"I sometimes think I am working in a madhouse."
January 27, 2015 8:44 AM   Subscribe

Maybe the real state secret is that spies aren't very good at their jobs and don't know very much about the world. Adam Curtis entertainingly discusses the competence (or lack thereof) of MI5 and other spy agencies in this rather aged but still relevant article for the BBC. Note that you'll probably need a proxy of some sort to see the videos outside the UK.
posted by disclaimer (39 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
It does sort of sound like they'd be better off replacing their training program with a few seasons of Burn Notice.
posted by asperity at 8:54 AM on January 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Or Foyle's war
posted by edgeways at 8:57 AM on January 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


Or Mr. Bean
posted by disclaimer at 9:03 AM on January 27, 2015 [14 favorites]


Oh, fantastic. If you read all the way to the end, you'll be rewarded with a priceless image of MI5 attempting to use gerbils to fight terrorism...
posted by suelac at 9:14 AM on January 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Anyone not able to see the videos, get Hola, a free browser plugin. Works on very many region restricted sites.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 9:17 AM on January 27, 2015 [4 favorites]




This article is extremely schizophrenic and also lacking in knowledge of how agencies work.

For example, in one of the examples given, it seems less likely that Colonel Edmond believed Daily Mail readers, and more likely that he saw a way to get funding from gullible superiors focused on the German menace.

Much like, hypothetically, certain departments of certain three letter agencies may or may not declare that whatever they're doing is "terrorist related" in order to get additional funds, because that's the hot new scare.

Or it talks about how MI5 missed "important revolutionary poetry" on the part of Cecil Day-Lewis and declared he was not a revolutionary. Isn't it more probable that they didn't investigate or care about his poetry because it doesn't actually change anything? Man, if "revolutionary poetry" made terrorists, I have a whole bunch of phone calls to the FBI to make.

Also, which is more likely - that MI5 failed to prosecute a spy because they were embarrassed they hadn't caught him? Or because, as they note, he was the Queen's cousin?
posted by corb at 9:22 AM on January 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


Like, it's as though this author has never heard of self-interest.
posted by corb at 9:27 AM on January 27, 2015


FWIW, I highly recommend BBC's recent series The Game, about Cold War spies.

Dirty, messy, egotistical, careerist spycraft. With moles.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:32 AM on January 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Or it talks about how MI5 missed "important revolutionary poetry" on the part of Cecil Day-Lewis and declared he was not a revolutionary. Isn't it more probable that they didn't investigate or care about his poetry because it doesn't actually change anything?

That doesn't really follow. They're investigating him to try to get a handle on his beliefs (is he a commie or not, and if so how dedicated a commie is he?). If they go to the trouble of noting down whether or not he's a decent singer, you'd think they'd at least want to make a note of the fact that he's written a poem calling for bloody revolution--regardless of whether or not they think the poem is an effective means of bringing on that revolution.

It is remarkably hard to make any decent historical case for spy agencies. In terms of what makes it into the public record, they've been spectacularly wrong far, far more often than they've been right. Because, by the nature of their work, they can't open their hypothesis up to robust public discussion they are horribly vulnerable to groupthink-type errors. Even when they do discover useful or interesting facts about antagonist nations they frequently feel incapable of acting on that knowledge because to do so would reveal too much about their spy capabilities.

Of course, they also always have the advantage of the "but we can't tell you about our many, many successes" defense--which, no doubt, has at least some truth to it.
posted by yoink at 9:33 AM on January 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


Of course, they also always have the advantage of the "but we can't tell you about our many, many successes" defense--which, no doubt, has at least some truth to it.

It certainly did when I was doing intelligence work. Successful operations were routinely classified for 50 years or longer, because you didn't want anyone finding out what was currently working.
posted by corb at 9:35 AM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


"It was best to err on the side of caution".

This is like the scene in Doctor Strangelove with the doomsday machine.
posted by bukvich at 9:40 AM on January 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Maybe the real state secret is that spies aren't very good at their jobs and don't know very much about the world.

