Adam Brookes On the Character of Contemporary Spy

Written by Adam Brookes

Spying never went out of fashion. There was a moment, after the Cold War ended, when we all wondered if espionage was still something states would concern themselves with. After all, with the Soviet Union defunct and the threat from international communism vanished overnight, why would we need to spy on anyone?  As it turned out the question was deeply naïve. Today, our espionage agencies are larger than ever, our ability to conduct surveillance is greater than ever, and our knowledge of the world around us is more fragmented and confused than it has been in a long while. The spies are busy.

But who are they, these days?

Well, first of all, it’s worth just reminding ourselves of the different kinds of spy. Intelligence officers, or IOs, work for intelligence agencies like SIS or CIA or China’s MSS or Russia's SVR. They are bureaucrats. They get up in the morning and go to work in an office, and manage the nation’s spying business. You find quite a lot of them in embassies, pretending to be diplomats. Sometimes they’ll go off and live undercover, usually as business people, occasionally as aid workers or journalists.

An IOs job is to recruit agents. An agent is someone who has access to secret information and is willing, for whatever reason, to hand it over to an IO. This IO becomes the agent’s case officer.

Once an agent has handed secrets to their case officer, someone has to sit down and figure out what these secrets are and what they mean and who should know about them. This is an analyst. Analysts are also bureaucrats. They may do anything from writing reports to poring over satellite images to translating eavesdropped messages. Analysts sometimes lead secret lives, sometimes not.

There are lots of variations on this basic theme. We have cyber spies and communications specialists and cryptographers and traffic analysts and paramilitary operatives and what have you, but at the centre of the espionage business remains the idea that we need to collect the privileged information of others if we are to understand the world fully and be forewarned of threats.

Here in Washington DC, where I live, intelligence collection is a huge industry. The US government has seventeen agencies involved in intelligence collection and analysis, and they are supported by myriad private companies, or contractors.

These are, for the most part, perfectly normal people with families. I know some of them. They are analysts. Their kids and mine go to school together. They’re smart and highly qualified, and they live on a modest government wage, and they believe that they are performing important work.

The IOs are much harder to see, because they lead their professional lives in secret. I’ve encountered a few. Some are conservative, straight arrow types with a taste for adventure. Quite a few have military experience.  The British are far fewer in number than their American counterparts. The Brits I’ve met have tended to be clever, pragmatic Oxbridge types who can deploy a particular kind of charm and who have a knack for making personal connections. Some I’ve liked. Others have given me the creeps. When I was working in Asia as a reporter I got to know a guy quite well. I thought he was a British diplomat.  We’d go out drinking. We’d exchange tidbits of information, call each other up and chat. I found out much later he was SIS, and he’d never let me know. I’ve always felt a little peeved by that.    

But the agents – they’re the really fascinating characters. Why would you betray everything and everybody close to you? Why take those risks? For what? Talk about a thankless role.

Of the great agents of the Cold War, some claimed to be motivated by ideology  - Kim Philby, George Blake et al. And others by some curious mix of ideology and personal psychology – Penkovsky, Vetrov. Others were more mercenary, like Aldrich Ames, who sold out his CIA colleagues purely for money. Or, like the FBI’s Robert Hanssen, for reasons of narcissism. (Inexplicably, the ‘honey trap’ still seems to work as a means of drawing people into spying, as I’ll tell you in a moment.)

These days, similar, but not identical, categories of motivation seem to apply. Joby Warrick’s great book, The Triple Agent, tells the story of Humam al-Balawi, the doctor who purported to be penetrating Al Qaeda for CIA and Jordanian intelligence. In reality, his ideological loyalties lay with Islamic extremism, and he blew himself up, killing his CIA case officers. The fight against terrorism, especially that spawned by Islamic extremism, has given the intelligence agencies a brand new raison d’etre and vast resources. The spying on all sides has a strong ideological component, and it’s brutal and relentless.  

Other areas of modern day espionage are much less ideological and much more pragmatic. China has a huge espionage effort underway. It’s aimed at technologically advanced countries. China is saving itself years of research and development and billions of dollars by stealing technology. The Chinese agencies, MSS and 2PLA, have hoovered up vast amounts of information – everything from railway design, to software, to industrial processes in the chemical industry to the design of the United States latest stealth fighter. A Chinese agent is unlikely to be a fanatic or a master of subterfuge, and much more likely to be an engineer in a small company in Milton Keynes or Anaheim, California. A big Chinese spy ring was recently broken up in the United States. Seven people were arrested. Their target? Genetically modified crops. The break in the case came when one of them was found digging up seedlings in a field in Iowa.

One has to be careful to avoid nasty stereotypes here, but Chinese intelligence appears to be very active among Chinese expatriate populations, and its spying is very, very serious. A sixty-year-old retired US army colonel named Benjamin Bishop was recently sentenced to seven years in prison for passing classified information. He worked at PACOM, the US military’s vast headquarters in Hawaii, and knew a great deal about US military deployments in the Pacific. His handler appears to have been his new girlfriend – a twenty seven year old Chinese woman. It is beyond me that this agent recruitment model, the ‘honey trap’, can still work, but it does, and anybody travelling regularly to China on business or for diplomacy or academic exchange needs to watch themselves. And if you don't believe me, look up the case of poor old Ian Clement.

We, of course, spy on China, too. Though we don’t know much about the Chinese agents who are run by British or American or other intelligence officers. Occasionally there’s a glimpse. We know of a Chinese Air Force officer who bugged the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo on behalf Japanese intelligence. We know of a man surnamed Li who was sentenced to ten years in prison after he was recruited online by a foreign intelligence operative who used the handle ‘Flying Brother’. Li was paid to hang out in military and defence related chatrooms where he could pick up gossip, and he obtained and passed on military publications. It turned out ‘Flying Brother’ had recruited forty people across China in this way. And we know that a senior official in the Ministry of State Security -  China’s KGB – was found spying for CIA in 2012. But we don’t even know his name, let alone the details of the case.  

Lastly, of course, we have to understand that computers have radically changed espionage. Much spying is now done by hacking the servers of your target. And many spies are simply computer programmers, getting up and going to work like the rest of us. The threat of cyber espionage – not to mention cyber war – is right up there on the list of strategic challenges faced by all governments. And while intelligence agencies still seek to recruit the politician or the diplomat or the military officer, top of their list now is the systems administrator – the guy who knows all the passwords to all the networks. There’s your real spy – some guy in chinos with a laptop bag and a coffee cup and an ID dangling from his neck. The guy you’d never think of……


Spy Games by Adam Brookes is published 10th March by Sphere, price £7.99 in paperback


Fearing for his life, Mangan has gone into hiding from the Chinese agents who have identified him as a British spy. His reputation and life are in tatters. But when he is caught in a terrorist attack in East Africa and a shadowy figure approaches him in the dead of night with information on its origins, Mangan is suddenly back in the eye of the storm.  Meanwhile, thousands of miles away on a humid Hong Kong night, a key MI6 source is murdered minutes after meeting spy Trish Patterson. From Washington D.C. to the hallowed halls of Oxford University and dusty African streets, a sinister power is stirring which will use Mangan and Patterson as its pawns – if they survive.

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Adam Brookes

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