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The Espionage Lesson

The class, now in its third year, had been commenced as a seminar on Thursday afternoons for some of his staff plus young officers who had been recommended to Harlot* as potential to draw upon for his projects. Those were Low Thursdays, but once a month, on what soon came to be called the High Thursdays, important guests showed up by invitation, as did visiting professionals whose Company labors had brought them back to DC from various lairs abroad.

On all occasions we would meet around the conference table in Hugh Montague’s outer office, a commodious room on the second floor of the yellow brick villa that Allen Dulles used for his headquarters. Situated on E Street, well away from the Reflecting Pool and Cockroach Alley, it was an elegant building larger than most of the foreign embassies in Washington. Harlot was one of the few high-ranking officers to work in such proximity to Dulles, and so an added zest was brought to the occasion by the importance of our surroundings. Indeed, Allen Dulles would keep popping in and out, a beeper in his breast pocket prodding him back to his own office, and once, I remember, he made a point of letting us know that President Eisenhower had just called him to the phone.

The lectures on High Thursday were, of course, the most exceptional. Harlot’s voice became even more commodious then, and he could not have been more unabashed in his use of rich syntax. How much one learned directly, however, is not easy to measure. He gave no assignments. He might recommend a book from time to time, but never pursued our diligence, no, it was more a matter of sowing the seeds. A few might sprout. Since the Director himself was not only our peripatetic guest, but had obviously given his imprimatur, and would often nod at the sheer wonderful glory of the subject—ah, one could almost hear Mr. Dulles say, “this wonderfully shrewd and metaphysical and monumental world of Intelligence itself!”—it took no vast acumen on my part to recognize that come a High Thursday, Harlot would teach our group from the top down. His preference was to stimulate his equals: On such occasions, the rest of us could scramble how we might. Low days were of more use to us. Then, the course served, as Harlot once remarked, to rev up the Mormons.” There were five of them, Ph.D.s from State Universities in the Midwest and they were always taking notes, always in crew-cut, white shirt with short sleeves, pens in the breast pocket, dark thin ties, eyeglasses. They looked like engineers, and I recognized after a time that they were the galley slaves over in Montague’s counterespionage shop at TSS, marooned in prodigiously demanding tasks of cryptography, file searching, estimate vetting, etc. To me it reeked of the Bunker, although obviously more purposeful, more lifelong—you could see it in their faces: They were signed up for a career of the highest level of clerking. I was, I admit, snobby, but then, as the son of a Bold Easterner, and thus, by titular descent, a Junior Bold Easterner, Ivy League out of Andover, Exeter, Groton, Middlesex, or Saints Paul, Mark, Matthew, a member, therefore, of our Agency Tier, how could I not begin to feel well-installed while listening to Hugh Montague? At full throttle on a High Thursday, he could employ rhetoric that was equal to high adventure. Since memory, for all its vicissitudes, can also be immaculate, I am tempted to swear that, word for word, this has to be close to the way he offered it.

An understanding of counterespionage presents difficulties to which we must return again and again,” he would remark, “but it helps for us to recognize that our discipline is exercised in the alley between two theaters—those separate playhouses of paranoia and cynicism. Gentlemen, select one rule of conduct from the beginning: Too much attendance at either theater is imprudent. One must keep shifting one’s seat. For what, after all, are our working materials? Facts. We live in the mystery of facts. Obligatorily, we become expert observers on the permeability, malleability, and solubility of so-called hard facts. We discover that we have been assigned to live in fields of distortion. We are required to imbibe concealed facts, revealed facts, suspicious facts, serendipitous facts.”

Rosen had the temerity on this particular High Thursday to interrupt Harlot long enough to ask, “Sir, I know the meaning of the word, but not its application here. What are serendipitous facts?”

Rosen,” said Harlot, “let us search for the answer.” Harlot paused. I was all too aware of the way he played with the name. There had been just a hint of mournful woe in the long “o” of Rosen. “Rosen,” he said, “assume that you are on a tour of duty in Singapore and a scrumptious blonde, a veritable bagatelle, happens to knock on your hotel room door at 2 AM, and she is—let us say it is 90 percent verifiable—not employed by the KGB, but chooses to knock because she likes you. That, Arnold, is a serendipitous fact.”

Guffaws popped forth. Rosen managed to smile, indeed, I felt his gleam of happiness at arousing the wit of the master. “I thrive on derision,” said his manner.

Harlot resumed. “Gentlemen,” he declared, “in the more advanced regions of our work, sound judgment is paramount. Is the apparently unsuccessful operation that we are trying to analyze no more than an error by our opponents, a bureaucratic fumble, a gaffe, or, to the contrary, do we have before us an aria with carefully chosen dissonances?” He paused. He glared at us. Just as a great actor can give the same soliloquy to beggars or kings—it does not matter—he was here to expatiate on a theme. “Yes,” he said, “some of you, on such occasions, will be in an unholy rush toward the Theater of Paranoia; others will leave their name at the Cinema of Cynicism. My esteemed Director—“ he nodded in the general direction of Mr. Dulles—“has sometimes assured me that I hold forth at times too long over at Paranoia House.”

