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October 11, 2011


Q’s Espionage Festival: 1. Gordon Corera’s The Art of Betrayal

by quaesitor

BBC Security Correspondent, Gordon Corera‘s new book, The Art of Betrayal – Life and Death in the British Secret Service covers ground that will be familiar to all students of the Cold War and spy fiction fans. But he does so in a very readable, engaging but authoritative way. The British Secret Service was in some ways one of the last relics of British imperial glory, with an ability to strut across the world stage despite other aspects of British influence declining.Having been the senior service, post-war realignments meant that the CIA had far greater power, finance and influence. MI6 would play a significant role in its support, albeit as very much the junior partner. But the tensions and betrayals within it would seriously undermine this role. And this is what Corera seeks to probe.

Just to be transparent. Gordon Corera is a friend, so this review can’t claim total impartiality! But this is definitely a fantastic read which I couldn’t put down. Rather than a bald narrative of events, he writes to plumb the depths of why people spy in the first place (p3), and then analyse some of the strategic tensions within the service (e.g. on p133 with its discussion of whether or not a secret service should primarily be concerned with intelligence gathering, or engage in covert action and subversion as well).

Why Spy?

On the former question, there are a number of answers. To begin with, many, like the Cambridge Spy Ring, were ideological convictions, especially before Stalin’s repression crushed western intellectuals’ optimism for good. While those betrayed had little time for such a motivation (for instance, Kim Philby‘s treachery led to many British agents’ lives being lost, something for which David Cornwell/John Le Carré could never forgive him), some could claim a degree of integrity… perhaps.

Blake was not one of ‘us’. He was virtually a foreigner. ‘But Philby, an aggressive, upper-class enemy, was of our blood and hunted with our pack,’ wrote John Le Carré. Philby became the benchmark for treachery and his story would inspire le Carré to write his own study of betrayal, Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

…Philby himself always denied being a traitor to anything. ‘To betray, you must first belong. ‘he told a British journalist who confronted him in Moscow. ‘I never belonged.’ (p92)

As Le Carré later said:

In the late 1980s, John le Carré was allowed into Russia and received a message at a party saying that a ‘great admirer’ Kim Philby wanted to meet him. ‘It was a horrific suggestion,’ le Carré later explained. ‘I couldn’t possibly have shook his hand. It was drenched in blood. It would have been repulsive.’ (p247)

But in time, ideology ceased to be a motivation.

Blackmail had always been part of Soviet espionage, but by the late 1960s it had become even more important. The great Soviet agents of the 1930s like the Cambridge spies had been willing recruits, driven by a fear of fascism at that time and still able to see hope in Communism. Three decades later, the idealists were harder to find, much to the KGB’s frustration. And so blackmail and the offer of money were employed more regularly. Many intelligence officers feel uncomfortable anyway with ideological recruits since they are less likely to do what they are told. Once someone has received money, they will also find it harder to walk away. (p231)

The interesting thing is that the foot soldiers of the espionage industry needed more than even this. Because, as Corera points out,

Scratch beneath the thin veneer of glamour and much of the routine work of MI6 was a form of glorified train-spotting – with a little plane- and boat-spotting thrown in. (p27).

But involvement in such work also provided rather more sinister openings. “Secret knowledge offers the needy a sense of superiority and power over ordinary folk.” (p19) “The professional skill of espionage,’ Young later wrote, ‘is the exploitation of human weakness.” (p30) Furthermore, there is the thrill of undercover action. I vividly remember an interview with John Le Carré (I think it might have been an extra on the Smiley’s People DVD) describing how “delicious” it was to be able to break into a house, while having the power to place a police blockade for a ‘gas leak’ at the end of the street in case the owners turned up early. Power, as so often, is the narcotic.

Fatal Flaws

The Secret Service’s darkest hours came after the full extent of Philby’s betrayal became known, and more recently, with the politicisation of intelligence gathering around the Iraq invasion and the ‘dodgy dossier’. Corera analyses both well, especially the latter because it has come under his BBC remit. In particular, what both low points have in common is the USA/CIA factor. Philby had been closely involved in Washington as head of MI6s counter-Soviet operations.

