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Gentlemen don't read other gentlemen's mail

February 27th, 2004

The news that British spies bugged the office of Kofi Annan during the Iraq debate has a number of implications. First, for me, this is the point at which Tony Blair should go. The whole idea of going to the UN for authority to invade Iraq was his, not Bush’s, and now it’s clear that it was corrupt from the beginning. I won’t argue this in detail – no doubt a lot of people already thought he should go, and others still won’t be convinced.

The main point I want to make is that it’s time for Britain to get out of the spy game. More than any other democratic country, Britain is addicted to spies and their natural counterpart, Official Secrets. From Burgess and McLean to the present day, the spies have been a constant cause of embarrassment and worse. On the other hand, there’s no evidence that they’ve ever found out anything that was both useful and sufficiently reliable to act on (in this context, I’m excluding wartime codebreaking, which is always useful since, at a minimum, it disrupts enemy communications).

This isn’t a matter of bad luck, or even incompetence. Standard game-theoretic reasoning shows that, outside the zero-sum case of war, there’s unlikely to be a net benefit from actions like bugging offices. The problem is simple. If I bug your office and you don’t suspect me, I can gain potentially valuable information that you don’t want me to have. But if you suspect me, and I don’t suspect that you suspect, you can use my bugs to mislead me. As with all game theoretic reasoning, you can iterate this as many times as you like, but the end result is that the net value of information derived from bugging is zero. On the other hand, the costs of the activity are substantial. In an environment where bugging is routine, everyone learns to communicate in various forms of code, and decoding is costly and prone to error.

He’s often been dismissed as hopelessly naive, but US Secretary of State Henry Stimson was right when he shut down the State Department’s cryptanalytic office saying “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.”

h4. Notes

I’ve treated Clare Short’s allegation as fact, since Blair hasn’t denied it. His claim that he can neither confirm nor deny it for security reasons doesn’t hold up. Short made the specific claim that she had seen transcripts of Annan’s conversations. Blair could refute this claim without reference to whether or not such transcripts existed.

The argument about the uselessness of spies is developed at much greater length in this piece I wrote for the Australian Financia Review The conclusion:

The spy myth clearly served the interests of intelligence agencies, which prospered during the 20th century more than any set of spies before them. The real beneficiaries, however, were the counterintelligence agencies or, to dispense with euphemisms, the secret police, of both Western and Communist countries. The powers granted to them for their struggle against armies of spies were used primarily against domestic dissidents. Terms such as ‘agent of influence’ were used to stigmatise anyone whose activities, however open and above-board, could be represented as helpful to the other side.

The supposed role of the secret police, to keep secrets from opposing governments, was, as we have seen, futile. Secret police, and the associated panoply of security laws, Official Secrets Acts and so forth, were much more successful in protecting their governments’ secrets from potentially embarrassing public scrutiny in their own countries.

As spies and the associated fears have faded in their public mind, their place has been taken by terrorists. In many ways, this is a reversion to the 19th century, when the bomb-throwing anarchist was a focus of popular fears and the subject of novels by such writers as Chesterton and Conrad.

As the attacks of September 11 showed us, the threat posed by terrorists is real. Nevertheless, even if terrorists were to mount attacks ten times as deadly in the future, they would still present the citizens of the Western World with less danger than we accept from our fellow-citizens every time we step into our cars.

If the century of the spy has taught us anything, it is that we need to assess the dangers posed by terrorists coolly and calmly rather than giving way to panic.

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  1. Dave Ricardo
    February 27th, 2004 at 09:20 | #1

    As you say, Blair’s not denying it, and unless Clare Short is flagrantly making it all up about seeing Annan’s conversations, it must be true.

    What is interesting is that the once much
    feared Official Secrets Act has lost its bite in the past couple of days, what with the prosecution not proceeding against that young spy boffin, and now Short’s revelations.

    There is no way in the world she will be charged – Blair would be insane to try to make a martyr out of her – and this means she is now free to blab anything and everything. As is Robin Cook.

  2. February 27th, 2004 at 09:22 | #2

    actually what you say while interesting in theory doesnt necessarily hold up in practise…

    burgess, philby and mclean were russian spies who managed to convey atomic weapon information to the russians, amongst also wreaking havoc on western spy rings in europe (by giving the russians names of agents)

    furthermore, without spieing on enemy nations and terrorist groups we wouldnt have averted operations like the planned new years eve bombings.

    your assumption that they know you are spieing on you is the key one, and obviously isnt always true.

    your argument is thus valid, but not sound.

  3. John Quiggin
    February 27th, 2004 at 09:33 | #3

    I think you’ll find that Burgess, McLean and Philby had nothing to do with nuclear secrets. They betrayed western spy rings, which supports my point rather than opposing it – given the ever-present possibility of betrayal, spy rings are a liability as much as an asset.

    The strongest claims about the assistance given by Western agents (most importantly Klaus Fuchs) to the Russian atomic bomb effort is that they saved the Russians two or three years work. Looking at the ease with which smaller and poorer countries have subsequently built bombs, I doubt this. The real secret about the bomb was that it worked. The Americans knew this for sure about a month before the rest of the world (the gap between the Trinity test and Hiroshima).

