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Spies are fascinating creatures, aren?t they? Well, I?ve always thought so. From the wild excesses of the Bond films to the miserable old men of John Le Carré?s novels, I?ve always had a lot of time for spy fiction. The reality, of course, is harder to get a good grasp of, as spies are, by their very nature, extremely secretive. This book, The Second Oldest Profession, advertises itself as a history of spying in the Twentieth Century, and on the whole it doesn?t disappoint. The author, Phillip Knightly, doesn?t actually believe that spies are much good at all; indeed, he goes so far as to claim that they?ve seldom influenced any major conflict in any kind of meaningful positive way. (His bias should be pretty obvious from the book?s title - I?m sure we all know what the oldest profession is.) While some of his claims are certainly surprising (he?s pretty dismissive of the achievements of the British codebreakers during the Second World War, for instance) he backs them up with pertinent facts and generally convincing analysis. And while he obviously has an axe to grind about espionage organisations in general, he does occasionally give credit where its due, as when he describes the astonishing achievements of Soviet spy Richard Sorge in Japan in the early 40s. Before the First World War broke out, Britain was beset by spy fever, which largely seemed to come about as the result of press speculation and the work of certain lurid novelists. The government succumbed to public pressure and created the organisations that eventually became known as MI5 and MI6. Although neither seems to have been particularly useful during the First World War, the mythology they created around themselves saw them through the lean inter-war years. The myth was believed by many, including
the Nazi leaders (Himmler was especially taken with the idea that British spies were the best). In reality, it appears that they were fairly ineffectual organisations manned by eccentric amateurs. The Americans based their own secret organisations on the British model, although fairly soon realised that they weren?t good enough, and made improvements. The Soviets were pretty on the ball right from the start, seeing the value in long-term sleeper agents (such as Philby, Burgess et al). Spies themselves became so morally compromised that they sometimes didn?t know who they were working for anymore. The main argument of the book is that the only thing that espionage agencies are really good at is convincing governments that they are absolutely essential. They deliberately set out to scare governments with tales of fiendish enemy conspiracies so as to have their funding increased, thus perpetuating themselves. And if they fail to warn of dangers effectively, as they did to such spectacularly tragic effect on September 11th, they merely claim that they are underfunded, and that if they had more money it wouldn?t have happened. Usually they get more money. Throughout the whole story, the impression one gets is that spies do far more harm than good. For instance, Knightly claims that British spies? clumsy blundering around in post-revolutionary Russia went a long way towards causing the ill-feeling between the Soviets and the Western powers that ultimately led to the Cold War. British espionage activities in occupied Europe during the Second World War usually led to savage reprisals against civilian populations, who weren?t quite as ready to rise up in mass revolt as Churchill assumed they were. The CIA?s funding and training of fundamentalist Islamic groups fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan ultim
ately led to al-Qaida. And so on. Knightly?s very good at dispelling myths, too. Mata Hari comes across as rather a tragic character, probably not a spy at all, but a high-class prostitute who slept with the wrong men. His claims about the Enigma decryption during the war are startling. We?re so used to being fed propaganda about how it practically won the war for the Allies that it?s interesting to learn that actually it didn?t. Too much of the information derived from Enigma sources was either too secret to be used, or completely disregarded by Allied commanders. It?s even more interesting to learn that, at least during the early years of the war, German signals intelligence was just as successful as British, if not more so. The KGB apparently so distrusted Kim Philby, their top agent in Western intelligence, that they regarded most of what he told them as disinformation and ignored it. The American government probably didn?t know about the attack on Pearl Harbor before it happened, as J Edgar Hoover, bonkers old weirdo that he was, refused to believe the spy who passed on the information to him. Knightly?s conclusion is that, basically, all espionage institutions are useless at the jobs they?re notionally meant to do, and ultimately dangerous because they help to perpetuate the very situations they?re supposed to be fighting against. The soak up public money, are accountable to no one, and sow serious distrust in their own countries and abroad. The ultimate example, obviously, is the CIA, an institution that is routinely accused of everything from assassinating Kennedy to bugging the telephones of everyone on the entire planet. I don?t think I know anyone who would admit to trusting the CIA, and with the current US president being the son of its former director, that just ma
kes the conspiracy theorists? alarm bells ring all the louder. This book is considerably more level-headed than the CIA?s more lurid detractors, but it does make a forceful argument that the organisation is seriously out of control and needs to be reined in. This book?s well-written and very entertaining, full of fascinating and frequently hilarious anecdotes. It?s a good solid read, clocking in at about 450 pages, with some black and white photos so you can put names to faces. The bulk of the book was written in the 80s (Knightly was one of the last Western journalists to interview Kim Philby before his death), but a new edition published last year makes extensive use of newly-opened KGB files to bring the story up-to-date. It also includes sections on the current war against terror and other recent stories, like the David Shayler case. This is a splendid book, and although there?s little to admire in what we learn about spies, there?s plenty to admire in the way its told. I still kind of wish I was a spy though.