Spies are big business nowadays. Every major Power has ten or twenty thousand on the payroll.There is a spy serial on most television circuits nearly every night, and spy stories make the best money for writers. Scientists perfect the most ingenious devices for spies. Politicians tremble before them. Nearly everyone probably has a spy living next door or at any rate in the same street. Yet when one asks what it is all for, there is no easy answer. The spies, it seems, are like the nuclear deterrent, simply engaged in canceling each other out. In the last resort, the espionage establishment, as our authors call the spy system, has exactly the same aim as any other establishment: jobs for the Boys. Spying pays high salaries and gives an illusory self-esteem to its operators. For those outside the game, it does no good and some harm.

An episode in the life of Bakunin, the great anarchist, illustrates the truth about all spying past, present, and to come. In 1870 Bakunin was living in Switzerland. He had fallen on evil days. He was solitary, ill, and despairing. He was reduced to one follower—a Russian colonel whose radical principles had brought him into self-imposed exile. The colonel’s devotion was inexhaustible. He hung on Bakunin’s words. He provided money for Bakunin and, when his own resources proved inadequate, traveled to Russia in order to collect Bakunin’s share of the family estate. He handled Bakunin’s correspondence and somehow ensured that it was not tampered with by the Russian secret service. When finally the colonel returned to Russia, he and Bakunin parted on the railway platform at Lausanne with tears and embraces.

The colonel was in fact a member of the Russian Third Division, which spied on revolutionaries. His sole task in life was to spy on Bakunin. Hence he had to keep Bakunin going with sympathy and money. Otherwise he would be out of a job. Similarly Bakunin had to turn out revolutionary propaganda in order to collect the spy’s sympathy and money. The colonel could not exist without Bakunin, and Bakunin could not exist without the colonel.

THIS IS THE BASIS for all the present intelligence establishments. They prop each other up. If one disappeared, the other would also fall down. Suppose, for example, that the Soviet KGB was wound up, what would the CIA find to do? Therefore it was essential that each establishment should feed the other with material and thus be confident that material will be fed back. Every KGB agent sent to the United States justifies the sending of another CIA agent to some European observation post, and this in turn provides work for another KGB agent. By now, as the friendly rivalry increases, each service probably passes on its budget and staff list to the other, so that the expenses can be kept moving upward.

In wartime there may be some use for spies, though even this is doubtful. Intelligence services studying public information probably arrive at better results than are produced by secret agents. We have been told impressive stories about the spy rings which served Soviet Russia during the last war, especially the fabulous center in Switzerland which reported all the decisions of the German Supreme Command. If the Russians really received these secrets, they made a poor use of them. There is no evidence at all in Soviet operations that they had precise knowledge of German plans. Perhaps of course the Russians dared not reveal their knowledge for fear the Germans would find out they had it.

When has Intelligence, whether secret or not, been of the slightest use? The American Government had “magic” in 1941 and therefore knew every detail of Japanese policy. Pearl Harbor happened all the same. In 1944 Allied Intelligence had full information that the Germans were accumulating forces on the Ardennes front. The German offensive was nevertheless a complete surprise—perhaps because one ingenious officer, so I have been told, insisted on interpreting “tank units” as a cover name for “hospital trains.” In peacetime, the secrets are themselves weapons of war which can be effective only if known to the other side. The strategy of the deterrent, imbecile as it is, would not work at all if the opponent were unaware of the deterrent or refused to believe that it existed. Far from concealing these things, any rational government would organize conducted tours around its nuclear bases and would explain how each device worked. With a little skill, a mock-up could be arranged of devices which did not exist, and the deterrent would presumably be more effective than ever.

ONE POWERFUL SUPPORT for the espionage establishment comes from the belief, held by many laymen, that science is a mystery or hocus-pocus. Sensible men can still be found who suppose that the Russians would never have discovered nuclear weapons if Fuchs had not told them. Yet all the principles and methods were being published in scientific journals, when wretched agents and “illegals” were being imprisoned, or even killed, for trying to find them out. In the present book, with all its display of pretentious information, there is one large gap: it does not tell what the various spies found out, and presumably the authors themselves do not know. Many years ago, I think at the time of the Burgess-Maclean affair, I laid down a rule which is now known all over the world as Taylor’s Law. It runs: “The Foreign Office does not know any secrets.” Recently I added what is called Maisky’s rider: “The Soviet foreign service is also not richly endowed with them.” No doubt some acute thinker could formulate a similar principle about the State Department, except that the total lack of secrecy in all American affairs is already notorious:


This present book about the various intelligence services is written in the brisk “instant-history” style, which is now adopted by experts on current affairs all over the world. Apparently it makes a story more authentic if we are told that it was raining slightly or that the agent had dark-brown hair. I do not care for this sort of thing. James Bond or Harry Palmer make better reading, without needing the effort to relate them to real life. The book also keeps us in a breathless urgency, as though the authors were carrying the good news from Ghent to Aix. A persistent sociologist might find material in the book for a study of varying national characteristics.

