The otherness of the other

In previous posts (eg, here and here), I have talked about the difficulty of assessing the intentions of others, whether for marketing or for computer network design or for national security. The standard English phrase speaks of “putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes”.  But this is usually not sufficient:  we have to put them into their shoes, with their beliefs, their history, their desires, and their constraints, not ourselves, in order to understand their goals and intentions, and to anticipate their likely strategies and actions.    In a fine political thriller by Henry Porter, I come across this statement (page 220):

‘Motive is always difficult to read,’ he replied.  ‘We make a rational assumption about someone’s behaviour based on what we would, or would not, do in the same circumstances, ignoring the otherness of the other. We consider only influences that make us what we are and impose those beliefs on them.  It is the classic mistake of intelligence analysis.’  “

Henry Porter [2009]: The Dying Light. London, UK:  Orion Books.
Obscure fact:  Porter (born 1953) is the grand-nephew of novelist Howard Sturgis (1855-1920), step-cousin to George Santayana (1863-1952).

Stalinist justice

The Guardian recently carried a brief obituary of Marian Fagan, widow of Otto Sling (1912-1952), one of the accused in the show trials that took place in the CzechoSlovak Republic (CSR) in 1950-1952 while under Communist rule.    The obituary is written by their son, Karel Schling.   Sling had been a communist party official, and was one of the 11 (of the 14) defendants executed.  Fagan and her sons also spent time in prison as part of the investigations.  The show trials were arranged at Stalin’s behest and took place throughout Eastern Europe, with the partial exception of Poland.    The lead defendant in the Czech trials was Rudolf Slánsky, a Deputy Prime Minister who until shortly before his arrest had been Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSC).

Apparently, the CSR President Clement Gottwald had initially resisted Soviet pressure to arrest Slánsky, especially because the two men were personally very close from their time in exile in Moscow.   Only when threatened with arrest and deposition himself did Gottwald agree to order Slánsky’s arrest, while still delaying the execution of the arrest warrent.    Sadly, an attempt by Czech emigre anti-communist intelligence organization Okapi to smear leading communist party officials by falsely associating them with western intelligence agencies resulted in an unsolicited letter being sent to Slánsky offering to help him to flee westwards (Lukes 1999), and this letter was then used as evidence for the Soviet allegations of treason against Slansky, forcing Gottwald’s hand.  This false letter appears to have been sent without prior knowledge or consent of western intelligence agencies.

The dialogue of the show trial was scripted beforehand by Soviet advisors to the Czech intelligence agency, the StB.  At least some of the accused had been promised lenient sentences if they followed the scripts provided to them, but these promises were broken.    To ensure that none of the accused spoke off-script (as had happened, for instance, in similar trials in Hungary), the trials were even rehearsed.   However, due either to independence of spirit or to memory lapses (the accused had been held in solitary confinement and tortured in other ways), not all the accused always followed their scripts: at times, defendants answered questions that had yet to be asked, for example. Because the trials were being broadcast live to the nation, the judges of the court – unable or unwilling to improvise responses – adjourned the trial proceedings immediately these off-script statements occurred.

Among those falsely arrested and convicted were some who were not even communists or ones not of long standing, including the economist Rudolf Margolius, Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade at the time of his arrest.  Margolius only met his alleged fellow-conspirator, Rudolf Slánsky, at the trial itself.    Despite a promise of a lenient sentence in exchange for following the trial script, Margolius was executed, along with 10 of his 13 co-accused.  Three were sentenced to life imprisonment.

The injustice of this trial and the sentences imposed are not lessened by the observation that Rudolf Slánsky may also have ordered the trial if his and Gottwald’s positions had been reversed, or that others, such as Sling, had been brutal Stalinists when in power themselves.   An innocent victim is still innocent even if he may, in some alternative universe, not be a victim.    According to Lukes (1999), Czech StB agents were appalled by the torture used by their counterparts in Hungary and Poland.   However, what strikes me as very interesting is that the Polish communist party leadership managed to mostly resist Stalin’s pressure to hold show trials and executions in this period, a subject deserving of another post.

Last month also saw the death of Sir Charles Mackerras, US-born, Australian-educated, British conductor and leading champion of Czech music.

