Is intelligence intelligent? This is the question that runs or, rather, leaps through the mind of the reader struggling with Christopher Andrew’s encyclopedic work “The Secret World: A History of Intelligence” (Yale). Andrew, who is a longtime history don at Cambridge, begins his book—as long and thorough as Diarmaid MacCulloch’s classic “A History of Christianity,” though less violent—with one of the most appealing opening lines in recent nonfiction: “The first major figure in world literature to emphasize the importance of good intelligence was God.” The Israelites’ reconnaissance mission to the promised land of Canaan is the first stop in Andrew’s tour of four thousand years of spying; the last is the American failure to anticipate 9/11. For anyone with a taste for wide-ranging and shrewdly gossipy history—or, for that matter, for anyone with a taste for spy stories—Andrew’s is one of the most entertaining books of the past few years.
Yet these tales of spying and counterspying involve dances so entangled and contradictory that one finishes this history wondering if having a successful spy service really is a good way to have a successful nation. (That early spy mission, in which most of the Israelites came back to say that the promised land was too well guarded to keep its promise, went badly enough, God knew.) There seems to be a paranoid paradox of espionage: the better your intelligence, the dumber your conduct; the more you know, the less you anticipate. Again and again, a reader of Andrew’s history finds that the countries with the keenest spies, the most thorough decryptions of enemy code, and the best flow of intelligence about their opponents have the most confounding fates. Hard-won information is ignored or wildly misinterpreted. It’s remarkably hard to find cases where a single stolen piece of information changed the course of a key battle.
During the First World War, the British decrypting center known as Room 40 had useful information about the movement of German ships during the Battle of Jutland, off the coast of Denmark, but the officers of the British fleet, disliking the cut of the analyst’s intellectual jib, contemptuously ignored what they were told, and managed only to draw a battle they could have won. Richard Sorge, a Russian spy in Germany’s Embassy in Japan, gained detailed knowledge about the approaching German invasion of Russia in 1941, and passed it on. Stalin not only ignored information about the coming invasion but threatened anyone who took it seriously, since he knew that his ally Hitler wouldn’t betray him. The delayed reaction cost hundreds of thousands of lives, perhaps millions, and very nearly handed Hitler victory. The invasion was launched, and Stalin soon retreated to his dacha in shock. When a delegation of apparatchiks came to see him, he took it for granted that they were coming to depose him, since that’s what he would have done in their place, and was startled when they begged him to step forward and lead, being themselves dependent on the cult of the great leader.
More frequently, one comes upon absurd stories like the following. In 1914, on the brink of war, French officials became so consumed with an earlier episode in which their cabinet noir had decrypted certain German messages—with politicians trying to wield the decrypts to embarrass one another or protect themselves from embarrassment—that they helped keep the intelligence professionals from going on with their actual work of anticipating a German attack. As Andrew explains, the climax of the affair occurred when Gaston Calmette, the editor of Le Figaro, accused the former Prime Minister Joseph Caillaux of having worked in the German interest. Caillaux had reason to think that Calmette had obtained decrypted cables from another journalist, who was given them by a former foreign minister, and, in January, he warned the President, Raymond Poincaré, that Le Figaro was planning to publish the decrypts. But Caillaux, as Andrew explains,
had already taken devious precautions of his own in case the decrypts were published. During a week as caretaker Interior Minister in December 1913 he had raided the Sûreté archives (a raid condemned by its director, Pujalet, as a “burglary”) and removed copies of the Italian intercepts which had embarrassed Poincaré the previous spring—no doubt as a potential means of putting pressure on the President. . . . The whole extraordinary affair took a new and even more sensational turn on the afternoon of 16 March 1914, when Madame Henriette Caillaux walked into the office of Gaston Calmette, drew a revolver from her muff and shot him dead. Her immediate motive for murder was to prevent Le Figaro publishing love letters between herself and Caillaux, written while he was still married to his first wife. It was quickly rumoured, however, that Madame Caillaux’s main motive had been to prevent publication not of the love letters but of the German telegrams intercepted during the Agadir crisis.
This series of events turns out to be only a particularly rococo Parisian instance of what happens again and again in this history: a seeming national advance in intelligence is squandered through crossbred confusion, political rivalry, mutual bureaucratic suspicions, intergovernmental competition, and fear of the press (as well as leaks to the press), all seasoned with dashes of sexual jealousy and adulterous intrigue. “Because of this political mishandling,” as Andrew puts it dryly, the decrypts “did as much to confuse as to inform French policymakers.”
