trusting the intelligence community
Spies have been on my mind recently.
One of the most curious, and amusing, things about our modern world is the strange new respect being shown to the “intelligence community” with once widely despised organisations like the FBI, the CIA and MI6 suddenly being regarded (by mainstream opinion) as paragons of integrity and virtue.
Even people who claim to be on the Left have become admirers. In fact people claiming to be on the Left have become the most ardent admirers. From the 1950s until very recent times the one thing that united the New Left and the remnants of the Old Left was their belief that the intelligence community consisted of malevolent bunglers. And of course they were correct.
Obviously what has happened is that the self-described Left of today is in fact now the Establishment, and of course the intelligence community serves the Establishment.
The bigger question is, can anyone actually trust spies? I use the term spies in the broadest sense, to include both espionage and counter-espionage operatives. The fact is that spies are people whose lives are based on lies and deceit. If you’re no good at lies and deceit you’re no use as a spy. Spies are also people who are good at seeing patterns. Sometimes the patterns are really there and sometimes they’re imaginary but while spies are good at spotting patterns they’re not good at distinguishing the real from the imaginary.
But it’s worse than that. Espionage is a profession that attracts cranks and misfits. It attracts the mentally unstable. Some are brilliant misfits. Some are just misfits. It also attracts those with political axes to grind. Normal well-adjusted psychologically healthy people do not join the intelligence community.
All this is bad enough but there’s the additional problem that if you’re an agent for an intelligence organisation you have to demonstrate your continuing usefulness. If you don’t have any real intelligence of value to offer then there’s the temptation to concoct intelligence that is pure fantasy. And counter-spies are not above concocting imaginary conspiracies. If they happen to have political axes to grind then the temptation to make stuff up is even greater.
Both popular culture and official history have fostered the idea that espionage attracts the best and the brightest, and that the work of the intelligence community is absolutely vital. At least once per book a fictional spy will save Civilisation As We Know It. Sadly the reality is that more often than not spies are either dishonest or delusional, or both. Their achievements are usually minimal.
Defectors are even worse. A defector is, by definition, a traitor. Or at best, a defector is someone with loyalties that are flexible, often to the point of non-existence. They are loyal until they get a better offer.
To trust spies and counter-spies is mere foolishness. Even if some are trustworthy you can never know which ones are trustworthy and which ones are not. The wisest course is to trust none of them.
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