Spies are never out of fashion
For the Herald
They were in the news just last week
Just as you begin to think that espionage and the counter of it is going out of fashion, along comes news of a fresh twist in style and practice. It happened in recent days (February 15) when it was reported that Wikileaks is facilitating readers’ access to its vast files with a new Google-style search engine. This is after the US spy agency NSA and its British counterpart, GCHQ, and probably many another, had combed through Internet to trace email addresses in every corner of the world from which efforts were made to contact Julian Assange’s news agency.
And it was February 11 when Internet users from many countries, ranging from Colombia to Serbia and South Africa to Austria, used the date when Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed (in 1945) on carving up the world, to bombard legislators in the US in protest against the invasion of privacy by the National Security Agency. (In Buenos Aires, the Association for Civil Rights — ADC — reported that a local NGO had filed a writ with a congressional committee demanding that it restrain government intelligence interference in the lives of private persons.)
Yet another right-up-to-date news item was that over one million signatures had been collected to ask Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff to grant asylum to NSA whistleblower Edward Joseph Snowden, 31, who has asylum in Russia until next August. If he can get asylum extended by Russia, he might be advised to remain Vladimir Putin’s guest. It is not beyond the boundaries of speculation that in Brazil the CIA will happily set up a deal with drug barons who have air facilities to whisk Snowden off to Miami.
Snowden’s most recent discomfort may well have been the British High Court decision the other day to rule lawful the detention for nine hours at Heathrow airport last August of Brazilian journalist David Miranda, 28, a friend of Glenn Greenwald, former Guardian journalist (who was living in Brazil) and associate of Snowden. Miranda, travelling from Germany to Brazil, was found in possession of 58,000 stolen documents that security agents decided could endanger the lives of a number of officials if they reached the hands of the likes of al-Qaeda or other international terrorist groups. Well, 58,000 is a fair pack of documents, even if stored in a chip. Miranda said he would appeal the High Court ruling. How many tea cases or trunks would so many thousands files have occupied in another age?
The spy circuit that a whole generation, or more than one, grew up on began to change in the nineties, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Perhaps the two mega cases of double agents in the CIA are the best signals of change. Aldrich Ames (b. 1941) joined the CIA in 1980 and became a leading East-Europe and Soviet information analyst, eventually to turn supplier of US secrets to the Soviet KGB. He tripped up on his own greed — perhaps grounded in part in his heavy drinking. He was convicted in 1994 to life without parole. He was followed in the fall by Harold J. Nicholson, arrested in November 1996, sentenced to life in prison.
The big difference by then was that espionage had nothing to do with ideology, it could be reduced to plain greed for cash. Both Ames and Nicholson made plenty, and flaunted it.
Big money earner
It has been said that industrial espionage became the big money earner in the nineties. It was a time before serious digital take-off, with plans abundant in ambitious aims of national technology developments. It was the post-Cold War, for a time, and the 007s were reduced to filching floor plans and corporate secrets. It did not last long, but it made some men, and women, a bundle of money.
The age of the Cambridge Four (Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, diplomats, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt — art curator to the Queen and her collection — all of them products from Trinity and King’s Colleges in the thirties, who consciously decided that the Soviet line was that which should be followed) has now faded into fiction and old memories. The characters built around them made excellent spy stories. George Blake, diplomat and double agent is the one surviving in a dacha somewhere outside Moscow. He is in his mid 90s, and will be remembered not for his treason but for escaping by climbing a wall at Wormwood Scrubs prison in England with a ladder made of knitting needles and was then delivered to the border of East Germany, in 1966.
Ironically, it was the author Arthur Koestler who contributed to one of the early changes. Koestler moved from active participation in the Paris Comintern under Willy Münzenberg, covered the Spanish Civil War from Malaga, was sentenced to death by Franco’s officers, and was imprisoned on arrival in England, and eventually turned his Soviet sympathy into vigorous anti-Communist argument. The British needed to know foreign languages and post-imperial political strategy.
It was Koestler, after the success of his anti-Communist novels, who enlightened the British secret service to the operative style of Soviet intelligence. He had a sound base in his experience in Stalin’s Russia, Germany, Paris and Spain.
Post war espionage
We have Graham Greene’s brilliant perception of post war espionage in The Third Man (1949), and the monumental Smiley novels by John Le Carré (David John Moore Cornwell, now 82). Will future generations only have their Smartphones to stare into for information? Will they have to do without the exploration of the dark corridors of MI5 (the UK domestic intelligence service) by Le Carré?
The beauty of that charming man Le Carré is that he was able to move on from the age of Smiley spies in the Cold War into a new vein, the first of that lot being his novel, The Tailor of Panama (Hodder, London, 1996). In the changing season of secrecy, Britain made public and publicized the appointment of Dame Stella Rimington as head of MI5, and then censored her memoirs.
That too seems in the past. Re-reading Stephen Dorril’s, MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations (Fourth Estate, London 2000) the whole process sounds quite bureaucratic. That books makes behind-the-scenes spycraft sound quite boring.
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Oh, and by the way, in the compilation of some of the paragraphs of this article, I wrote notes on tiny scraps of paper, you might call that a sort of index. I am now destroying all those scraps. At my age, it is with good reason. I still remember the raid on the Herald in October 1975, when a group of very elegant young men came to kill me, according to their statement. They searched every tiny scrap of paper in my desk at the Azopardo street offices. Finding nothing of interest, for I had thrown out what they had planted, they took me to Coordinación Federal, then on Moreno street. Publicity of my arrest had saved my life.
Years later, in October 1984, when I became prosecution witness against a detestable guerrilla chief at the request of President Raúl Alfonsín, the man who had come to kill me in 1975 was the head of my dozen or so bodyguards. You just can’t trust anybody in this business.