What of Spying? Two Books, Two Faces of Espionage

I have been thinking a lot about espionage lately—its noble aspect and also the messiness of an enterprise based on secrecy, manipulation, and deception.

Spying, by nature, has these two faces.  To look at the first, its noblest mien: espionage is an attempt to gather information about the actions of other countries, and particularly bad actors in the world; to stop aggressions, if possible; to undermine or change inhumane regimes; and to support democracy, and protect the lives of ordinary people, around the world.  All of these objectives may be criticized, but the CIA was created in the wake of Hitler’s devastation, and under that light in particular, espionage might be seen as not only necessary but among the higher callings.

To look at its other face, there is an inherent murkiness, ambiguity, and morally-troubling side to spying.  The disasters and long-term ripple effects from its mis- or faulty-use are legion: Iran, Chile, Vietnam, to name three.  Back to the other face again, the CIA contributed to the ending of Osama Bin Laden.  If one tries to reckon with espionage, the two faces of the spy service swing in and out of relief…

A pair of books into which I have dipped have, for me, shed clear light on these two faces of intelligence work.

I will begin with the volume that shines a startling and penetrating—not to say dismaying—beam on the series of mistakes, havoc-wreaking, and deaths-of-thousands that can result from espionage mis-handled, mis-used, and gone rogue.  I cannot recommend enough Curveball by the Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Bob Drogin.  Drogin was assigned to the intelligence beat for his paper before 9/11, and was central to the investigation of, and reporting on, the WMD search preceding and following the start of the war in Iraq.  The book follows, beat by beat, the series of mis-steps by American spies, the State Department, and the executive branch, that followed the claim by an Iraqi con man-asylum seeker in Hamburg that Iraq had, hidden in its outlands, a series of mobile bio weapons labs—the faulty intelligence upon which the war in Iraq was based, and which Secretary of State Colin Powell called up as key evidence, in his fateful speech to the United Nations on February the 5th, 2003.  It is a crystalline example of an instance in which, as Drogin puts it, “The defector didn’t con the spies so much as they conned themselves.”  He sums up this story of disastrous espionage:  “[Curveball’s] marginal story took on an importance it did not deserve.  Senior intelligence officials irresponsibly hyped his claims and accepted unconfirmed reports.  They cast aside contradictory evidence, brushed aside clear warnings, and ignored a rising clamor of skeptics.  Time and again, bureaucratic rivalries, tawdry ambitions, and spineless leadership proved more important than professional integrity.”

New York Times reporter Benjamin Weiser, has written a book that presents the other face of espionage.  His fascinating book illuminates spy-craft at its finest.  Here again is a story of an informant and CIA operatives, but this round, all the actors concerned are models of nobility, rigor, and integrity.  A Secret Life is an account of the life of a Polish colonel who, out of a deep love for Poland and a drive to help his country free itself from Soviet domination, volunteered to secretly supply the Americans with information pertaining to Soviet weapons and military planning.  The reams of documents he handed over in the course of nine years, at great personal risk, contributed to the freeing of the nations of Eastern Europe.  The commitment, consideration, loyalty—and perhaps even love—that undergirded the relationship between the agent and his CIA handlers are deeply moving, and remind the reader of what under-cover, inter-cultural alliances can accomplish at their best.

Espionage has two faces, dark and light—and most spying is probably a mix of the two.  A look at these two starkly contrasting books sheds brilliant light on its grey world.

Originally posted Tuesday, March 27th, 2012