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"MI5 trained a specially bred group of gerbils to detect spies"
August 9, 2013 7:59 PM   Subscribe

It doesn't matter whether you hate the spies and believe they are corroding democracy, or if you think they are the noble guardians of the state. In both cases the assumption is that the secret agents know more than we do. But the strange fact is that often when you look into the history of spies what you discover is something very different. It is not the story of men and women who have a better and deeper understanding of the world than we do. In fact in many cases it is the story of weirdos who have created a completely mad version of the world that they then impose on the rest of us.
Bugger: Maybe the Real State Secret Is that Spies Aren't Very Good at Their Jobs and Don't Know Very Much About the World by Adam Curtis. It's about the checkered history of the MI5.
posted by Kattullus (63 comments total) 73 users marked this as a favorite

 
I can see the Fnord.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:03 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


In among the silly gerbil stuff and the "oh god how can people be that stupid" there is some absolute heartbreak, especially the Rhona Prime story.
posted by Kattullus at 8:05 PM on August 9, 2013


It was recently revealed that back in the 1970s - at the height of the obsession with traitors - MI5 trained a specially bred group of Gerbils to detect spies. Gerbils have a very acute sense of smell and they were used in interrogations to tell whether the suspects were releasing adrenaline - because that would show they were under stress and lying.

They were this close to getting the goods on Soviet deep-cover agent Richard Gere. This close.
posted by Strange Interlude at 8:15 PM on August 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


I'm reminded of a line from Don Delillo's Libra which, to the extent its based on historical fact, makes intelligence agents look pretty crazy indeed: "Must be a great life, showing kids from Swarthmore how to break a chinaman's neck."


Also... Operation Acoustic Kitty
posted by phrontist at 8:21 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


...weirdos who have created a completely mad version of the world that they then impose on the rest of us.

Which is, in some ways, WORSE than if they had a better and deeper understanding of the world...
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:44 PM on August 9, 2013


I think the writers of the latest Bond must have taken their inspiration from these folks, because M's reaction to every single exposure of her organisation's mass incompetence is to go on and on about how government should get out if her way and let her just get on with things like putting her big list of spies on a laptop. And losing it.

Hilarious and horrifying read this; thanks for posting it.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 8:45 PM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Spies.

What do think of when you read that word?

Bringing up the British "spy" "agengies' checkered history should be fuel to the fire many of us feel about the vast security network we Americans are paying for dearly.
posted by kozad at 8:46 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


This kind of thing is actually something that bothers me a lot about the NSA stuff - thinking about just how buggy these NSA programs may be, when they're commissioned by people who don't understand the technical specifics and programmed by profit-seeking, cost-cutting contractors. Look at audits of voting machine code - I worry PRISM and XKeyscore and all that may just be more of the same. Even if there are ambitious, legitimate intentions of blocking unauthorized access and abuse by intelligence workers, I half expect to some day find out it was all built on top of some buggy insecure out-of-date version of Access or something. "We greyed out the button for domestic spying but whoops guess you can still do it from the Edit menu"-level stuff.
posted by jason_steakums at 8:47 PM on August 9, 2013 [18 favorites]


So instead of the "Circus", it really should be called "Your Cousin's Shitty Backyard Magic Show".
posted by Brocktoon at 8:52 PM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


David Gerrold was ahead of his time, using tribbles to sniff out the Klingon spy.

"They don't like Klingons. But they do like Vulcans. Well Mr Spock, I didn't know you had it in you."
"Obviously tribbles are very perceptive creatures, Captain."
"Obviously." (Carrying tribbles, Kirk walks over to Baris) "Mister Baris, they like you. Well, there's no accounting for taste."
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 8:52 PM on August 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


Few things end up making total sense in the way that finding out Daniel Day-Lewis' dad aspired to be a radical intellectual revolutionary who could start a revolution with the intensity of a single poem does.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:24 PM on August 9, 2013 [10 favorites]


Allow me to be grumpy.

As people who review my posting history will know, I study naval and intelligence history. Unlike Adam Curtis (who is a very perceptive and interesting man) I spent years of my life living among and getting to know intelligence officers on both sides of the Atlantic. I have spent many years reading their documentary output in depth and working to understand the nuances of their world, along with my highly professional colleagues on the academic side. So understand that when I come to these discussions, and hear non-experts like Curtis talking about the Secret World, it's a bit like when a climate scientist comes to a discussion on global warming and hears people saying 'well it's all just solar cycles and I know this because I read it in a book'. This is not a knock against Curtis; he is a man I deeply respect and I think he's a very insightful commentator. But I have to protest that this view of MI5, and the comments thus far in this thread, are basically mistaken, not in detail, but in general outlook.

Ok, so first off, it's true that intelligence officers (not spies, by the way) are not always good at their jobs. It's also true that their world is deeply weird, and very hard for outsiders to understand. And yes, as I've written elsewhere on mefi, it is a world that has, from time to time, been tinged with out-and-out madness.

But the implication we should draw from this is not that a group of weirdos somehow captured the apparatus of the intelligence state and began to impose their twisted views upon the rest of humanity. The madness that exists, within the secret world, is situational. It comes from the very peculiar pressures that exists inside intelligence organisations when they are pitted against other intelligence organisations. There's a famous phrase, that the world of counterintelligence is like a 'wilderness of mirrors', and this is indeed an apt description of much of what goes on in that strange environment in which betrayal is a legitimate weapon, secrecy an essential shield.

