Spying may be one of the two oldest professions, but unlike the other one it has changed quite a lot over the years, and continues to do so.
During the quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, the main preoccupation of our intelligence agencies has not been with classic espionage by the Soviet Union, or with identifying new Philbys operating on their behalf. Espionage still goes on, but it is small beer compared to the terrorist threat that commands no less than 75 per cent of our agencies’ time and resources.
Stephen Grey takes us through the transformation in the recent past experienced by MI6, MI5 and GCHQ, as well as their counterparts in the United States. His central theme, however, is the essential requirement of human intelligence (HUMINT) if our agencies are to meet the demands and expectations imposed on them by politicians and the public.
In the last two years we have been mesmerised by, and preoccupied with, the Snowden revelations, the explosive growth of the internet and the effect of all this on the battle against terrorism in its various forms. Since Snowden we have had dire warnings of an onslaught on our civil liberties by GCHQ’s alleged bulk surveillance. This has been accompanied by the intelligence agencies’ worries that their ability to detect terrorist threats has been seriously compromised by the increased use of encryption on the internet and by their targets’ growing awareness of their capabilities.
Grey doesn’t dismiss these concerns in his lucid, well-written analysis, but he reminds us that, however sophisticated the technology, the reliability of the information obtained will be limited if uncorroborated by good old-fashioned human sources. He writes of a ‘key weakness of modern espionage, when decisions are taken on the basis of technical intelligence alone and in the absence of good human intelligence’. He acknowledges that human spies can be ‘frail and unreliable, but without any element of understanding and verification through human intelligence, and without basic common sense, terrible errors are bound to follow.’
To support this, he analyses in convincing detail a drone attack in Afghanistan that killed ten supporters of a parliamentary election candidate in the mistaken belief — based on intercepted phone conversations — that one of them was a Taleban commander. He concludes that if this had been preceded by proper checks on the suspect’s background, the tragedy would not have occurred. He also comments scathingly on the inability of most intelligence agencies, and of those who analyse their output and advise their governments, to see the wood for the trees.
During the Cold War, he concedes that the West and the Soviets had some success with identifying each other’s military secrets, but that political spying was of little value. He reminds us that the West never noticed that the Soviet Union was collapsing — nor indeed did the Russians themselves. This he describes as a combination of ‘tactical brilliance and strategic myopia’.
But he does at least commend the British for their human intelligence skills and experience, escpecially in Northern Ireland, where spies who penetrated the IRA turned out to be ‘indispensible’. A more recent success, in 2012, was when a UK agent, operating within al-Qaeda in the Yemen, was able to foil an attack on a transatlantic flight that would have resulted in hundreds of deaths.
But Grey’s enthusiasm for HUMINT and traditional spycraft should not be seen as misplaced enthusiasm for the James Bond myth. The reality, he says, is that ‘the secret services of powerful countries have rarely used their own intelligence officers as spies, preferring generally to hire agents.’ Invariably, these agents have been nationals of the countries being spied on — which would have left Bond feeling fairly bored most of the time.
I am an admirer of the work of intelligence agencies, but I have never assumed they were omnipotent. On my first visit to the director of the CIA, in Langley, Virginia, I acquired a commemoration coffee mug which turned out to have been made in China. When I asked them whether it was from Taiwan or the People’s Republic they said they didn’t know. Not very reassuring.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind was chairman of the Commons intelligence and security committee from 2010 to 2015.
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