Smoke and Mirrors

James Angleton
James Angleton; drawing by David Levine

The United States spends more than $70 billion a year on the gathering and assessment of information about its enemies—and friends. Other nations lavish proportionate amounts, which can only increase now that cyberwarfare and information games have become inextricably entangled with intelligence and counterterrorism. China is estimated to employ some two million people on electronic data collection and surveillance, much of this directed at its own people.

The prodigious sales of books about intelligence and especially “humint”—human intelligence, or spycraft—reflect the popular fascination with the subject. Many of these focus on betrayers: Aldrich Ames and Kim Philby, Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs, Bradley—now Chelsea—Manning and Edward Snowden. The Secret State: A History of Intelligence and Espionage, the latest book from the former British military intelligence officer Colonel John Hughes-Wilson, also emphasizes famous coups and notorious failures by one belligerent or another: Pearl Harbor in 1941; the US Navy’s 1942 signals intelligence, or “sigint,” triumph before Midway; the German failure ahead of D-Day in 1944; Israel’s blindness in advance of the 1973 Yom Kippur offensive by Egypt and Syria.

Intelligence possesses merit only when it assists statesmen and military commanders to adopt wise policies in peace or to defeat enemies in wars. Unless such empowerment can be demonstrated to the satisfaction of historians, all claims about espionage coups must be suspect or meaningless. Many spies enjoy exotic careers that excite authors and their readers, while making scant impact on their employers’ fortunes. The British petty crook Eddie Chapman, “Agent Zigzag,” had extraordinary World War II experiences as the plaything of British and German intelligence. At different times he put himself at the mercy of both, and afterward became the hero of a movie and several books. It seems nonetheless unlikely that his activities did much good to either side, serving only to keep Chapman himself in girls and shoe leather. He was an intriguing but wholly uninfluential figure, one among countless loose cannons on the secret battlefield.

As Hughes-Wilson notes, the foremost requirement of a good intelligence officer is that he should “Speak Truth unto Power.” This is least likely to happen, as Loch K. Johnson observes in Spy Watching: Intelligence Accountability in the United States, his deeply informed study of political oversight of US intelligence services, when governments enlist spymasters to pursue ideological agendas. Ronald Reagan sent his election campaign manager, William J. Casey, to run the CIA, and his tenure as director (1981–1987) was neither happy nor successful. George Tenet (1997–2004) did well enough in the same position until he joined the neocons’ campaign to topple Saddam Hussein, by endorsing the WMD fantasy.

Tenet’s counterpart Sir Richard Dearlove, director of the British Secret Intelligence Service, inflicted lasting injury on its image and credibility by being complicit in Tony Blair’s deceit of his own people about the alleged threat from Iraq in 2002. Donald McLachlan, a British naval officer in World War II,…

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