But this is only one aspect of the intelligence world, and cannot be seen in isolation. Because intelligence organisations are also, in all their day-to-day operations, large bureaucratic organisations rather like any other. They come to work in shifts, make decisions in committees, hold works outings and receive pensions. I've met intelligence officers who struck me as stone-cold psychopaths, but many others who were intelligent and practical people doing a complex and difficult job with many challenges which are simply not obvious to the uninitiated outsider.

So the intelligence complexes of the world end up doing things that, to an outsider, make no sense whatsoever. Sometimes these things genuinely make no sense. At other times, they make perfect sense, but their meaning is obscure unless you know a lot of context that is hidden from public view or is simply too boring and technical for laypeople to attend to. For example, I can tell you that the US intelligence complex has entirely rational reasons to be pissed the hell off at Snowdon, that have nothing to do with its embarrassment and chagrin about being caught with its collective pants around its corporate ankles. But these rational reasons will be obscure unless you know a bunch of boring details about the way information is transmitted within intelligence organisations, and the damage to those systems done by Manning/Snowdon style mega-leaks.

So should we just accept that our intelligence agencies are doing a sterling job as the keystones of national security? Certainly not. But it is just as dangerous to paint them as Sterling Archers and Keystone Cops as it is to paint them as noble heroes without fault or favour. Doing that is hard, and it takes years of study, and it's often really dull. But this careful and sober practice is the thing that stands in the way of intelligence malfeasance, and reporters should be relying on the extensive and important body of research produced by my colleagues, not this circus of amusement and anecdote that so dominates popular conversations such as this one.

End grumpy rant.
posted by Dreadnought at 9:30 PM on August 9, 2013 [53 favorites]


and reporters should be relying on the extensive and important body of research produced by my colleagues

Have any interesting links you'd recommend? I'd love to read some of this stuff.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:41 PM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


The madness that exists, within the secret world, is situational. It comes from the very peculiar pressures that exists inside intelligence organisations when they are pitted against other intelligence organisations.

No on is arguing that spies actions make perfect sense to them. It's whether their actions and achievements are in any way useful to the rest of us that's at question here.
posted by fshgrl at 10:09 PM on August 9, 2013 [10 favorites]


The literature on the Secret World is very extensive, with several major journals and hundreds of good books. The thesis I'm writing at the moment has 550 sources and counting, and it covers a small corner of the topic. A really good place to start is this intelligence bibliography. It's sorted, very clearly, by topic and has helpful commentaries about how much you can trust different books and what they're useful for.

As for MI5 specifically, I'd start with Chris Andrews' official history, Defence of the Realm and Richard Aldrich The Hidden Hand.
posted by Dreadnought at 10:23 PM on August 9, 2013 [18 favorites]


the damage to those systems done by Manning/Snowdon style mega-leaks.

This appears to have been a direct goal of the Wikileaks project, based on Julian Assange's discussion of the subject in 2006. I am sure that people inside these intelligence organizations see it differently, but as a plain old US citizen who doesn't appreciate being spied on, I like the idea that Manning, Snowden, and the leakers who will follow them are forcing our government to choose between operating efficiently and transparently, or miring themselves in paranoia and keeping their secrets but getting very little done in the process.
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:24 PM on August 9, 2013 [10 favorites]


Well, sure, most professions have things that sound ridiculous to lay ears but make sense to the initiated. Heck, we wouldn't have a quarter of the plots of (barrister) Gilbert and Sullivan without things that are strange in fact but true in law.

But when I saw the gerbil headline, all I could think of was Teddy Salad.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:26 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I like the idea that Manning, Snowden, and the leakers who will follow them are forcing our government to choose between operating efficiently and transparently, or miring themselves in paranoia and keeping their secrets but getting very little done in the process.

This is a perfectly reasonable viewpoint. Just understand that they see it the opposite way: mega-leaks mean they have to be way more closed up and paranoid, because it isn't as safe to share information within the intelligence complex. So intelligence sharing breaks down and people within the intelligence complex can't get the information they need. Intelligence officers are prone to think that Assange is sort of a sleeper agent for crazy over-classification.

But that viewpoint is, of course, based on an insider perspective. The way they see it, they're obviously the good guys and they often see oversight as a needless bureaucratic hassle. I'm given to understand that some people don't share this view of the NSA's 'obvious' benevolence.
posted by Dreadnought at 10:35 PM on August 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


This is just hilarious:

"Bettaney was only caught when he took some of the best of these secrets and tried to stuff them into the letter box of the Second Secretary of the Russian Embassy - Mr Gouk.

Mr Gouk was so confused by this that, instead of passing them on to the KGB, he went round to MI5 and gave them back, and told them where they had come from. MI5 arrested Bettaney and he was put on trial."

posted by jason_steakums at 10:40 PM on August 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Serious question (If anyone can answer, and the answer's not classified or something): do employees of MI5, the CIA, the NSA, etc. have to undergo regular mental health evaluations?

It's been my experience, at least, that looking at the world through a lens of severe paranoia all the time is a very real way to bring on mental illness, just as much as it's often a symptom, and so I just wonder about how these agencies deal with operating in a day-to-day way that seems to require such a corrosive and damaging mindset. "Not well" would be the obvious answer given by the article, but I find myself wondering whether anybody's wised up to that and taken any sort of precautions.

