If Agatha Christie were still with us, she would delight in crafting a whodunit around this intriguing question. Has Snowden, the former CIA staffer and US National Security Agency contractor, through his mass public dumps of the US intelligence community’s “crown jewels,” destroyed the very raison d’êspion for spy literature? Is the age of secrecy done and dusted, along with the spies who go with it?
Christie’s book – the definitive spy thriller – would obviously feature Snowden as one of a cast of key suspects, no doubt fiddling with the Rubik’s Cube on which he hid the micro memory cards loaded with millions of files that he smuggled out of the NSA.
He wouldn’t be fleeing on the Orient Express; more likely on an A380 heading out of the US for Hong Kong and ultimately the embrace of Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Julian Assange might be another key suspect, and if Christie took her readers back to the birth of her victim, the spy novel, a youthful Winston Churchill might rate a mention as well.
That is because the point of origin of this genre of literature could reasonably, if oddly, be placed on the dusty plains of South Africa over a century ago.
In 1900, after three years bringing the rebellious farmers of the Boer War to heel, the bulk of Britain’s regular army was outside the country. This helped fuel an invasion scare that was made worse over the next few years by naval developments. The sheer scale, reputation and experience of the Royal Navy had given Britain undisputed supremacy of the seas, but the launching in 1906 of a new British battleship, the HMS Dreadnought, triggered intense naval rivalry with Germany, which soon after announced an accelerated building program of its own.
The British government looked closely at this and other threats, and while many of the arguments put forward by invasion theorists were discounted, fear remained at a high level.
In the public domain, this threat was titillated by a most extraordinary force, one that exerted a powerful influence on the government and caused it to act in a way that defined the future of secret intelligence. Of all things, this was the spy novel.
One of the earliest such works was Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the story of a child messenger used by British Intelligence and set in India against the backdrop of the Great Game. By the beginning of the 1900s, a spate of similar novels was appearing, with titles like “The Sack of London in the Great French War of 1901” and “Starved Into Surrender.” An early leader in this fiction world was Erskine Childers. His bestselling 1903 novel, “The Riddle of the Sands,” in the words of Churchill, significantly influenced the Admiralty’s decision to establish three major new naval bases around the country. This was followed in 1907 by Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent,” which was inspired by the attempt of a French anarchist to blow up the Royal Observatory in Greenwich in 1894; the man had killed himself in the process.
Writers from the Continent also fed the genre, but it was spy novels in Britain that had a curious effect. Of these, William Le Queux’s work was to play, according to the late Phillip Knightley, “such an important role in the founding and development of Britain’s first formal civilian intelligence service agency that an examination of his amazing background is essential.”
Born in London in 1864, Le Queux had a French father and English mother. Educated partly in Britain and on the Continent, he spoke a number of languages well. Eventually he went into journalism, becoming a war correspondent for the London Daily Mail. He travelled widely and in the process became fascinated by espionage, even claiming to dabble in it himself. Novels on the spying theme soon followed and were immediately successful.
Le Queux became obsessed with the “German menace” and insisted that a friend of his in Berlin had not only revealed to him the existence of a huge German spy network in Britain, but had also handed him a list of key traitors in Parliament, the Foreign Office, the Admiralty and the War Office. Despite his hounding of the authorities, he was not taken seriously until 1906 when he teamed up with a disaffected soldier, Field Marshall Lord Roberts, who shared the same obsession with the Germans.
Together, they concocted a fictionalized story about a German invasion of Britain, set four years later, which they managed to have serialised in the Daily Mail. It was an instant success, though it led to Le Queux being labelled a “scaremonger” in the House of Commons. The owner of the newspaper was unfazed. After all, the Daily Mail’s circulation soared. The book version of the articles, “The Invasion of 1910,” sold more than a million copies in 27 languages, including in Icelandic and Urdu.
Le Queux continued with his spying activities abroad, and his counter-intelligence work inside Britain, writing more articles and flooding the War Office with more reports on the perfidious Germans. Another book, “Spies of the Kaiser: Plotting the Downfall of England,” appeared in 1909 and was an instant bestseller. Le Queux made himself the hero of his own story, claiming that it was based on his own personal inquiry into the presence on British soil of some 5,000 German spies.