Dulles beamed. “Oh, Montague, you can tell as many stories on me as I can on you. Let’s assume there’s nothing wrong with suspicion. It tends to keep the mind alive.”

Harlot nodded. Harlot said, “The man with talent for counterespionage, the true artist“—now using the word with as much nesting of his voice as an old Russian lady saying Pushkin—“draws on his paranoia to perceive the beauties of his opponent’s scenario. He looks for ways to attach facts properly to other facts so that they are no longer separated objects. He tries to find the picture that no one else has glimpsed. All the same, he never fails to heed the warnings of cynicism.

For cynicism has its own virtues. It is analogous to the oil that wells up from every crushed seed, every damn plan that went wrong.” Sitting near Allen Dulles on this day, I heard him grunt in pleasure. It was a small but enjoyable sound. “Hear, hear,” he said softly, and I heard him. “Do not,” continued Harlot, “attempt to comprehend the KGB, therefore, until you recognize that they have some of the most flexible and some of the most rigid minds in intelligence work, and their people clash with each other, even as some of ours have been known to do. We must always feel the play of forces in our opponent’s scheme. It teaches us to beware of divinations that are too comprehensive, too satisfying. Cynicism teaches you to distrust the pleasure you may feel when previously scattered facts come into a nice pattern. If that happens just a little too quickly, you may have come upon your first hint that you are dealing with a pre-calculated narrative. In a word, disinformation.”

Advanced were the High Thursdays, awfully advanced for the Lows. I would ponder some of his conclusions for many a year. If Montague’s method of discourse on such days threw the more inexperienced of us over such high hurdles as the Theater of Paranoia and the Cinema of Cynicism, he could on any Low Thursday return us to the threading of a rusty nut to a dirt-grimed bolt. Indeed, the first day of the first Low had us working for two hours to construct a scenario on the basis of a torn receipt, a bent key, a stub of pencil, a package of book matches, and a dried flower pressed into a cheap unmarked envelope. These items, he told us, happened to be the pocket litter left by an agent under suspicion who had decamped in unholy haste from a furnished room. For two hours, we fingered these objects, brooded upon them, and offered our theories. I forget mine. It was no better than the others. Only Rosen was to distinguish himself that day. Once all the others had finished their exposition, Arnie continued to look unhappy. “In my opinion,” he said, “too many pieces are missing.”

This is the sum of your contribution?”asked Harlot. “Yessir. Given the paucity of facts, no viable scenario is available.”

Rosen,” Harlot told us, “is on the nose. These objects were selected arbitrarily. A correct solution does not exist.”

Explanation: The exercise was to alert us to the risk of auto-intoxication when formulating scenarios. Deductive passions could be loosed all too easily by a dried flower, a cheap envelope, a stub of pencil, the bent key, the torn receipt for $11.08. Our first lesson had been designed to make us aware (in retrospect) of any subtle discomfort we had ignored in the course of working up our explanation. “Respect that subtle hollow,” Harlot told us. “When a scenario feels absolutely right, it is usually right, but if your story feels almost right, yet just a little empty, well, then, it’s all wrong.” The next Low, he told us, would be devoted to espionage itself. Espionage, plain and simple, as opposed to counterespionage.

Back at the Farm, there had been a course called Agent Recruitment; it gave no clear picture of the reality. Harlot moved us quickly from conventional formulations to the marrow. “Espionage,” he told us, “is the selection and development of agents. That can be comprehended by two words: disinterested seduction.

Taking his pause, he added: “If you see me as an advocate of unbridled carnality, you are in the wrong room. We are speaking of disinterested seduction. That is not, if you reflect on it, physical. It is psychological. Manipulation lies at the heart of such seduction.”

In our Judeo-Christian culture, therefore, difficulties arise. Manipulation is Machiavellian, we say, and are content to let the name judge the matter. Yet if a good man working for his beliefs is not ready to imperil his conscience, then the battlefield will belong to those who manipulate history for base ends. This is not an inquiry into morality, so I pursue the matter no further than to say that a visceral detestation of manipulation is guaranteed to produce an incapacity to find agents and run them. Even for those of us who accept the necessity, it may prove difficult. There are case officers who have spent their working lives in foreign capitals, but cannot point to a single on-site agent they managed to recruit. Such failure tends to produce the kind of unhappiness you see on the face of a dedicated hunter who dependably fails to bag his deer. Of course, the odds in certain countries are very much against us.”

  1. *

    aka Hugh Montague.

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