Wars in Ukraine, Syria and Gaza – not to mention the latest immigration “scandal” – have pushed Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations to the very backs of our minds. But before we forget: there is still an important debate about the benefits and drawbacks of government spying going on. The latest, somewhat implicit contribution to that debate is well hidden in the final pages of this week’s New Yorker.
In a fascinating article, Malcolm Gladwell recounts the case of Kim Philby and the greatest spy scandal of the 20th century. Philby, the Cambridge educated son of a diplomat, rose to the highest echelons of Britain’s secret service M.I.6 in the 1940s and 1950s, before he was exposed as a Soviet double agent and forced to flee to Odessa in 1961. Philby had been head of the M.I.6’s anti-Soviet section and later became chief liaison between M.I.6 and CIA. There was little of import the spy service did in those years that Philby didn’t report to the KGB.
“What it comes to is that when you look at the whole period from 1944 to 1951, the entire Western intelligence effort, which was pretty big, was what you might call minus advantage,” the C.I.A. officer Miles Copeland, Jr.—himself a close friend of Philby’s—said. “We’d have been better off doing nothing,” Gladwell writes.
News of his defection triggered the predictable paranoia. The M.I.5 executive Peter Wright began suspecting most Labour Party ministers of being Soviet spies, clearly fearing for his country’s safety. But the real surprise in Gladwell’s article is that none of Philby’s work for the KGB mattered much in the end:
In a review of “Spycatcher” published in the journal Intelligence and National Security, the historian Harry Gelber made a similar point about the many betrayals and lost secrets that fuelled Wright’s feverish mole-hunting. Wright’s problem was that he was unable to assess the consequences of the intelligence losses. The Soviets got details of the Concorde’s electronics systems. Did this make any difference to the Soviet civilian or military aviation performance? Who knows if the Soviets even believed what they were told? The revelations about Britain’s atomic program leaked to the Soviets by Klaus Fuchs are believed to have accelerated the Soviets’ own nuclear operation by two years. In the grand scheme of things, did that two-year leap amount to anything? Gelber searched for some account of how the world would have been different if Fuchs or Philby or the Rosenbergs had never lived, and couldn’t find it.
He concluded, “One cannot help being left with the uneasy suspicion that, just possibly, a good deal of what he tells may have mattered less than hard-working, intelligent but sometimes narrow-minded participants like Peter Wright spent their professional lives thinking it did.”
If there was any period in history when government spying mattered, you would think it was the height of the Cold War in the late 1940s and early 1950s. And yet the KGB’s complete insight into British intelligence through Philby didn’t give the Soviet Union any strategic advantage.
Spying today may be very different from the 1940s. It is directed at different targets and transnational terrorists pose a very different kind of threat than the Soviet state. Still, Gladwell’s article leaves the suspicion that secret services tend to exaggerate the importance of their own work.