Spring/Summer 2015
Number 28

Book Review - The Indispensable Factor in Intelligence

Malcolm Forbes

Stephen Grey, The New Spymasters: Inside the Modern World of Espionage from the Cold War to Global Terror (St. Martin’s Press, 2015). 384 pp. $27.99.

At the beginning of Stephen Grey’s impressive book, one of the author’s many anonymous sources, an “old-time CIA spymaster,” tells him that the agency was unable to prevent the 9/11 attacks because they didn’t have a spy in place within al-Qaeda’s inner circle. “If only,” he says, “we‘d had a man on the rock beside Osama bin Laden, learning his thoughts, learning his plans.”

While Grey’s book is, as its title suggests, a chronological history of modern espionage, it is at the same time a rigorous analysis of what Graham Greene called “the human factor”—that “man on the rock” tasked with gathering human intelligence. Grey sets out to explore how twenty-first-century spying differs from that of the twentieth, and whether, in this digital age of far-reaching intercepts and surveillance, there is still a role for the spy on the ground.

Grey, a British journalist and author best known for his shattering revelations of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program in his 2006 book Ghost Plane, opens with a section that takes us back to the Cold War and covers the origins of the modern secret service. But the derring-do of swashbuckling, adventure-seeking soldier-spies gives way to the later, murkier realm of cloak-and-dagger intrigue and manipulations at the hands of less glamorous and less principled agents. A sharply focused chapter on Kim Philby and the rest of the so-called “Cambridge Five” charts the means and scope of their betrayal; a subsequent chapter deals with British intelligence operations in Northern Ireland and their successful infiltration of the IRA.

To counterbalance the somewhat lopsided bias towards matters British, Grey routinely branches off to regale us with KGB and CIA recruitment methods and instances of one-upmanship, and to spin the tale of how officers in the East German foreign intelligence service infiltrated the West German government and helped destroy the career of Chancellor Willy Brandt. But despite the many game-changing coups and elaborate countermoves of the Cold War, Grey explains, for all parties concerned human intelligence became an increasingly frustrating business—“a resource-hungry, time-consuming, and usually fruitless pursuit at constant risk of backfiring.”

This became all too apparent after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Grey cites former CIA Director James Woolsey’s famous warning of nascent post-Cold War dangers: “We have slain a large dragon, but we now live in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes. And in many ways, the dragon was easier to keep track of.” Making sense of this new jungle with its new threats required new spies, and a new game plan. One new strategy adopted by both the CIA and Britain’s SIS was to fight fire with fire: if the emerging enemies were diffuse, non-state organizations like crime syndicates and terrorist cells then there was no alternative but to recruit members—criminals—from such groups.

Grey uses this rationale to explain how a gangster became a useful informant for the British, and how a Moroccan spy who underwent training in Afghanistan aided the French. Along the way, he points out one of the dangers of attempting to get into the enemy’s mind: “If you draw close to that dividing line between friend and foe and begin to think like your opponent, you risk slipping over.”

For the book’s penultimate section, Grey draws on his reporting on the war in Afghanistan in 2008 to catalog the various fruitful attempts made by spies to penetrate and combat al-Qaeda. Here, he saves the best for last: describing the myths and facts behind the hunt for Osama bin Laden—what the commander of that operation, Admiral William McRaven, described as “one of the great intelligence operations in the history of intelligence organizations.”

As in-depth a survey as The New Spymasters is, it is by no means comprehensive. But Grey acknowledges this at the outset, admitting that the work is based solely on his dealings with security services in the western hemisphere and across the Middle East and South Asia. More jarring is Grey’s lack of faith in his reader, which leads him to unnecessary and pedantic explanations of the concepts and principles of spycraft.

Yet these are minor flaws in what is on the whole an informative and engaging tour through a century of spying. Grey’s many short case-studies, such as that of the Pakistani suicide bomber who developed second thoughts, unfold like the tense, scene-setting opening chapter of a thriller. The nuts and bolts of espionage are interspersed with accounts of triumphs and failures, a close scrutiny of thorny issues (the “standard dilemma” for an agent inside a terror group: how far to go?) and a fascinating look at the many different reasons why men and women sign up for an erratic life of secrecy, treachery and high stakes. In his final, illuminating section, Grey gives a detailed prognosis and evaluation of what form spying will take in this twenty-first-century world of globalized threats and border-transcending interests.

Throughout, The New Spymasters stays true to its remit, prioritizing and analyzing the human factor involved in intelligence gathering. Ultimately, Grey argues, for all the advances of and reliance upon technology, the man on the rock is as relevant as ever. Human intelligence is not the dying art it has been reckoned by some to be. For as long as the age-old motivations that fuel them endure, there will continue to be both a need and a role for the secret agent.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance writer from Edinburgh, Scotland. He has written for many publications including the Economist, the Financial Times, the Daily Beast, the National, the Weekly Standard and the Columbia Journalism Review.