Do spies still have a future? (Book Review)

Title: The New Spymasters; Author: Stephen Grey; Publisher: Penguin; Pages: 365; Price: Rs.499

In today’s world, when you can track people in any part of the globe with satellites, know what they are talking on phones or writing in emails, or eradicate a distant enemy by flicking a joystick and pressing a button, does espionage, especially its human aspect, as was seen in the “golden days” of the Cold War, still have any future?

Or in other words, does human intelligence or “humint” involving identifying and recruiting agents, physical surveillance of suspects, disguises and ‘dead drops’, ‘legends’ or false cover and identities, and all the things we see in John Le Carre, Ted Allbeury and the earlier career of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, have use in a time when the threats are not from nation states and their agencies, but terrorists and transnational crime?

Yes, says British writer, investigative reporter and long-time intelligence watcher Stephen Grey, who starts his argument with a hard blow – an account of the devastation a Jordanian triple agent caused in a CIA base in Afghanistan’s Khost, just over the border from Pakistan, on the last day of 2009. This, he says, served as “a proof-of-life signal that, despite the careless blunders of those days, the spy game was not over”.

Though a shocking start to his “inquiry into the modern secret agent, and his employer, the spymaster” or what writer (and sometime secret agent) Graham Greene called the “human factor” where a real person sets out gathering intelligence, he notes there is “obviously a dark side to our subject” for “spying is the art of betrayal”.

Grey, best known for his world exclusive revelations about the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” programme (sending arrested or captured terror suspects to third countries where laws or rules on torture are not very strictly observed), seeks to weigh on the state and future of human intelligence through three questions – “how has spying changed in the twenty-first century?”, “when can spying still be effective?” and “what kind of spying is needed and will help deal with the specific threats of today and the future?”

To answer these, he furnishes narrative of spying and its failures and successes from even before the Cold War (British efforts to overturn the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917) to the Abbottabad raid in May 2011 that netted Osama bin Laden. Others that might be less known including the British campaign against the IRA in Northern Ireland, a double-dealing Cypriot drug-dealer (both of which also bring out the moral and political risks involved), Europe’s first ‘jihadi’ double agent, an abortive suicide bombing in Spain, and the evidently mistaken killing of an Afghan politician – which is an eloquent example of the West’s hubris – and self-goal – in Afghanistan.

He illustrates the dangers too. The Khost case shows “spying carries tremendous risk” and as an activity based on betrayal, which “can be addictive”, spies, who betray their country or group’s secrets, “can, in turn, also betray those who recruit them” and since they “must survive by telling lies, it can be hard to know when they are telling the truth”.

Then, discovery of a spy operation can “trigger diplomatic rows, sow discord, and, at worst, be a pretext for war”. Then it can also lead to war, as his example of “Curveball”, whom you might recall was the Iraqi defector whose claims of Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons programme was a important part of the US case for invasion of Iraq, shows. It also demonstrates how intelligence organisations can delude themselves, and their political bosses.

Grey maintains his book is “not a comprehensive survey” as it remains confined to the experiences of those who he has met from the security services of the US, Britain, some from Germany, France and from Middle East and South Asia, while eastern Asia, South America and Africa are untouched. But it still offer plenty to make you think how the world actually operates.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at )



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