Definitely illustrates the dangers of an agency turning into a paranoia-suffused echo-chamber, that's for sure.
posted by mstokes650 at 10:44 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


All I can add is that I recently read a report with direct quotes from the NSA describing one of their intercept programs in which they seemed to not understand the difference between http and https.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:54 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


At other times, they make perfect sense, but their meaning is obscure unless you know a lot of context that is hidden from public view or is simply too boring and technical for laypeople to attend to. For example, I can tell you that the US intelligence complex has entirely rational reasons to be pissed the hell off at Snowdon, that have nothing to do with its embarrassment and chagrin about being caught with its collective pants around its corporate ankles. But these rational reasons will be obscure unless you know a bunch of boring details about the way information is transmitted within intelligence organisations, and the damage to those systems done by Manning/Snowdon style mega-leaks.
Henry, there's something I would like to tell you, for what it's worth, something I wish I had been told years ago. You've been a consultant for a long time, and you've dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you're about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret.

I've had a number of these myself, and I've known other people who have just acquired them, and I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn't previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.

First, you'll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all — so much! incredible! — suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn't, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn't even guess. In particular, you'll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn't know about and didn't know they had, and you'll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.

You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you've started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn't have it, and you'll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don't....and that all those other people are fools.

Over a longer period of time — not too long, but a matter of two or three years — you'll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information. There is a great deal that it doesn't tell you, it's often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes a while to learn.

In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn't have these clearances. Because you'll be thinking as you listen to them: 'What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?' And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I've seen this with my superiors, my colleagues....and with myself.

You will deal with a person who doesn't have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you'll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You'll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you'll become something like a moron. You'll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.
posted by asterix at 11:12 PM on August 9, 2013 [42 favorites]


I like the idea that Manning, Snowden, and the leakers who will follow them are forcing our government to choose between operating efficiently and transparently, or miring themselves in paranoia and keeping their secrets but getting very little done in the process.

This is a perfectly reasonable viewpoint. Just understand that they see it the opposite way: mega-leaks mean they have to be way more closed up and paranoid, because it isn't as safe to share information within the intelligence complex. So intelligence sharing breaks down and people within the intelligence complex can't get the information they need. Intelligence officers are prone to think that Assange is sort of a sleeper agent for crazy over-classification.


Not to derail this into an Assange thread, but: Assange takes it as essentially a given that the major powers of the world (including the US government) are authoritarian; he also takes it as a given that to maintain authoritarian power, secrecy is a necessity. So while he describes the difference between operating efficiently and transparently vs. inefficient paranoia, it's pretty clear Assange believes mega-leaks will necessarily lead to more closed-up paranoia. (Or rather, he basically inverts the "if you've got nothing to hide..." trope and points it back at governments; a non-authoritarian government is assumed to require less secrecy to function and thus be less vulnerable to leaks.) While that may seem like a counter-intuitive goal, his overall goal is the breakdown of the authoritarian power structures, by forcing them to become so inefficient and mired in paranoia that they can no longer process information or take action effectively.

It's an interesting viewpoint, and while I'm not sure I accept his premises (though each passing day makes me less inclined to argue, lately) and I don't agree with all of his conclusions, it's worth understanding the logic. Crazy over-classification is indeed part of his stated goal though, so he's not really a "sleeper agent" in that sense. A good analysis is here, and if you want to read the relevant writings without sifting through everything else on IQ.org there's a PDF of the essay.
posted by mstokes650 at 11:15 PM on August 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


One of the gerbils turned out to be a mole.
posted by w0mbat at 11:43 PM on August 9, 2013 [13 favorites]


So "secret intelligence" is an oxymoron? While very interesting and not at all reassuring, the article would be so much better if instead of one long sneering string of anecdotes it actually was more serious and detailed (not to mention that it way exceeds my daily limit of sentence fragments and unnecessary dashes). I also don't believe that MI5 or other spy agencies are quite that totally incompetent, neither does it make the NSA (or other) surveillance any less sinister, but on the contrary possibly even more dangerous.
posted by blue shadows at 11:45 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


It seems to me if you create an organization whose mission is to find terror plots, spies, and malfeasance, and whose budget isn't subject to oversight and whose operations aren't subject to the rule of law, said organization is going to find terror plots, spies and malfeasance whether any exists or not--if for no other reason than to justify their own existence.
posted by maxwelton at 11:52 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Good post, Kattullus. I almost posted this too. Adam Curtis always has an interesting perspective on things.
posted by homunculus at 11:55 PM on August 9, 2013


Spectacular post. Much food for thought. Thank you.
posted by motty at 12:24 AM on August 10, 2013


Dreadnought: "So should we just accept that our intelligence agencies are doing a sterling job as the keystones of national security? Certainly not. But it is just as dangerous to paint them as Sterling Archers and Keystone Cops as it is to paint them as noble heroes without fault or favour. Doing that is hard, and it takes years of study, and it's often really dull. But this careful and sober practice is the thing that stands in the way of intelligence malfeasance, and reporters should be relying on the extensive and important body of research produced by my colleagues, not this circus of amusement and anecdote that so dominates popular conversations such as this one."

"The thing that stands in the way of intelligence maleasance" is a cute phrase to hand-wave away the historical facts of the matter, but let's confront this head-on.

From MKULTRA to the ridiculously stupid and misguided torture of Yuri Nosenko - from the litany of idiocy in the "family jewels" to the current travails of Edward Snowden - from serving as J Edgar Hoover's personal hit squad to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger's personal hit squad to who knows what other presidents' and high-ranking officials' personal hit squads - probably many of them - it seems to me as an admittedly amateur student of history that there is positively not one single solitary instance of a good deed anyone in any official "intelligence" organization has ever done for any other human being. We don't even to have a bit of evidence demonstrating that any of the agents that did this awful and inhumane work were good people at all; evidence suggests they were far from it. They have consistently and continuously exerted a purely malign and malevolent influence on American history, propping up dictators and supporting torture and destroying the freedom of speech of decent citizens.