Reminds me of the FBI's pursuit of that immense danger to the USA: jazz music.
posted by sallybrown at 9:41 AM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


And me of the CIA's clandestine efforts to promote abstract expressionism as a foil to the communistic dangers of social realism... Our intelligence agencies seem to be pretty obsessively focused on faking historical events and disrupting the natural processes of cultural transmission. We probably haven't had an authentic, naturally evolving, organic human culture in the US since at least the 1950s.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:46 AM on January 27, 2015 [8 favorites]


We probably haven't had an authentic, naturally evolving, organic human culture in the US since at least the 1950s.

Yeah. Prior to the 1950s there were no large social, cultural, religious or political institutions that ever tried in any way whatsoever to influence the "naturally evolving, organic human culture." The CIA totally invented that.
posted by yoink at 9:49 AM on January 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


Cecil Day-Lewis: the original people's poet!
posted by TedW at 9:50 AM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


All the evidence pre-2001 is that MI5/6 were highly effective agencies who comprehensivley infiltrated their primary enemy (the IRA). There is much less evidence in other conflicts - but I doubt we have much reason to think their success against the ira was a fluke.

I'm sure there were lots of cock ups, mistakes and embarrassments along the way, but well.. you rapidly get into playing 3d chess where you wonder if these were allowed because of the advantage if some of your enemies underestimate you and thereby makes mistakes (like much of the IRA thinking british agents wouldn't kill or torture innocents in the line of duty).
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 10:07 AM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


All the evidence pre-2001 is that MI5/6 were highly effective agencies who comprehensivley infiltrated their primary enemy (the IRA). There is much less evidence in other conflicts - but I doubt we have much reason to think their success against the ira was a fluke.

But is there good evidence that that comprehensive infiltration significantly lessened IRA violence or hastened the resolution of the broader conflict? I mean, if the hallmark of successful infiltration is that MI-5's agents were happy to "kill or torture innocents" so as not to blow their cover, it's not quite clear if MI-5 are infiltrating the IRA or the IRA is co-opting MI-5.
posted by yoink at 10:10 AM on January 27, 2015 [7 favorites]


Well, I did say "at least," yoink. It's one thing to try to influence the culture through advocacy and another to pay-off and spy on every major potentially influential cultural figure while aggressively selling the world a narrative of a meritocratic, free market system above the corrupting culturally-stifling influence of totalitarianism. We were paying off and spying on artists and celebrities with an efficiency that would make the Stasi blush with the left hand while scaring the crap out of Americans by invoking horrors of the menace of totalitarian cultural control under communism with the right. It's just funny how much we lie to ourselves about everything, is all.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:28 AM on January 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's just funny how much we lie to ourselves about everything, is all.

Well, it's kind of always-been-thus. The question isn't the modality; the question is the efficacy. And as noted above, there is no real way of gauging the efficacy from the "outside."

That having been said, the VAST majority of actual HUMINT ops do not nor do they need to involve your average Jane or Joe. Focusing on the few actual ops involving hypothetical average Janes/Joes is really a waste of time when the bigger problem of a privatized surveillance state is staring us right in the face. This is not to excuse absolutely gross moral violations during ops involving average Janes/Joes or the more-than-average ones, but merely to say that the the types of things TFA deals with are way outside of anything that's actually going to affect most folks' lives. Unlike every single relationship nexus or insinuation of intent or physical location and condition we all put on FB or Twitter or Instagram or Pinterest or Metafliter every damn day. THAT scares me, and not the random (in)competent small-scale covert op.

All of that having been said, it sure as hell would be interesting to see the win/loss column for all the world's various three letter agencies!
posted by digitalprimate at 11:01 AM on January 27, 2015


"It does sort of sound like they'd be better off replacing their training program with a few seasons of Burn Notice."

Or the Sandbaggers, which is my personal favorite series about the failures of bureaucracy spying.
posted by klangklangston at 11:18 AM on January 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


Or the Pink Panther
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:40 AM on January 27, 2015


Or Maxwell Smart.
posted by SPrintF at 11:55 AM on January 27, 2015


Spies make total sense if they're spying on something like a corporation or a government or some kind of organization that is doing a thing. When they start spying on each other it is when it goes sideways.
posted by fshgrl at 12:14 PM on January 27, 2015


Successful operations were routinely classified for 50 years or longer, because you didn't want anyone finding out what was currently working.