The Russians have a long experience of mixing intelligence and politics. Their agents and particularly their intelligence chiefs are so versed in pursuing heresy that they often lapse into it themselves. I remember a Czech prisoner of the Russians after the war who told me that an interrogator would often be demoted to the interrogated and sometimes up again. Indeed one sympathetic interrogator pleaded for information so as to keep himself on the more comfortable side of the fence. The Soviet spies also seem readier at killing their rivals or deserters, but this may be partly a myth to sustain their terror. On the other hand, there is no shame or concealment about the KGB, their spy department. Its head is an honored comrade, sometimes quite high in the political hierarchy. The KGB is a job much like any other, and the secrecy surrounding it is no greater than that surrounding any other Soviet department. No doubt it is not particularly easy to discover what the KGB is up to or what it costs, but it is just as difficult to get the figures about Soviet agriculture or oil production. In other words, Soviet intelligence is not, by Soviet standards, a secret service at all. It is a normal department of state.

This explains why Soviet Russia is the only country where spies are acknowledged and even honored. The Soviet government trades spies, just as it trades timber or icons—goods which the capitalist countries are willing to pay for. In the non-Soviet countries there is a highminded dislike of engaging in this trade, since it is an admission that spying goes on. The United States has been drawn into to the market reluctantly. Here as elsewhere they end by accepting Soviet standards. The Soviet spy is not only a normal state employee. He does not behave differently from any other sort of Soviet citizen. His detached life in the non-soviet world is exactly like that of any Soviet visitors to our Western planet. They are not traitors, conspirators, even enemies. They are merely used to a different atmosphere. For instance, Soviet spies must be completely baffled when they occasionally receive (not very often) a fair trial in an American court. This must seem to them the last and most cruel element in capitalist guile.

The American system, as in most things, is ostensibly the opposite of the Soviet, but constantly aspires to resemble it. The heads of the CIA look enviously at the heads of the KGB. They long for the same power and prestige. They try to perform the same political tricks. They have read somewhere that the KGB arranges revolutions in countries insufficiently devoted to the Soviet Union. This is probably untrue. At any rate the KGB has never pulled off an effective revolutionary stroke, even in countries helplessly exposed to its influence. Where, for instance, is the KGB revolution in Yugoslavia, to say nothing of Finland? The CIA however loyally follows this supposed KGB line and plots revolutions which are equally futile and fatuous except in the more obscure countries of South America. This does not prove that the CIA is a competent organization. It only proves that in South America anyone, even an American intelligence agent, can make a revolution.


The resemblance is not very close despite the attempts at imitation. The CIA is an organization of intellectuals. Some of them have failed to establish themselves in academic life. Some feel superior to it. But the traits are unmistakable. The members of the CIA really believe that it matters what people think. One can range over the whole record of espionage from Babylon to the present day, and nowhere can one discover any project so pointlessly farcical as the subsidizing by the CIA of so-called highbrow periodicals. From the start everyone, except apparently the editors, knew that the money came from the CIA. But why worry? The periodicals in French, German, and English, provided quite interesting reading, and Vespasian had dismissed the other scruples long ago: pecunia non olet. I used to write for Encounter myself once in a while and often enjoyed the articles in it. The innocent and indignant should reflect that, if it were not for the CIA, Encounter would never have come into existence. Instead of raising a howl, we should demand that the KGB also contribute. After all, double agents seem to be a British speciality.

MI6 and its associate MI5 undoubtedly provide the richest crop of funny stories. One peculiarity of the British system is its intense secrecy. This is not directed against its rivals or enemies. No one for instance doubts that the KGB knows the names of the British intelligence chiefs, nor can it be unaware that Maclean and Philby are living in Moscow. Yet such are the secrets which have to be sternly guarded. This secrecy is directed solely against the British public, who pay for the intelligence services without knowing that they are doing so. MI6 is stuck with a difficult dilemma. On the one hand it has to make out that Maclean, Philby, and the rest were doing extremely important secret work. For, if it were once admitted that their activities were trivial, all secret work would lose its prestige. On the other hand, MI6 must play down its own incompetence in letting the Macleans and Philby get away, when everyone, except British intelligence, knew that they were Soviet agents. This dilemma cannot be resolved if the public once begins to discuss it. Secrecy is the only solution, which allows MI6 to preserve its reputation.

So we have the spectacle of British newspapers solemnly exhorted not to reveal facts which are published in every foreign newspaper. When exhortations fail, they are threatened, particularly by our present Prime Minister, with legal penalties. The secrecy is of course mainly so that the intelligence chiefs can go on collecting their salaries. This is not the only reason. The British bosses like the game of secrecy for its own sake, just as the KGB chiefs like the rank of general and the CIA chiefs like to think of themselves as professors. MI6 is essentially a Boy Scout organization, with codes, passwords, and probably methods of lighting fires by rubbing sticks together. The intelligence chiefs are, I suspect, a little afraid of being teased in their West End clubs. They may also believe their own nonsense, as for instance they are now spreading the story that Philby is really still a double agent for out side.

The whole set-up is a great waste of money and conceivably of ability. The authors of the present book also think that it is a menace to democracy. An Englishman cannot judge of that. We have never had democracy in the American sense and know only too well that if the Top People are stopped from plundering the public purse in one way they will soon find another. Some of the stories are funny; less so when real people are involved. In the end the laughter leaves a sour taste. Spying is a dirty business, and the heads of MI6 do well to keep their identity concealed.

This Issue

December 7, 1967