Meet the New Spy, Same as the Old Spy

The New Spymasters by Stephen Grey (St. Martin’s Press; 368 pp.)

The New Spymasters by Stephen Grey (St. Martin’s Press; 368 pp.)

Some say espionage is the world’s second oldest profession (I’ll let you guess the first).  Nonetheless, a loudening chorus in Western intelligence circles have questioned the need for old-fashioned spycraft in the face of growing technological advances. Yet some, including former intelligence agents and other authorities on espionage, like journalist Stephen Grey, have bemoaned the dearth of reliable human intelligence. Grey’s The New Spymasters powerfully rebukes Western intelligence agencies–namely, though not exclusively, the CIA and MI6—for having grown over-dependent on SIGINT (“Signals intelligence,” or intelligence acquired through various technological means) to such an extent as to overlook HUMINT (“Human intelligence,” which is acquired by spymasters though in-the-flesh interactions).  Grey also criticizes “over-militarization” of the Western intelligences agencies—though particularly the CIA—as budgets mushroomed and oversight fell post-9/11.  The New Spymasters communicates these recommendations through a tour de force history of twentieth and twenty-first century spycraft into three increasingly detailed segments.

The most important distinction in espionage between spies and spymasters, which is frighteningly poorly understood by a public whose main conceptions thereof draw upon pop culture portrayals such as James Bond, Jason Bourne or Jack Bauer. On the one hand, spymasters “recruit or ‘handle’ the agents and are career professionals employed by agencies like the CIA and Britain’s SIS. These spymasters go about recruiting others—“mostly foreigners and mainly amateurs”—who will do the actual spying, usually in return for compensation of some form or another. Those who are recruited to spy in turn provide their handlers with information which they may otherwise not have had access to. This is the process of acquiring HUMINT. Spies, rather than their frequently sheltered spymasters, undergo the real risk: they are the ones who betray their country (or organization); they face near certain torture and death if exposed. Of course, lines are blurred as some spies can develop their own networks and become spymasters; likewise, spymasters might get “turned” by one of their spies and become double agents. Nonetheless, the key distinction between the spy and spymaster stands: the formers produces information, the latter collects it to pass on to his superiors.

By the close of the twentieth century, Western Intelligence agencies had gradually and increasingly neglected this method of intelligence gathering in favor of SIGINT, which was considered “sexier” and safer. Already, by 1980 the Carter administration had drastically reduced clandestine espionage carried out by the CIA.  Reagan then banned targeted assassinations, further clipping the wings of clandestine operations.  When the Communist threat receded with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, leading Western pundits predicted “the end of history.” Quietly, many felt that intelligence agencies should go too; at very least there was a broad Western consensus to discontinue some the nastier and riskier habits of human espionage. The United Kingdom fell in line with this American-led groupthink after peace broke out in Northern Ireland in 1997. What followed was an intelligence disaster of cosmic proportions: the complete failure to predict the rise radical Sunni Islamic terror. Of course, individual failures to predict attacks across the West – most poignantly on 9/11, but also attacks in London, Paris, and Madrid (to name a few), have had severe consequences. But the greatest failure was the global lack of preparedness or even perception of the general threat at hand. MI5 captured the mood of the hour when it wrote in 1995 that “Suggestions in the press of a world-wide Islamic extremist network poised to launch terrorist attacks against the West are greatly exaggerated.” As a consequence, Grey insists, Western intelligence agencies have had to play catch up to Islamic Terrorism whilst usually languishing one or two steps behind.

Grey’s meticulous analysis of the conflict between Western Intelligence agencies and various Islamic terror groups – most notably Al-Qaeda and now the Islamic State – is fascinating and breathtakingly detailed: broadly speaking, after the end of the Cold War, Western Agencies developed a more consumerist outlook on the intelligence they produced; a politician satisfied with the reports meeting his desk was more likely to advocate for maintaining intelligence budgets. Indeed, intelligence agencies had to vigorously defend funding in ways inconceivable during the espionage-dominated Cold War. The result was a lurch towards tangibles such as gadgets, larger workforces and counter-narcotics operations. Meanwhile, stations worldwide were either being shrunk or shut down. Language capabilities—from obvious choices like Arabic and Farsi to even more obscure tongues—were being neglected. Consequently, the West was caught off-guard by the rise of radical Sunni terrorism. With time, the West was able to turn some members of Islamic terror organizations, saving countless more lives, most notably in an abortive bombing attempt in Barcelona. However, Islamic terror—as opposed to say the more insular IRA, ETA or the titanic but sluggish monolith of Soviet Intelligence—adapts very rapidly. The analogy Grey uses is that of a flock of birds constantly adapting and changing, one step ahead of the Western agencies chasing them.

Consequently, hitting back has been much harder. Indeed, Islamic terror’s global presence, fluid structure, and large pool of recruits has lent it a Hydra-like ability to endure America’s War on Terror. For example, America expected a quick victory when she invaded Afghanistan and, in alliance with the Russian-backed Northern Alliance toppled Taliban in 2001. Indeed, the initial collapse of the Taliban was vindication of the CIA and Special Forces working alongside Muslim parties sympathetic to US interests. But even then, Bin Laden was able to escape American forces at Tora Bora in 2001. His assassination, a decade later, was clear validation of how the CIA had adopted to the exigencies of the war on terror. Nonetheless, by the time of Bin Laden’s delayed demise, the tentacles of terrorism had spread further in the wake of the political instability wrought by the Arab Spring.  Whilst the Obama administration did bungle its’ political response to the Arab Spring, at least his large-scale weaponization of drones has increased pro-American firepower whilst decreasing the need for boots on the ground. Even as drone warfare has revolutionized the modern battlefield, Islamist terrorist continue to hide amongst and radicalize civilians as in Paris and San Bernardino. Islamic terrorism, constantly mutating and adapting is the parasite of our times and will not be overcome simply through brute force. As Grey points out, ultimately only a well-funded and organized HUMINT program—adequate resources for counter-terrorism—can stop this.

The question of how much force is appropriate, or indeed just, is repeatedly engaged in The New Spymasters. Grey’s response exposes his slight bias towards velvet-gloved approaches: despite singing the praises of HUMINT, Grey balks at the prospect of extraordinary rendition. Though glorified torture is hardly the razor edge of intelligence collection, it has at times proved crucial. The Bush administration’s policies of extraordinary rendition have certainly been met with a modicum of spirited criticism. If the CIA had developed better spy networks across the Islamic world in the 1990s, there might not have been such a need for enhanced interrogations at Guantanamo Bay. However, there is little doubt that information acquired there was crucial to the CIA in the mid-to-late 2000s. The sharp-edged polices of the Bush administration will obviously remain controversial for years to come; we must not forget that it used fire to fight fire. Overall, Grey’s advances a long way towards dispelling widely-held misconceptions and informing the reader about the sinister realities of spycraft. Unlike former spy memoirs usually packaged as “inside accounts,” Grey’s account is unashamedly that of a critical outsider. As a consequence, The New Spymasters remains un-censored by any former employer. Grey capitalizes on this in much the same ways as Machiavelli did when writing The Prince, where he argued that only a true outsider can understand – or indeed judge—spycraft.                                                                                 ν