UPDATE (2011-09-11):  An explanation for Polish recalcitrance is provided by Stewart Steven, who argued that the post-war Eastern European show trials were the result of a sophisticated and cunning US intelligence operation, called Splinter Factor and using a Polish double-agent, to create suspicions between pro-Moscow and nationalist communists across the region. As with any writings on intelligence, the truth is hard to determine:  there may or may not have been such a US intelligence operation with this goal prior to the trials; if it had existed, it may or may not have been important or catalytic in the creation of the trials; indeed, the publication of a claim of the existence of such an operation 20 years after the trials themselves may itself have been part of some later intelligence operation, and unconnected with the earlier events.


An interesting obituary of Marian Sling in The Independent is here.  If nothing else, it shows that the petty vindictiveness of the stalinists who ran the CSR in the 1950s was not shared by ordinary citizens.

My prior salute to Czech reform communist Zdenek Mlynar is here.  Other posts in this series of heroes are here.


Igor Lukes [1999]:  The Rudolf Slánsky affair:  new evidence. Slavic Review, 58 (1): 160-187.

Heda Margolius Kovaly [1997]: Under a Cruel Star:  A Life in Prague 1941-1968.   New York, USA:  Holmes and Meier.

Ivan Margolius [2006]:  Reflections of Prague:  Journeys Through the 20th Century. Chichester, England:  Wiley.  The Margolius family website is here.

Stewart Steven [1974]:  Operation Splinter Factor.  Panther (Granada, edition published 1976).

Five minutes of freedom

Jane Gregory, speaking in 2004, on the necessary conditions for a public sphere:

To qualify as a public, a group of people needs four characteristics. First, it should be open to all and any: there are no entry qualifications. Secondly, the people must come together freely. But it is not enough to simply hang out – sheep do that. The third characteristic is common action. Sheep sometimes all point in the same direction and eat grass, but they still do not qualify as a public, because they lack the fourth characteristic, which is speech. To qualify as a public, a group must be made up of people who have come together freely, and their common action is determined through speech: that is, through discussion, the group determines a course of action which it then follows. When this happens, it creates a public sphere.

There is no public sphere in a totalitarian regime – for there, there is insufficient freedom of action; and difference is not tolerated. So there are strong links between the idea of a public sphere and democracy.”

I would add that most totalitarian states often force their citizens to participate in public events, thus violating two basic human rights:  the right not to associate and the right not to listen.

I am reminded of a moment of courage on 25 August 1968, when seven Soviet citizens, shestidesiatniki (people of the 60s), staged a brave public protest at Lobnoye Mesto in Red Square, Moscow, at the military invasion of Czechoslovakia by forces of the Warsaw Pact.   The seven (and one baby) were:  Konstantin Babitsky (mathematician and linguist), Larisa Bogoraz (linguist, then married to Yuli Daniel), Vadim Delone (also written “Delaunay”, language student and poet), Vladimir Dremlyuga (construction worker), Victor Fainberg (mathematician), Natalia Gorbanevskaya (poet, with baby), and Pavel Litvinov (mathematics teacher, and grandson of Stalin’s foreign minister, Maxim Litvinov).  The protest lasted only long enough for the 7 adults to unwrap banners and to surprise onlookers.  The protesters were soon set-upon and beaten by “bystanders” – plain clothes police, male and female – who  then bundled them into vehicles of the state security organs.  Ms Gorbanevskaya and baby were later released, and Fainberg declared insane and sent to an asylum.

The other five faced trial later in 1968, and were each found guilty.   They were sent either to internal exile or to prison (Delone and Dremlyuga) for 1-3 years; Dremlyuga was given additional time while in prison, and ended up serving 6 years.  At his trial, Delone said that the prison sentence of almost three years was worth the “five minutes of freedom” he had experienced during the protest.

Delone (born 1947) was a member of a prominent intellectual family, great-great-great-grandson of a French doctor, Pierre Delaunay, who had resettled in Russia after Napoleon’s defeat.   Delone was the great-grandson of a professor of physics, Nikolai Borisovich Delone (grandson of Pierre Delaunay), and grandson of a more prominent mathematician, Boris Nikolaevich Delaunay (1890-1980), and son of physicist Nikolai Delone (1926-2008).  In 1907, at the age of 17, Boris N. Delaunay organized the first gliding circle in Kiev, with his friend Igor Sikorski, who was later famous for his helicopters.   B. N. Delaunay was also a composer and artist as a young man, of sufficient talent that he could easily have pursued these careers.   In addition, he was one of the outstanding mountaineers of the USSR, and a mountain and other features near Mount Belukha in the Altai range are named for him.

