Tag Archives: espionage

Tales from a retired spy.

You learn some fascinating things about the world of espionage by reading the memoirs of retired spies. This year is the thirtieth anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s attempt to have the publication of Peter Wright’s book Spycatcher stopped. Thatcher lost the court case, and the book was published in ’87.

Spy Cather
Spy Cather

Wright began as a Naval scientist, and was recruited to work for MI5, Britain’s counter intelligence agency. Most of the book occurs in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, but some things don’t change with time. Readers might recall the very recent furor about how how the US was spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and how Australia tried to hack the phone of  the wife of the Indonesian Prime Minister. Well, it turns out that counties have been spying on their own “friends”for decades. When Britain was trying to join the “Common Market” (as they called the European Union back then), Britain’s spying efforts were mostly directed at the USSR (no surprises here), the Egyptians (because of the Suez canal) and then France, its supposed ally because France opposed Britain joining. This was spying over what was then a purely economic matter. Great resources were devoted to breaking French encryption, at the French embassy, and for three years the British read all of the cables between the French embassy and Paris. However it didn’t help them join at the time.

Wright tells all the stories you would expect of break-ins, buggings, attempts to ensnare soviet agents into traps, and teams of followers trailing diplomats and suspected spies. Many of them are fascinating for someone reading for the first time how spies work.

Wright was obsessed with the idea that the head of MI5, Peter Hollis was a Soviet spy: that MI5 had been ‘penetrated’ by the Russians. A large portion of the later chapters is devoted to this issue, which has never really been proved one way or the other.

The book is now out of print, but available second hand on the usual websites. For those who might want to know how things worked during the cold war, it’s a good eye-opener. It would be useful for novel writers setting political thrillers in the cold war period.

Advertisements

If you think the Snowden revelations are only about the US and Germany, you don’t understand what’s happening.

The revelations about US intelligence gathering that Edward Snowden made public have had repercussions around the world, and not just between the US and Germany. The bugging of Angela Merkel’s phone has received a lot of press coverage in the US, but other countries now have problems.

SnowdenOne of the revelations to emerge was that in 2009, Australia attempted to bug the phone conversations of the president of Indonesia, his wife and his inner circle. As a result, Indonesia has suspended cooperation with Australia on intelligence sharing, and has stopped any cooperation in relation to people smuggling. (Boatloads of refugees often travel from Indonesia or through Indonesian waters to get to Christmas Island, a tiny chunk of Australia , 300 miles from Indonesia and 1600 miles from Australia. Numerous people have drowned when their boats smash on rocks near Christmas Island.)  At the time of writing, Indonesia has said that if boats are passing through its waters, towards Australia, they can do so. Indonesia won’t interfere. Australia will just have to handle the problem when the boats appear off Christmas Island.

The Indonesians are understandably offended, since we are supposed to be allies. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country on earth, and one of Australia’s only three near neighbors. The truth is we have to be able to get along with them, because unless there is a religious miracle that rearranges geography, neither country is going anywhere any time soon.

Jakarta has said that before cooperation resumes, Australia will have to sign some formal agreement about intelligence gathering between the two countries. In a nutshell, Australia will have to eat humble pie, suck it up and promise to be good boys in future. The Indonesian reaction is totally understandable. Most of us know the Asian concept of “loss of face.” Apart from the offense caused by spying on friends, the revelations involve a loss of face. Indonesia has to recover ‘face” and to do this, Australia will have to lose some.

In addition, there is an internet cable called SEA-ME-WE-3 that runs from Japan, across Southeast Asia, through Singapore, across the Indian ocean, up through the Suez, through the Mediterranean, and round the coast of Europe to end in Germany. As the cable passes through Singapore, the Singaporean government has been tapping into it and giving the US and Australia the goodies. Jakarta has asked Singapore to “please explain.” So this massive intrusion, and its  exposure is not just a problem for the US.

The most recent revelations are that the NSA has been monitoring charities. From the Guardian newspaper:

The papers show GCHQ, in collaboration with America’s National Security Agency (NSA), was targeting organisations such as the United Nations development programme, the UN’s children’s charity Unicef andMédecins du Monde, a French organisation that provides doctors and medical volunteers to conflict zones.

So how is the average American taxpayer going to feel about that use of their taxes? The most recent extensive article about Snowden is here.   It contains this interesting quote:

“For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished,” he said. “I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated. Because, remember, I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.  All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed,” he said.

How will history judge Snowden? My guess is that as more revelations come out, the public will feel more incensed at the NSA’s  actions, foreign allies will be more incensed at being treated like enemies, US lawmakers will be forced to act on what the NSA is doing, and public sentiment will turn more in Snowden’s  favor. History may look on Snowden as it now looks on Woodward and Bernstein, the two journalists who broke the Watergate story, and Mark Felt, the Assistant FBI Director who for years was only known as “deep throat.”

It’s only an educated guess, but I think it’s a fair guess. What do you think? Anyone who wishes to re-blog this may.