Gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail, yet again

There’s been yet another big leak of US secret intelligence. As usual, the main result was embarrassment for the US state, from the (re)confirmation that it routinely spies on its allies, and from the publication of some unflattering comments on those allies. The substantive content was uninteresting, revealing no greater insight (and sometimes) than that available to careful observers with no access to secret information (Daniel Drezner has more on this).

There don’t seem to be any lessons to be learned here that weren’t already evident from the last big leak (Snowden), except that believers in the spy myth never learn any lessons. I’ve been over this again and again, as did Daniel Davies, back in the day.

I’m appending my first post on this, going back to an article published in the Australian Financial Review around the turn of the century.

The spy myth (2003)

If there is an emblematic figure for the 20th century, it is surely the spy. The first decades of that haunted century saw the rise to prominence of the spy novel, with such exemplars as John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps and Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands. The final decade saw retired spymasters reach the pinnacle of power in the United States (George Bush Sr.) and Russia (Vladimir Putin).

In espionage, as in so many other cases, life imitated art. The crucial motifs that made up the 20th-century concept of espionage, including the secret plan, the conspiracy and the femme fatale, were all present by the late 19th Century, in Sherlock Holmes stories like The Bruce-Partington plans and A Scandal in Bohemia. Yet actual espionage played an insignificant role in the real international relations of the day.

As late as 1930, Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State, Henry Stimson repudiated the whole dirty business with the observation that ‘gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s mail’. This statement would, by then, have been regarded as hopelessly naive in most of the European capitals, where gentlemen had cease to play any role in international politics. As we shall see, however, it reflects a more sophisticated view of the world than one based on the idea that the employer of spies can gain access to the secrets of his or enemies and therefore defeat them.

The first test of the literary concept of the spy came with the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. Popular hysteria about secret weapons bore little relation to the grinding attrition of the Western Front. Although the Germans and Allies achieved surprises with chlorine gas and the tank respectively, the resulting gain of a few miles of mud did nothing to shift the balance of the war.

The dominance of literary concepts over reality was even more evident in the trial and execution of alleged female spies. The Allies tried and shot the notorious exotic dancer Mata Hari. In retrospect, she appears to have been guilty of little more than a taste for self-dramatisation and indiscreet gossip, but the persona she constructed for herself fit perfectly the stereotype of the femme fatale spy. The Germans, with the disastrous sense of PR they displayed throughout the Great War, chose to shoot a British nurse, Edith Cavell, easily represented as a Madonna figure to contrast with the symbolic Whore, Mata Hari.

The gap between myth and reality was similarly great in other theatres. The Russian activities of Sidney Reilly, the famous ‘Ace of Spies’ have formed the basis of a string of books and a TV series starring Sam Neill. A recent study in Intelligence and National Security gave the following more prosaic judgement.

Thus, with the evidence now at hand, the famous ‘Lockhart Plot’ can at last be seen for what it was: on the one hand, a real, if pitiful, anti-Soviet conspiracy concocted (or perhaps deliberately provoked) by the megalomaniacal Sidney Reilly in likely collusion with the eager but inexperienced Bruce Lockhart, and, on the other, a superb example of police provocation brilliantly conceived and expertly executed by the crafty agents of the Cheka.”

Spy hysteria continued to mount after the end of active hostilities in 1918. The totalitarian regimes that rose to power in the aftermath of the Great War made liberal use of spies, and gave rise to the first organized espionage machines, the Gestapo and the various incarnations of the Russian Cheka. These organisations proved ruthlessly effective in suppressing internal opposition, and use both financial and ideological appeals to recruit foreign agents in large numbers. The spy myth, it seemed, had become a reality.

Yet the actual achievements of these shadowy regiments were unimpressive. In most cases, espionage agencies can cloak their failures in secrecy, but the defeat of the Nazis paved the way for a look at the record of one of the most-feared espionage networks in history. The Hitler regime made numerous attempts to infiltrate spies into Britain and to recruit British agents. As far as can be determined from the German records, all were captured and many were ‘turned’, being induced or forced to transmit disinformation to Berlin.

As usual, art makes the spy look better. In the thriller, The Eye of the Needle, the German agent, played by Donald Sutherland, gets within seconds of exposing the subterfuges by which the British simulated preparations for an invasion in the Pas de Calais, thereby diverting German defences from Normandy. In reality, none of Hitler’s spies got anywhere near this.

An even more telling example is that of Pearl Harbour. A variety of intelligence sources gave the US government warnings of an impending attack. These warnings have formed the basis of subsequent conspiracy theories in which Roosevelt deliberately allowed the Japanese to succeed in order to force a reluctant US population into the war. The reality is more prosaic. Most of the warnings were vague inferences from intercepted communications, indicating that the Japanese were up to something, but not when and where. Reports from agents claiming to have inside information on Japanese plans were discounted, on the sensible basis that such claims usually turned out to be either attempts to extract financial rewards, or Japanese misinformation. In the latter case, preparations against a supposed attack would serve to expose security flaws in the Japanese military and perhaps also serve as a casus belli.

