Books

Bond would be bored in today’s MI6, says Malcolm Rifkind

Stephen Grey’s The New Spymasters traces an astonishing transformation in MI5, MI6 and GCHQ — but at least some of the old rules apply

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

The New Spymasters: Inside Espionage from the Cold War to Global Terror Stephen Grey

Penguin, pp.348, £20, ISBN: 9780670917402

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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Show comments
  • CortexUK

    “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.”

    Because they didn’t know where a mug from their gift shop came from? And you were chair of the scrutiny committee? Now that is staggeringly un-reassuring.

    • Sausage McMuffin

      Disagree. Malky is right – they should know the difference. Taiwan is an ally, China America’s geopolitical rival No1. (Putin isn’t a rival, just a pain in the ar*se).

  • omgamuslim

    Successful spying involves turning people into traitors. This was always known and practised.

    • Roger Hudson

      When we, like others( who had ‘the nutting squad’), knew how to deal with traitors.

      • thetrashheap

        Yup thats why Irish men are a lot more dubious on Doctor Kelly’s death than English. We know what happens to “traitors”

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  • Roger Hudson

    All this internet spying/ encryption Sigint stuff gets overblown, we must remember that terrorists like the IRA were not ‘online’,they made do quite well with red phone boxes, postcards, DLBs and face-to face contacts. The current services and their masters are seduced by ‘quick fixes’, often more seen on TV than in real life. The fact that two ‘terror suspects ‘ meeting in a park can tie down 8-10 ‘watchers’ drives the manager/accountants nuts.
    As for terrorists bombs, i used to have a photo of a London bus fallen into a bomb crater during the Blitz, puts things into perspective, where is the third reich these days? Just because the Isle of Man isn’t big enough to house ‘the threat’ doesn’t mean we should tackle extremists but don’t fixate on the internet.

  • Roger Hudson

    Nice photo from ‘camera3’ but i notice target 20’s umbrella hasn’t been ‘seen’ by the system, those ricin guns could be anywhere.

  • thetrashheap

    Why concentrate on the spies within the IRA and not the fact you armed, protected, choose targets for and practically ran some of the UDA brigades.

    Just because they aren’t shooting people themselves doesn’t make them boring pen pushers.

    From protecting and using UDA, Al Qaeda, Mujahadeen, and even pedophile networks as it suited “their cause” these folks ain’t angels.

    It suits the establishment to paint them as benign pen pushing intellectual types but in many cases they more dangerous than they’ve ever been and we are giving them access to knowledge way beyond what hoover could gather on all our powerful politicians and business men

  • Patrick Roy

    Astonishing bullsh/t.

  • dominodog

    It’s cheeky of Malc to lecture the CIA over the origin of Chinese mugs when the Chinese ‘company’ made such a mug of him…..

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