ C”)
Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service
London

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