Similarly, despite ample warning, Stalin failed to prepare against Hitler’s invasion of Russia. As with Roosevelt he faced the problem that preparation on a serious scale would amount to an overt declaration of hostility against a supposedly friendly power.

It was only in 1944 that the basis was laid for a theoretical understanding of the game of spy and counterspy. In that year, John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern published The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, in which they showed how a wide range of phenomena, from wars to markets, could be analysed in terms of games between players with conflicting interests.

The basic lesson of game theory for a game of bluff like that of espionage is that, as long as it is possible for counterspies to generate misleading information most of the time, spies are useless even when their information happens to be correct. If the defence plays optimally, the spymaster can never have any reason to believe one piece of information produced by spies and disbelieve another.

Spying may be worthwhile in cases where it is very hard or very costly to produce misleading information. Two potential cases are those of code-breaking in wartime, where the number of messages an enemy needs to send is so large that their validity can be checked fairly easily, and that of a secret weapon, where the information produced by spies can be checked by actually making the weapon.

In general, code-breaking relies only marginally on traditional spying methods. The most famous success, the British cracking of the German ‘Enigma’ code in World War II, was helped by the Poles who had stolen a machine before the outbreak of war, then smuggled it to England. However, the effort primarily relied on the mathematical analysis of German messages, which was undertaken by a team led by the enigmatic, and ultimately tragic, genius Alan Turing. (He committed suicide after the war, following persecution by the security forces on the basis of his homosexuality).

The secret weapon of all time was, of course, the atomic bomb, and the period after it was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki represented the high point of the spy panic, particularly in the English-speaking world. When the Russians exploded their own bomb, it seemed quite likely that the end of world was approaching. The discovery that British scientists such as Fuchs and Nunn, and American Communists like the Rosenbergs, had passed atomic secrets to the Russians, created a panic.

On the face of it, the reaction to the atom spies seemed justified. The atom bomb was a weapon that could destroy the world (and perhaps still will) and the science on which it was based was popularly associated with the genius of Albert Einstein. Surely, the only way the Russians could create such a weapon was to steal the secrets of the West.

It is now clear, however, that the only real secret regarding the atomic bomb was that it could be made to work. This secret was successfully concealed from the Nazis, who focused instead on the other great secret weapon of the century, the guided missile represented by the V2 rocket. But once the existence of the bomb was known, any competent team of physicists, with access to the right resources, could duplicate it. The Russians had competent physicists of their own, and captured some of leading German researchers. The secrets passed by Western spies probably saved them a year or so in their research program but did not fundamentally change anything. The Chinese, French, Israelis and others made their bombs without significant assistance from spies.

But this is the wisdom of hindsight. The exposure of the atom spies set the scene for the 20th-century apogee of spy hysteria, including such sensational episodes as the defection of Burgess and McLean, the exposure and flight of the ‘third man’, Kim Philby, the McCarthy hearings in the United States, and even our own Petrov crisis. Suddenly, it seemed, spies were everywhere, and an all-out response seemed called for.

In literature, the response was represented by the glamorous professional, James Bond, who transformed the spy novel from an ambiguous cross between detective story and thriller into a fully fledged sub-literary genre. Bond himself was a transitional figure between the gentlemanly amateurism of earlier heroes like Buchan’s Richard Hannay and the grubby professionalism celebrated by, for example, Len Deighton.

Belief in spies declined after 1960. The pivotal moment was probably the first significant step towards detente, the ban on atmospheric nuclear testing agreed between Britain, the US and the USSR in 1963. From this point onwards, it became steadily more evident that keeping nuclear secrets was a bad idea and that trying to steal secrets only encouraged those who wanted to keep them.

The exposure of a wide range of misconduct by the CIA and other agencies produced widespread hostility towards, and even more widespread cynicism about, the whole enterprise of espionage and counterespionage. The decline was charted by the novels of John Le Carre. The title and theme of The Looking Glass War, in which bureaucratic infighting in London results in a doomed attempt at infiltrating East Germany, captured, even more than his more famous works, the pointlessness of the entire enterprise.

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.

6 thoughts on “Gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail, yet again

  1. The attraction and glorification of cheating combines with the bottomless justification of National Security.And when everyone’s hands are dirty it is hard to point fingers. Our own exercises in spying include cheating East Timor – and a key participant got a high paying job post politics with the oil and gas company the stolen rights ended up with; a tawdry affair that was not worth the royalties extracted by theft.
    I also recall the opinion (not quite sure where, now) that USSR military technology was probably set back by putting aside their own R&D in favour of attempting to build on the stolen secrets of US and other nations gained through espionage.
    I am afraid I am one of those woke do-gooders that thinks integrity and ethics ultimately deliver more than cheating.

