SPIES HAVE played an outsize role in the war on Ukraine. American and British intelligence agencies found out, and then exposed, Russia’s war plans for Ukraine months ahead of time in what was the biggest intelligence coup since the Cuban missile crisis. Russia’s “special services” had a torrid time. First they bungled their part in the invasion of Ukraine. Then more than 400 of their officers were expelled from embassies across America and Europe. Finally, they watched as a string of precious “illegals”—spies who operate without diplomatic cover—were rolled up in the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and Sweden. In December even Belgian spies hit the headlines when they exposed a Moroccan intelligence network in the European Union. We chose seven books that encapsulate the past, present and future of covert work. They span the range of espionage and intelligence, from traditional agent running, with snatched meetings in shadowy street corners, to psychological warfare waged over computer networks.
The Billion Dollar Spy. By David Hoffman. Knopf; 432 pages; $15.99. Icon Books; £9.99
During the cold war, the CIA deemed cities like Moscow, Havana and Beijing to be “denied areas”—the most hostile imaginable places for an intelligence officer to work. So how did the CIA recruit and run agents there? David Hoffman tells the story of Adolf Tolkachev, a Soviet electronics engineer who provided vital documents on Soviet weaponry to the CIA between 1979 and 1985. Mr Hoffman, drawing on 900 pages of CIA files and cables, explains how the agency outwitted the KGB, which routinely set 20 surveillance teams on a lone CIA officer. One tool was a sex toy repurposed to operate like a jack-in-the-box. Two Americans would set off by car and turn a corner, moving briefly out of sight of the KGB. One would hop out of the passenger seat and meet Tolkachev. The driver (often the spouse of a CIA officer) would activate the blow-up doll, “Jack”, hidden inside a fake birthday cake. When the KGB caught up they would see two bodies in the car and assume nothing was amiss. The tradecraft was good. Alas, Tolkachev was ultimately betrayed by a mole in the CIA and executed in 1986.
The Spy and the Traitor. By Ben Macintyre. Crown; 368 pages; $28. Viking; £25
The story of Oleg Gordievsky’s exfiltration from Moscow in July 1985 would be written off as fantastical if it were put down in a novel. Mr Gordievsky was a senior KGB officer who had been working for MI6, Britain’s foreign-intelligence service, for more than a decade. When he was recalled to Moscow it became quickly apparent that he had been rumbled. On a pre-arranged weekday at 7.30pm he waited on a street corner carrying a Safeway shopping bag. An MI6 officer walked past clutching a Harrods bag and eating a Mars bar—a signal that the operation was on. Mr Gordievsky made his way to St Petersburg, where he hid in the boot of a car as MI6 officers smuggled him over the border into Finland. As the car crossed the border the officers played Sibelius’s Finlandia—a stirring composition associated with Finland’s struggle against Russia—on the car’s cassette player to signal to Mr Gordievsky that he was safe. Yet Ben Macintyre’s gripping book is more than just a thriller. Mr Gordievsky’s disillusionment with his employers began in 1968, when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to suppress an uprising—a cautionary tale for Russian spy agencies today. The intelligence that he provided also had a material impact on the cold war. Mr Gordievsky was able to tell MI6 that Soviet leaders were paranoid about nuclear attack and had ordered the KGB to watch for signs that one was imminent. The intelligence had a profound and sobering effect on Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regean, helping them to see the world through the Kremlin’s eyes.
Code Warriors. By Stephen Budiansky. Knopf; 432 pages; $19
The books by David Hoffman and Ben Macintyre deal with human intelligence, or HUMINT. But the CIA and MI6 are dwarfed in size and resources by their sister agencies for signals intelligence (SIGINT), which involves intercepting and often deciphering messages. Stephen Budiansky’s book is an excellent history of America’s National Security Agency (NSA) through the cold war. The aim of SIGINT, wrote a top admiral at the end of the second world war, was to read “as closely as is humanly possible…every enemy and clandestine communication”. That is what the NSA set out to do.
Much of the story is about cryptanalysis, or reading encrypted messages, a process that can take decades. The VENONA programme, which cracked 3,000 Soviet messages sent between 1943 and 1945, went on until 1980. The messages were not declassified until 1995. By the 1960s 80% of America’s intelligence was coming not from human spies but SIGINT—and this could be dangerous work. More than 90 men died during the cold war in flights around Soviet borders to gather electronic intelligence. In 1979 a combination of “theoretical-mathematical advances” and modern supercomputers yielded a breakthrough against Soviet ciphers, writes Mr Budiansky. The details of that remain classified. But what is clear is that in the 1980s and 1990s human communications began a “mass migration” to computers, digital networks and, eventually, the internet. That led to a new and controversial epoch of SIGINT.