Not for the first or the last time, the point of spying—to know what the other side is likely to do—had been swallowed up by the activity of spying, a frantic roundelay in which each actor is trying to score obscure points against his internal enemies, with a certainty (often misplaced) that someone else is playing him in another complicated roundelay. Meanwhile, Andrew notes, “the great power with the best foreign intelligence during the few years before the First World War continued to be Tsarist Russia.” And we know how that worked out.
A few famous modern espionage coups do still register as coups. The Allied creation of George S. Patton’s “phantom army”—a ploy to make the Germans think that the D Day offensive in Normandy was only a feint, with the real invasion planned for the Pas de Calais—really did work. And the parallel Soviet penetration of the Manhattan Project’s atomic secrets was even more impressive than is generally understood: the famous perpetrators, like Klaus Fuchs or the Rosenbergs, turn out to have been relatively small fry compared with Theodore Hall, a Harvard physicist who delivered the real goods to the Russians and went on to have a long, productive career in Chicago and then in Cambridge. (He seems to have escaped prosecution for a reason typical in the history of these things: had the government used as evidence its top-secret “Venona intercepts,” which might have identified Hall, the project would have been exposed.)
And many fabled espionage gambits seem to have been double-sided. The Cambridge Spies—the much studied and dramatized cell that formed in the thirties and included Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt—were utterly sincere about the Communist cause they had pledged their lives to, but all were assumed by their Soviet handlers to have been turned, and made double agents. Despite the spies’ strenuous efforts to provide Stalin with British secrets, the Soviets regarded them as so untrustworthy that they sent a team of additional spies to England in order to monitor them. Only after they had delivered the entire deception plan for D Day did Stalin begin to trust his British minions.
“It’s only a midlife crisis if you survive.”Cartoon by John Klossner
The old Mad-magazine cartoon series “Spy vs. Spy,” in which two interchangeable agents, one black-hatted and one white-hatted, do each other in, over and over again, without much cumulative point or purpose, seems like a reasonable picture of the whole. As it happens, the series was invented by a Cuban satirist named Antonio Prohías, a liberal anti-Batista cartoonist who, witnessing Castro’s growing hostility to a free press, fled post-revolutionary Cuba, under suspicion of being a spy for the C.I.A. You can’t escape the game, apparently.
The rule that having more intelligence doesn’t lead to smarter decisions persists, it seems, for two basic reasons. First, if you have any secret information at all, you often have too much to know what matters. Second, having found a way to collect intelligence yourself, you become convinced that the other side must be doing the same to you, and is therefore feeding you fake information in order to guide you to the wrong decisions. The universal law of unintended consequences rules with a special ferocity in espionage and covert action, because pervasive secrecy rules out the small, mid-course corrections that are possible in normal social pursuits. When you have to prevent people from finding out what you’re doing and telling you if you’re doing it well, you don’t find out that you didn’t do it well until you realize just how badly you did it. (The simple term of art for this effect, “blowback,” originated within the C.I.A.) Good and bad intelligence circle round and round, until both go down the drain of sense.
Some of these circlings are funny, in the “Spy vs. Spy” way. Others are tragic. In a new book, “Poisoner in Chief” (Henry Holt), about the C.I.A.’s MK-ULTRA program—the attempt, mostly in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, to achieve mind control through drugs—Stephen Kinzer, a former Times correspondent, points out that the entire idea of Communist “brainwashing” was a classic piece of Cold War propaganda, popularized by a writer with C.I.A. connections named Edward Hunter. “Brainwashing” was supposed to explain American defections in Korea, and the idea made its way to outlets like Argosy, a pulp men’s magazine of the period. But it turns out that the upper reaches of the C.I.A. bought into the story, and launched a mind-control program in a desperate effort to counter the nonexistent threat that it had helped conjure into being. “There was deep concern over the issue of brainwashing,” Richard Helms, a C.I.A. hand who eventually became the agency’s director, later explained. “We felt that it was our responsibility not to lag behind the Russians or the Chinese in this field.”
Kinzer’s antihero is Sidney Gottlieb, a renegade chemist who oversaw the MK-ULTRA program. Gottlieb was a Jew from the Bronx who had worked his way from City College to a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Caltech, and whose desire to serve his country was redoubled when he was rejected by the Army during the Second World War. When, in 1951, Allen Dulles and Richard Helms went looking for a chemist with imagination and no reservations about pursuing the dark arts, Gottlieb’s name came up.