  2. I remember reading this AFR article (after 20 years) and how much I enjoyed it. I agree that the current revelations don’t add much to what we know about spying. I think however that they do suggest that, stripping the positivist rhetoric aside, the US are pessimistic about Ukraine staging anything like a decisive victory over Russia. Both sides have used lots of ammunition and lost many experienced soldiers but the Russians have a better long-term supply situation than NATO. That is a dangerous leak that offers encouragement to the Russian side.

  3. “Tthe British cracking of the German ‘Enigma’ code in World War II, was helped by the Poles who had stolen a machine before the outbreak of war, then smuggled it to England. the British cracking of the German ‘Enigma’ code in World War II, was helped by the Poles who had stolen a machine before the outbreak of war, then smuggled it to England.”

    This is not quite right and does not give fair credit to the Poles. According to David Kahn’s book on codebreaking, the story goes roughly like this. The Enigma machine was a commercial Swiss product launched in the 1920s, and all the sigint agencies bought one to investigate. The consensus view that it was unbreakable and most countries didn’t even try. The exception was Poland, with exceptional motivation and a culture of risk-taking. Even then the relevant government agency had to go to the unfashionable provincial university of Poznań to find mathematicians reckless enough to give it a go. To general surprise, they succeeded, exploiting a weakness in the repetitive headers of German military signals. The fact and methods of the exploit were passed on to the British. It was this, not possession of yet another physical machine, that convinced the Brits to take up the challenge with vastly greater resources. Meanwhile, the design of the machines moved on, with additional rotors and reflectors, and the message headers were different in different branches of the German military, so the specific method of the Polish success was not repeatable. IIRC the Brits did not even hire their mathematicians.

  4. “… the Russians have a better long-term supply situation than NATO.” – Harry Clarke.

    I am unsure of the foundations of this statement. Does Russia have a bigger economy than the constituent nations of NATO plus all other nations allied to NATO? I would think not. Indeed, the size of the Russian economy compared to NATO’s alone is about:

    Russia – GDP $1.7 Trillion.
    NATO Countries – GDP $42.586 Trillion.

    So the ratio is close to 1:25. Russia’s economy is about 4% of that of the NATO block. Now, I am the first person to say GDPs as aggregates (counted in the nominal numeraire) do not mean a whole lot in some contexts. I say that real stuff matters; humans, resource production, agricultural production and manufactures. The population ratios are about 146 million to 954 million. Russia has about 15% of the population of the NATO countries so 15% of the manpower, in the old sexist terminology, taking this manpower ratio as mainly relevant to economics. Only Ukraine is providing Ukraine’s front line combat manpower. Even then Ukraine is getting training, supplies, materiel, intel, logistics and strategic analysis help from NATO and other allies. All of that functions as a major addition to national manpower.

    Certainly Russia supplies some important resources to the world. These, in the main, can be supplied from elsewhere with a re-configuring of the global economy. Russia will suffer far more from supply and trade disruptions both ways, than the will rest of the world. NATO countries, and their allies, still trade with each other and with the rest of the world. Trade with Russia even now is not nil but it is down significantly.

    Russia cannot win a war of material attrition. It could only win if NATO and their allies gave up. They show no signs of that yet. Indeed, the reverse is true. I admit myself surprised. I originally thought Ukraine would collapse to the Russian invasion and that a weak NATO would acquiesce to Moscow. I was wrong then. I hope I am not wrong now, but following the facts on the ground and in the economies, Russia looks ripe for a collapse.

    Russia should be returned, forcibly if need be, to the status quo before the wars, including returning Crimea to Ukraine. Russia has adequate defences even based on those borders. Defence in depth, internal lines, its vast hinterland, trading space for time and good old General Winter are its trump cards defensively. It doesn’t need external lines “ring defence” at extended borders which encroach on other peoples and nations.

  5. Iko, I think the report was concerned that NATO allies would lose patience sooner than Russia would in continuing armaments supplies.

  6. Once had the doubtful pleasure to visit one of the US military bases in Europe. There were posters on the base encouraging children of soldiers to spy on their fellow kids at school as there could be terrorists! Or maybe the parents to encourage the kids to spy on them. Don´t know, that thing was close to the shopping mall, so the target probably where the children. The reasoning went “military associates sent x as many tips as the population at large”…. A self evident goods thing.

    Meanwhile the grown up spies were talking about their credit card debt over coffee and about all the other other great uses of network analysis with communication meta data besides choosing the next target for drone strikes in their power points. It was still pretty explicit that a meta data collection was sufficient to target someone with no hard evidence whatsoever.

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