Snooping around Britain and the USA's 'special relationship'
Information is power, secrets are a currency. The more you know, the farther you go.
This holds true in the hard-nosed worlds of espionage, business and politics. But it also applies to freemasonry, Kabbalah and gnostic religions, systems of arcane knowledge and power where the underlying secrets are, to put it delicately, not necessarily grounded in fact.
In other words, are secrets a currency because they are actually worth something, like muskets and cooking pots, or can they become mere tokens of exchange, like glass beads and cowrie shells?
In his new history 'In Spies We Trust', Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones writes of a British agent who, speaking of the golden age of Anglo-American cooperation in the 1940s, complained of other Britons who furthered their careers simply by "achieving reputations for 'getting on with' and 'being trusted by' Americans".
Jumping to the present day, Jeffreys-Jones writes: "Being entrusted with secrets by the Americans came to be a prestige fix for intelligence leaders as much as for their political masters, even when it was a goal with poor outcomes such as the protracted occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan."
'In Spies We Trust' is not really, as its subtitle claims, "The Story of Western Intelligence". It deals only cursorily with the intelligence agencies of non-Anglophone Cold War players such as Germany and France. The relationship between the US and Israel's Mossad gets only one rather dismissive paragraph.
What this book does do – and it does it well – is examine the complex history of American and British intelligence cooperation, which has underpinned the supposed "special relationship" between the two English-speaking powers for the past century or more.
In the years preceding the First World War, the former enemies discovered that their interests either tended to coincide or at least did not conflict: each carefully declined to condemn the other for military adventures in Cuba and the Philippines (the US) and the Boer Republics (Britain). Cultural attraction was also at work: the patricians who then ran the US government and military – ex-prep school and Ivy League – understood and admired the British elite of public schoolboys and Oxbridge graduates.
Moreover, when the US found itself in sudden and desperate need of intelligence in both 1917 and 1941, the British Empire, though in slow decline, had already been on a war footing for several years, and therefore had plenty to offer.
Yet outside the area of signals intelligence, how much use was all this spying? For example, did Kim Philby seriously damage the Western alliance by betraying MI6 to the KGB or was he, as the late Sir John Keegan is quoted here as saying: "a classic example of a spy spying on spies"? How much of the cloak-and-dagger stuff was really dog-and-pony, a self-sustaining activity, like a covert corollary to Parkinson's Law?
The "special relationship" is now, the author says, a largely historical artefact, with the US looking beyond Britain for other partners and sources of intelligence. The damage wrought in the Bush-Blair years, when Dick Cheney ruthlessly subordinated US intelligence to his political ends, and when Britain allowed itself to be turned into a source of toxically false information, is incalculable.
And now we know that there are even bigger games in town. Jeffreys-Jones is unfortunate that his new book went to print just before Edward Snowden's revelations of global internet snooping.
So will human spying, like its cousin, news journalism, be killed off by the all-seeing eye of the internet? Perhaps not. Recent news reports have revealed that Vladamir Putin's KGB-spawned regime is reverting to the use of typewriters, since unlike computers they cannot be bugged. From now on, if anyone wants to steal Russian secrets they'll have to break out the lock picks and miniature cameras. (©Daily Telegraph)
– Ed O'Loughlin