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Spying, though overrated, has much redeeming value


When that celebrated spymaster Moses dispatched 12 agents to the Promised Land on a 40-day reconnaissance mission, the operation ended in debacle. Some spies came back talking of milk and honey; others reported terrifying giants. The bewildered Israelites rioted, provoking the Lord to consume some with fire and sentence others to 40 years in the wilderness.

But did Moses swear off espionage? Oh, no. He sent more spies out, the Book of Numbers tells us. This time, his agents were taken prisoner.

Three millenniums later, the intelligence game hasn't changed much. Spying remains irresistible to leaders and fascinating to the public. It is occasionally of spectacular value, particularly in wartime. Like homeowners' insurance, it may be worth paying for even if you hope you'll never have a fire.

But most of the time spying has only a marginal effect on the competition among nations. And always, it is prone to catastrophe.

The secrecy necessary for espionage promotes foolhardy schemes and covers up waste. Genuine intelligence scoops are lost in masses of reports or ignored by political leaders. Trusted agents turn out to be working for the other side, as FBI agent Robert Hanssen allegedly did for a decade before his arrest in February.

Consider the gripping story told by David Wise, this country's most prolific author on espionage, in "Cassidy's Run: The Secret Spy War Over Nerve Gas" (Random House, 230 pages, $25). Joe Cassidy, an ordinary U.S. Army sergeant, was "dangled" before Soviet military intelligence in 1959 and for the next 20 years sold classified U.S. military documents to Soviet agents who never suspected he was actually working for the FBI.

U.S. officials who used Cassidy to feed the Soviet Union false information and expose several Soviet spies considered "Operation SHOCKER" a remarkable success. But for outsiders, the real shock of SHOCKER may be its modest gains and huge costs.

Much of the information fed to the Soviets was true, since the U.S. needed to establish Cassidy's bona fides. Eventually he pulled off a major deception -- passing false documents indicating the U.S. had developed a potent new nerve gas.

But by providing some valid data, and by spurring the Soviet military to accelerate its nerve gas program, Wise speculates, Operation SHOCKER may actually have made the United States less safe. At best, it prompted the Soviet Union to waste resources on fruitless research -- a minor achievement.

Moreover, the Justice Department, ignoring FBI protests, ultimately declined to prosecute the most important Soviet agents exposed in SHOCKER, a Mexican couple named Gilberto and Alicia Lopez. And before that decision was made, two FBI agents were killed in a plane crash while tracking the Lopezes from the air.

Were their lives, in addition to the huge investment in money and manpower over two decades, worth what was gained? Surely not.

But was the intelligence sting a bad idea from the start? Not necessarily. A double agent such as Cassidy might have been of immense value if World War III had suddenly loomed. Only in hindsight does the price paid appear too high.

The cost in lives of espionage is modest by comparison with war, but it is real, as Ted Gup demonstrates in "The Book of Honor: Covert Lives and Classified Deaths at the CIA" (Doubleday, 390 pages, $25.95). Gup's impressive reporting unearthed many of the stories represented by the 71 stars on a wall at CIA headquarters representing agency employees who died on the job.

Despite the risks, the curiosity and competition that fuels spying are congenital human attributes: I spy, therefore I am. The invaluable "Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage," meticulously researched by Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen (Random House, 633 pages, $30), shows that the United States, like most countries, runs spies in or eavesdrops on every nation where there might be useful information that can't be acquired openly.

So it is always amusing when American officials, "Casablanca"-style, pronounce themselves "shocked, shocked" at foreign espionage. After Hanssen's arrest, the Bush administration expelled 50 Russian diplomats for spying, declaring that their presence did not represent the "kind of relationship" the U.S. wants with Russia.

The officials who say such things know that two-way espionage characterizes the "kind of relationship" the U.S. will always have with Russia -- or, for that matter, with France, which accused five CIA officers of economic espionage in a 1995 imbroglio. The U.S. denied everything -- before quietly withdrawing the key officer and, as Gup reports, forcing the resignation of her CIA boss. Not, of course, because the woman had been spying, but because she had been caught.

After such scandals, some Americans suggest that the CIA, the National Security Agency and the rest of the nation's $28 billion-a-year spying operations could be more effective if they were freed from media scrutiny and congressional oversight.

If you believe that, read "MI6: Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty's Secret Service" (Free Press, 907 pages, $40), Stephen Dorril's superb and skeptical history. Protected by an Official Secrets Act, British spies in peacetime have embarrassed their country as often as they have protected it.

Leave aside the fact that the most famous MI6 officer of all time was Kim Philby, who spent his whole career working for the enemy. Consider that British spymasters insisted preposterously in the 1950s that the Sino-Soviet split was an elaborate deception, a blunder the service topped in the 1980s by maintaining for months that Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika was another Commie trick. Consider the appalling activities of MI6 in planting false stories in the media to bolster the agency's reputation and slander its critics.

An even thicker cloak of secrecy hid the goofs and brutalities of Soviet intelligence. But it unquestionably compiled a magnificent record against the U.S. over many decades. The degree of its penetration of the U.S. government in the 1930s and '40s has become clear only in recent years with the release of Soviet intelligence cables decrypted under NSA's VENONA project, as judiciously reported in "Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America," by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr (Yale University Press, 487 pages, $35.00) and "The Haunted Wood," by Allen Weinstein Alexander Vassiliev (Random House, 404 pages, $30). Either can be paired usefully with "The Sword and The Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB," by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin (Basic Books, 700 pages, $32.50).

Soviet agents were so successful that Joseph Stalin learned of the American atomic bomb before Harry Truman. The Office of Strategic Services, the World War II-era predecessor to the CIA, was home to more than a dozen Soviet spies.

In recent decades, too, the KGB always had agents planted in the heart of American intelligence: John Walker (Navy), Ronald Pelton (NSA), Aldrich Ames (CIA), and allegedly Hanssen (FBI) are only the biggest of dozens of names.

Yet the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia inherited a devastating legacy of economic depression and political corruption. Whatever the effects of spying, they were insignificant compared with the power of economic and political systems in shaping events.

There may be a lesson here for Israel. Mossad is widely considered a highly competent, if particularly ruthless, intelligence agency. That reputation is largely reinforced by "Gideon's Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad," by Gordon Thomas (Thomas Dunne Books, 382 pages, $14.95 paperback), despite the sensationalism and inaccuracies that mar the book.

Mossad undoubtedly prevents many terrorist attacks and identifies particular enemies for assassination. But as the bloody standoff of recent months shows, even the most brilliant espionage can do little to resolve a political problem. The quagmire in Israel today vividly demonstrates the limited power of spies to produce real national security.

Scott Shane, a reporter for The Sun since 1983, has frequently written about the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies. He spent more than three years as The Sun's correspondent in the Soviet Union. He is author of "Dismantling Utopia," an account of the collapse of the Soviet Union and is currently on leave writing a novel.

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