Death, Dilbert & Deep Cover: <600 words on spies

As Chilcot reports...
If you have a reflective nature and experience of large-scale business development, particularly defence-related, spying will have crossed your mind. Hopefully that’s as close as you’ll have come.

Yet, if you’ve experienced the unintended consequences, perverse incentives and sheer SNAFU* potential of managing a high-value relationship from within a commercial organisation, even as an accomplished linguist, you will marvel that anyone would attempt covert, cross-border activity of any scope beyond the trivial. To the extent of risking life ? “You’ll need US headquarters sign-off for anything beyond $20K…. and complete the Project Life Cycle Management Phase Zero….and I’m moving you onto something else next week – didn’t you know ?”

Let’s take a breath and assume the three-letter-agencies are better at implementation than Dilbert’s boss. Even so, the challenges to effective espionage appear to be structural. There’s a selection problem: people willing to spy are not, self-evidently, trustworthy. There’s triangulation: if you do find someone really, really well-placed, it’s going to be that much harder to get the supporting data to corroborate whatever it is they bring back. And if they what they bring back is big – one of those “paradigm-shifting, black swan” insights about which we hear so much these days – what are the chances of persuading a large or self-confident organisation to actually shift a well-invested paradigm ?

Those seem to me to be the mundane, bread-and-butter problems. Naturally, espionage also raises questions of moral hazard and short-term/long-term tradeoffs: can your agent be permitted to participate in smaller crimes to maintain their cover ? And when/to what extent should you sit on your hands and let evil be done, rather than acting on their insights ?

John le Carre has covered some of this ground – but not much. Succinct, analytical discussion of these dilemmas is not easily found. Dispassionate observation is even harder to find: inevitably, memoirs tend towards the partisan, score-settling, self-aggrandising. And herein is the last problem: to what extent do spooky activities deliver real value and significance ?

Stephen Grey’s 2015 book “The New Spymasters”* answers the questions. (I don’t know, or have any commercial interest in or relationship with him or his publisher.) Further, he delivers concrete, interesting and provocative historical and recent examples of each such problem. There’s sufficient blood and mayhem to keep the prurient turning pages, and to give teeth to the realisation that these actions, for better or worse, were taken in my name and most likely yours. He is humbly realistic about the accuracy of his more controversial examples, but his assertions are backed with the small and compelling details that show he’s done his homework: while the CIA combines spying with covert action, analysis and other functions, SIS simply runs agents, with context and analysis located elsewhere. Best of all, he completes the job: any analyst worth reading makes recommendations and concrete forecasts.

Chilcot reports today, and the news cycle will invite us to review our opinions on the politics of intervention. Grey’s book seems to me likely to offer a broader and more cost-effective piece of Adult Education. Very highly recommended reading, to dispel the mystique that spying attracts, to clarify some of the organisational mechanics, and to reinforce that half-forgotten truth: that if we make policy (commercial, military or political) without listening to people who have deep cross-cultural and linguistic understanding and frequent face-to-face interactions, we can expect only perverse outcomes.

*Situation Normal All F-cked Up

*Penguin, ISBN 978 0 141 03398 3