Listen carefully, Bond. The rules have changed ...

New enemies and an information explosion have turned today's spies into thinkers, not shooters

Share
Related Topics
In 1971, Edward Heath's government pulled off one of the most bracingly inspired diplomatic coups of the post-war period. Britain expelled 105 Soviet spies. This was definitely not cricket. "Tit for tat" expulsions were fine, but a pre-emptive mass eviction was unheard of. The Russians were, literally, speechless.

It was a brilliant move because some genius at the Foreign Office had realised that spying, in those days, was not a zero sum game. The Soviets had dozens, possibly hundreds, of agents moving about a relatively open country. To keep track of each one, with their dead letter boxes in surreally banal places like Crouch End, required nine MI5 operatives. Of course, we also had agents in the Soviet Union. Some were successful, but on the whole spying on a tightly controlled police state did not produce the same returns as spying on a democracy. We had, therefore, nothing to lose by refusing to play by the rules.

Things have changed. Russia is no longer an enemy, but, on the other hand, it must be an easier place to be a spy now that it is free of Communist control. And it is a necessary place on which to spy. It remains a potentially unstable nation with a vast nuclear arsenal. Knowing what is going on there is probably more important than knowing about countries - such as Libya and Iraq - that are clearly defined as threats. In addition, the world as a whole remains a dangerous and unpredictable place. The paranoid nation state may be resting, but it is not dead. The great game of covert diplomacy must go on.

Yet the news that the Russians are to expel British diplomats for spying comes as a shock, as if Slade or the Bay City Rollers suddenly had a number one hit. It is news from another era, from a time when James Bond would defuse the wicked hi-tech schemes of the KGB. Somehow, we thought, we had grown out of all that.

And it wasn't just the end of the Cold War that made spying seem dated. There has also been the steady stream of revelations from Oleg Gordievsky and others. These exposed not the exciting world of James Bond, but a drab world of clerks and bureaucrats, labouring as much against the demands of their bosses as against the enemy. Plus everybody did it and nobody could provide any objective assessment of gains or losses. It seemed, therefore, an essentially futile activity, a mere ritual whose silliness made it appear contemptible rather than heroic.

But this Russian capture - I am assuming, almost certainly correctly, that we were indeed spying - reminds us that the ritual must continue. It must continue even though it may seem emptier than ever. The primary cause has gone. Our spies are no longer protecting our freedom against a savage totalitarianism. Rather, they are protecting us against a whole range of more nebulous industrial and economic threats, and an uncertain military environment. Their activities cannot be justified by the formula us-good, them-bad; they can only be justified by the generalised conviction that it is better to know than not to know, better to be ready than to be taken by surprise.

Ultimately, however, traditional spying must be on the way out. Certainly, there is more to know than ever before, and as much need to know. But, at the same time, there is far more knowledge that is available to everybody. The spook rifling a filing cabinet or skulking around an air base is, increasingly, an unnecessarily risky use of manpower. Satellites and computers can penetrate frontiers far more effectively, and the averagely gifted teen hacker can find his way into all kinds of secret systems. Information is everywhere, lying about the place like rubbish on a skip; and, also like rubbish on a skip, some of it can turn out to be surprisingly valuable.

What now counts is understanding. We know, more or less exactly, what the Russian air force can do; what we want to know is whether it will do it. This may be as much a matter of reading newspapers or lunching the right man as breaking into an office or "turning" an informant in the Kremlin.

Our old-fashioned image of spying was based on the belief that there was something to be found out; for example, that, in James Bond terms, there was some devastating, exotic piece of technology whose secrets we had to discover. That image was born of an age of technological anxiety, the fear that science was moving so fast and on so many fronts that it was out of control. Sputnik, the first space shot, enforced the sense that Western confidence in its own technological superiority might be misplaced. And that was combined with our sense of the Soviet Union as a vast, unknown landscape. After the last war, spy planes had to fly over the country just to map it properly. Spying was an expression of our fear of the profound illegibility of the enemy.

That fear is with us still. But now it is not of the doomsday weapon but rather of the scale and formlessness of the available information and of the uncertainty of who, exactly, is the enemy.

So, even though the rules have changed, we cannot stop playing the great intelligence game. But from now on, it really will be intelligence and the players will be thinkers, not shooters. A good thing, too, you may think, but not necessarily a less frightening one.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash the two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in new political order

Michael Ashcroft
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power