So why did we let everyone know that we were tapping all the cellphones in Iraq and Afghanistan? Some seat warmer needed to make a bureaucratic coup?
posted by monotreme at 1:06 PM on January 27, 2015


Successful operations were routinely classified for 50 years or longer, because you didn't want anyone finding out what was currently working.

It occurs to me that a really good intelligence agency would not only keep their successes secret, but also have everybody wondering if they are actually good for anything at all. Maybe up to and including sponsoring amusing articles about how spies don't really know what they're doing....
posted by happyroach at 1:10 PM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


In the United States, the CIA has done so many terrible things that they should be abolished and a war crimes tribunal set up if there were any concern for "justice" - (and done so many inept, crazed things that no rational person should respect their judgement in the slightest).

Overall, some level of spying is necessary, but since the profession attracts psychopaths, to do it ethically would require heavy oversight by ethical individuals - individuals who understood Realpolitik, but still primarily ethically driven - empowered to actually prevent them from carrying out evil deeds. As it is, the spy operations of the world are basically paranoid psychopaths with organization.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:28 PM on January 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


It occurs to me that a really good intelligence agency would not only keep their successes secret, but also have everybody wondering if they are actually good for anything at all. Maybe up to and including sponsoring amusing articles about how spies don't really know what they're doing....

And a really, really good intelligence agency would plant seeds of doubt among those who enjoyed the amusing articles, just to make sure that they kept an edge of menace about the idea of intelligence agencies.

And a really, really, really good intelligence agency would then point that out, just to keep everyone guessing in an eternal fog of war.

And so on in that fashion.
posted by Copronymus at 1:38 PM on January 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


So what you're saying is, I'm not the only one drawing a salary to post here?
posted by meinvt at 2:26 PM on January 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Eh? EVERYONE on Metafilter is a paid informant. It's the only reason anyone ever signs on to the site.

You didn't know?
posted by kyrademon at 2:33 PM on January 27, 2015


So what you're saying is, I'm not the only one drawing a salary to post here?

Either confirming or denying this statement would be equally valuable evidence of its truth.
posted by Copronymus at 2:36 PM on January 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


It is remarkably hard to make any decent historical case for spy agencies. In terms of what makes it into the public record, they've been spectacularly wrong far, far more often than they've been right.

While snoops have always been despised throughout history, I think there was a clear moment in history when intelligence agencies came into their own and briefly did have great value - the WWII era, a unique moment in technology and war when signals and codes were taking on new importance yet the new ways were also still new and vulnerable. I think that moment also clearly passed, but not before enshrining this ongoing concept that the world will end if not for giving unending blank cheques to groups whose questionable competence need never rise to meet the grade of public accountability.

Unaccountable agencies become so popular in modern history because there was that one time when agencies really pulled a rabbit out of a hat. But now we need to move on and apply impartial empiricism, no different to everything else.
posted by anonymisc at 2:49 PM on January 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


kyrademon: That's not true. A fair number of us are AI.
posted by ODiV at 2:51 PM on January 27, 2015


somebody reformat ODiV, they've gone rogue again
posted by disclaimer at 2:59 PM on January 27, 2015


the VAST majority of actual HUMINT ops do not nor do they need to involve your average Jane or Joe.

Then the problem is truely vast because so many average Janes and Joes are targeted by idiotic intelligence operations simply because they're engaged in legitimate political action that doesn't happen to fit the political worldview of the agencies involved. Dirty and disgraceful incompetence/abuse, and also so normal as to be unremarkable.
posted by anonymisc at 3:03 PM on January 27, 2015




As much as I enjoy Adam Curtis' work, I always come away feeling that instead of having all the layers pulled back I've just seen another laid down, although at a rather different angle.
posted by benito.strauss at 3:16 PM on January 27, 2015


The journalist Phillip Knightley has written a really good history of spies - called The Second Oldest Profession.

That the CIA did not foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union is no surprise.

The primary goal of all these agencies is to stay in business.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 12:21 AM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


That having been said, the VAST majority of actual HUMINT ops do not nor do they need to involve your average Jane or Joe.

This is for values of "average Jane or Joe" that in Western countries are right wing white straights. Otherwise, making this statement in a world that knows COINTELPRO existed is in clear not-even-wrong territory.
posted by mobunited at 6:29 AM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


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