So maybe you can tell me: do we have any evidence of even one good thing the CIA, the NSA, or any other of these agencies that seem tasked with "intelligence" - do we have any evidence whatsoever of even one single solitary good thing they have ever done? Even if we do - does the evidence there erase the long, tortuous, painfully vast and hideously malignant legacy these quasi-legal agencies have built over their many years?

Feel free to laugh off this question if you find it silly. I will say, however, that a growing number of people are sick beyond standing of the mess these agencies invariably create and the blood and sacrifice we expend cleaning it up. And I pray fervently for the day - I will work for it as much as I am able - when these bands of vile brigands are exposed and run out of their offices and prosecuted in courts of law as the common criminals they are. The laws of the United States are meant to apply to all, and the license which these organizations have taken with those laws must not be borne.
posted by koeselitz at 12:31 AM on August 10, 2013 [41 favorites]


There's a famous phrase, that the world of counterintelligence is like a 'wilderness of mirrors'

That quote is from James Jesus Angleton, chief of CIA counterintelligence from 1954 to 1975. During his time in that role he privately expressed suspicions that German Chancellor Willy Brant, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Canadian Prime Ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau and American President Gerald Ford were Soviet agents.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:35 AM on August 10, 2013 [17 favorites]


Amen, koeselitz.

The same goes for our own bunch of over-protected super-secret ultra-creepy clowns here in the UK. As it happens, I can think of one good thing that came out of our lot, which is Alan Turing and his work. But that was a very long time ago. And we all know what happened to him.

What have these people done for us lately?
posted by motty at 12:48 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


1906... Lord Northcliffe changed the route of the invasion to make sure that all the towns that were sacked and pillaged had lots of Daily Mail readers.... as agreed with the circulation department.

It's nice to know that the quality of journalism provided by the Daily Mail has remained consistent for over a century.
posted by problemspace at 12:53 AM on August 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


it seems to me as an admittedly amateur student of history that there is positively not one single solitary instance of a good deed anyone in any official "intelligence" organization has ever done for any other human being.

Richard Sorge, the man who confirmed that Japan had no intention of joining Germany's war on the USSR and therefore made it possible for its crack Siberian troops to be moved to the front to prevent the nazis taking Moscow, altering the course of the war and ultimately making possible an Allied victory, begs to differ.

As do Kim Philby and his fellow Cambridge spies, who made it possible for the USSR to have the a-bomb only shortly after the US, therefore remobing the temptation for unilateral atomic war.

And while gentlemen do not read each other's mail, reading the Zimmermann telegram was crucial for getting the US involved in WWI.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:08 AM on August 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


You will deal with a person who doesn't have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you'll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You'll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you'll become something like a moron. You'll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.
Exhibit A: the War on Iraq. So, so many earnest people, both pro and contra the war who were convinced that there must be something in the WMD allegations, so so many people who dismissed the anti-war movement out of hand because "they surely must have some secret information". Even Colin Powell's shambles of an UN presentation couldn't convince the serious people that the CIA or NSA didn't know more than they showed publically.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:18 AM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Adam Curtis:
But what really did for all of the intelligence agencies at the end of the eighties is that none of them predicted the collapse of communism.

Mrs Thatcher's advisor - Charles Powell - summed up the extraordinary failure:

"The biggest single failure of intelligence of that era was the failure of almost everybody to foresee the end of communism. it caught us completely on the hop. All that intelligence about their war-fighting capabilities was all very well, but it didn't tell us the one thing we needed to know - that it was all about to collapse.

It was a colossal failure of the whole Western system of intelligence assessment and political judgement."

But the real reason that the intelligence agencies didn't predict the collapse of the Soviet system was because many of the people at the top of the agencies couldn't believe it was true.
posted by Mister Bijou at 1:34 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


MartinWisse,
Are you seriously saying that Kim Philby was a hero for giving the Soviets the atomic bomb, thus starting to Cold War and creating every skirmish proxy war from Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan (Soviet occupation, U.S. supplying arms to, oh, I don't know a nice Saudi guy name Osama)?

I have serious trepidation that such an act was "good", given the millions of lives spent trying to forment fear and paranoia. Not to mention the ramifications of things like the witch hunts in the civilian populations of pretty much every country in NATO due to the "dread plague of Communism" that ALL OF US GREW UP WITH.

That is not helpful to humanity. If anything, it enables repression and destroyed more lives than it "saved".

But maybe that's just the mental trauma of living with the constant threat of nuclear mutual annihilation that I seem to suffer from.
posted by daq at 1:36 AM on August 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


What have these people done for us lately?

Spies sometimes do a lot of good. Consider Joan Pujol Garcia, an amateur spy from Spain who spun an elaborate web of lies that tricked the Nazis into believing he was running a network of dozens of spies in England. His reports kept twenty German divisions at Calais instead of Normandy around the time of D-Day. For his services to the allies during the war he was made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE). The unwitting Nazis awarded him the Iron Cross.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:55 AM on August 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm usually a fan of Adam Curtis, but this is below his usual standard.

Bettaney was only caught when he took some of the best of these secrets and tried to stuff them into the letter box of the Second Secretary of the Russian Embassy - Mr Gouk. Mr Gouk was so confused by this that, instead of passing them on to the KGB, he went round to MI5 and gave them back, and told them where they had come from. MI5 arrested Bettaney and he was put on trial.

