The hi-tech world is not enough – all the best spies are human

For all the NSA’s billions of intercepted calls and super-sophisticated algorithms, it failed to predict the 9/11 attacks. But what if the US had had an al-Qa’ida mole? Rupert Cornwell takes a not-very-secret look at the world’s second-oldest profession

What unites China, Russia, Israel, Iran and America, not to mention Britain, France, Germany and every other country with even the tiniest aspiration to be taken seriously? The answer: they are all deeply into spying.

“Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail,” the American statesman Henry Stimson declared, when as Secretary of State in 1929 he halted funding for the spooks who had been deciphering the dispatches of foreign ambassadors in Washington. Rarely has principle been so thoroughly crushed by experience.

Gentlemen have been reading (or at least trying to read) each other’s mail, suborning gentlemen on the other side, and offering or selling their country’s secrets to other gentlemen since time immemorial. As long ago as the 6th century BC, the Chinese general and thinker Sun Tzu stressed the importance of spying as key to that holy grail of interstate rivalry, the defeat of one’s enemy without fighting him on the battlefield. Welcome to the world’s second-oldest profession.

And so to the latest public outbreak of this millennia-old obsession: this week’s splendid row between Germany and the US that has led to the unmasking of an official in the German intelligence service who sold information to the CIA, reports of another US spy at work in the German defence ministry, and the expulsion of the local CIA station chief. Such events were standard fare when East and West were slugging it out in the Cold War – but this abrupt return of Berlin to centre stage in the espionage wars is an astonishing occurrence: a spat between two close allies that endangers what is arguably America’s most important trans-Atlantic relationship.

Or is it really so astonishing? This crisis stems from the revelations of Edward Snowden, the malcontent employee of the National Security Agency, America’s global eavesdropper, that the NSA had been listening in on the mobile phone conversations of Chancellor Angela Merkel.


Snowden’s sensational disclosures last year of the NSA’s clandestine operations were remarkable mainly in two respects. The first was the sheer extent of those operations, and the global reach of an agency whose appetite for reading other people’s mail apparently had no limits. Secondly, the Snowden affair laid devastatingly bare how, while espionage thrives as rarely before, the nature of the game has changed. In the old days spying was about “humint”, human intelligence gained via flesh-and-blood agents. These days, in the headlines at least, “sigint”, or signals intelligence of the type practised by the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ, is making all the running.

But that trend too has been long in the making. Before “Prism” and the various other programmes revealed in the Snowden leaks, there was  Echelon, the global intelligence sharing system that embraces the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Echelon itself stemmed from the 1946 “UKUSA” agreement codifying signals intelligence co-operation between the two wartime allies.

The five-nation pact reputedly contains a mutual “no-spy” understanding, that these particular gentlemen will not read each others’ mail. Edward Snowden, however, has provided ample evidence that while the governments in question may not directly spy on each other, they do spy on each other’s individual citizens. The line, moreover, between diplomacy and espionage is a very fine one. Take Britain and America right now, on the eve of a referendum on Scottish independence that might have very serious ramifications for Western defence. Washington, plainly, is monitoring events closely by fair means – and maybe by foul.

Angela Merkel’s mobile phone was tapped by the NSA Angela Merkel’s mobile phone was tapped by the NSA (Getty Images)
The Echelon arrangements appear to be part of the background to the current German/US brouhaha. By all accounts Germany, justifiably furious at the snooping into Ms Merkel’s phone calls, wanted to join the club. So apparently has France, now a full member of Nato once more and a more reliable US ally than in decades. But in the case of Berlin, according to reports here, the gentlemen of the CIA will have none of it. And with some reason, given Germany’s complex relationship with Russia and its long-standing economic ties with countries such as Iran. Nor will the US ever forget that the militant al-Q’aida cell that carried out the September 2001 terrorist attacks had been based in Hamburg.

But 9/11 is also a reminder of the limitations of “sigint”. One may wonder, first of all, whether the vast exercises of the NSA and GCHQ are worth it. For one thing much crucial material is available to anyone with a computer. Back in 1957, decades before the internet, it was reckoned that the CIA collected 90 per cent of its information on the enemy of the day, the Soviet Union, from open sources.

Most damning, however, all the billions of intercepted calls by the NSA and all its super-sophisticated algorithms failed to provide advance knowledge of 9/11. Hints, yes, but not specifics that would have thwarted the plot. Electronic intelligence can analyse mountains of data, but it cannot (yet) read the human mind. Had the US managed to place a human spy in the inner councils of al-Qa’ida, it would have been a very different story.

So whatever happened to “humint”, involving not algorithms but real people, the stuff that lends espionage its eternal fascination, in fact and fiction? In fact, the US-German crisis is proof that human agents are still very much part of the mix; and maybe, as in the past, their exploits are changing the course of history. One problem, alas, with spookery is that you learn of intelligence failures – such as 9/11 and the fiasco of Saddam Hussein’s imaginary WMDs – almost instantly. But the successes (Bletchley Park for one) are often kept secret for decades.

A participant demonstrates in support of former NSA employee Edward Snowden A participant demonstrates in support of former NSA employee Edward Snowden (Getty Images)
So we must content ourselves with the spy dramas of the past: with Burgess, Maclean and Philby, the “Cambridge” spies, and their American counterparts of the era, Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White, Roosevelt’s close aide – or Richard Sorge, the Soviet spy in Tokyo whose information to Stalin changed the course of the Second World War.

But modern espionage’s true highpoint was the Cold War. The stars included Oleg Penkovsky, the colonel in Soviet military intelligence who gave information to the West that proved priceless in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and other Western agents known best by their code-names, such as Tophat and Farewell. Then there was Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB station chief in London who was exfiltrated from the Soviet Union by the British in 1985.

Or on the other side, the East German agent Günter Guillaume, righthand man of the Chancellor Willy Brandt, whose unmasking led to Brandt’s resignation in 1974.

These particular human agents mostly did what they did for ideological reasons, not for money. The venal ones came later: Aldrich Ames, the CIA mole unmasked in 1994, who betrayed 10 US agents in the Soviet Union, and Robert Hanssen, the FBI counterintelligence agent who spied for Moscow for 20 years until his arrest in 2001. But the millions lavished on them by their Russian controllers were well spent, buying information no electronic hacking or eavesdropping could provide.

Snowden too did it for free. Technically of course he was less spy than whistleblower, a throwback who was driven by his conscience – the belief that gentlemen shouldn’t be reading each other’s mail, at least on so colossal a scale. But the information he made public, had it been unearthed and transmitted to a foreign government by a human or an electronic spy, would have been pure espionage gold.

Alas, the technology he revealed cannot be “disinvented”, any more than toothpaste can be put back in a tube. Perhaps the best ways to circumvent it are the old ones; of dead drops and snail mail, and men in trench coats meeting surreptitiously on park benches in autumn. In other words, “humint”.

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