About six months ago, I read Ben MacIntyre’s fascinating and extremely well written book “Double Cross” about how German spying in the United Kingdom was turned on its head, with, as I remember it, each German agent basically converted to a British double agent able sending disinformation back to Berlin. Fascinating it was, and how clever were those Brits. (Now, to be fair, I quote from Alexander Rose’s New York Times review: “A gem, we may say, “Double Cross” certainly is, albeit flawed. If its color and clarity are exceptional, valuable carats are lost because of MacIntyre’s attempt to maximize brilliance at the expense of heft”. Basically, Rose says that there were other more important factors in winning the war and that you can’t believe everything a former counterespionage agent tells you about his exploits, likening it to Aesop’s fable about the flea that lands on the chariot wheel and is proud of all the dust he has raised. Of course, perhaps Rose was a bit overstating his point. Look at David Ignatius of the Washington Post: “Reading Ben MacIntyre’s superb account of Britain’s masterful counter-intelligence operations during World War II, it’s hard to imagine that they have any peers when it comes to the art of deception.”)
Let’s take “Double Cross” as more or less accurate. Add to these exploits, among other things, the breaking of the Enigma codes, and you have quite a success story. Are the Brits still this good?
Alas, perhaps not. I just read Anthony Glees’ “The Stasi Files”, about the espionage conducted by the former German Democratic Republic, Communist East Germany. In spite of its broad title, the book limits itself to East German spying in the United Kingdom during the 1980s, basing its conclusions almost exclusively on the files left behind by the Statsi (or State Security Office) after the Berlin Wall was torn down and the two Germanys reunited. These were not complete files, as many (I think most) of the files were destroyed, but there was enough left for Glees to get a picture of how East Germany was able to learn about, and influence, Britain. There are now stories here of German spies being turned around or manipulated. Quite the contrary. Britain, says Glees, did not even know the extent it was being spied upon.
The picture Glees presents of East Germany is an interesting one. He concludes that the Stasi was the most powerful organization in the country. It did not, he believes, serve the East German government as much as the East German government served it. The sole purpose of the combination of government and security apparatus was self preservation – keeping the ins in. Thus, he says, East German diplomacy (which started in the U.K. with diplomatic recognition in the mid-1970s) was not diplomacy in the standard sense. Everyone in the East German embassy was, in one way or another. a spy, and the gullible Brits had no clue. Thus, they were able to work their way into the minds of left wing British governmental officials, who thought they were helping to work with the East Germans to create a better world (or at least one which could work with common goals in certain areas), whereas in fact, they were being used to gather intelligence information, which the Germans then passed on the Soviets, who were their real bosses.
Now, I don’t know Glees, and I will take it that he at least has some right wing biases, but even with grains of salt added to the mix, you sure don’t get the feeling that the U.K. of 1985 was the same as the U.K. of 1945.
What has happened? Is it true that British intelligence is only a shadow of its former self? And is it equally true of American intelligence operations? Add to the probable answers to these questions the hosannas being thrown at Edward Snowden by so many, the continuing media and journalistic searching for intelligence “over-reaching”, and the general ability of anyone to compromise anyone else’s privacy through cyber-searching, and you certainly don’t come up with a good recipe for a safe future.
I want out spies to all be like James Bond, and like those guys who worked for Britain in the 40s. I want to find out that Snowden, and all of the investigative journalists, are deceiving us to think that they are paying attention to things like the right of privacy, and that in fact they are working together to fool everyone else, and to protect the homeland. And, as a taxpayer and citizen of the world, I really don’t think that is too much to ask.