Dark Mirror. By Barton Gellman. Penguin; 448 pages; $18. Vintage; £20
In 2013 Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor, fled to Russia via Hong Kong and revealed to the world that the NSA and its British counterpart, GCHQ, had been spying on the internet on a grand scale by tapping undersea cables, exploiting legal backdoors in the servers of American tech companies and introducing weaknesses into global encryption standards. Barton Gellman’s book on the affair is not the first. Glenn Greenwald and Luke Harding, journalists who, like Mr Gellman, worked with Mr Snowden, have published their own accounts; so too has Mr Snowden himself in his memoirs. But “Dark Mirror” stands out—there is no better account of espionage in the cyber age.
He is harshly critical of American spies and their inability to understand why the revelation of their indiscriminate information gathering might be newsworthy. The book is a reminder of why metadata—information about a message, such as the sender and receiver, rather than its content—can be far more powerful, revealing and sensitive than people assume. But Mr Gellman, who writes for the Atlantic, also takes a critical approach to Mr Snowden himself, who eventually fell out with the author. “The reader is entitled to know up front that I think Snowden did substantially more good than harm,” Gellman writes in his preface, “though I am prepared to accept (as he is not) that his disclosures must have exacted a price in lost intelligence.”
Spies and Lies. By Alex Joske. Hardie Grant; 304 pages; $22.99 and £16.99
The greatest novels of John le Carré hinged on the battle of wits between George Smiley of British intelligence and Karla of Moscow Centre, a fictionalised version of the KGB. That reflected the definitive intelligence contest of the 20th century, pitting Russian spies against their Western counterparts. But in November 2021 Richard Moore, the chief of MI6, said that Karla’s successors had been supplanted: China was now MI6’s “single greatest priority”. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not changed his opinion.
Alex Joske, a young Australian analyst, uses Chinese-language sources to trace the history and reveal the modus operandi of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s main spy agency. He focuses less on espionage than on operations designed to sway public and elite opinion in favour of the Chinese Communist Party. “We see the Chinese authorities playing the long game in cultivating contacts to manipulate opinion in China’s favour,” warned Ken McCallum, the head of MI5, Britain’s security service, in November 2022. They are “seeking to co-opt and influence not just prominent parliamentarians…but people much earlier in their careers in public life, gradually building a debt of obligation.” Mr Joske argues that the MSS used such people to promulgate the idea, which appears increasingly implausible, that China’s aim was to achieve a “peaceful rise” that posed no threat to the West or to its neighbours.
Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare. By Thomas Rid. Picador; 528 pages; $20. Profile Books; £12.99
Mr Joske’s book on the MSS shows why intelligence is not just about stealing secrets. It can also be about changing the way people think. The most significant intelligence operation of the past decade was probably Russia’s intervention in America’s election in 2016, which hacked and leaked the emails of a Democratic Party leader and used a network of trolls to influence American social media. Thomas Rid, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, shows how active measures—as the KGB called them—have been used for over a century. His book tells the story of how the CIA sent personalised horoscopes to unnerve officials of the Stasi, communist East Germany’s intelligence service, and floated thousands of propaganda-packed balloons into the country. All of that was dwarfed by the KGB’s creative efforts. By the middle of the 1960s it was co-ordinating 300-400 active measures annually—from encouraging the European peace movement to spreading allegations that America had created AIDS as a weapon. In 1985 the annual budget for active measures was conservatively put at $3bn-4bn (more than $8bn today). Perhaps the most important lesson is that democracies are uniquely vulnerable to this sort of information warfare. “If they did not have press freedom,” quipped the KGB’s disinformation chief in 1964, “we would have to invent it for them.”
Spies, Lies, and Algorithms. By Amy Zegart. Princeton University Press; 424 pages; $29.95 and £25
As The Economist explained in a cover story in August 2021, the practice of open-source intelligence (OSINT) has transformed how we see the world. Russia’s build-up of military forces on Ukraine’s border in the autumn and winter of 2021 was captured in unprecedented detail by commercial satellite imagery and videos posted on TikTok. In “Spies, Lies, and Algorithms”, Amy Zegart of Stanford University looks at how technology is transforming cloak-and-dagger work. In 2007 the word “cyber” did not appear in America’s annual intelligence-threat assessment, she notes. Now cyber-espionage has industrialised intelligence gathering—consider China’s theft of more than 20m American security-clearance records at a stroke in 2015. Technologies like AI, facial recognition and biometrics are making it nearly impossible for intelligence officers to cross borders under multiple aliases as they did during Mr Gordievsky’s era. Deepfake technology will boost the sort of disinformation that Mr Rid documents. Spy agencies have to keep up with the times, says Ms Zegart. Governments should, for example, establish an agency dedicated to OSINT. She cites two former officials, both familiar with the intelligence world, who had remarked that anything which was unclassified was not really intelligence. “That dinosaur mentality,” Ms Zegart noted recently on Twitter, “is a huge liability in the emerging tech era.”
We recently explored why Russian spies were failing to live up to their storied reputation. Corruption has eaten away at once professional services, and their tradecraft has not caught up with modern technology. We also explained why Chinese spies need to brush up on their skills. In 2021 we examined how spy agencies around the world had high hopes for artificial intelligence. And in 2020 your correspondent looked at the long history of co-operation between intelligence services and businesses, and the curious case of a hitherto unknown European spy pact. ■