Gottlieb, an enthusiast for biowarfare (though also a kind of proto-hippie who apparently made his own goat’s-milk yogurt), was eager to manufacture mind-manipulating toxins. But his special contribution to American culture was introducing it to LSD; at one point, he bought up the entire supply produced by the Sandoz company, in Switzerland. He used it on often unwitting subjects, including prisoners and students, to see if it could induce a mental state extreme enough to work as either a kind of truth serum or a mind-control agent. (It did neither successfully.)
Winding through the spy-loving Eisenhower-Kennedy years, Kinzer’s book is a Tarantino movie yet to be made: it has the right combination of sick humor, pointless violence, weird tabloid characters, and sheer American waste. It is also frightening to read, since it documents the significant sums our government spent on spy schemes as tawdry as they were ridiculous, not to mention spasmodically cruel and even murderous. (At least one C.I.A. officer died in a mysterious “fall” from a hotel window, after becoming involved with MK-ULTRA colleagues and being given acid.)
The MK-ULTRA story is one of almost unqualified failure. Gottlieb was, in the early sixties, put in charge of a plan to depose Fidel Castro by making his beard fall out, but he couldn’t figure out how to deploy a depilatory. MK-ULTRA sponsored work in posthypnotic suggestion that was designed to produce “programmed killers,” but it merely confirmed what every stage hypnotist has always known—that hypnosis is essentially a form of obedience to authority, and the hypnotist cannot make people do something they really don’t want to any more than a teacher who can “make” you solve problems on a blackboard can “make” you jump out a window. Even a “Get Smart”-style suicide device that Gottlieb helped create for U-2 pilots in the event of capture—a poison-tipped needle hidden in a silver dollar—seems never to have been used.
At one point, a now forgotten magician was lured into the MK-ULTRA program to write a manual on misdirection, with the intention of helping agents sneak toxins into some sloe-eyed target’s wine. Even weirder, Gottlieb hired an eccentric cop, George Hunter White, to be a chief operative. White was an alcoholic leather fetishist who, Kinzer reports, “bought his second wife a closet full of boots, and patronized prostitutes who bound and whipped him.” (With the hypocrisy typical of his kind, White had also worked as a narcotics agent, ruining the lives of jazz musicians, including Billie Holiday.) The C.I.A. gave White money to rent a “safe” house at 81 Bedford Street, in Greenwich Village, where he helped fight world Communism by slipping acid haphazardly into the drinks of his peculiar circle of friends, including the publisher of Vixen Press, which had a specialty in fetish and lesbian pulp fiction. Later, White took his act to San Francisco, where he expanded his research to include observing the effects of LSD on prostitutes and their clients during sex—the C.I.A. called this project Operation Midnight Climax; it really did—and was thus able to invest in a major library of pornography.
Your tax dollars at work. Gottlieb and White spent years discovering that if you bribe and abuse people you can induce them to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do; that lonely people are likely to surrender information in exchange for sexual favors; and that people who have been tortured are likely to do whatever the torturer asks, a truth known to Torquemada. What might be a rational goal of such a research project—to identify forms of interrogation that would not require the slow and brutal uncertainties of torture, or the unreliability of sexual bribes—was never seriously pursued. Many of the LSD experiments were administered in harsh, isolated environments, without warning and in ways that would induce extreme panic.
As a social history of LSD, Kinzer’s book is compelling, not least in the way it illustrates how the law of unintended consequences in covert action can work with an almost delirious vengeance. By secretly subcontracting LSD-related experiments throughout American academia, Gottlieb inadvertently seeded the great wave of psychedelia in which half of young America turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. Although Gottlieb had, by the early sixties, rightly concluded that LSD was “too unpredictable” to be a mind-control drug, at that point it was too late. “LSD had escaped from the CIA’s control,” Kinzer writes. “First it leaked into elite society. Then it spread to students who took it in CIA-sponsored experiments. Finally it exploded into the American counterculture, fueling a movement dedicated to destroying much of what the CIA defended and held dear.” It was blowback at hurricane force. A clued-in John Lennon remarked, “We must always remember to thank the C.I.A. and the Army for LSD, by the way. That’s what people forget. Everything is the opposite of what it is.”
This story, like most monocausal stories, is probably too neat. It’s true that acidheads like Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter were first exposed to LSD in research programs ultimately linked to Gottlieb’s. But other histories of the drug, most recently Michael Pollan’s, have LSD flowing in from many other, non-C.I.A. sources, with hundreds of non-Gottlieb-sponsored research papers documenting its benevolent effects. LSD was used as a weapon in the fifties, but it was also used openly at the same time as a therapy for alcoholism; the relation of the C.I.A. to the acid boom was real, but hardly exclusive.