How much did Philby know? ‘The sky was the limit,’ a CIA officer from the time later remarked. ‘He would have known as much as he wanted to find out.’ One day, Ted Kollek, a visiting Israeli official, bumped into Philby in a corridor at CIA headquarters. ‘What is Philby doing here?’ he later asked Angleton. ‘Kim is a good friend of ours,’ [James Jesus] Angleton replied. Kollek had been at Litzi and Philby’s wedding in Vienna back in 1934 when it was clear he had Communist sympathies. ‘Don’t trust him’, he warned Angleton. The warning was ignored. (p64)

Blunt, Maclean, Philby, Burgess (clockwise from top left)

His betrayal would lead to perennial suspicions at Langley that you couldn’t trust the Limeys. It was not a little ironic, then, that the CIA suffered the same thing when one of its own, Aldrich Ames, sold secrets to the Russians from an almost identical post as Philby.

Where the early British traitors had been ideological, the CIA’s traitors were utterly venal. The damage was the same. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 the head of the CIA’s Soviet division learnt everything from CNN because he had no agents left to report to him on what was unfolding. Just like MI6 in the 1950s the CIA was institutionally unwilling to accept the idea that it might be penetrated. (p285)

Just as in Le Carré’s novels, so in real life – MI6 desperately sought ways to regain trust, and therefore influence and favour, across the Atlantic. The desire for barter to buy places at the top table was one aspect of what went wrong in the run up to Iraq. Suddenly the ‘evidence’ for weapons of mass destruction bought huge influence because it nicely cohered with the political and military intentions of the White House. But in a nice twist, Corera picks up the fictional precedent of Graham Greene’s brilliantly satirical Our Man In Havana:

‘They weren’t seen by experts. You forget this is a Secret Service. We have to protect our sources. We can’t allow documents like that to reach anyone who really knows’ That was how the fictional MI6 employee in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana explained to the vacuum-cleaner salesman why no one had noticed that his technical diagrams for a new super-weapon were actually enlarged versions of a two-way nozzle and double-action coupling from an ‘Atomic Pile’ vacuum-cleaner. ‘We haven’t shown them the drawings yet.’ the Chief explained in the 1958 novel, referring to the experts outside the service. ‘You know what those fellows are like. They’ll criticise points of detail, say the whole thing is unreliable, that the tube is out of proportion or points the wrong way.’ (p370)

That this was a tragedy with the most appalling consequences cannot be denied (whether one agrees with the Iraq invasion or not). And it certainly did little to rejuvenate MI6’s reputation.

Ripping Yarns?

Of course, most of us love spy novels for their escapist thrills, labyrinthine plots and accounts of derring-do. Depending on where your preferences lie, you’ll veer towards the extremes of either Greene/Le Carré (for the more literary and labyrinthine) or Fleming (for the escapist derring-do). Well, there are certainly moments of great intrigue in Corera’s account. The stories of Philby and Blake, Penkovsky and Gordievsky still fascinate. In particular, the stories of Daphne Park in Kinshasa, far from the Cold War hothouse of Berlin, are worthy of a movie in themselves. She was a remarkable woman. Those involved in any form of cross-cultural work would do well to learn from her example in the last days of Belgian rule in Congo:

Daphne Park (photo: Rob Judges)

The city was segregated, with Africans needing a pass to get through police cordons at night. ‘I thought to myself no African is ever going to come and see me and have to pass through all that.’ Instead she chose a villa six miles out of town on the road to the airport and not far from the university. No pool. No air conditioning. No guards watched the house at night. Only once did she feel threatened, when she heard robbers at the window. She bellowed of the window that she was a witch and that their extremities would drop off if they continued to bother her. She slept alone in her house in Africa, as she had often done as a girl when he parents were away. The Belgians thought she was mad. But the Africans came to visit. (p99)

