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
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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