The oddity is that Gottlieb and his circle saw acid as causing breakdowns and psychosis—and, indeed, their stealthy experiments produced such symptoms, even in the relatively benign premises of the Village and North Beach. It’s a very different picture of the drug’s effects than the one popularized by Pollan and the other new acid evangelists—or, for that matter, the kind recorded in the blissful testimony of countless hippies of the time. Surely this discrepancy reinforces the sociologist Howard Becker’s point, introduced in his now seven-decade-old studies of marijuana-smoking among jazz musicians, that intoxication is always a social enterprise: take acid in welcoming circumstances and it produces mystical visions and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”; have it forced down your throat in prison or isolation and it’s scary and psychosis-inducing.
The ugliness of MK-ULTRA’s experiments seems to have caused a reaction in Gottlieb himself, who eventually went to India, having embraced various kinds of pantheistic mysticism. And yet the fantasies that Gottlieb’s work indulged are part of the woof and warp of the James Bond novels, a good index of the period’s inner life. Biological warfare through posthypnotic suggestion is the thread running through the best of them, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1963), and Bond himself is turned into a programmed assassin in “The Man with the Golden Gun” (1965), with orders to go back to headquarters and kill M. (M, of course, has anticipated the attack, and installed a descending shield in the ceiling above his desk.) That none of this was real did not make it less emotionally credible. What seems ridiculous to us now was then not just part of the currency of fantasy but part of the currency of the plausible, no more or less absurd than our own particular set of accepted pulpish horrors, like the fear that makes us all obediently take off our shoes and have them X-rayed in honor of a single failed “shoe bomber,” nearly two decades ago. A time’s terrors are its own, and each age gets the agents it deserves.
As Kinzer’s book repeatedly shows, the pursuit of fantasy produces real casualties. One of White’s friends was the C.I.A. officer James Jesus Angleton, with whom White, in the fifties, once enjoyed a round of LSD-laced gin-and-tonics—truly, the C.I.A. cocktail. Perhaps the acid affected Angleton’s conduct afterward, making him one of the few successful mind-control subjects. For it was Angleton who, as the agency’s counterintelligence chief during the height of the Cold War, kept the C.I.A. in the grip of a confident paranoid belief—which lower-ranking operatives were required to adopt, at the risk of banishment or expulsion—in what insiders came to call the Black Hat theory. The theory held that the agency had long been penetrated by a high-ranking mole and that the K.G.B., to protect him, was sending a steady stream of fake defectors with “disinformation.” The defectors who did arrive, almost all of them real, were subject to hostile skepticism and, in one case, vicious mistreatment.
A truly fascinating man, Angleton was a devoted student of the matchless British literary critic William Empson, who descried, in the densely metaphoric poems of Donne and Shakespeare, patterns of subtle contradiction, self-reference, and ambiguity. Angleton had, in effect, weaponized this strategy of interpretation—convinced that any apparently straightforward reference in the world in fact meant something shadowier than it seemed to. And so he wove a web of Empsonian doubleness and interlineated meaning into a Cold War “text” that was brutally simple in intention. It was as if a reader trained in Donne had been given a lyric by Tommy James and the Shondells: it can’t possibly be this obvious. (They keep saying, “My baby does the hanky-panky!” What do they really mean?) A dose of acid was the last thing this kind of highbrow paranoia needed.
An older and overlooked book raises similar questions about the intelligence of national intelligence. “Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed,” first published in 2012, by the Naval Institute Press, was written by Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille, two of the C.I.A. officers who, after several years of investigation, determined in the early nineteen-nineties that Ames, the agency’s head of Soviet counterintelligence, was a Soviet spy. Their triumph, somewhat lessened by the reality that Ames had been doing pretty much everything short of wearing a nametag written in Russian, is made more touching because of the bureaucratic obstacles they had to overcome at each turn. (Among them was the way female agents were almost always relegated to less important tasks, and were handed this urgent one largely as an afterthought.) Their account, more a document than a book, shows a purely civil-service mind-set intersecting with what seems like extraordinarily high stakes: the discovery of the ultimate mole.
