Flashbacks February 2007

Spy vs. Spy

Robert Philip Hanssen, meet Aldrich Ames, Kim Philby, Greville Wynne, and Gordon Lonsdale. A collection of Atlantic writings considers the phenomenon of renegade intelligence agents.
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A new movie, Breach, tells the story of renegade FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen. In 2001, his unveiling as a double agent for the Soviets caused consternation within the FBI and beyond. How could the nation's most sophisticated domestic intelligence-gathering organization have missed the fact that one of its own had been selling high-level secrets to the Russians for the past fifteen years? Renegade intelligence officers are not a new phenomenon, of course. In the aftermath of various spy incidents Atlantic contributors have joined in the collective speculation about what exactly took place and why.

In "Can't Anybody Here Play This Game" (February 1998), Edward G. Shirley, the pseudonym of a former CIA officer, explained that the 1994 discovery of CIA agent Aldrich Ames as a double agent for the KGB came to him as no surprise—and should, in fact, serve as a wake-up call for reform—given how "dysfunctional" the CIA had by then become. The CIA, Shirley argued, is overrun with underqualified, unmotivated agents who have learned how to get ahead in an organization plagued by bureaucratic inertia. "By 1985," he wrote, "the year Ames volunteered to spy for the KGB, the vast majority of the CIA's foreign agents were mediocre assets at best, put on the payroll because case officers needed high recruitment numbers to get promoted." Perhaps, then, it is understandable, (though not excusable), Shirley suggested, that an agent disillusioned by the CIA's mediocrity and lack of mission might succumb to a tempting offer from the other side.

In "The Fifth Man" (September 1988), George A. Carver Jr. speculated on what really happened in May of 1951, when information about accomplices in the famous Harold Adrian Russell (Kim) Philby spy case first came to light. Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, and Philby himself were all British intelligence agents who are now known to have served together as double agents for the Soviet Union. In May of 1951, just before authorities were about to investigate their involvement with the Soviets, Burgess and Maclean somehow were sent warning and were able to flee London for the Soviet Union. Carver assessed what is known about their activities in the last days and hours before their escape and discovered that it could not possibly have been Philby or Blunt who aided them. Rather, a fifth, as yet unidentified accomplice had to have been involved. Though he speculates on the possible identity of this "fifth man," Carver concedes that "It seems unlikely ... that the full truth will ever be known or that the matter will ever be laid totally to rest." Rather, "As Kim Philby disappears into the mists of memory, the conspiracy that bears his name has assumed its rightful place among that small group of historical conundrums about which our curiosity seems destined never to wane."

Finally, in "My Spy Can Lick Your Spy" (April 1966), Max Frankel reviewed two memoirs written (with the help of ghost writers) by double agents. One of the agents was Greville Wynne, an Englishman who spied for the Soviets; the other, Gordon Lonsdale, a Soviet who spied for the United States. Though Frankel dismissed both books as poorly written, he conceded that espionage as subject matter offered a certain glamour, and suggested that "as literary experience, this new genre must be reckoned with." Both memoirs, moreover, offered a fascinating portrait of the kind of man who would betray his country. Of both Wynne and Lonsdale, Frankel wrote,

Each is confident that his espionage is single-handedly saving mankind from nuclear war. Each is delivering the secrets of a duped and suffering people to a disinterested and noble government bearing mankind's last hope of salvation. Each contends unconvincingly that the sheer fun of the game, the duplicity, adultery, and open-end expense accounts were incidental rewards and relaxations instead of part of the attraction to treachery.

Their self-revelations, now paraded before all the world by their partners in mischief, raise the uncomfortable thought that all too many members of this spy-and-counterspy fraternity are obsessed with a similarly self-serving and self-deceiving certainty that their lofty cause exempts them from most of the restraints imposed on ordinary men.
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