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"He alone was real."
July 28, 2014 2:13 PM   Subscribe

Philby's boss was Sir Stewart Menzies, who, we are told, "rode to hounds, mixed with royalty, never missed a day at Ascot, drank a great deal, and kept his secrets buttoned up behind a small, fierce mustache. He preferred women to men and horses to both." Menzies was an amateur at a time when his adversaries were professionals. Philby's fellow Soviet spy Donald Maclean was a mess. But since he was a mess with the right accent and background he easily found a home in the British spy service. At one point, Macintyre says, Maclean "got drunk, smashed up the Cairo flat of two secretaries at the U.S. embassy, ripped up their underwear, and hurled a large mirror off the wall, breaking a large bath in two. He was sent home, placed under the care of a Harley Street psychiatrist, and then, amazingly, after a short period of treatment, promoted to head the American desk at the Foreign Office."
Kim Philby, the Soviet spy who infiltrated MI6, is the subject of a Malcolm Gladwell article in The New Yorker. Gladwell argues that Philby's story is not about spying but "the hazards of mistrust." He is interviewed on a New Yorker podcast about his article. Gladwell's article is also a review of Ben Macintyre's book on Philby, A Spy Among Friends. Gladwell reviewed Macintyre's previous book, Operation Mincemeat and argued that spy agencies might be more trouble than they're worth.
posted by Kattullus (25 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
At one point, Macintyre says, Maclean "got drunk, smashed up the Cairo flat of two secretaries at the U.S. embassy, ripped up their underwear, and hurled a large mirror off the wall, breaking a large bath in two. He was sent home, placed under the care of a Harley Street psychiatrist, and then, amazingly, after a short period of treatment, promoted to head the American desk at the Foreign Office."

So, he was in Led Zeppelin?
posted by goatdog at 2:15 PM on July 28 [3 favorites]


Gladwell...argued that spy agencies might be more trouble than they're worth.

Then again, they might not. Ask a spook if he's earning his pay and the answer is likely to be that if he were able to talk frankly, you'd be hugging him for the work he does. Hell if I know if that's true, but so long as the records are sealed, we peasants cannot know.

Put another way - the screw-ups make themselves embarrassingly obvious. The successes tend to pass unnoticed, which is exactly the way they like it.

Well, our Lords and Masters in Congress are supposed to make sure this is true and so far there doesn't seem to be a lot of call on Capitol Hill to follow Gladwell's instincts.

It's times like this that I would love to read the histories written a hundred years hence.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:48 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


I often think that Gladwell's articles are essentially a superficially-appealing premise, supported by a couple of cherry-picked anecdotes. But I agree with him on this one because of a couple of things I read.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:56 PM on July 28 [7 favorites]


Sure, if you ask a spook if he's earning his pay, he'll say yes. So will the person selling banner ads.

The US at least has way too much reflexive deference to claims that transparency and rule of law need to be suspended again, and looking critically at the norm of permanent spying and general purpose institutions beyond the reach of detailed oversight or public (or in practice elected) scrutiny is no bad thing.
posted by The Gaffer at 2:57 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]


It's times like this that I would love to read the histories written a hundred years hence.

Well, we can read the ones about the Okhrana, and how effective they were...
posted by asterix at 2:58 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


Ask a spook if he's earning his pay and the answer is likely to be that if he were able to talk frankly, you'd be hugging him for the work he does. Hell if I know if that's true, but so long as the records are sealed, we peasants cannot know.

Pobably the single best piece of evidence we have is Northern Ireland. This is a conflict which has been extensively examined. Involved a relatively small, discoverable population and was totally infested with spies.

As far as I can tell spies for the british government in northern ireland broke every law of "civilised government", they tortured, murdered and terrorised innocent civilians, IRA members and fellow spies without remorse to increase their trust within the units they were trying to infiltrate, often with no objective or intent beyond playing a role.

On the other hand - they completely destabilised & infiltrated the IRA, gave Irish and British governments a huge amount of valuable information and decimated the command structure of the IRA at the time when it was waging a terrorist war against Britain - even though everything about the IRA structure was in theory designed by loyalists to resist infiltration.

