Thursday, 4 July 2013

Friends spying on friends: as Obama says, we all do it

John Le Carré is the outstanding writer of spy novels of the Cold War, and one of his best came unbidden to my mind in the middle of the febrile, spook-filled atmosphere of the Edward Snowden scandal this week.
Peter Egan as Magnus Pym
in the excellent BBC adaptation of the Le Carré masterpiece
Do you know A Perfect Spy? If not, I can’t recommend it too warmly. To give you a small taster, it contains what must be about the most upfront pickup line you’ll ever read. A Czech interpreter, who we later discover has more to her than meets the eye – and she has plenty to meet the eye – asks the protagonist Magnus Pym:

‘You want I give you Czech lesson on Saturday?’

When he tells her that he would like that very much, she continues, severely:

‘I think we make love this time. We shall see.’

The driver of the car they are travelling in nearly takes it into a ditch.

The novel charts the progress of Pym from his childhood with his father, a professional embezzler, into a series of betrayals of increasing severity, until he gravitates into British intelligence and the greatest treason of them all.

At one point, the CIA are closing in on him and Grant Lederer, the man leading the hunt, attends a meeting with senior agency operatives at the US Embassy in London. He announces with pride that he has just had a phone call, in the Embassy, from his wife in Vienna, where she has spotted Pym’s wife being contacted by a known Czech spy.

Sadly, Lederer does not receive the congratulations he expects for this dramatic news. In the first place, involving his wife was a breach of his orders for the operation against Pym. But there's a second reason for the dissatisfaction of his superiors, which emerges at the end of the discussion. One of them asks:

‘Next question, what the hell do we tell the Brits and when and how?’

And another replies:

‘Looks like we told them already. That’s unless the Brits have given up tapping US Embassy telephone lines these days, which I tend to doubt.’

That last line came back to me as I followed the row over the latest stage in Snowden
’s revelations. It seems that the US has its agents gathering intelligence on many of its ostensible allies. They spy on the French. They spy on the European Union, a dear old institution which surely has barely a secret that can’t be found out in a Brussels bar or that’s worth knowing anyway. Worst of all, they spy on the holy of holies in Europe today, the Germans. 

Everyone’s scandalised.

Obama’s response has been highly instructive. 

‘Every intelligence service, not just ours, but every European intelligence service, every Asian intelligence service, wherever there’s an intelligence service, here’s one thing they’re going to be doing: they’re going to be trying to understand the world better and what’s going on in world capitals around the world from sources that aren’t available through the New York Times or NBC News.

‘If that weren’t the case, then there would be no use for an intelligence service. And I guarantee you that in European capitals, there are people who are interested in, if not what I had for breakfast, at least what my talking points might be should I end up meeting with their leaders. That's how intelligence services operate.’

Yep. Spy agencies exist to spy. Obviously, first and foremost on their enemies but, hey, why not on their friends too? After all, a country may well be an ally, but it
’s a competitor as well, and it’s always worth knowing what the competition’s up to.

So I’m sure Le Carré’s right. British intelligence must routinely bug the US Embassy – I really can’t believe they’d pass up such an opportunity.

So why all the anger? 

Some of it’s synthetic, no doubt. Some of it’s routine: you have to protest if someone’s found to have been spying on you. But I wonder if some of it’s not just plain envy. The US has such technology, and such a well-resourced intelligence community, they’re much better at spying than the others. 

’t the problem that the Germans, the EU and above all the French, are just annoyed as hell to discover that US spies on them far more effectively than they can spy on the US?

1 comment:

Faith A. Colburn, Author said...

I don't know David. You're probably right. But, that said, it seems to me this spook business has gotten way too spooky. It's a good thing to know what's going on in the world, but when is enough enough? Is there any limit on these spooky people?