Boris N. Delaunay was primarily a geometer – although he also contributed to number theory and to algebra – and invented Delaunay triangulation.  He was a co-organizer of the first Soviet Mathematics Olympiad, a mathematics competition for high-school students, in 1934.   One of his students was Aleksandr D. Alexandrov (1912-1999), founder of the Leningrad School of Geometry (which studies the differential geometry of curvature in manifolds, and the geometry of space-time).   Vadim Delone also showed mathematical promise and was selected to attend Moskovskaya Srednyaya Fiz Mat Shkola #2, Moscow Central Special High School No. 2 for Physics and Mathematics (now the Lyceum “Second School”). This school, established in 1958 for mathematically-gifted teenagers, was famously liberal and tolerant of dissent. (Indeed, so much so that in 1971-72, well after Delone had left, the school was purged by the CPSU.  See Hedrick Smith’s 1975 account here.  Other special schools in Moscow focused on mathematics are #57 and #179. In London, in 2014, King’s College London established a free school, King’s Maths School, modelled on FizMatShkola #2.)  Vadim Delone lived with Alexandrov when, serving out a one-year suspended sentence which required him to leave Moscow, he studied at university in Novosibirsk, Siberia.   At some risk to his own academic career, Alexandrov twice bravely visited Vadim Delone while he was in prison.

Delone’s wife, Irina Belgorodkaya, was also active in dissident circles, being arrested both in 1969 and again in 1973, and was sentenced to prison terms each time.  She was the daughter of a senior KGB official.  After his release in 1971 and hers in 1975, Delone and his wife emigrated to France in 1975, and he continued to write poetry.   In 1983, at the age of just 35, he died of cardiac arrest.   Given his youth, and the long lives of his father and grandfather, one has to wonder if this event was the dark work of an organ of Soviet state security.  According to then-KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov’s report to the Central Committee of the CPSU on the Moscow Seven’s protest in September 1968, Delone was the key link between the community of dissident poets and writers on the one hand, and that of mathematicians and physicists on the other.    Andropov even alleges that physicist Andrei Sakharov’s support for dissident activities was due to Delone’s personal persuasion, and that Delone lived from a so-called private fund, money from voluntary tithes paid by writers and scientists to support dissidents.   (Sharing of incomes in this way sounds suspiciously like socialism, which the state in the USSR always determined to maintain a monopoly of.)  That Andropov reported on this protest to the Central Committee, and less than a month after the event, indicates the seriousness with which this particular group of dissidents was viewed by the authorities.  That the childen of the nomenklatura, the intelligentsia, and even the KGB should be involved in these activities no doubt added to the concern.  If the KGB actually believed the statements Andropov made about Delone to the Central Committee, they would certainly have strong motivation to arrange his early death.

Several of the Moscow Seven were honoured in August 2008 by the Government of the Czech Republic, but as far as I am aware, no honour or recognition has yet been given them by the Soviet or Russian Governments.   Although my gesture will likely have little impact on the world, I salute their courage here.

I have translated a poem of Delone’s here.   An index to posts on The Matherati is here.


M. V. Ammosov [2009]:  Nikolai Borisovich Delone in my Life.  Laser Physics, 19 (8): 1488-1490.

Yuri Andropov [1968]: The Demonstration in Red Square Against the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia. Report to the Central Committee of the CPSU, 1968-09-20. See below.

N. P. Dolbilin [2011]: Boris Nikolaevich Delone (Delaunay): Life and Work. Proceedings of the Steklov Institute of Mathematics, 275: 1-14.  Published in Russian in Trudy Matematicheskogo Instituta imeni V. A. Steklov, 2011, 275:  7-21.  Pre-print here.

Jane Gregory [2004]:  Subtle signs that divide the public from the privateThe Independent, 2004-05-20.
Hedrick Smith [1975]:  The Russians.  Crown.  pp. 211-213.