We only have half-truths of the records of what happened in Northern Ireland - and that is far more than we have of any other conflict.

What snowden showed was the policy face of the secuirity services - the "look what we can do with funny acronyms" image - that is what they show to politicians who get a hard on about control - it isn't the hard face of the security services.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 3:19 PM on July 28 [4 favorites]


The only thing worse than having a spy agency is not having a spy agency (from the perspective of the state as a self-preserving organization, anyway).

If the other side can successfully create confusion and uncertainty and you can't, you're at a major disadvantage. Having a spy agency takes you from disadvantage to (something approaching) parity in the confusion game.

Saying that a spy agency isn't worth having because sometimes it results in malinformed decisions is - again, from the perspective of the state - like saying that having an army isn't worth it because sometimes they lose battles. The only worse option is not to have one.
posted by clawsoon at 3:38 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


And if the particular state becomes so oppressive and dysfunctional no one in their right minds would want to support it anymore--what then? If intelligence services create so much confusion and chaos, there's no meaningful sense in which the governed can give or withhold their consent, what then? If the preservation of the state regardless of how functionally democratic it is becomes the goal, how is that any different from totalitarianism or authoritarianism?

If you want to preserve any old state, without caring if it's actually worth preserving, sure, you probably need something like the stasi. But you can't really preserve a democratic state that way.
posted by saulgoodman at 4:10 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


I'm sure Gladwell will show the same studious rigor in covering the now-fashionable topic of the intelligence community as he did covering neuroscience research. Which is why I'd rather get my pre-formed opinions from Adam Curtis.
posted by belarius at 4:18 PM on July 28 [8 favorites]


saulgoodman: And if the particular state becomes so oppressive and dysfunctional no one in their right minds would want to support it anymore--what then?

Then that state is in even greater need of an intelligence service to preserve itself. :-)

But you can't really preserve a democratic state that way.

True.
posted by clawsoon at 4:28 PM on July 28


Over a million Americans suspected terrorists.

Flawed intelligence that started wars.

Democratically elected regimes overthrown with support of intelligence agencies.

Torture outsourced to totalitarian regimes on behalf of intelligence agencies.

Above all, none of the actions of the intelligence community must ever have scrutiny, and no spies must ever face consequences for their actions.

Of course, we must trust them when they say they do wonderful things they cannot tell us about. We must trust the professional liars.
posted by el io at 5:11 PM on July 28 [5 favorites]


Is this the week that Kattullus came in from the cold?
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:11 PM on July 28 [5 favorites]


MG: The revelations about Britain’s atomic program leaked to the Soviets by Klaus Fuchs are believed to have accelerated the Soviets’ own nuclear operation by two years. In the grand scheme of things, did that two-year leap amount to anything?

Well, in this case, lucky for us we all evaded nuclear war back at that time, otherwise it actually could have been a pretty big deal, in the grand scheme of things.

But the funny thing about spying is that intelligence analysts often tend to over-value data gathered by clandestine methods.
posted by ovvl at 5:37 PM on July 28


How lovely and weird.

I'm just now finishing up Tim Powers' fantastic novel, "Declare," so my thoughts on Kim Philby are inextricably entangled with my thoughts on T. E. Lawrence and djinn.
posted by Myca at 5:59 PM on July 28 [9 favorites]


Gladwell...argued that spy agencies might be more trouble than they're worth.

Ordinarily I'd be sympathetic to this thesis, but if Gladwell's advancing it, it must be idiotic. Hmm. Maybe he's an agent.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:00 PM on July 28 [4 favorites]


Is this the week that Kattullus came in from the cold?

I think Vikings prefer the cold.

What's the correct portmanteau for a Viking spy? Spyking?
posted by orrnyereg at 6:06 PM on July 28


I love that Tim Powers novel, Myca. Love, love, love it.

Interesting that this discussion should come up now. I just finished arguing with my SO that the primary value of spy services is as an aid to diplomacy. If you don't know what other people want or need how can you negotiate? Spies can also be useful to find out if the other party is negotiating in good faith? They may be promising something they have no intention of delivering.

