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Alan Judd: Defecting to the old enemy shows Libyan spymaster is just a realist

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As foreign minister, Moussa Koussa headed Libya's external spying operations

As foreign minister, Moussa Koussa headed Libya's external spying operations

As foreign minister, Moussa Koussa headed Libya's external spying operations

THE announcement of the defection of former Libyan foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, may have come as no surprise to those who know him.

This is not simply because, doubtless acting through rational self-interest, he decided to jump ship once he thought it was going down. It is also because he is the former head of the Libyan external intelligence service.

You might think that being a spy, especially one who was expelled from Britain 30 years ago and who was at the dark heart of many of his regime's unsavoury practices, would make him the least likely to defect. After all, he presumably knows about -- may have been involved in -- the Lockerbie bombing and the murder of the British policewoman Yvonne Fletcher. Surely such a man would have no interest in defecting to the old enemy. But quite the contrary: spies are often the most likely to jump ship.

This is not because they're innately disloyal -- they're usually the opposite -- but because they're realists. They know the other side, they have secrets to offer and the contacts through whom to make the offer. During the Cold War, most Russian officials swallowed the Soviet line that capitalism was dying and state socialism was the inevitable and imminent future. But Russian foreign service officials posted to the West could see with their own eyes that life in Switzerland was better than in Sverdlovsk. They had only to look in shop windows crammed with goods or see the downtrodden workers driving to work in their own cars.

One very senior Russian defector said it was seeing steam rising through the manhole covers of frozen Manhattan streets that marked the beginning of his disaffection. If they've got so much heat they can afford to let it go to waste like this, he thought, then something about this society works. He'd been lied to, he realised, and if he'd been lied to about basic everyday conditions, what other lies were there?

But he was a diplomat, not a spy. Spies have more than their daily observations to go on because it's usually their task to recruit other spies. That means talking to the other side, getting to know them, assessing their strengths and weaknesses. They learn more about the world, and to do their job well they have to see their own side at least partially through the eyes of others. If Koussa had spies in London, Paris or Washington, he'd have a better idea than anyone else in his government of the political will and military might that was being deployed. And he'd know the strengths and weaknesses of his own side only too well.

But Koussa probably had another advantage, all his own. It's clear that he played a leading part in bringing Libya in from the cold in recent years. Given what we know of MI6's role in that, he was possibly a principal liaison contact.

That would have given him unique access to the people he would need to talk to if he wanted to defect. After all, in a dictatorship with paranoid tendencies, how would you go about defecting? How would you know who to talk to, whom to trust, how to contrive such a delicate conversation or how to find out whether they'd actually want you? Let alone how to arrange it physically.

Koussa would have needed no intermediary; he could get it from the horse's mouth. Indeed, we now know he talked directly to William Hague, the UK foreign secretary. Now he has the rest of life before him. He may, of course, be hoping for a formative role in a new Libyan government -- nothing now seems impossible in the Middle East -- and he may have got his family (and fortune?) out with him.

But few defectors make a great success of their new lives. Oleg Gordievsky, the most famous KGB defector of modern times, is a notable exception, having become a respected author and an adviser to prime ministers and presidents.

Some defectors simply fail to settle, finding no role for themselves to compare with the excitement of their previous lives. Some are disillusioned by the struggle to make their own way in their adopted countries (often despite generous financial help), others have simply felt they were on the scrapheap after being bled dry, one or two have even gone back -- to mixed fortunes.

The notorious British spies, Burgess and Maclean from the Foreign Office and Philby from MI6, found mainly booze and boredom in the socialist paradise they sought in Moscow. George Blake, also MI6, is still there, having lived through the collapse of the system he spied for. How is he, I wonder?

For most defectors, the keys to successful resettlement are a sustaining belief in the rightness of what they've done, the ability to continue making some sort of contribution and a successful family life in their new country. Whether this is what awaits Koussa, or whether it's the International Criminal Court, I've no idea. But I doubt we've heard the last of him. ( © Daily Telegraph, London)

Alan Judd is the authorised biographer of Mansfield Cumming, founder of MI6

Irish Independent