Why is this interesting? - The Spy Edition

On espionage, history, and judging the intelligence of intelligence

Colin here. Espionage has always had a prominent place in the culture, and given the state of US-Russia relations, has been kept in the limelight. Shows like TheAmericans break down the nuances of so-called tradecraft, and show how industrial superpowers are competing at a granular level for influence, sometimes gleaned from an unwitting low-level functionary. The trade channels social dynamics, influence, treachery, and deceit to drive outcomes far above a pay grade. There’s been a ton of physical and intellectual bandwidth sunk into the spy vs spy game just between the US and Russia alone for decades, and stories of double agents like the famous Kim Philby, the famous FBI spy Aldrich Ames, and countless others abound. 

Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker recently reviewed a vast, overarching book A Secret World: A History of Intelligence. Interestingly, when surveying the entire landscape of espionage throughout history, the conclusion is that sometimes it is more trouble than it’s worth. 

Yet these tales of spying and counterspying involve dances so entangled and contradictory that one finishes this history wondering if having a successful spy service really is a good way to have a successful nation…There seems to be a paranoid paradox of espionage: the better your intelligence, the dumber your conduct; the more you know, the less you anticipate. Again and again, a reader of Andrew’s history finds that the countries with the keenest spies, the most thorough decryptions of enemy code, and the best flow of intelligence about their opponents have the most confounding fates. Hard-won information is ignored or wildly misinterpreted. It’s remarkably hard to find cases where a single stolen piece of information changed the course of a key battle.

Why is this interesting?

While there are well-documented stories of espionage and derring-do saving the day, notably in the Allied head fake that diverted a lot of Nazi resources away from the actual D-Day landing site (saving countless lives in the process), a lot of the operations documented in the book are the snake seemingly eating its own tail. In addition to the pointless back-and-forth that happens, it seems like very human insecurities and fallibilities actually drive the course of human history as much as anything else. Gopnik cites an example where, “Stalin not only ignored information about the coming invasion but threatened anyone who took it seriously, since he knew that his ally Hitler wouldn’t betray him. The delayed reaction cost hundreds of thousands of lives, perhaps millions, and very nearly handed Hitler victory.” 

There’s also another powerful paradox at play:

The rule that having more intelligence doesn’t lead to smarter decisions persists, it seems, for two basic reasons. First, if you have any secret information at all, you often have too much to know what matters. Second, having found a way to collect intelligence yourself, you become convinced that the other side must be doing the same to you, and is therefore feeding you fake information in order to guide you to the wrong decisions. The universal law of unintended consequences rules with a special ferocity in espionage and covert action, because pervasive secrecy rules out the small, mid-course corrections that are possible in normal social pursuits. When you have to prevent people from finding out what you’re doing and telling you if you’re doing it well, you don’t find out that you didn’t do it well until you realize just how badly you did it. (The simple term of art for this effect, “blowback,” originated within the C.I.A.) Good and bad intelligence circle round and round, until both go down the drain of sense. 

So there’s a self-perpetuating feedback loop of paranoia, human error, countless resources being mobilized and, in many cases, second- and third-order effects that are the opposite of the initial intention. (See: Arming the Mujahideen in Northern Afghanistan, etc). 

And while pop culture ascribes an all-knowing, powerful world cloaked in secrecy, and halls of mirrors filled with intrigue, sometimes there’s no Wizard of Oz behind the curtain: No there, there. Gopnik posits: “How intelligent is national intelligence? Why, exactly as smart as we are. It’s a terrifying thought.” And while we’d like to think that there’s some crack team in a secure room that’s on the ball, oftentimes it comes down to human fallibility, bureaucratic thinking, and ego. (CJN)

Photo of the Day:

The last known photo of artist Joseph Beuys by Alastair Thain (via the excellent Crambe Repetita newsletter). “I shot this portrait of him for the book a few months later. Beuys was installing a show, Plight, at the Anthony d’Offay gallery in London; that’s one of his felt works you can see in the background. The space was designed to get warmer with the felt; I remember the change in temperature. The work was up and Beuys was on a cigarette break. There’s ash on his hat.” (NRB)

Quick Links:

  • I just cleared out 15 years of RSS and am starting from scratch. If you have suggestions for feeds I should follow do you mind replying to this and letting me know? People keep asking me what I’m looking for and basically it’s a combination of interesting and not so widely read that I’m already seeing everything good from it on Twitter. High-quality publications you pay attention to on niche topics are especially welcome. Thanks in advance! (NRB)

  • Axios on obituaries and local papers. “Obits, alongside public notice ads, are one of the last remaining consistent revenue streams that local newspapers rely on, although both are being challenged by the digital age.” (NRB)

  • A walk in Hong Kong (CJN

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)