  4. Observa
    February 27th, 2004 at 12:32 | #4

    Careful John, or they may apply the same logic to economists.

  5. February 27th, 2004 at 13:02 | #5

    the western spy rings being compromised does not support your point.

    its like saying “having an army means your soldiers can get killed”.

    perhaps if both sides decided to have no spies, then overall both sides would be better off, but i dont need to tell someone who knows about game theory why this isnt viable.

    and i think you will find that the cambridge three did pass atomic weapons information to the russians:

    “Though many of the Cambridge recruitees engaged extensively in espionage for years after they left Cambridge, only Harold “Kim” Philby, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess — the so-called “Cambridge Three” — succeeded in securing both British and American secrets at the highest levels of government. They gained access to information about U.S. counterespionage efforts, plans for atomic bomb production, and military strategies during the Korean War and were able to pass this information on to the Soviets.”

    from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/venona/dece_philby.html

    although you may be right that they didnt have much or anything to do with the early russian program. the russians would have got the bomb eventually, given the ready availability of the prewar information on physics.

    to return to the original point, that the cost/benefit analysis of spies is negative, while it does have some merit, when taken to the extreme, is an increasingful fanciful notion.

    the costs of having no intelligence whatsover is potentially huge. it would be akin to having, as mentioned above, no military whatsover, or no police force.

    mossad is a good example of the benefits of intelligence services…

  6. James Farrell
    February 27th, 2004 at 13:13 | #6

    ‘…even if terrorists were to mount attacks ten times as deadly in the future, they would still present the citizens of the Western World with less danger than we accept from our fellow-citizens every time we step into our cars.’

    Surely, John, we expect governments to take measures against both kinds of dangers.

    I don’t think you answered c8to’s point about bombers and suchlike. If you allow that it’s a good idea to keep really dangerous people under surveillance, then musn’t you accept the need for a certain amount of secrecy? Maybe this comes under the heading of war.

    By the way, is there any chance of installing a spell-checker in the comments box? It would be not so much against typos, as a device to promote literacy.

  7. Dave Ricardo
    February 27th, 2004 at 13:51 | #7

    I see the Governor of Tasmania is now saying that when he was the chied UN weapons inspector he was bugged by the US, UK, France and Russia.

    The only surprise is that the Chinese didn’t do it too.

    Kofi Annan must have known he was being bugged, so he would have chosen his words very carefully each team he spoke anywhere.

    Which must have been inconvenient and annoying (did they listen each time he took a crap?), but, really, it’s all a big game.

  8. Geoff Honnor
    February 27th, 2004 at 21:45 | #8

    “I see the Governor of Tasmania is now saying that when he was the chief UN weapons inspector he was bugged by the US, UK, France and Russia.”

    Listening in on Richard’s entertaining discourse must have been a sought after assignment at GCHQ……….

    And is it actually established that this is about “bugging offices?” I would have thought it much more likely that it’s about electronic interception of calls…

  9. February 28th, 2004 at 00:55 | #9

    hi john,
    “Nevertheless, even if terrorists were to mount attacks ten times as deadly in the future, they would still present the citizens of the Western World with less danger than we accept from our fellow-citizens every time we step into our cars. If the century of the spy has taught us anything, it is that we need to assess the dangers posed by terrorists coolly and calmly rather than giving way to panic.”

    with all due respect i disagree. i disagree because getting into a car and crashing it, no matter how many times, causes a habitual reaction that we are well versed in coping with. what made 9-11 so devastating was its unexpectedness. this translated into a set of reactions that had demonstrable economic consequences far exceeding the aftermath of car crashes–we closed the skies over the country for a few days. we stopped shopping. we were shaken to the core.

    you may wish to argue that this was irrational behaviour. but it is what a whole buch of humans did. i argue that it was a rational response–americans had been hit at a symbolic level, something not available to situations like car crashes, which are usually accidental to some degree.

    the dangers posed by terrorists has to include the capacity to create terror, something that is missing from the analogy you draw with cars, since car accidents are by definition, “accidents”. they are not even remotely similar kinds of events. i would argue that the psychic damage from a terrorist attack that killed the same number of people as a car accident involving two cars is far greater.

    if you grant that, it seems to me that you might also have to grant that the expected cost of a terrorist attack is greater, per dead person than for a car accident. this could conceivably more than make up for the lower actual likelihood of that type of attack in comparison with car accidents.

  10. February 28th, 2004 at 00:57 | #10

    i should add, for 9-11–apart from unexpectedness, the fact that there was malevolent intent, an intent that still exists today

  11. James Dudek
    February 28th, 2004 at 06:30 | #11

    “As the attacks of September 11 showed us, the threat posed by terrorists is real. Nevertheless, even if terrorists were to mount attacks ten times as deadly in the future, they would still present the citizens of the Western World with less danger than we accept from our fellow-citizens every time we step into our cars.”

    John – I have read your stuff with great interest over the last year and whilst disagreeing with you on a lot of issues, on the whole I am an admirer. That said I have to take great exception to this paragraph. To put it bluntly it is idiotic and not worthy of a man of your intellect.