I don't know where Curtis has got this from. It's true that Gouk suspected (not unreasonably) that the whole thing might be an MI5 set-up, but he didn't 'go round to MI5' and give the documents back. (Does Curtis suppose that the Russians used to drop round to MI5 for afternoon tea?) It was Oleg Gordievsky, MI5's agent in the Soviet embassy, who got hold of the documents and passed them back to MI5.

Curtis shows considerable ingenuity in turning MI5's successes into failures ('the problem for MI5 is that the expulsions pretty much destroyed the KGB presence in Britain'). He also omits any evidence that doesn't support his argument. For example, he says absolutely nothing about MI5's counter-terrorism work against the IRA, because this would force him to admit that MI5 actually had a real job to do and weren't just 'bugging and burgling their way around London' (as Peter Wright famously put it). Similarly, he says nothing about the Security Service Act of 1989 which finally placed MI5 under statutory control, because this would force him to acknowledge that MI5 today is a very different organization from MI5 in the 1960s or the 1970s. It suits Curtis to argue that the 'secret world of spies' has remained basically unchanged from 1906 until the present day.

This is a missed opportunity, because there are some very pertinent questions that Curtis could be asking about the role of MI5. When Christopher Andrew's authorized history of MI5 was published in 2009, the late Brian Simpson drew attention to some 'bizarre gaps' in the book, particularly regarding MI5's influence over government policy on civil liberties:

The role of MI5 in both law-making and, to a lesser extent, the formulation of policy in relation to the balance between civil liberty and security, is largely passed over in this history. [..] Occasionally issues of legality are briefly mentioned, as over the institution of the Home Office Warrants authorising the interception of mail and later of telephone calls. But that is about as far as it goes. Since MI5 was invented there is no doubt that there has been a steady erosion of civil liberties in Britain, much of it in the name of security. This may or may not have been A Good Thing. But it is difficult to know if MI5’s input into the evolving policy remains concealed.

I would love to read Curtis's take on this. But instead he chooses to play the history of MI5 for laughs, presenting it as a hopelessly inept organization that 'retreated more and more into a world of fictional conspiracies in order to disguise its repeated failures'. The story as Curtis tells it is one of hilarious incompetence ('weirdos', 'very strange people', 'completely mad', etc). If true, this would be curiously reassuring. But there is more (a lot more) to the history of MI5 than that.
posted by verstegan at 2:07 AM on August 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


daq wrote: Are you seriously saying that Kim Philby was a hero for giving the Soviets the atomic bomb, thus starting to Cold War

Whoa! Philby started the Cold War? That's much too much credit to put on the shoulders of one man. For starters, you might want to look this over: The Cold War: A New History, by John Lewis Gaddis
posted by Mister Bijou at 2:17 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


asterix, that was a perspective I hadn't thought about before -- I can see both the exhilarating parts of gaining that access and the parts that are fundamentally generators of pure cynicism, and kind of depressing.

You will deal with a person who doesn't have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you'll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him.

At some level I think many people smell the contempt that this perspective generates, and it is a long way from how they were taught to think about governance and democracy. Snowden and the government's reaction to him is only the most recent reminder of this contempt.
posted by Killick at 2:22 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I considered posting this review of Christopher Andrew's The Defence of the Realm (which Brian Simpson's letter is a response to). The review is fairly harsh. This is the conclusion:
But we cannot take all this on trust. 'Spooks' – Andrew’s main sources – are vocational liars, dissemblers, falsifiers and hiders of things, not just occasional ones, like politicians. Even if we trust Andrew to be telling the truth as he understands it, it would be naive to assume that MI5 has been as open and honest with him, or that its 'archive', whose use is what distinguishes this account from all others, can tell us everything. That is a cross that all secret services have to bear, and also their historians, even if they are 'authorised'; indeed, even more if they are authorised, but restricted as much as Andrew has been: not allowed to see certain stuff or to reveal other stuff, or even – the fundamental requirement, this, for an academic historian in all other circumstances – to permit verification by others. Most of us would be chary of taking on a commission like this under such conditions. Andrew is to be thanked, on behalf of all weaker-stomached historians, for being prepared to hold his nose and risk it; and congratulated for doing almost the best that I think could have been done in the circumstances. But he must be prepared for some scepticism; the nature of his topic calls out for it. And scepticism is, after all, what historians are supposed to exercise.
posted by Kattullus at 2:24 AM on August 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


For example, he says absolutely nothing about MI5's counter-terrorism work against the IRA, because this would force him to admit that MI5 actually had a real job to do and weren't just 'bugging and burgling their way around London' (as Peter Wright famously put it).

Although MI5 had some success against the IRA, they were also heavily leaking information to Loyalist paramilitaries resulting in a number of deaths, something the UK government had to apologize for and which surely also increased the violence and savageness of the Troubles. So not exactly an unparalleled example of their great successes. (If you want to go way back to their dealings in Ireland, you can go back to the 20s when Michael Collins found their list o'spies in Dublin Castle and had a bunch of them shot, proving that they've not exactly always been wise with writing things down and keeping them in one central location for their enemies to find.)
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:51 AM on August 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Although MI5 had some success against the IRA, they were also heavily leaking information to Loyalist paramilitaries resulting in a number of deaths

I'm not sure MI5 was competent enough to do even that.

It is, however, well evident that Northern Ireland's Royal Ulster Constabulary's Special Branch as well as the British Army's own military intelligence agents were feeding information and weapons to the Protestant paramilitary organisations for the longest time during the Troubles. See, for instance, murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane in 1989. And Brit prime minister David Cameron's public apology in 2012.