I wasn’t a particularly sexy person,’ she explained. ‘It’s been a huge advantage during my professional career that I’ve always looked like a cheerful, fat missionary.’ she once remarked. ‘It wouldn’t be of any use if you went around looking sinister, would it?’ She had never been encouraged by the service to use her femininity to extract information. ‘I’m sad to say they only had to look at me to know there wasn’t much point in that.’ (p101)

Interestingly, she echoes Le Carré’s scorn for Fleming with her own for Le Carré. Here she speaks in an interview with Corera:

For Park, Secret Service work was about trust, not betrayal. For that reason she had a deep loathing of the bleaker fictional portrayals of her world. ‘John Le Carré I would gladly hang draw and quarter,’ she would later say. ‘He dares to say that it is a world of cold betrayal. It’s not. It’s a world of trust. You can’t run an agent without trust on both sides. Of course it is limited. Of course there are etchings he won’t tell you, of course there are things I won’t tell him – that’s understandable. But if you are actually considering whether the agent is telling you something of vital interest, you need to know that this is somebody who has worked for you and you have to know that he has been trustworthy in other matters… And he, for his part, knows that what he tells me i’m not going to g and chat about in the nearest bar and i’m not going to talk about it to anybody. What he says is going to be protected and his identity is going to be protected.’ (p100)

I couldn’t help feeling, however, that even if there is trust between agent and source, betrayal is taking place somewhere along the line. Otherwise, there’d be little reason of the agent to get involved. But then, the experts in this field are necessarily adept at nice turns of phrase and spinning their case. You can’t always believe everything they say… which is not the same thing as never believing anything they say.

A Tale Well Told

What made this book so gripping? Well, Corera writes about the last 60 or 70 years with great verve and wit, include some moments of genuine (if sometimes dark and absurd) humour. The book is nicely structured by geography, stopping off chapter by chapter on each city or region that most epitomised the different periods. We are launched into the Viennese fog of Graham Greene’s Third Man and conclude with the media spotlights blazing into MI6’s London HQ at Vauxhall Cross, having stopped off in Berlin, Moscow, Kinshasa and the Afghan Plains along the way.

Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man

Much of Corera’s information comes from first hand sources (it’s fun to note how many footnotes say ‘from private information’ and imagine the various dead-letter drops Gordon must have visited) which makes it particularly vivid, but it is also very well researched and argued.

I guess that journalists and spies have something in common. Both are looking for ‘the story’. The key difference is the intended audience for their scoops (whether the mass market or divisional or political superiors). That some spies and journalists go to extreme lengths because they justify any means by their ends, is not in doubt. That doesn’t necessarily tar both groups. There will always be those who take their cue from the morality of 24‘s Jack Bauer or the Murdoch Empire’s phone-hackers. [Interestingly, one British spook, Eliza Manningham-Buller noted ‘One of the sad things is Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush all watched 24.’ p341]

Espionage (while always engaged in essentially the same business of seeking to preempt surprises and tragedies) has been transformed by the era of global terrorism and suicide bombers for whom mutually assured destruction is no deterrent. But this doesn’t deny the question of how much the Cold War spies helped or hindered. The war, in retrospect, nearly went ‘hot’ more often than we dare to admit – in part because of mutual deep mistrust. The West thought the Soviet Union far more powerful militarily than it ever really was; Moscow thought the West far more trigger-happy than it ever was. As one remarked:

Some have wondered whether openness might negate the need for spies at all and make the world safer. ‘Much better if the Russians saw the Cabinet minutes twice a week. Prevent all that f****ng dangerous guesswork,’ Harold Macmillan’s private secretary once remarked. (p288)

Spies sometimes justify the terrible things they must do by claiming it enables the uninvolved to sleep safely in their beds. This book brilliantly and engagingly traces the history of how sometimes they have done that; but it also recounts how from time to time they have made matters much worse. And to that extent, this book has great relevance still. So in conclusion – this is definitely a 5* read!

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