I-Spy talk examines history of espionage at 2014 Edinburgh Festival of Politics

This article is from 2014

I-Spy talk examines history of espionage at 2014 Edinburgh Festival of Politics

Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy

Professor Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones on our ongoing fascination with the ethics of surveillance and spying

From Tinker Tailor to 007, secret agents have had a pretty glamorous time of it in the public’s mind. But when it comes to the war on terror and the Edward Snowden affair, some grubbier aspects of espionage have been laid bare. Yasmin Sulaiman files her report

It’s been over 60 years since the first James Bond novel was published, and more than 50 since John le Carré introduced readers to George Smiley. But despite the huge shifting of the world’s political landscape, these Cold War spies still dominate our images of espionage. When you consider the mass surveillance exposed last year by NSA contractor Edward Snowden and the CIA’s irreverent inaugural tweet, it’s clear that today’s intelligence agencies are altogether different beasts.

One event at this year’s Festival of Politics aims to take a closer look at intelligence agencies, the part they play in safeguarding the public from modern terrorist threats and how that role will evolve in future. It’s likely to be a heated debate, dominated by wrangles over the ethics of spying and the extent of surveillance on both sides of the Atlantic.

But while the gathering of intelligence on the scale recently exposed may be a relatively recent phenomenon, the history of espionage stretches much further back into history. ‘There are Biblical references to spies,’ explains Professor Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, emeritus professor of history at the University of Edinburgh, intelligence expert and the author of In Spies We Trust: The Story of Western Intelligence. ‘The espionage profession is referred to as the second oldest profession, after prostitution. So it does go back a long way, but institutional spies and large-scale agencies don’t really appear until the 1880s, when such agencies were formed in both America and the UK.’

After an initial deceleration in intelligence capabilities after World War I, the American and British commitment to spying continued, and even came to be regarded as a contribution to peacekeeping efforts, until the outbreak of World War II. ‘There was a big bump in the scale of espionage in World War II,’ says Professor Jeffreys-Jones. ‘There’s a school of thought in America that the intelligence services were neglected in between the two wars, and they had to suddenly increase their capability. So, for example, they were caught napping at the time of Pearl Harbour when they should have realised what the Japanese were up to, though that’s a contentious point. But of course in this country, we bumped it up a great deal with the organisation at Bletchley Park, codebreaking and the creation of SOE (Special Operations Executive), the organisation that sent people behind enemy lines to help the French Resistance and movements all over Europe.’

When the Cold War set in – and the extent of Soviet intelligence capability became clear – western operations were expanded even further. And while the zany inventions of Ian Fleming’s Q might be exaggerated for dramatic effect, it was at this time that technological innovations became even more entrenched in the gathering of intelligence.

‘The growth of technology is a major change you see during the Cold War,’ continues Professor Jeffreys-Jones. ‘The USA and Britain found it difficult to penetrate the Iron Curtain and get our agents to the other side. Partly that was because of good security arrangements by the Soviet Union and its allies, and partly because some of our best agents were betrayed by the Cambridge spy ring. The alternative then was to engage in technological espionage, for example sending up U-2 planes which had high-resolution cameras taking photographs of what was taking place on the ground below. Then later, the spy satellite came into its own.’

After the end of the Cold War in 1989, there were calls for the CIA and MI5 to be wound down. ‘These agencies looked for new challenges,’ says Professor Jeffreys-Jones. ‘In the case of MI5, they moved into serious organised crime and took over security arrangements in Northern Ireland. They were just looking for jobs and they pushed other people aside and moved in. But when the terrorist threat, Al Qaeda and so on, came along, that was a godsend.’ And while advancing technologies remain a key weapon in the intelligence agencies’ arsenal, there are serious ethical issues surrounding espionage that need to be addressed.

‘When it comes to spies, we have a double standard,’ says the Professor. ‘I think we excuse spies partly because the distinction between them and the entertainment industry has become blurred. James Bond is an exercise in escapism. JFK fantasised too far after a dinner with Ian Fleming, and tried to put Bond-type ideas into practice, such as killing Castro with an exploding cigar. There is also the earnest line of thinking: that our chaps need to be allowed to misbehave in order to keep us all safe. There were constant references in the Cold War to the turpitude of Soviet secret services, and exhortations to allow ours to behave similarly. We let the spies off the hook because we expect them to be immoral.’

Professor Jeffreys-Jones expects surveillance to persist, but also hopes more will be done to curtail it. ‘I think that simply legislating against it, or having a code of conduct for intelligence agencies, really doesn’t go far enough. There must be well-defined protection for the responsible whistleblower, for example. And each agency involved in this kind of practice needs to say publicly how they’re going to prevent the horizontal leakage of information to third parties. Looking into the future, I can see mass surveillance continuing but hopefully it’ll be brought more under control.’

I-Spy, Scottish Parliament, Holyrood Road, 0131 348 5000, 17 Aug, 6.30pm, £5 (£3.50).

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