Andropov Reoport to the Central Committee of the CPSU on the protests in Red Square. (20 September 1968)
In characterizing the political views of the participants of the group, in particular DELONE, our source notes that the latter, “calling himself a bitter opponent of Soviet authority, fiercely detests communists, the communist ideology, and is entirely in agreement with the views of Djilas. In analyzing the activities . . . of the group, he (DELONE) explained that they do not have a definite program or charter, as in a formally organized political opposition, but they are all of the common opinion that our society is not developing normally, that it lacks freedom of speech and press, that a harsh censorship is operating, that it is impossible to express one’s opinions and thoughts, that democratic liberties are repressed. The activity of this group and its propaganda have developed mainly within a circle of writers, poets, but it is also enveloping a broad circle of people working in the sphere of mathematics and physics. They have conducted agitation among many scholars with the objective of inducing them to sign letters, protests, and declarations that have been compiled by the more active participants in this kind of activity, Petr IAKIR and Pavel LITVINOV. These people are the core around which the above group has been formed . . .. IAKIR and LITVINOV were the most active agents in the so-called “samizdat.”
This same source, in noting the condition of the arrested DELONE in this group, declared: “DELONE . . . has access to a circle of prominent scientists, academicians, who regarded him as one of their own, and in that way he served . . . to link the group with the scientific community, having influence on the latter and conducting active propaganda among them. Among his acquaintances he named academician Sakharov, who was initially cautious and distrustful of the activities of IAKIR, LITVINOV, and their group; he wavered in his position and judgments, but gradually, under the influence of DELONE’s explanations, he began to sign various documents of the group. . . ; [he also named] LEONTOVICH, whose views coincide with those of the group. In DELONE’s words, many of the educated community share their views, but are cautious, fearful of losing their jobs and being expelled from the party.” . . . [more details on DELONE]

Agents’ reports indicate that the participants of the group, LITVINOV, DREMLIUGA, AND DELONE, have not been engaged in useful labor for an extended period, and have used the means of the so-called “private fund,” which their group created from the contributions of individual representatives in the creative intelligentsia and scientists.
The prisoner DELONE told our source: “We are assisted by monetary funds from the intelligentsia, highly paid academicians, writers, who share the views of the Iakir-Litvinov group . . . [Sic] We have the right to demand money, [because] we are the functionaries, while they share our views, [but] fear for their skins, so let them support us with money.”

Spy vs. Spy

The only convincing explanation I have heard of the recent USA-Russian Federation espionage scandal, where Russian sleeper agents were living underground in the USA this last decade, deeply embedded in American suburbia, and regularly sending useless (and mostly already-public) information back to Moscow Center is this:  That this was an elaborate financial scam with the sleeper agents being children of the KGB nomenklatura, and that embedding them in the USA as “spies” was a way to transfer state funds to them, in hard currency, legally.  Of all the explanations I have heard, this is the only one which explains how the operation could have continued so long without people at the Center raising objections to the poor quality and low frequency of the information being transmitted.   This explanation also perhaps explains the relatively muted reactions of both administrations  – the USA and the RF – over the case:  If these people weren’t real spies, Moscow would not be upset at them losing their cover.  If Washington also knew that they weren’t real spies, and knew that Moscow believed them not to be real spies, then Washington would not be too upset at learning of their long undercover presence.

Strategy vs. Tactics

What is the difference between strategy and tactics?  In my experience, many people cannot tell the difference, and/or speak as if they conflate the two. Personally, I have never had difficulty telling them apart.
The 18th-century British naval definition was that tactics are for when you can see the enemy’s ships, and strategies are for when you cannot.  When you can see the enemy’s ships there are still important unknown variables, but you should know how many ships there are, where they are located, and (within some degree of accuracy) what hostile actions they are capable of.  If you are close enough to identify the particular enemy ships that you can see, you may also know then the identities of their captains.  With knowledge of past engagements, you may thus be able to estimate the intentions, the likely behaviors, and the fighting will of the ships’ crews.   None of these variables are known when the ships lay beyond the horizon.
Thus, tactics describe your possible actions when you know who the other stakeholders are in the situation you are in, and you have accurate (although not necessarily precise) information about their capabilities, goals, preferences, and intentions.   To the extent that such knowledge is missing is the extent to which reasoning about potential actions becomes strategic rather than tactical.  These distinctions are usually quite clear in marketing contexts.  For instance, licking envelopes for a client’s direct marketing campaign is not strategic consultancy, nor is finding, cleaning, verifying, and compiling the addresses needed by the client to put on the envelopes. (This is not to say that either task can be done well without expertise and experience.) Advising a client to embark on a direct marketing campaign rather than (say) a television ad campaign is closer to strategic consultancy, although in some contexts it may be mere tactics. Determining ahead of time which segments of the potential customer population should be targeted with an advertising campaign is definitely strategic, as is deciding whether or not to enter (or stay) in the market.
The key difference between the two is that articulating a strategy requires taking a view on the values of significant uncertain variables, whereas articulating a tactic generally does not.