    If this is something you truly believe then I feel really, really sorry for you.

  12. John Quiggin
    February 28th, 2004 at 06:36 | #12

    James, do you personally believe that you’re in greater danger of being killed by terrorists than in a car crash?

  13. February 28th, 2004 at 09:34 | #13

    even if terrorists were to mount attacks ten times as deadly in the future, they would still present the citizens of the Western World with less danger than we accept from our fellow-citizens every time we step into our cars.

    The development of WMDs with great portability, secretability and potency changes that equation. A suitcase nuke could kill a hundred thousand people, a bioweapon could kill a million.

    Given the higher expected losses from another mass-casualty attack we are entitled to spend more on precautions, including intelligence.

    Also, we spend a lot of money and endure alot of surveillance to reduce the road toll. We voluntarily accept the risk of road trauma, but terrorism takes away our right to choose our own risk/reward function.

    And intelligence is our best weapon for countering the terrorists. Spy satellites force them to use primitive communications. Spooks hunt them down and kill or capture them in their lairs.

    If overt regime change is out, and covert counter-subversion is out, then we have no weapons against the terrorists.

    “What the hell are we supposed to use, man? Harsh language?

  14. February 28th, 2004 at 10:04 | #14

    “James, do you personally believe that you’re in greater danger of being killed by terrorists than in a car crash?”

    hi john,
    i do not really think that this is the central issue here,

  15. gordon
    February 28th, 2004 at 17:57 | #15

    I am much more worried about the USA than about either terrorists or my car.

  16. PK
    February 28th, 2004 at 21:44 | #16

    One benefit of spies that you’ve overlooked is their disruptive effect on foreign enemies. If Al-Qaeda (or others) thought they weren’t at risk of being caught by intelligence agencies, they’d act with much more impunity and likely cause much more death and destruction.

    An analogy would be abandoning the police force in a law-abiding community following a corruption scandal, which would certainly lead to a big increase in crime.

    Ignoring this deterrent effect your theory works. Otherwise, it doesn’t. As you can’t reliably estimate the level of increased activity by foreign enemies, your cost/benefit analysis is flawed.

    While it may be an interesting experiment to see how we do without spies, the cost could be very high.

  17. James Dudek
    March 1st, 2004 at 05:08 | #17

    John,

    The comparison of deaths from car crashes and deaths from terrorist incidents is an apples vs oranges comparison. Jack has covered much of what makes this comparison unjustifiable, but you already knew this.

    What I am really concerned about is this: What are you trying to imply by making a statement like this?

    When I read statements like the comparison you made, it is hard not to presume what you are trying to imply. Perhaps my imagination ran away from me, I would like to give you the benefit of the doubt, but I do have my concerns over where this train of thought is going.

    For an example of my concern over where this train of thought leads see gordon’s comment.

    I would like to apologise if I overreacted in my comments. I currently live in Boston, MA, USA. From my geographical proximity to events, September the 11th was a personally very distressing experience for me. Invoking the horrific memories of that day still gives me a gut reaction. Perhaps using the memory of those events to make intellectual points could be handled with a little more tact.

    I like your weblog a lot and I thank you for making this resource available to the public free of charge, but the pleasure I get from reading your material will be diminished by my perception of what you are implying here.

  18. March 1st, 2004 at 05:27 | #18

    dear john,
    to put it another way:

    expected probability X actual cost to society of action = expected cost of action. terrorist actions though less likely, have a higher cost attached to them than a car accident of equal magnitude (in terms of death and damage).

    if one were inclined, one could make an argument to negative externalities associated with terrorist action as well.

  19. John Quiggin
    March 1st, 2004 at 06:57 | #19

    James, I’m not making the claim that the two events are morally comparable or that there aren’t other issues like those raised by cas.

    I am making the claim that, for most of the 20th century, we allowed panic about spies to be used to justify the loss of important liberties and that we should not give way to similar panic in relation to terrorists.

    As regards the likely threat from nuclear-armed terrorists, I think the threat from states, notably including N Korea and Pakistan, has always been and remains much greater.

    This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use intelligence methods against terrorists. In particular, surveillance of communications is useful, if only because of the costs it imposes on the terrorists Jack points this out and I pointed it out in the original article.

  20. gordon
    March 5th, 2004 at 15:15 | #20

    I am at a loss to know what James Dudek thinks that I think.

  21. March 5th, 2004 at 16:17 | #21

    “From my geographical proximity to events, September the 11th was a personally very distressing experience for me. Invoking the horrific memories of that day still gives me a gut reaction. Perhaps using the memory of those events to make intellectual points could be handled with a little more tact.”

    I have come across this suggestion before, not just in connection with this incident, and I have come to certain conclusions.

    Without being flippant, sadly, no – it is not possible to deal with this matter or anything similar “tactfully”. This is because it is like a doctor being so “tactful” that a patient walks out of the door without even realising he has something seriously wrong with him, something that he should alter his plans for. Doctors used to do a lot of damage with that kind of tact, but now they know better. Think about it; these statements only ever cause offence when telling it like it is can make a difference.

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