MI5 surely had a presence in NI during the Troubles. And it still does. In 2007, MI5 took over overall "responsibility" for "security" in Northern Ireland.
posted by Mister Bijou at 3:52 AM on August 10, 2013


Lewis H. Lapham flips up the top of his Zippo lighter, ignites another Parliament and inhales deeply.

At 71, he's about to step down after 28 years as the editor of Harper's magazine, but he's not talking about that right now.

Instead, he's telling the story of his aborted job interview at the CIA back in 1957, when Lapham, after matriculating at Hotchkiss and Yale and Cambridge, hoped for a career as a Cold Warrior.

"The CIA was in temporary buildings, Quonset huts down by the Lincoln Memorial," he says. "The interview was at a wooden table with four guys, all from Yale. They were of a type that I had come to ridicule at Yale -- the George W. Bush type."

What type is that?

"Eastern, rich, privileged, arrogant, perennial cheerleader," he says, the adjectives rolling out in his patrician voice....

"The first question was: If you were standing at the 13th tee at the National Golf Links in Southampton, which club would you use?"
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He exhales a stream of smoke. "Now, it so happened that I'd played that golf course and knew the hole. It's a short hole, so if you said 'driver,' you'd be wrong. . . . I said 7-iron, and I got it right."

"The second question was: You're coming in on the final tack at the Hay Harbor on Fishers Island in the late afternoon -- what tack do you take? I don't remember what the answer was, but I got it right because I had sailed at Fishers Island."

He pauses theatrically, telling his story with the unhurried confidence of a man who is rarely interrupted.

"The third question was: They mentioned the name of a girl who was known on the Ivy League circuit for being a ravenous nymphomaniac. And the question was: Does she wear a slip?"

He takes another drag, emits another cloud. "I didn't know, because I'd never had carnal knowledge of the young lady. I explained that I'd heard rumors of French silk and Belgian lace but I couldn't vouch for my sources."

At that point he walked out of the interview, he says, disgusted with the know-it-all smugness of his CIA interrogators. "I said, 'Gentlemen, I'm sorry I've wasted your time. Goodbye and good luck.' "

Lewis Lapham on joining the CIA
posted by ennui.bz at 4:55 AM on August 10, 2013 [11 favorites]


Adam Curtis is an entertainer first, albeit entertaining as hell. As a resource I am pretty damn skeptical. I enjoyed the Corbett take on Adam Curtis almost as much as I enjoyed Century of the Self.

(I am likely to spend or maybe even waste a lot of time today reading on the link dreadnought posted.)
posted by bukvich at 5:13 AM on August 10, 2013


Operation Richard Gere was certainly a low-point in Her Majesty's Spycraft History
posted by Renoroc at 6:22 AM on August 10, 2013


Feel free to laugh off this question if you find it silly. I will say, however, that a growing number of people are sick beyond standing

I'm worried that you're going to be offended by some of the things I'm about to write, and that makes me feel bad. Because I don't want you to be offended; even though I disagree with you I have no intention of 'laughing off' your views because they are clearly the arguments of a sincere, intelligent and knowledgeable person. Indeed, even though I think you're wrong, you're making the same mistake that a lot of very clever people have made. Here's the catch: you might not like those people.

If you want a really sophisticated statement of your same argument, read Intelligence and War by John Keegan. Keegan is a famous and brilliant historian, but this book ends with a real clunker: a defence of the then-current position that the US should invade Iraq.

It turns out that Keegan wasn't alone, in 2002-3, in stating pretty much the same argument that you, koeselitz, raise in your comment. Lots of people in the Bush administration were pissed off at intelligence because intelligence people kept telling them that invading Iraq was dangerous and wrong and wouldn't work. So much so that Rumsfeld put together a special, in-house, intelligence agency made up of people who had little understanding of intelligence and, thus, wouldn't be swayed by the incompetent and unimaginative manipulators of the dark arts who were getting in his way. The CIA got a lot of bad press in those days (although, to be honest, it was mostly State against the war) and it wasn't because they were being too cooperative with the people cheer-leading the war.

So I'm not telling this story to create a kind of guilt-by-association (if you don't like the NSA you must like dead Iraqi children!!1! -- of course not!). I'm trying to make two, more subtle, points: The first is that people often try and make this debate into a dichotomy of views (usually 'right wing intelligence boosters' vs. 'left wing sceptics'), but it's way more complicated than that. The second point is that ignorance of intelligence is ... well it's dangerous. There are lots of really interesting and worthy debates we should be having in our societies, and we just keep getting stuck on this stupid 'they're heroes!; they're villains!' argument. In the meantime, great misery and destruction has been wrought by people who refused to look at intelligence in a nuanced way.

I think that, if you carefully review your own comment, you'll find that it contains the seeds of its own destruction. You make this argument - which is the exact same argument that Keegan makes - which goes something like this:

1. I don't know much about intelligence, but I've heard a lot of Bad Things, and read some books in which people say Bad Things about intelligence.

2. ...

3. Intelligence has probably never (or vanishingly rarely ever) done anything good.

The problem, of course, is point 2. Because point 2 is never stated, but I can only imagine goes something like this:

2. If there's one thing we know about the Secret World, it's that it's a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of enterprise, in which all the salient details are readily available and everything is as it initially appears.

You see the problem here? There's a reason intelligence historians spend years apprenticing to be intelligence historians, and it's not just that universities are the only organisations in the world more screwed up than intelligence agencies.

The view put forward in the Curtis essay is a conspiracy theory. It's a classic conspiracy theory that goes like this: "These people are completely incompetent and stupid and can't get anything right and, at the exact same time, these people are so diabolically clever that they're wrapping the whole world around their little finger". This is a conspiracy theory of the kind gives conspiracy theories the reputation that they have.