Because of its presentation as fact in fictional form, many of his readers took it as truth. Spy mania swept the country. Le Queux encouraged his readers to be on the alert and to report on suspicious Germans in Britain. Soon he was inundated with letters, which he passed on to the authorities. This coincided with the deliberations of a high-powered government committee appointed on the instructions of the Prime Minister, which was looking into the danger posed by German espionage.
The chairman of the committee – R.B. Haldane, the Secretary of State for War – was at first sanguine about the threat. But he too succumbed when “secret German documents”, possibly planted by the French government, fortuitously came into the committee’s possession. They purported to show Britain’s most vulnerable points in the event that war was to break out. The committee therefore decided to act.
In 1909, Haldane recommended that a Secret Service Bureau be established, divided into two sections, Home and Foreign. The domestic branch should concern itself with catching foreign spies in Britain, in effect, counterintelligence. This was the forerunner of today’s MI5 (Military Intelligence, Room 5). The foreign branch would collect intelligence overseas and would become MI6 (Military Intelligence, Room 6), or the Secret Intelligence Service. The committee saw its detailed recommendations for the establishment of the service “so secret that it is thought desirable that they should not be printed or circulated to members.”
Despite Le Queux’s claims, on the day that war was declared on Germany in August, 1914, the Home Office reported that the authorities had arrested only 21 German spies. Following WWI, interest in spy novels waned, mainly because people had other things to worry about, like the Great Depression of 1929 that lead to high unemployment.
WWII saw the establishment by Britain of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) as well as the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The exploits of these organizations became better known after the War and gave rise to a new generation of spy novels and movies. The Cold War provided added momentum for spy thrillers, as did the CIA, which was established in 1947.
Writers like Graham Greene emerged, carrying on the novelist tradition of earlier writers like Somerset Maugham, both of whom had worked for MI6. Greene’s novel, “Our Man in Havana,” is by far the best send-up of spying ever published.
In the decades that followed, the spy came back into literature and cinema with a vengeance. The exposure of British intelligence traitors like Kim Philby added fuel. Two streams of spy literature emerged, which produced not only novels but movies. One was a creation of Ian Fleming, who had been in British naval intelligence during WWII: James Bond.
These movies have thrilled generations of cinemagoers but before long they became more and more farfetched and provided little competition for a new genre of movies based on spy thrillers written by John le Carré (real name David Cornwall) who had also worked with MI6. His books, and the movies made on them, like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, are classics, though not appreciated by all.
Here’s an observation by James Parker, a staff writer at The Atlantic in its December 2015 issue: “Writing involves betrayal, and le Carré – after his fashion and to our lasting benefit – double-crossed his own people. His Cold War novels were psychic microfilms of an Establishment hollowed out by deceit, denial, and inadequacy. They outraged his fellow spies.” Parker was reviewing Adam Sisman’s book, “John le Carré: The Biography.”
The United States has a rich field of spy novelists who have themselves worked in intelligence, particularly in the CIA. The late Charles McCarry, a former officer who operated under deep cover in Europe, Africa and Asia, created a series of “Paul Christopher” books that many readers regard as equal to John le Carré. Paul Theroux, the widely acclaimed American travel writer and novelist, has noted that, “No one understands Washington – its secrets, its politics, its plumbing – like Charles McCarry.”
Another writer, George V. Higgins, in a blurb for one of McCarry’s novels, wrote in 1998 that he was the “best combination of spellbinding storyteller and silken prose writer. Nobody now at it writes better about intrigue, danger, loyalty, and betrayal than he does.”
That choice of words points to why former spies, not necessarily of Edward Snowden’s ilk, write novels: they have seen a lot in their careers, with much of it unbelievable to the average person. Relayed in a non-fiction work – and that is not always possible, for reasons of secrecy, privacy or defamation – it becomes even more implausible. Truth can indeed be stranger than fiction. Fiction and characterisation are an ideal vehicle for conveying realities that most people would otherwise find difficult to accept.
