The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

2011-05-12

in Books and literature, Geek stuff, Politics, Security

Recently, I found John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to be an entertaining distraction from less accessible books I am working on. A couple of days ago, driven by the desire to read something a bit zippier than my many books on environmental economics, I picked up Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. All told, I would say it is a somewhat better book than the one I read before. It includes a few interesting bits of tradecraft, and somewhat more commentary on the business of espionage itself. Le Carré has a talent for writing plausible observations on human character, and expressing them well. This is also clearly a fairly personal book for him.

It’s a decent choice for a summer read, especially if you are a politics and/or security nerd. As a tract on the amorality of the intelligence services, it is also a potentially useful counter to their moral glamorous portrayal in other fiction.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

. May 12, 2011 at 10:52 pm

Journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell once remarked: “I’ve read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold once every five years since I was 15. I only started to understand it the third time.”

oleh May 13, 2011 at 3:09 am

Le Carre had an ability to use his background at MI5 and MI6 to craft a number of espionage novels featuring the Cold War. The Spy who came in from the Cold stands out. George Smiley was a feature of the Cold War. Le Carre has keep contemporary after the end of the Cold War by writing novels of our multilateral world.

In a similar vein of entertainment with an element of education I am enjoying as one of my readings Ken Follet’s Fall of the Giants. It deals with the seemingly endless fascination of the onset of WWI through a cast of characters and settings in at least 5 different countries.

What amazes me about these novelists is their historical accuracy. I expect many of their readers are looking to catch up the authors on some inaccuracy.

. June 25, 2011 at 9:15 pm

Spying works like this: The CIA sets up an office within the American embassy in Paris, for instance, or Nairobi. An agency case officer works undercover as a passport-pushing, visa-stamping bureaucrat. Meanwhile, he or she runs agents — that is, finds and grooms local players to gather information for the case officer, who then sends it home for analysts to examine. These local agents are valuable because they have connections in a world where American officers don’t. They can look the part, speak the language, move freely, ask more questions.

The problem is that in a country like Pakistan — a fractured, duplicitous place that may be an ally or may be an enemy or both — the CIA can’t just set up shop in the embassy and let case officers work in the usual way. Places like Pakistan require a different sort of person altogether. A person like Raymond Davis.

. June 25, 2011 at 9:20 pm

“Some particulars of the 36-year-old’s work remain cloaked in classification, but a search for answers in Pakistan and the U.S. — and eventually, a brief interview with Davis himself — give a good sense of who he is and what happened to him. He likely worked alongside the CIA’s Special Activities Division, the agency’s paramilitary wing. The SAD works in hostile environments — the ones where running agents is risky, if not impossible — gleaning intelligence through covert means. That can include anything from tapping wires to snatching suspects to influencing politicians through propaganda. Davis’s particular role focused on operational security. Whether it was a clandestine meeting between a case officer and a source or an eavesdropping or other black op, his job would be to work closely — but not too closely — with the case officer, in case the scene shifted in some perilous way. During a meeting in a hotel lobby, for instance, an operator like Davis would try to remain far enough away from the exchange to not draw attention, but near enough to watch for hostile movement. If someone were to attack, protocol calls for two essential actions: Shoot any attackers until they’re down for good, and clear out immediately, along with any other Americans and agents.

In Pakistan, Davis’s near-translucent official cover was as a “technical consultant” to the American consul general. But in reality he and his CIA team sought to do something difficult and dangerous: to surveil and report on the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba.”

. June 25, 2011 at 9:41 pm

“Negotiators from both sides faced what seemed to be an impossible set of requirements. They needed a solution that would simultaneously allow Davis to go free, preserve a sense of sovereignty for Pakistan, rescue politicians from any painful decisions, and undercut the mullahs’ ability to whip up anger in the streets. Little light shone through a forest of frightening potential outcomes. Then Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. and an Islamic legal expert, offered U.S. politicians an idea so brilliantly counterintuitive that it just might solve all their problems at once: Invoke shari’a, he said. He suggested that the Americans appeal to Islamic law, which provides an opportunity for the accused to pay diyah, or blood money, to the families of his victims, who can in turn forgive the transgression in court.

Meanwhile, privately — in phone calls and in a meeting at a luxury hotel in Oman — the top soldiers and spies of each country hammered out a deal of their own. The CIA wanted its man back in America. The Pakistani military wanted him gone too. In fact, the Pakistanis wanted all CIA contractors back on American soil and for the CIA to sharply draw down its personnel and plans in Pakistan altogether. Pakistan said the CIA can simply route any future human intelligence gathering through the ISI, instead of acting on its own. The question, of course, is how much the CIA can trust the ISI. In the days following Davis’s arrest — and the confiscation of his mobile phone — Pakistani newspapers ran reports of militant groups rounding up and assassinating several locals for “cooperating with the CIA.” “

. May 11, 2013 at 11:32 am
. September 16, 2017 at 4:59 pm

There is also a more profound reason for Britain’s success. The spy novel is the quintessential British fictional form in the same way that the Western is quintessentially American. Britain’s best spy novelists are so good precisely because they use the genre to explore what it is that makes Britain British: the obsession with secrecy, the nature of the establishment, the agonies of imperial decline and the complicated tug of patriotism.

Britain is honeycombed with secretive institutions, particularly public schools and Oxbridge colleges, which have their own private languages. At Eton, for example, where Fleming was educated and Mr le Carré taught for a while, boys dress in tailcoats and call their teachers “beaks” and their terms “halves”. Walter Bagehot argued (approvingly) that Britain weaves duplicity into its statecraft. The constitution rests on a distinction between an “efficient” branch which governs behind the scenes, and a “dignified” branch which puts on a show for the people.

The British habitually wear masks to conceal their true selves. They put on different costumes for different roles in Bagehot’s theatre of state, and keep stiff upper lips to conceal their emotions. Mr le Carré (whose real name is David Cornwell) learned to put on a brave face at school because he was so embarrassed by his father, who was a professional confidence trickster. Greene learned the spymaster’s art when, as a pupil at Berkhamsted School, he acted as an informer for his father, the headmaster.

The other great theme in British spy novels is geopolitical decline. How can people who were “trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves”, as one of Mr le Carré’s characters puts it, bear to live in a world in which the waves are ruled by other powers and statecraft is reduced to providing fuel for the welfare state? Fleming’s novels are full of laments about Britain’s “crumbling empire” and its dependency-producing state. “You have not only lost a great empire,” Tiger Tanaka, a Japanese spy, tells Bond, “you have seemed almost anxious to throw it away with both hands.” Mr le Carré once described Britain as a country where “failed socialism is being replaced by failed capitalism”. The Circus, as he called the secret service’s headquarters, is a physical manifestation of decline: cramped, shoddy, reeking of rising damp, just one hasty repair away from collapse.

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