The spy who hugged me

“(Russia) is using its whole range of state organs and powers to push its foreign policy abroad in increasingly aggressive ways – involving propaganda, espionage, subversion and cyber-attacks.” Andrew Parker, MI5 Chief.

This month, the underground world of espionage surfaced and was splashed all over the UK press. Firstly, Andrew Parker used the first-ever newspaper interview by a serving MI5 boss in the security agency’s 107-year history to highlight the growing threat from Russian security services and MI5’s role in countering this. The Kremlin poured cold water on Parker’s claim, saying that “Until someone produces proof we will consider those statements unfounded and groundless”, an unsurprising response since the whole point of spying is not to get caught. Secondly, newspapers raised the alarm over the passing of the UK Investigatory Powers Act aimed at countering the Islamist threat but potentially amounting to “the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy” to quote US whistleblower Edward Snowden. So, could these developments signal a new era of spy games reminiscent of plots from classic Bond movies?

As Parker himself admits, “Russia has been a covert threat for decades. What’s different these days is that there are more and more methods available.” The Litvinenko radiation poisoning case in 2006 was a reminder of the old-style threat, while the Fancy Bear hackers, agents of the Russian state according to the White House, are currently the most notorious exponents of the new methods. These hackers were accused of trying both to influence the outcome of the US election and to discredit western athletes ahead of the Olympic Games in revenge for the doping scandal enveloping the Russian athletics team.

Russian and Soviet spying is not only a long-standing threat but also a far-reaching one, sometimes surfacing in the most unlikely of places. On a recent trip home, driving through a sleepy suburban street in Ruislip, my father pointed out an innocuous-looking bungalow and explained its role in the Portland Spy Ring that penetrated the British Royal Navy in the late 1950s. This bungalow hid spying equipment, including an antenna looped around the attic for transmitting information back to Moscow. Its occupants were Soviet husband and wife spy team, Morris and Lona Cohen, operating under the cover of antiquarian book dealers Peter and Helen Kroger. They were arrested in 1961 but not before they had befriended their neighbours and become pillars of the local community.

The Kremlin’s spying rebuttal is akin to the Pope denying that he is Catholic. Nevertheless, it is true that Russian activity is only part of a complex global web of intrigue. In reality, even in our post-Cold War world, all nations employ spies whether to counter modern-day threats like Islamist terror networks and hacking attacks or more traditional threats from rival states. Wikileaks and Snowden gave citizens an insight into how extensively states spy both on our behalf and on us. For states possessing the capability, eavesdropping on so-called allies may also prove too tempting, as suggested by the 2013 scandal over the alleged CIA bugging of EU offices and leaders, including Angela Merkel. For in reality, even friendly states, like individual humans, are ultimately competing for finite resources and their interests cannot always coincide.

This is nothing new. Indeed, espionage rivals prostitution as one of the world’s oldest professions. Some 5000 years ago, early Egyptian pharaohs were using spies to identify disloyal subjects and to locate tribes ripe for conquest. In Roman times, the state employed spies to eavesdrop in forums as a way of gauging the political mood of the Empire. In the sixteenth century, the Holy Inquisition developed a pan-European intelligence network to root out heretics, sorcerers and blasphemers in the wake of the protestant reformation. Modern-day secret services are rooted in the military intelligence services established in the second half of the nineteenth century as emerging European nation states sought to gain an advantage over rival powers. This process accelerated during the First World War, with the waging of a parallel ‘secret war’ aimed at breaking the deadlock on the battlefield.

Portugal has also contributed to this ancient art. King João II used a vast intelligence network to inform Portugal’s voyages of discovery and conquests. In the years leading up to the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the world between the two superpowers of Spain and Portugal, the king probably sent out secret missions to determine the position and usefulness of lands that might fall within the Portuguese sphere of influence. For example, there is evidence that Duarte Pacheco discovered Brazil on a secret mission in 1488, twelve years before Pedro Álvares Cabral’s ‘official’ voyage. This may explain Portugal’s insistence on moving the demarcation line at Tordesillas from 100 leagues to 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, thereby incorporating Brazil, as well as the perplexing ‘radio silence’ in official records on the issue of South Atlantic exploration between the voyages of Bartolemeu Dias in 1488 and  Vasco de Gama in 1497.

According to one of the more colourful theories, Christopher Columbus was actually a Portuguese secret agent planted in the Spanish Court. This argument is based on Columbus’ role in advising the Spanish Crown on the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas, which largely favoured Portugal, and the fact that his subsequent New World discoveries diverted Spanish attention away from Portuguese interests in the East. Given Portugal’s trailblazing expeditions, Lisbon was also awash with foreign spies attempting to glean geographical and technological information from returning explorers. One of the most famous cases was that of Alberto Cantino, an agent of the Duke of Ferrara, who in 1502 smuggled to Italy a top-secret map showing all Portuguese discoveries to date.

By its very nature, spying has always been a clandestine and controversial activity. In recent years, Snowden and Wikileaks have posed searching questions about the role and legitimacy of espionage in modern-day democracies, and the morality of spying on the very people who voted in the government that oversees the intelligence agencies. Snowden and Wikileaks provided a ‘public information service’ on spying in a way that states themselves rarely do because the tension between being accountable to the people and protecting them is almost impossible to resolve; the MI5’s long-awaited interview is the exception that proves the rule. Furthermore, the repressive use of spying by autocratic regimes in North Korea, Syria and Sudan to maintain their grip on power provides a constant reminder of the need to impose limits on espionage activity.

Nevertheless, I believe that spying is a necessary evil for democratic states that acts as a kind of pressure release valve. The discovery by clandestine means of what an enemy is plotting provides the opportunity to counter this clandestinely too, avoiding open confrontation. Once the battle crosses over from the shadowy world of spying into the ‘real world’ and casualties ensue, governments feel obliged to retaliate, risking an escalation of hostilities and even all-out war. It takes a special breed of person to operate in that shadowy world and to do dirty work on our behalf and we should be grateful for the sacrifices this entails. As former MI5 agent turned bestselling spy novelist John le Carre said: “Once you’ve lived the inside-out world of espionage, you never shed it. It’s a mentality, a double standard of existence.” So, go out and hug a spy…if you can find one. Of course, if you do find one, he or she would have to kill you.

Columbus the spy?
Columbus the spy? Meeting King João II of Portugal

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