Alongside spy novels produced by erstwhile practitioners is a proliferation of such books by authors with no direct experience of the spy world. The best of these writers have outstanding imaginative abilities, with some also having contacts in the intelligence world that help with precise details and atmospherics. Many of these writers’ most ardent readers are men and women either currently serving in spy agencies around the world or who have done so. By any measure, that is an accolade.
But the art of spying has changed significantly from Cold War days, and this is what has facilitated Snowden’s massive dumps of intelligence.
An astute British writer and security-policy expert, Edward Lucas, explored this development in an article, “The Spycraft Revolution,” in the Spring 2019 issue of Foreign Policy. Changes in technology, politics and business are all transforming espionage, he notes, and intelligence agencies must adapt or risk irrelevance.
This points to where the next generation of spy novels will come from.
Lucas observes that “a cover identity that would have been almost bulletproof only 20 years ago can now be unravelled in a few minutes. For a start, facial recognition software – mostly developed by Israeli companies and widely deployed in China and elsewhere – allows governments and law enforcement agencies to store and search vast numbers of faces. They can then cross-check such data with the slew of personal information that most people voluntarily and habitually upload online.”
Meanwhile, old staples of spycraft, he suggests, no longer work due to technological advances. Until recently, the dead-letter box was regarded as all but foolproof, an ideal location that both a source and a collection officer could reasonably visit. One party would leave behind intelligence material, perhaps stored on a tiny memory card enclosed in chewing gum. The other party would then collect it. Even a team of experienced observers would struggle to see what was really going on.
But these days, such tactics aren’t always effective. Counterintelligence can easily track, via mobile phone signals, the movements of suspected spies and the traitors they’re paying who have access to the secrets they want.
Tradecraft, a spy’s basic operating toolbox, is now inordinately more challenging, with other forms of biometric identification – like iris recognition and voice recognition – commonly in use. In an increasingly sophisticated technological environment the spy has less places, and means, to hide. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is but one of a modern spy’s prime stalkers.
As Lucas puts it, “the same algorithmic techniques that digital security experts use to spot malware on networks and computers can easily be tweaked to highlight other unusual behaviour – sometimes much more effectively than human analysts could. Together, these techniques have severely constrained the ability of intelligence officers and their sources to operate safely and secretly. The cloak of anonymity is steadily shrinking.”
But since the Industrial Revolution, the craft of spying has always managed to adapt to technological innovation, both in applying it as well as in defending against it.
One expanding area of traditional spying activity is the business world. The booming field of private intelligence companies is, in Lucas’s words, “watching these techniques and their practitioners with a greedy eye.”
Indeed, he observes that the intelligence profession is increasingly overlapping with the corporate world; the realm of spies used to be cloistered. People who joined it never spoke about it and often served until retirement. Penalties for disclosure could include the loss of a pension or even prosecution.
That’s changed. For example, “anyone responsible for a company’s cyber security now has to think like a counterintelligence officer.” A stint at the CIA or MI6, Lucas suggests, has become a paragraph on a resume, not a career. Britain and the United States have caught up with Israel, where the private sector has long prized a spell in a senior position in intelligence or defence; in London and Washington, such work is increasingly a launch pad for an interesting career in corporate intelligence or other advisory work.
That’s true. But the need for human intelligence gathering will be with us for many years. Nothing can replace face-to-face meetings where the subtleties and nuances in say, a top-secret meeting in a president’s office, are conveyed. In those areas, AI can’t compete.
To return to Snowden then, and his new book Permanent Record, would Agatha have him killing off the spy novel once and for all? Not likely. As with all of her novels, there’d be a quirky twist at the end. She’d have Snowden breathing new life into the genre, with those baying for his blood heightening the sense of excitement.
So, for aficionados of the spy novel, keep your seatbelt fastened. A new wave of storytelling is heading to a bookshop near you. Even the old Great Game in Central Asia is back, with China’s Belt and Road project running right through the middle of it.
Warren Reed was an intelligence officer with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS). Trained by MI6 in London, he served in Asia and the Middle East. His latest spy novel is “An Elephant on Your Nose,” set in Japan, China and South Korea immediately prior to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. The book was reviewed in Asia Sentinel on Dec. 18, 2018.