So what's the real answer? Well it's somewhere in between; intelligence has done bad things and good things, evil things and heroic things. The Secret World is not a strategy we choose to employ, it's more like a technology that exists because somebody invented it. And as long as conflict continues to exist, the Secret World will continue to exist, until something else comes along that makes it obsolete. The Secret World is a force of nature (or rather a force of human nature). All we can do is try to understand it and, maybe, steer it in the right direction.
posted by Dreadnought at 7:56 AM on August 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


> But it is just as dangerous to paint them as Sterling Archers and Keystone Cops as it is to paint them as noble heroes without fault or favour.

Your argument against the Western spies being Keystone Kops seems to be, "Madness comes with the territory." Not really a rebuttal, is it? Oh, wait, there's also, "If you knew what they knew..."

No, the correct thing is to paint them as bungling psychopaths - particularly in the last 50 years since WWII.

The article is pretty clear about the ineptness of MI5, so let's look at the CIA.

We have "Curveball", the CIA's single source that got the US into the Iraq War - hundreds of thousands dead, trillions of dollars wasted, and Iraq set back a generation. Interestingly, the first Gulf War was characterized by complete intelligence failure too - to the point where they weren't even aware of the invasion of Kuwait till significantly after it had hit the papers.

We have the Bay of Pigs. We have MKULTRA and Operation Midnight Climax.

And of course we have the complete failure of the US "intelligence" agencies to act regarding all the information they had on 9/11.

(And don't get me started on the role of the CIA in the Vietnam War, and in the wars South and Central Asia.)

I'm sorry, "If you knew the truth," just doesn't wash at all. There is systematic evidence of not just bungling incompetence, but a complete disrespect for the law and a love for violence and torture for its own sake. There is little if any evidence of competence at all in the last half century.

You're quite right - Keystone Kops is much too nice an image to use for these people. It's a shame there's no famous bungling psychopath character in the literature...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:03 AM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


>It turns out that Keegan wasn't alone, in 2002-3, in stating pretty much the same argument...

I don't want to paint the entire intelligence community with a single brushstroke either, but at the same time I really would like to hear the good done by Intelligence weighed against the bad. Even in your example, the US is just deciding whether or not to topple a cruel dictator they presumably propped up in the first place. And that decision was the result of an ouroboros-style intelligence eating of itself, anyway.

I'd like to extend koeselitz's "silly" question. What good, selfless deeds have been done here? No matter if they're blindingly obvious or simple examples. I'm just hoping that in your extensive research, or maybe in the bibliography you linked, there is some clear justification for the Secret World, aside from more fear and secrecy.

And it doesn't help that I literally just read this study about how positions of power are potentially reducing our abilities to be empathetic or sympathetic towards others.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 8:29 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, and don't let me forget the latest, "Lots of chatter" Al Qaeda scare!

Does it not occur to the intelligence officers when they make up these lies that no one who thought for a second could possibly believe them? The idea that even halfway competent terrorists really would start "chattering" right before they committed an attack is ludicrous on the face of it - even the stupidest terrorist should understand that the way to commit successful terror attacks is to tell as few people as absolutely possible! - and this is after almost a decade of hearing about the independent Al Qaeda cells who are operationally and logistically independent of each other.

It seems clear to me that they simply need a terrorist threat for their own propaganda purposes - but making up a specific one would not fit the bill of causing everyone, everywhere fear, and also would be more likely to be rebutted - so they make up this lame lie about "chatter" and then announce, "All those security measures worked! Look, we weren't attacked!"

Western intelligence agencies have a generations long, unblemished record of failure, ineptitude, dishonesty and criminal activity. These organizations are unfixable - they need to be torn down to the ground and rebuilt.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:29 AM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Right, right... so one of the problems here is that we only really hear about intelligence when they screw up. And they screw up all the time: let's zoom in on torture.

Why did the CIA torture people after 9/11? It's because they didn't know anything about prisoner interrogation. Interrogating people was not their job. The US employed professional interrogators: they worked for the FBI and were very good at their job. They knew that torture didn't work, because intelligence officers, during WWII, figured out that torture didn't work, and came up with all sorts of clever ways of getting good information from prisoners. But early in the GWOT, political decision makers who knew none of these details decided to take prisoners out of the hands of FBI professionals and hand them to CIA officers who had no idea what to do. That's why torture.

But we know about this because they screwed up. When you screw up like that, it's hard to keep it secret. But did you ever hear about all the people who weren't tortured during the 1990's because non-experts didn't interfere and they were handled by the actual interrogation experts? No. Because they kept that stuff secret.

In the name of balance, then, how about we have a very partial list of intelligence's greatest hits.

What Did the Secret World Ever Do for Us?

