CSPAN Discussion On Spies, Their Tradecraft And Foibles; And Perhaps The Greatest Spy Writer Ever — David Cornwell, Alias…John le Carre

CSPAN Discussion On Spies, Their Tradecraft And Foibles; And Perhaps The Greatest Spy Writer Ever — David Cornwell, Alias…John le Carre


The National Book Festival was recently held at the Washington Convention Center, Washington D.C., and the topic was about spying, spies, and John le Carre. This was the eighteenth annual such convention, with John Haskel from the Library of Congress serving as the host for the event, which was broadcast on the television network — CSPAN.  Mr. Haskel had a very impressive panel of experts to discuss a subject that many of us find fascinating.  The panelists included: Kai Bird, the author of The Good Spy: The Life And Death Of Robert Ames,” and the Pulitzer Prize winning, American Prometheus: The Life Of Robert Oppenheimer”Washington Post columnist and author of 11 books, David Ignatius, who’s latest nove is, Quantum Spy”Joseph Kanon, author of Defectors”a masterful expose on the lives of double-agentsand, Adam Sisman, author of Le Carre, a biography of David Cornwell.

     As moderator Kai Bird noted at the beginning, “I assume we’re all here because we love a good spy story — but, we don’t really often admire spies.  But, we love a good spy story, and that is what we’re here to discuss.”  Mr. Bird told the audience that CIA operative Robert Ames, who was later killed/murdered as a result of the 1983 U.S. Embassy Bombing in Beirut, was at one time, Mr. Bird’s next door neighbor.  Mr. Bird, was very young during this period; but, his curiosity about who his neighbor really was, intensified over the years, especially after Mr. Ames tragic death in Beirut; and, ultimately led him to write a biography on his life and work.

     At one point in the discussion, Mr. Bird remarked that David Cornwell/John le Carre, refused to discuss his five years working for British Intelligence in Germany.  Mr. Bird asked Mr. Sisman, who interviewed Mr. le Carre, for his thoughts on why he/Mr. Le Carre was unwilling to discuss any of his work on behalf of British Intelligence in Germany, some four decades ago.  Mr. Sisman said, “there is his answer, and my answer.” For background purposes, Mr. Sisman said that when Mr. le Carre left Oxford where he had been reporting on his fellow students, including a fellow American student — to MI5 – he became a School Master at Eaton before joining MI5; and then, moved to the ‘dark side,’ joining MI6 and posted to Germany. Mr. le Carre said he made a commitment back then never to talk about his secret work, and he wanted to honor that commitment. For a long time, Mr. Sisman said, “Mr. le Carre denied being involved in doing any secret work while in Germany, claiming he was just a simple civil servant…that’s all.  But, Mr. Sisman says that Mr. le Carre has gradually begun to come out of the closet.  From other sources that Mr. Sisman talked to, Mr. le Carre was essentially assigned to the British Embassy in Bonn and he was what is known in the spy profession as an “Undeclared” diplomat — listed as a Second Secretary; but in fact, working for MI6 and reporting on political developments on the extreme right and left in Germany.  Mr. le Carre, Mr. Sisman said, did not run agents in East Germany, nor the Soviet Union — at least as far as he knows.

     When Mr. Bird  asked Mr. Kanon about his ‘obsession’ with notorious British Intelligence traitor, Kim Philby, Mr. Kanon remarked that Philby is an exemplar of why we are sometimes so interested in the spy profession — “Who are we?” Who is that other person? How knowable can anyone be to us. And when it comes to spies, we are talking about someone who deliberately lying their entire life.  24/7 you are lying to your colleagues, your spouse, you are living a lie. What can be more interesting to a novelist than a subject such as this?

     le Carre’s novels are full of betrayals, Mr. Sisman remarked, not just professional betrayals, but spies betraying their spouses, their friends, and of course — even their own organization. Kim Philby did all the previous and betrayed them all not just for the purpose of spying.  He was an extraordinary duplicitous individual, Mr. Sisman said.

     As a biographer, Mr. Bird said, ‘I find myself constantly trying to seduce my sources.” In a larger sense, Mr. Bird said, I find myself believing that spies and the contribution/s they make — are vastly overrated. When they actually uncover valuable, actionable intelligence, no one in positions of power wants to hear it. It doesn’t fit with their judgment or opinion as to what is occurring and is thus ignored or dismissed.  So, while we all love a good spy story, aren’t they [spies] a little overrated?

