A his­tory of spy­ing

The story of spy­craft stretches from Moses to MI5 via Sun Tzu and Mar­lowe – and less has changed than you’d think

The Guardian Weekly - - Inside - By John Gal­lagher

Ev­ery Fri­day dur­ing term-time, the con­venors of the Cam­bridge In­tel­li­gence Sem­i­nar meet for tea be­neath the gaze of a por­trait of Christo­pher Mar­lowe. One of El­iz­a­bethan Eng­land’s great­est writ­ers, Mar­lowe makes good com­pany for those in­ter­ested in the his­tory of spies and spy­ing: as a stu­dent at Cam­bridge in the 1580s, he slipped away from his schol­arly du­ties and did the state some (se­cret) ser­vice abroad. Among the as­sem­bled schol­ars at the sem­i­nar, you will find Christo­pher An­drew, the his­to­rian be­hind the au­tho­rised his­tory of MI5, who in The Se­cret World presents a his­tory of in­tel­li­gence from the ear­li­est times to the present day – from an­cient Greeks to Wik­iLeaks.

This panop­tic his­tory starts broad, sketch­ing the place of spy­ing and de­ceit in Greece, Rome and the Holy Land. In China, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War in­formed its read­ers: “Se­cret op­er­a­tions are es­sen­tial in war; upon them the army re­lies to make its ev­ery move.” The Art of War (prob­a­bly writ­ten in the third cen­tury BC, and prob­a­bly not by Sun Tzu) iden­ti­fies five dif­fer­ent kinds of spy, in­clud­ing dou­ble agents, “in­side agents” work­ing within the en­emy’s camp, and “ex­pend­able agents”, who can be used to spread dis­in­for­ma­tion. Work­ing in se­crecy and har­mony, the five groups form the “divine skein”, “the trea­sure of a sov­er­eign”. The Arthashas­tra, writ­ten around the third or fourth cen­tury BC in In­dia, ar­gued sim­i­larly that a sov­er­eign needed to use spies along­side poi­son­ers and other as­sas­sins.

After these global be­gin­nings, An­drew’s scope nar­rows some­what as the book goes on, with its ac­count of the last mil­len­nium of es­pi­onage fo­cus­ing mainly on Europe, Rus­sia and the US. The au­thor is a ge­nial guide to the great suc­cesses of the se­cret world, from Moses’ use of spies from the 12 tribes of Is­rael to case the promised land (and, if pos­si­ble, to come back bear­ing grapes) to the crack­ing of the Zim­mer­mann tele­gram in 1917, “the best-pub­li­cised de­crypt in in­tel­li­gence his­tory”, which helped to bring the US into the first world war. He is also at­ten­tive to some of his­tory’s more spec­tac­u­lar in­tel­li­gence fail­ures. I hadn’t known that the dodgy in­tel­li­gence from a source co­de­named Curve­ball, used by Colin Pow­ell to sell the war on Iraq to the UN in 2003, was found by the Chilcot re­port to have been lifted in part from the 1996 film The Rock, star­ring Ni­co­las Cage and Sean Con­nery.

The Se­cret World in­vites read­ers to look be­yond the tra­di­tional nar­ra­tives of po­lit­i­cal and diplo­matic his­tory to the murkier prac­tices un­der­neath. “Black cham­bers” worked over­time to de­ci­pher the cor­re­spon­dence of en­e­mies and al­lies alike; the 19th-cen­tury Congress of Vi­enna was a play­ground for in­form­ers, who broke coded dis­patches and lis­tened in on pil­low talk in the name of con­ti­nen­tal peace. Some fe­male spies are sin­gled out, though An­drew doesn’t give them the same at­ten­tion as Na­dine Akker­man, whose re­cent In­vis­i­ble Agents is a metic­u­lously re­searched his­tory of women in es­pi­onage in the 17th cen­tury. We meet Marie-Cau­dron Bas­tian: a cleaner in the Ger­man em­bassy in fin-de-siè­cle Paris, un­der the co­de­name “Au­gust” she ri­fled the bins for mes­sages that she passed to her han­dlers in French in­tel­li­gence. Eliz­a­beth van Lew, an Abo­li­tion­ist liv­ing in Rich­mond, Vir­ginia, dur­ing the US civil war, smug­gled valu­able se­crets out in eggshells and seam­stresses’ pat­terns with the help of her African Amer­i­can ser­vants.

An­drew ar­gues that the in­tel­li­gence in­dus­try to­day often lacks an un­der­stand­ing of its own his­tory. He di­ag­noses 21st-cen­tury in­tel­li­gence prac­ti­tion­ers with what he calls (with just a hint of Alan Par­tridge) “his­tor­i­cal at­ten­tion-span deficit dis­or­der (HASDD)”. An aware­ness of his­tory can of­fer a strate­gic ad­van­tage, though the chill­ing res­o­nances be­tween past and present sug­gest that spies and their han­dlers might do well to re­flect on their pro­fes­sion’s past atroc­i­ties too. An­drew traces the emer­gence of the tor­ture known as “wa­ter­board­ing” in the sim­u­lated drown­ing tor­tures of the Span­ish In­qui­si­tion. Re­dis­cov­ered by US forces in the Philip­pines in the late 19th cen­tury, it be­came an Amer­i­can prac­tice – though Ge­orge W Bush’s gov­ern­ment ar­gued that it did not con­sti­tute a form of tor­ture. Some prob­lems are peren­nial: dou­ble-cross­ing, bad in­for­ma­tion or politi­cians and a pub­lic who only want to hear in­tel­li­gence that con­firms their own views. But while An­drew ar­gues that for many ma­jor pow­ers, the most pre­dictable global in­tel­li­gence pri­or­ity is the con­tin­u­ing threat from “in­ter­na­tional (pri­mar­ily Is­lamist) ter­ror­ism”, it’s worth won­der­ing whether the fu­ture of the se­cret world will be so pre­dictable. State-level hack­ing op­er­a­tions, do­mes­tic far­right ter­ror­ism and fun­da­men­tal shifts in the global po­lit­i­cal or­der all mean the past re­mains, as much as it ever was, only an im­per­fect guide. JOHN GAL­LAGHER IS A LEC­TURER IN HIS­TORY AT THE UNIVER­SITY OF LEEDS


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