- Defeating Hitler.
- Anthropology, ethnography and computer science
- The digital computer
- bringing an early end to the Malay Emergency
- stopping Curtis LeMay from blowing up the world because of the bomber and missile gaps
- peacefully resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis
- brokering peace in Northern Ireland
- the manned space programme
- come to mention it... all science and arts disciplines that involve overhead photography
- James Bond novels (ok, whether that's a plus or a minus is debatable)
- The discovery of the wreck of the Titanic
- The Hubble Space Telescope
- The Gorbachev détente
- John le Carré
- The fact that [redacted] people weren't killed on [redacted] because of [redacted]
- This
- Counterintuitively, stopping the British government from bringing in mandatory ID cards (the government lied and said that they were doing it because MI5 wanted them to, but actually MI5 was lobbying against it)
and last but not least...
- I have something to do with my spare time, when I could be hanging around on the streets, hassling passers-by.
posted by Dreadnought at 8:38 AM on August 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


The fact that [redacted] people weren't killed on [redacted] because of [redacted]

Which is conveniently unfalsifiable
posted by acb at 9:00 AM on August 10, 2013


Which is conveniently unfalsifiable

Not.... always. I hesitate to say very much more, but there are often things that outsider-experts know about the Secret World that we just can't talk about without loosing our access or getting into more serious trouble. Obviously, you have no reason to believe me, but for what it's worth I can attest that we often hear about things that are 'good' but which we can't talk about. As you may have gathered from this thread, intelligence agencies are really, really bad at public relations.
posted by Dreadnought at 9:05 AM on August 10, 2013


Sorry for dumping so many comments in the thread. I'll try and shut up, now, but I just want to say that I really do care about public understanding of this issue.

If you want to continue this conversation, and you're in Toronto during Sept/Oct, I'll be leading a class on this subject that is open to the public. I think the excellent comments in this thread will make a great starting point.

(Mods, please delete this if you think it's too much self-promotion; I put it in because it's not as if the university's school of continuing studies is paying me by the student. Or, you know, more than a symbolic pittance)
posted by Dreadnought at 9:16 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Dreadnought: "So what's the real answer? Well it's somewhere in between; intelligence has done bad things and good things, evil things and heroic things. The Secret World is not a strategy we choose to employ, it's more like a technology that exists because somebody invented it. And as long as conflict continues to exist, the Secret World will continue to exist, until something else comes along that makes it obsolete. The Secret World is a force of nature (or rather a force of human nature). All we can do is try to understand it and, maybe, steer it in the right direction."

Thank you for your thoughtful response. And I will say that I appreciate that this isn't an easy thing for anyone to understand fully; by its nature this stuff is secret. I still can't help but feel as though the only safe and healthy society is a society which has a very strong and very fierce impulse to destroy "the Secret World" - to expose it at every turn, to prosecute against it publicly, to put the men involved in it in danger, and to annihilate the agencies involved in the enterprise. The rule of law is too important to allow it to be abrogated.

Not to sound like Marx, but I also can't help but feel as though this is almost an historical inevitability. The situation of such agencies, as you've described them, is one of intense internal pressure; meanwhile normal, average human beings generally are distrustful toward secretive agencies. In fact, at best, the public seems so eager for details and information about these secret agencies that it's hard to imagine how they can survive, particularly if a few of us succeed in turning the tide of public opinion against them.
posted by koeselitz at 9:24 AM on August 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


Or, as a shorter version: I am still not convinced that there are any good arguments for allowing a swath of glorified bureaucrats to continue breaking the law with impunity.
posted by koeselitz at 9:27 AM on August 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


So, I was going to respond to the greatest hits in detail, but suffice it to say some of those were more concerted efforts in which the intelligence community only played a part, and some were inspired by or trickled down from something the Secret World designed for its own ends.

But point taken. Necessity is the mother of invention after all. It's nice to see the other perspective, but I'm still dismayed by what could be accomplished in the absence of all these seemingly inevitable mind games. If the prevailing concept of "necessity" were more grounded in reality than the Secret World, for example.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 9:44 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


dreadnought: The view put forward in the Curtis essay is a conspiracy theory. It's a classic conspiracy theory that goes like this: "These people are completely incompetent and stupid and can't get anything right and, at the exact same time, these people are so diabolically clever that they're wrapping the whole world around their little finger".

That's not how I read Curtis' argument at all. As I understand it his thesis is that MI5 grew quickly due to a series of public relations coups to fight a threat that was grossly overstated (Germany's spies in the 1910s). Because the agency was so hastily enlarged, there were no mechanisms set in place to keep the workplace healthy and it became riven by internal strife which grossly undercut its ability to fight a real threat, the spying activities of the Soviet Union. Instead lots of agents went on wild goose chases. They then used their contacts in the media as a megaphone to put pressure on politicians to put people under investigation. This kind of environment reinforces bad paranoid tendencies and results in people working on imaginary problems (the 5th man) and sabotaging each other, instead of actually doing what they're supposedly there to do. His ultimate point is then that the actual external espionage threat to the UK is wildly overrated, but the perception this is a real threat is reinforced by a media that believes pretty much anything they're told by an employee of the MI5. It isn't a conspiracy theory at all, it's more of an observation that the internal dynamics of the MI5 and the media that covers it creates a feedback loop that makes people waste their time on idiotic conspiracy theories, like that Harold Wilson was a spy of the Soviet Union.
posted by Kattullus at 9:45 AM on August 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


Came for the Richard Gere joke, wasn't disappointed. Thaks, Renoroc -
posted by Trinity-Gehenna at 9:53 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Not familiar with Le Queux and his 1906 oeuvre. As to his motivation for writing the series, I'm guessing that he was hoping to piggy-back on the phenomenal success of Ernest Childer's 1903 best seller The Riddle of the Sands
posted by IndigoJones at 3:01 PM on August 10, 2013


Think of it this way--Kim Philby was the head of UK counterintelligence. His job was catching Soviet spies who had infiltrated the UK Secret Service. He had been a Soviet spy since before he ever applied for the UK Secret Service. The Russians still lost the cold war.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:57 PM on August 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Didn't everybody lose the Cold War?
posted by koeselitz at 10:05 PM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Didn't everybody lose the Cold War?

"Shut up! We didn't lose Vietnam! It was a tie!"
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:03 AM on August 11, 2013


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