Operational incompetence at CIA

At the end of December 2009, an Al Qaeda double agent killed himself and seven CIA agents and security staff at a US base in Khost,  Afghanistan.   Former CIA agent and writer, Robert Baer, has an account of the tragedy in a fascinating article in next month’s GQ, here.   Baer argues, as he has before, that CIA management have systematically and deliberately destroyed the agency’s capabilities for human espionage – that field operations are devalued, that field operational skills are not taught, not learnt, and not acquired, that junior field staff are not mentored, and that field skills and experience are not rewarded within the agency.   Organizational lack of attention to operational skills allowed a junior and field-inexperienced analyst to be appointed head of the Khost base, allowed that analyst to be appointed with neither knowledge of the local language nor prior local experience, allowed her to arrange a meeting with a human informant at the base (instead of off-base), allowed her to arrange a meeting with a human informant that no one locally had previously met, allowed numerous other people to attend this meeting, allowed this meeting to be discussed ahead of time back at Langley and in the White House, and allowed the informant to pass through three security checkpoints without being checked for weapons or bombs.  They even baked a birthday cake for their visiting suicide bomber.  The numbers killed made this the worst disaster for CIA since the 1983 bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut.
Retrospect, of course, is always wiser than prospect.  But one has to wonder how low the level of espionage tradecraft could be that so many gross errors were made.  Baer puts the blame squarely on the deprofessionalization of CIA’s field operations, especially since John Deutch’s time as Director (1995-1996).
At the end of his article, Baer says:

The United States still needs a civilian intelligence agency. (The military cannot be trusted to oversee all intelligence-gathering on its own.)”

In his memoirs, former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said that one lesson he’d learnt from the US military involvement in Vietnam was the need for an independent and objective source of intelligence on progress (eg, numbers and locations of enemy engagements; the outcomes of engagements; assessments of enemy strength and morale; etc).  In Vietnam, this information was not provided to the White House by CIA or any other independent agency, but by the US military themselves, and was therefore subject to distortion, to bias, and to outright manipulation.  The people firing the arrows were the same people drawing the targets for the arrows and counting how many bullseyes the archers had achieved.
A recent CNN interview with Robert Baer is here (conducted 2010-03-16).
A previous post which mentions Robert Baer is here.

Alan Turing

Yesterday, I reported on the the restoration of the world’s oldest, still-working modern computer.  Last night, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized for the country’s treatment of Alan Turing, computer pioneer.  In the words of Brown’s statement:

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ – in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison – was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.”

It might be considered that this apology required no courage of Brown.

This is not the case.  Until very recently, and perhaps still today, there were people who disparaged and belittled Turing’s contribution to computer science and computer engineering.  The conventional academic wisdom is that he was only good at the abstract theory and at the formal mathematizing (as in his “schoolboy essay” proposing a test to distinguish human from machine interlocuters), and not good for anything practical.   This belief is false.  As the philosopher and historian  B. Jack Copeland has shown, Turing was actively and intimately involved in the design and construction work (mechanical & electrical) of creating the machines developed at Bletchley Park during WWII, the computing machines which enabled Britain to crack the communications codes used by the Germans.


Perhaps, like myself, you imagine this revision to conventional wisdom would be uncontroversial.  Sadly, not.  On 5 June 2004, I attended a symposium in Cottonopolis to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Turing’s death.  At this symposium, Copeland played a recording of an oral-history interview with engineer Tom Kilburn (1921-2001), first head of the first Department of Computer Science in Britain (at the University of Manchester), and also one of the pioneers of modern computing.   Kilburn and Turing had worked together in Manchester after WW II.  The audience heard Kilburn stress to his interviewer that what he learnt from Turing about the design and creation of computers was all high-level (ie, abstract) and not very much, indeed only about 30 minutes worth of conversation.  Copeland then produced evidence (from signing-in books) that Kilburn had attended a restricted, invitation-only, multi-week, full-time course on the design and engineering of computers which Turing had presented at the National Physical Laboratories shortly after the end of WW II, a course organized by the British Ministry of Defence to share some of the learnings of the Bletchley Park people in designing, building and operating computers.   If Turing had so little of practical relevance to contribute to Kilburn’s work, why then, one wonders, would Kilburn have turned up each day to his course.

That these issues were still fresh in the minds of some people was shown by the Q&A session at the end of Copeland’s presentation.  Several elderly members of the audience, clearly supporters of Kilburn, took strident and emotive issue with Copeland’s argument, with one of them even claiming that Turing had contributed nothing to the development of computing.   I repeat: this took place in Manchester 50 years after Turing’s death!    Clearly there were people who did not like Turing, or in some way had been offended by him, and who were still extremely upset about it half a century later.  They were still trying to belittle his contribution and his practical skills, despite the factual evidence to the contrary.

