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Sunday, 6 July 2014

Review: Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends


Ben Macintyre is a very good writer and I have read three of his previous documentary Spy books with pleasure. I also read this one with pleasure and found that it raised interesting questions about both the British Establishment as it was and clearly still is, and about spying in general.

Every modern government feels that it has to spend large amounts of very sloshy money on spying, surveillance and on more active things like black propaganda, provocation, subversion and so on. After all, if They do it then We have to respond in kind. But books like this one raise the question of whether it is all worth it. For every resounding success there is at least one Bay of Pigs failure. Much of the time, spy agencies appear merely to be goading each other, so that their activities create problems which would not otherwise have existed. At worst, it becomes childish rather than glamorous Macintyre's book gives some examples, perhaps unintentionally. Singing songs in nightclubs to annoy your enemies doesn't just happen in the film Casablanca - according to Macintyre, it also happened in real life in Istanbul.

Many years ago (around 1954 I think) Costa Rica decided it could do without an army. The army just kept causing trouble as it did in most Latin American nations,with or without the USA and its criminal CIA inciting that trouble. Since then, Costa Rica has done rather well as a country and is currently doing very well. Maybe it's time for one country to find a way of doing without spying agencies - or at least limiting things to what are basically police operations - finding out enough to stop crimes in their planning stage. In the case of both 9 / 11 USA and 7 / 7 in the UK, a more focussed, less megalomaniac, intelligence agency would probably have pieced together the information which was in fact available to it.

Intelligence disasters are sometimes the result of poor policy decisions by politicians but often they are the result of freelancing by intelligence agencies whose members feel themselves above the Law and certainly above the Politicians.  Russian Premier Nikita Khruschev sailed into Portsmouth Harbour in April 1956 aboard a cracking new Soviet cruiser. The spooks very much wanted to take a look at it but Prime Minister Anthony Eden vetoed that. The spooks went ahead anyway, the Soviets were probably tipped off -  and if so by Philby - and the drunken, unhealthy and superannuated frogman, Lionel Crabb, chosen to take photos of the ship's underwater propellers and so on, never returned to dry land.

Of course, you could say that Eden would say that,wouldn't he? It's called butt covering. The job of the intelligence services is to figure out when a politician's "No" is really his way of saying "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?"

More generally, politicians probably don't want to know exactly what their intelligence services are getting up to. It makes it easier to deny that they are doing what they are doing.

But in Britain leaving the intelligence services to their own devices meant - over a period of at least 50 years - that they turned themselves into Clubs on the model of Oxford and Cambridge universities. They did what they liked with their money, they employed who they liked - merit not being a particularly important issue - and once you were in the Club you had to do something really extraordinary to get yourself expelled. When Philby was eventually nailed as a Soviet spy, in exchange for a partial confession he was simply allowed to slip away to exile in the Soviet Union. To have put him on trial would have made the Club itself look remarkably casual, cavalier and self-satisfied in the way that it had operated during Philby's decades at the centre of it.

So as I read this book, one of its virtues is that in probing the details and tenor of Philby's relations with his colleagues, it provokes one to think about wider issues. One might, for example, compare how the political and civil service Establishment during and after Philby's era dealt with complaints of criminal activity - sexual abuse of minors in today's newspapers - involving members of their Clubs.

One final thing. It's often said that governments who rely on reports from their diplomats to know what is happening in a particular country would do better to read a good newspaper. The same is true of intelligence reports. Macintyre doesn't really probe it, but it is often unclear whether people in MI5 or MI6 had much grasp of geography or history or current affairs. But there are hints. For example, both American and British intelligence agencies have placed great reliance on emigrés with fairly disastrous results. They have failed to see that emigrés are not always honourable people forced into exile by unpleasant regimes. Some of them are crooks who used regime change as a chance to escape their country and present a new image to the world. Others are bitter and resentful at the loss of power they never deserved to hold. Some simply become absurdly nationalistic to compensate for their loss of a homeland. In all cases, emigrés should be treated with caution. But no one does that and so we still suffer from the Curse of Miami Cubans.

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