     Mr. Ignatius said he is in general agreement that when looking at the arc of history, spies likely do overrate the value of the importance of their information/contribution. Mr. Ignatiius reflected on February 1983, when he had left the U.S. Embassy in Beirut around 1pm and about five minutes or so later, an enormous car bomb erupts, killing Robert Ames, one of the greatest intelligence officers of that generation, and kills everyone who was in the CIA Station in Beirut that day.  There was subsequently a CIA officer who was determined to find out how that bomb got to the U.S. Embassy that morning.  He made it a passion at a time when it was very dangerous for an American to be in Beirut at the time. He went person-to-person, Shia contact who rented the car from an Hezbollah contact, etc. He gathered all this intelligence, believing that if we could identify the actual perpetrators, that we could provide some justice and closure to the families of the victims. Mr. Ignatius says as far as he knows, that even though this report was submitted, that identified the perpetrators, ‘not a dam thing was ever done about it. So, sometimes, the truth doesn’t set you free.  When asked if he could reveal the CIA agent’s name — Mr. Ignatius said perhaps another time.

     Mr Sisman  said there is good reason to be skeptical of intelligence.  When you think about recent history, from Pearl Harbor, to the attack on the Twin Towers, to the failure of WMD in Iraq, these are all intelligence failures. We should regard intelligence skeptically. And often the information is there but, no one connected the dots.  And, there is too much intelligence.  We cannot see the forest for the trees. British and French intelligence failed to predict where the Germans would attack prior to Dunkirk; yet in the aftermath it was discovered that they should have known, as there was intelligence warning that the Germans were preparing to attack Dunkirk.

     Mr. Ignatius said that the creation of the le Carre character George Smiley, embodies the moral ambiguity, routine nature of the intelligence profession at its best. le Carre had the brilliance to see this character, George Smiley, with all the conflicts and betrayals, anxious about the human damage being done to the little people, in order to gain the intelligence in the end.  At what cost.  Smiley has a conscience and is at times…conflicted. Someone perhaps James Jesus Angleton would have appreciated (my words, not the panelists’).

     David Ignatius’s latest novel involves quantum computing and the rise of the technological revolution, social media, big data mining, etc.; and, human intelligence and spying.  When asked to comment on how technology is changing and impacting spying, Mr. Ignatius said “spying is increasingly about computers, and the Internet. Covert action, the implanting of fake information, amplifying of information through computer networks, mole stories involving contact and compromise through electronic means, etc. The intersection of humans and machines is also disrupting and transforming the spying community.

     Mr. Bird said that many observers of Mr. Cornwell/John le Carre’s work through the decades was critical of the Cold War; and more recently, has taken on an anti-American bias.  Mr. Sisman, who wrote a biography of Mr. le Carre, said people generally speaking, become more conservative as they get older; but, said Mr. le Carre has become more bitter, and radical– and believes to the detriment of his more current work.  Mr. le Carre’s early work was great at examining the ambiguities of spying, and that it was sometimes right, sometimes wrong, etc.  Now, Mr. Sisman said, Mr. le Carre’s writing has become more black and white, something akin to a James Bond novel, and frankly — less interesting.

    As to how the spy novel genre is likely to evolve in the 21st century, the panelists said Russia is still relevant, for obvious reasons; but, most certainly China-focused.

     Interesting discussion. I do believe that Mr. le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is perhaps the greatest, or certainly, one of the greatest spy novels, on spying and tradecraft. It will be interesting to see how spy novels evolve as the era of artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, miniature and micro-robotics, drones, DNA-shedding, all forms of biometrics, and digital exhaust are all experiencing their own forms of Moore’s Law. We could soon, if we aren’t already, in a situation of single-use HUMINT missions.  In other words, as biometric technology matures, it will be harder and harder to use an undercover operative more than once.  Body scans at airports, facial recognition, and DNA-shedding, are just some of the reasons keeping and maintaining cover will be a huge challenge — to say the least. No wonder fake fingerprinting, and anti-surveillance masks are starting to get some major traction.  Miniature and micro drones, enhanced by AI will revolutionize intelligence collection, especially in denied/hostile areas. Autonomous intelligence collection systems/robots/drones, that will activate based on target activity, coordinate in teams and swarms without human intervention, and hide or go dormant when it/they perceive they are under surveillance are all coming to a ‘battlefield near you.’ Underwater and space will also increasingly become areas ripe for disruption and technological surprise in the intelligence collection arena, along with cyber espionage.  John le Carre might be finding himself increasingly obsolete as maintaining cover becomes almost impossible; and, getting a small collection drone, among other options, become more popular and routine intelligence collection techniques/methods.  RCP, fortunascorner.com


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