Competition with the F.B.I. is Grimes and Vertefeuille’s obsessive subject—they tell us at length how unfairly medals and money, not to mention media attention, got handed out after the nation was saved from the mole. And how underpaid the people who are entrusted with national security are! Ames, who started spying for Russia in the mid-eighties, typically received sums of between twenty thousand and fifty thousand dollars for delivering information, and was seen as wildly greedy, this at a time when traders at Drexel Burnham Lambert were making millions a year. A giveaway of his guilt came when one of the C.I.A. officers, speaking to Ames’s “spendthrift” wife, learned that the Ameses were planning to do all the window treatments of their new home at once, instead of having them done one at a time, like normal C.I.A. agents. Only a Russian spy would have that kind of dough!
“O.K., but first tell me what a great ally I am.”Cartoon by Suerynn Lee
Grimes and Vertefeuille make plain the extent to which internal C.I.A. politics remained an absolute clusterfuck throughout their time in the agency, owing to the long hangover of Angleton’s Black Hat theory. Our mole hunters patiently explain to the reader, as others tried to explain to their superiors, that the idea of a fake defector was prima-facie impossible within the Soviet system, because of “one word—trust.” No K.G.B. superior would equip a defector with enough bona-fide information to be even superficially helpful, since the odds of his going over for real were too great. This simple calculation, self-evident to the Soviets, was far too self-evident for a mind like Angleton’s.
The information that these penetration agents delivered wasn’t the design for the hyper-cobalt-quantum bomb but, almost invariably, inside dirt about the competing organization: who did what, who sat where, who reported to whom, who was up or down—office politics, essentially. Ames’s first gift to his K.G.B. handlers consisted of C.I.A. phone lists. Meanwhile, the C.I.A.’s Russian assets were supplying parallel information. Such dispatches, Grimes and Vertefeuille say, provided a thrillingly complete picture of what the K.G.B. was doing. It is as if the New York Times and the Washington Post had decided to start a hyperaggressive intelligence program against each other, which ended with the Times having all the details about each cubicle at the Post—who occupied it, what that person did, what she had for lunch, and the phone number of each editor’s secretary. But knowing exactly what the other paper is doing is not at all the same thing as actually beating the other paper to the news. The two agencies were so busy spying on each other, it almost seems, that they forgot to spy on each other’s government. Knowing what the K.G.B. was doing wasn’t the same thing as knowing where the Soviet state was heading, and the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and the fall of the Soviet Union came as a complete surprise to the C.I.A.
You could have arrived at better judgment about what was going on in Russia by reading the newspapers, it seems, than by working for the C.I.A. The conclusions that the intelligence services reached in the crucial period of the late eighties tended to be wildly wrong—as with the widely shared belief that Gorbachev was part of a ploy to put America off its guard—or bizarrely skewed by politics. (Ronald Reagan was outraged by a supposed Russian plot to plant mini bombs in West Germany, and his C.I.A. director, William Casey, was so enmeshed in the Cold War mythos that he told agents, who had a brief meeting scheduled in a Moscow alley with a K.G.B. contact, to ask about the fate of Raoul Wallenberg, four decades earlier.)
And then there’s the mordant fact that the moment when the worst possible penetration had taken place—with a mole in charge of our entire Soviet operation, neatly seconded by an F.B.I. mole of equal duplicity—was the moment when the larger tide of battle had turned into a rout, to our advantage. America’s worst Cold War fear came to pass . . . exactly as the Cold War ended with an American victory. The K.G.B. was so busy winning that it only belatedly realized that its own house had burned down. Angleton, had he lived to see it, might at least have been impressed to learn that the text of the Cold War, although not as ambiguous as he had supposed, truly was—another favorite term of his beloved Empson—ironic.
A subtler moral enigma is felt on the pages of “Circle of Treason.” Ames’s moral affront, the mole hunters say, is that he betrayed his colleagues and his country. It’s certainly true that, as the result of his actions, a number of C.I.A. sources in Russia went to terrible deaths. In court, Ames countered that his fellow American spies spent their days cajoling, or blackmailing, Russians into selling out their colleagues. (Ames never changed his ideology; he merely added another checking account.) His real sin, from this perspective, was not betraying his colleagues but betraying the Russians whom his colleagues had persuaded to betray their colleagues. It’s a complicated business.