I applaud Gordon Brown’s courage in officially apologizing to Alan Turing, an apology which at least ensures the historical record is set straight for what our modern society owes this man.

POSTSCRIPT #1 (2009-10-01): The year 2012 will be a centenary year of celebration of Alan Turing.

POSTSCRIPT #2 (2011-11-18):  It should also be noted, concerning Mr Brown’s statement, that Turing died from eating an apple laced with cyanide.  He was apparently in the habit of eating an apple each day.   These two facts are not, by themselves, sufficient evidence to support a claim that he took his own life.

POSTSCRIPT #3 (2013-02-15):  I am not the only person to have questioned the coroner’s official verdict that Turing committed suicide.    The BBC reports that Jack Copeland notes that the police never actually tested the apple found beside Turing’s body for traces of cyanide, so it is quite possible it had no traces.     The possibility remains that he died from an accidental inhalation of cyanide or that he was deliberately poisoned.   Given the evidence, the only rational verdict is an open one.

Against the macho-securocrats

Andrew Sullivan on torture expresses my views exactly.  Richard B. Cheney and that egregious horseman of the apocalypse, John Bolton, keep making the macho-security argument – that only brute force and brutal methods will guarantee the West’s security.  Not only are such means ineffective and counter-productive, their very immorality vitiates our ends.   Just what western values, precisely, could be defended with torture and arbitrary arrest and detention?  That we inflict cruel and unusual punishments, in secret, on our perceived enemies?  That we treat even innocent people as less than human?  That we think laws and due process are dispensible?   Just whose western values are these?
The macho-security argument needs to be forcefully countered every time it is made, as Andrew Sullivan does here:

Actually, I can [believe that America is now safer because of the new restrictions on torture]. I think the intelligence we now get will be much more reliable; I believe that torture recruited thousands of Jihadists; I believe holding torturers accountable will help restore our alliances and give moral integrity back to the war on terror; I believe that without torture, we may actually be able to bring terrorists to justice; and that restoring America’s moral standing will make the war of ideas against Jihadism more winnable and therefore the West less vulnerable than it is now.”