Many good tools are dangerous in the hands of the ambitious. Databases and chainsaws both make life easier but can really hurt people if wrongly applied.
posted by irisclara at 6:30 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]


> Torture outsourced to totalitarian regimes on behalf of intelligence agencies.

I suppose this is the closest category for Greenwald's latest story but it might deserve a new category of its own.
posted by bukvich at 6:35 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


Interesting that this discussion should come up now.

I'm visiting my mother, and she wanted to watch the BBC miniseries Cambridge Spies. Coincidence or message from Moscow?

And Declare is an awesome novel.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:05 PM on July 28


Gin, repellant
posted by Divine_Wino at 7:21 PM on July 28 [3 favorites]


As someone interested in the history of organized state espionage, I have mixed feelings about the preceding discussion.

It's pretty clear that espionage is essentially corrupting, that's one of the great themes of (more interesting) spy literature. It's "essentially" true because it happens at all levels, in all contexts. It's personally corrupting, it's politically corrupting, it's militarily corrupting. In some sense, it's basically all about deceit and it's not hard to see why so many bad things would naturally come from it.

On the other hand, and especially in the context of certain kinds of warfare, it's indispensable. I mean, killing people is essentially corrupting in every way, at every level, but I don't see very many people arguing for pacifism in all contexts. War is killing and it's fundamentally wrong. But it may be sometimes the lesser of evils. Just so with espionage.

I haven't RTFA, and probably Gladwell discusses this, but prior to WWII almost no one in the world outside of the USSR and Britain had much experience with state organized espionage. The Russians had the most and longest experience with it; much of the tradecraft and worldview we take for granted in espionage trace back to Czar's secret police and their opponents before and after the revolution. People hunted by the secret police became the Cheka and became as their hunters, then later the NKVD and later the KGB. I don't think the Ottomans were that proficient -- between they and the British Empire there was reason and history for some familiarity, but the intense and organized and highly developed espionage of the Russians has always been in a class of its own.

While Britain had an intelligence service, at the beginning of WWII, the US didn't. The US didn't even really have much organized military intelligence. The US was way, way behind Britain, the Soviet Union, and the Nazis and this became apparent pretty quickly. It really was a problem. In war, what you don't know is terribly critical -- military commanders and political leaders are always looking to discover what the enemy doesn't want them to know and lives very immediately and directly depend upon this.

I guess I'm sort of arguing that the world would be a better place without institutionalized state espionage in the same way, and dependent upon, it being better without war. Which is to say, as long as no one had war and espionage available, there's no question things would be better. But it's not clear how to get from here to there.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:12 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]


Ivan Fyodorovich: In war, what you don't know is terribly critical

In the podcast interview Gladwell goes a bit into the difference between intelligence gathering and spycraft. He's not against the former (which, as he mentions, would be ludicrous).
posted by Kattullus at 11:29 PM on July 28


I will confess that this is the best piece of writing I've yet seen from Gladwell to my taste, at least. Or maybe it's because I don't know the literature for the social psych he's exploring here very well so I can't see how he is mangling it for pithy truistic generalizations. . . But in either case it's a nice yarn. I just wish he had drawn out the comparison to the Iraq war and/or other present day examples. The arguments are extensible from espionage to propaganda too.
posted by spitbull at 3:00 AM on July 29


What's the correct portmanteau for a Viking spy? Spyking?

Spying, that's where I'm a Viking!

This seems as good a place as any to recommend the movie Another Country starring a (very) young Cary Elwes, Rupert Everett, and Colin Firth among others. It's about Burgess, not Philby, and takes a look at how the institutionalized homophobia in Britain c. mid-20th century may have played a part in some of the worst of the spy scandals. (In non-spy news, see also the horrific fate of Alan Turing.)

And for those interested in the spy world in general, Gideon's Spies, by Gordon Thomas, provides a fairly well-balanced overview of Mossad, mainly from the inside. Very few punches are pulled, and (for me, another person fascinated by state-level espionage) it really does seem to look at the pros and cons of a national spy agency (and, sigh, assassination) in a pretty balanced way, though the author leaves most judgement up to the reader.

Now I'm gonna go RTFA.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:34 AM on July 29 [3 favorites]


NYT review of A Spy Among Friends.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:39 AM on July 30


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