Which leads us to the final paradox of paranoia. Espionage and intelligence are so conducive to mistrust that the people who make the best use of them tend to be the most equable and disinclined to suspicion. Christopher Andrew has praise for the way George Washington would shrewdly, serenely evaluate multiple intelligence sources, rather than relying upon a single spectacular one. Even the famous Ultra case, in the Second World War, turns out to be a far messier story than the simple heroic one of Alan Turing “breaking the code” of the Nazi Enigma machines. There were many code breakers, much had been done already by the Poles, and multiple sources were always in use by the Brits in any case. And, when decrypts were available, the judicious use or non-use of the information involved agonizingly difficult deliberation. Antony Beevor’s recent account of the invasion of Crete explores the unsettled question of whether the commander of the British garrison on the Greek island knew that the Germans were coming in force by air and couldn’t say so for fear of giving away Ultra secrets, as his defenders insist, or whether he was, in the British way, simply too hidebound to recognize the possibility of anything other than a naval invasion. Whom to tell when was just as important as what was known and how. Even the significance of the unquestioned coups can be exaggerated: the Allied victory on D Day ultimately rested on numbers and equipment, while atomic espionage only marginally accelerated a Russian bomb that was bound to be developed anyway.
The C.I.A. seems to have flourished best in the hands of procedure-minded functionaries, the kind who try to fire the rule-breaking heroes of spy movies. Scientists and literary critics and chess masters, intent on spotting hidden patterns, may benefit from being mildly paranoid. It helps to be mildly paranoid to “read” a poem as fully as Empson could, just as Isaac Newton’s more galloping paranoia surely helped him to imagine the invisible, occult force of gravity, reaching out through nature and governing all. But spy agencies benefit from having sincere optimists in charge, since the paranoia will always supply itself. Scientists should see hidden patterns; spies shouldn’t. Andrew makes this point in reference to the Soviet penetration of F.D.R.’s Administration, which was, he shows, quite real. (History is what happens, not what we want to have happen, and the State Department did have a lot of Russian spies in it.) The right argument against McCarthyism, as Andrew says, was not that there were no Soviet spies but that paranoia about Soviet spies did far more damage to the country than the spies could do.
Back in 1975, in the pages of The New York Review of Books, at the height of the congressional hearings into C.I.A. abuses, including MK-ULTRA, the journalist I. F. Stone proposed the abolition of the C.I.A., on grounds not unlike these. It was a question not just of abuses to be curbed but of pointless redundancies to be avoided (every military group had its own intelligence division already). But few took Stone’s proposal seriously, in part because we understand that what intelligence services do is mostly not a matter of feeding acid to sex workers or even cracking codes in black chambers but of preparing, from sources as often open as clandestine, reasonable summaries of the state of play in other governments for the use of elected officials who can’t know as much as they need to. What most spies really do is not unlike the “fundamental analysis” that investors attempt. Efficient market theory tells us that scrutinizing the strategy and the balance sheet of a firm won’t give you a financial edge, but if nobody were doing fundamental analysis the market wouldn’t be efficient. Were everyone to stop spying, the equilibrium of nations would be upset, and the imbalances would probably produce more panic than peace.
There’s a “Red Queen” phenomenon in spying. The “Spy vs. Spy” comedy of perpetually frustrated equilibrium is actually the safest possible state. Andrew makes this case in a Cold War context: the moment of greatest risk in the Cold War occurred in the early fifties, when the United States didn’t have sufficient intelligence, and filled the shortfall with wild conjectures about nonexistent missile gaps. When the intelligence expanded, mostly through aerial and satellite surveillance, sanity returned.
Where we may go wrong is in valuing stealthily obtained information over unglamorous, commonly shared knowledge. And so the disappointment that liberals, newly sympathetic to our intelligence services, found in the Mueller report lay simply in the fact that what was most shocking in it was already well known. The Russian conspiracy went on largely in the open, with most of the clandestine bits hidden under a diaphanous cover. Donald Trump’s genius was, as it so often is, his inability to dissemble: no one can quite believe what he gets away with because we assume that a public act is unlikely to be incriminating. We interpret as strut and boasting what is actually a confession. Richard Nixon, a genuinely Shakespearean villain, had full knowledge of his wrongdoing and a bad conscience about it, if not enough of one. Trump is a figure right out of the Theatre of Cruelty; he just acts out, without any mental inner workings, aside from narcissist necessity. Had his “Russia, if you’re listening . . .” been encrypted in a text, it would have had the force of a revelation. Made openly, it seemed merely braggadocio.
If there is a lesson to be taken from the literature of espionage, it is that the surfaces we see generally have the greatest significance, and the most obvious-seeming truths about other countries’ plans and motives are usually more predictive than the sharpest guesses at hidden ones. A corollary of this truth is that the best way to project power is not to do wrong secretly but to do good openly. How intelligent is national intelligence? Why, exactly as smart as we are. It’s a terrifying thought. ♦