Guest Post: Michael Holzman on Writing Intelligence History

In response to my review of his book on the life of Jim Angleton, Michael Holzman has written a thoughtful post on the particular challenges of writing histories of secret intelligence organizations:
Histories of the activities of secret intelligence organizations form a specialized branch of historical research, similar, in many ways, to military and political history, dissimilar in other ways.  They are similar in that the object of study is almost always a governmental institution and like the Army, for example, a secret intelligence organization may produce its own public and private histories and cooperate or not cooperate with outside historians.  They are dissimilar due to the unusual nature of secret intelligence organizations.
The diplomatic historian has at his or her disposal the vast, rich and often astonishingly frank archives of diplomacy, such as the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS).   Needless to say, there is no publication series entitled the Secret Foreign Operations of the United States (or any other country).  What we have instead is something like an archeological site, a site not well-preserved or well-protected, littered with fake artifacts, much missing, much mixed together and all difficult to put in context.
The overwhelming majority of publications about secret intelligence are produced by secret intelligence services as part of their operations, whether purportedly written  by “retired” members of those services, by those “close to” such services, by writers commissioned, directly or through third or fourth parties, by such services.  There are very few independent researchers working in the field.  The most distinguished practitioners, British academics, for example, have dual appointments—university chairs and status as “the historian” of secret intelligence agencies.  There are, of course, muckrakers, some of whom have achieved high status among the cognoscenti, but they are muckrakers nonetheless and as such exhibit the professional deformations of their trade, chiefly, a certain obscurity of sourcing and lack of balance in judgment.
Thus, an academically trained researcher, taking an interest in this field, finds challenges unknown elsewhere.  The archives are non-existent, “weeded,” or faked; the “literature” is tendentious to a degree not found otherwise outside of obscure religious sects; common knowledge, including fundamental matters of relative importance of persons and events, is at the very least unreliable, and research methods are themselves most peculiar.  Concerning the latter, the privileged mode is the interview with secret intelligence officials, retired secret intelligence officials, spies and so forth.  Authors and researchers will carefully enumerate how many interviews they held, sometimes for attribution, more often not, the latter instances apparently more valued than the former.  This is an unusual practice, not that researchers do not routinely interview those thought to be knowledgeable about the subject at hand, but because these particular interviewees are known to be, by definition, unreliable witnesses.  Many are themselves trained interrogators; most are accustomed to viewing their own speech as an instrument for specific operational purposes; nearly all have signed security pledges.  The methodological difficulties confronting the researcher seem to allow only a single use for the products of these interviews:  the statement that the interviewee on this occasion said this or that, quite without any meaningful application of the statements made.
An additional, unusual, barrier to research is the reaction of the ensemble of voices from the secret intelligence world to published research not emanating from that world or emanating from particular zones not favored by certain voices.  Work that can be traced to other intelligence services is discredited for that reason; work from non-intelligence sources is discredited for that reason (“professor so-and-so is unknown to experienced intelligence professionals”); certain topics are off-limits and, curiously, certain topic are de rigeur (“The writer has not mentioned the notorious case y”).   And, finally, there is the scattershot of minutiae always on hand for the purpose—dates (down to the day of the week), spelling (often transliterated by changing convention), names of secret intelligence agencies and their abbreviations (“Surely the writer realizes that before 19__ the agency in question was known as XXX”).  All this intended to drown out dissident ideas or, more importantly, inconvenient facts, non-received opinions. 
What is to be done?  One suggestion would be that of scholarly modesty.  The scholar would be well-advised to accept at the beginning that much will never be available.  Consider the ULTRA secret—the fact that the British were able to read a variety of high-grade German ciphers during the Second World War.  This was known, in one way or another, to hundreds, if not thousands, of people, and yet remained secret for most of a generation.  Are we sure that there is no other matter, as significant, not only to the history of secret intelligence, but to general history, that is not yet known?  Secondly, that which does become available must be treated with extraordinary caution in two ways:  is it what it purports to be, and how does it fit into a more general context?  To point at two highly controversial matters, there is VENONA, the decryptions and interpretations of certain Soviet diplomatic message traffic, and, on a different register, the matter of conspiracy theories.  Just to approach the prickly pear of the latter, the term itself was invented by James Angleton, chief of the CIA counterintelligence staff, as a way for discouraging questions of the conclusions of the Warren Commission.  It lives on, an undead barrier to the understanding of many incidents of the Cold War.  The VENONA material is available only in a form edited and annotated by American secret intelligence.  There are, for example, footnotes assigning certain cover names to certain well-known persons, but no reasons are given for these attributions.  The original documents have not been made available to researchers, nor the stages of decryption and interpretation. And yet great castles of interpretation have been constructed on these foundations.
Intelligence materials can be used, indeed, if available, must be used, if we are to understand certain historical situations:  the coup d’etats in Iran, Guatemala and Chile, for example.  The FRUS itself incorporates secret intelligence materials in its account of the Guatemala matter.  But such materials can only be illustrative; the case itself must be made from open sources.  There are exceptions:  Nazi-era German intelligence records were captured and are now available nearly in their entirety; occasional congressional investigations have obtained substantial amounts of the files of American secret intelligence agencies; other materials become misplaced into the public realm.  But this is a diminuendo of research excellence.  The historian concerned with secret intelligence matters must face the unpleasant reality that little can be known about such matters and, from the point of view of the reader, the more certainty with which interpretations are asserted, the more likely it is that such interpretations are yet another secret intelligence operation.
— Michael Holzman

Recent reading 2: Spooks

For the record, herewith brief reports of recent reading of books on espionage:

  • Michael Holzman [2008]:  James Jesus Angleton:  The CIA, and the Craft of Counterintelligence. (Amherst, MA, USA:  University of Massachusetts Press).   A fascinating topic, not given justice in this poorly-written account.  Sentence without verbs.  Not fond of. I.   The author claims to have undertaken interviews with key players (although I only noticed one reference to such an interview), but the book is almost entirely written from secondary sources.    This means it has no new insights.  On some issues, the book is not up to date – eg, on the Nosenko affair, the author seems not to have seen Bagley’s book (see below), published a year before.  The writing is very vague about dates (a rather important failing for a writer of a history book), and lots of information is only provided en passant;   for example, we only learn about Angleton’s first child well after its birth.   Perhaps that is an editor’s failing, as much as an author’s.  There are worse problems:  the author appears to have a very unsophisticated understanding of marxism (p. 103), and his description of the Bay of Pigs invasion puts all the blame on Bissell and colleagues (p. 187), when some of it rightly belongs in the White House, including with JFK himself.    Relying on secondary sources and without new insights, Holzman could have shown us how Angleton’s literary training helped him in the world of intelligence.  Despite repeated claims that his literary education did help, we are not ever shown it doing so, nor given a detailed explanation of how it helped.   To show us this, Holzman would have needed to provide a detailed presentation of at least one theory of intelligence and counter-intelligence; this is something that would have been very interesting and very useful in itself, yet is also lacking from the book.
  • Tennent H. Bagley [2007]:  Spy Wars:  Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games. (New Haven, CT, USA:  Yale University Press).  An insider’s account of the Nosenko affair, which I have blogged about here and here.  Bagley argues compellingly that Yuri Nosenko was a KGB plant, not a genuine defector.   From this he concludes that CIA should not have accepted him as a genuine defector.  As I argue, it is not certain that CIA did in fact accept him as such, despite what it looks like, and the benefits of accepting him (or appearing to accept him) may have outweighed the costs.  An intelligence agency needs to think through the wider consequences of its beliefs and of what are believed by others to be its beliefs, in addition to considerations of simple truth and falsity.
  • S. J. Hamrick [2004]:  Deceiving the Deceivers:  Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess. (New Haven, CT, USA:  Yale University Press). Hamrick argues that British intelligence knew that Philby, Burgess and Maclean were Soviet agents several years before their public exposures, and during this period used them to securely transmit messages — both information and disinformation — to the Soviet leadership, knowing it would more likely be believed if it came from the Soviets’ own agents.  If Holzman’s book about Jim Angleton (above) had included some discussion of theories of intelligence and counter-intelligence, this is just the type of case that such a theory would seek to account for.    The (alleged) facts of Hamrick’s book are fascinating, but the book itself is poorly-written, repetitious, acronym-rich and comes with added right-wing tirades.  There are even anti-Catholic tirades against the novelist Graham Greene and —for goodness sake! — the poet-priest Robert Southwell SJ (p. 32), who was executed in 1595.  These tirades are not only out-of-place here, but replete with errors.   One has to wonder at the immense power of a Catholic missionary that he can still provoke such an irrational rant four centuries after his murder by Elizabeth’s police-state. I am certainly one of Southwell’s admirers (see, for example, here), but there cannot be more than a score or two of people alive who even know of him.
  • Valerie Plame Wilson [2008]: Fair Game:  How a top CIA Agent was betrayed by her own Government. (New York, USA:  Simon and Schuster).  Published with CIA redactions shown.   Very well-written and her life story is fascinating.  Shame about her Government.
  • Tim Weiner [2007]:  Legacy of Ashes:  The History of the CIA.  (London, UK:  Allen Lane).  The best single-volume history of CIA, at least as far as an outsider can judge.  Well-written and thorough, although I would have liked more on Africa.  On page 80, Weiner claims the only two successful CIA-sponsored coups were both executed under Eisenhower, but what of Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire in 1965 (see Devlin’s book below), and Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973 (and perhaps Malcom Fraser in Australia in 1975)?
  • Larry Devlin [2007]:  Chief of Station, Congo:  A Memoir of 1960-67.  (New York, USA:  Public Affairs).  An insider’s account of the role of CIA in putting Mobutu into power in Zaire.   Having once met Mobutu, I found this account fascinating, although, of course, I have no idea how honest or comprehensive it is.
  • Markus Wolf  and Anne McElvoy [1997]:  Man Without a Face:  The Autobiography of Communism’s Greatest Spymaster. (New York, USA:  Public Affairs).   A riveting read, which I read in a single day.  Markus Wolf presents himself, I am not sure how sincerely, as a reform Communist, an admirer of Andropov and Gorbarchev.
  • David C. Martin [1980]:  Wilderness of Mirrors. (Guildford, CT, USA:  The Lyons Press).  A detailed account of the relationship between Jim Angleton and Bill Harvey.  Well-written and an easy read.  However, the chronology of the events in the George Blake affair (pp. 100-102) is inconsistent.
  • Milt Beardon and James Risen [2003]:  The Main Enemy:  The Inside Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB. (New York, USA:  Ballantine Books).  Although mostly riveting, I skipped over the history of 1980s Afghanistan.   Reading of KGB watching CNN during the attempted coup of August 1991 to learn what has happening was very amusing.   The book would have been better if more had been included on the post-1990 period:  just when events get interesting, the book ends.