From propaganda catapults to exploding seashells, why do "intelligence" services come up with so many bad, and often absurd, ideas?
The Thames House, MI5's headquarters in London / Wikimedia
Once again, the British spy agency MI5 has declassified a whole pile of its once-secret papers, giving us a window into the world of covert analysis and operations. And, once again, there's at least one resounding conclusion to be drawn: people come up with a lot of idiotic stuff behind closed doors.
In the 1950s, for example, American authorities contacted MI5, according to the papers, terribly concerned that Charlie Chaplin was actually a Russian Jew named Israel Thornstein. At the American request, MI5 looked into the matter, admitting finally that the actor's origins were unclear. Though, as the then-head of MIF's counter subversion branch wrote, according
to The Telegraph, "I scarcely think that this is of any security significance."
Or how about the files that reveal details of Nazi plans to flood Europe with fake British currency? In the period from 1940 to 1944, was this really the best use of resources?
The fakes were so good
that a different department of the German secret service itself was taken in, apparently either unaware of the plan or unable to identify the forgeries, buying the fake notes in order to pay their agents in England.
The Nazis, of course, are a good example of how the sinister and dark often overlaps with the profoundly ludicrous -- and we didn't need MI5 to inform us of that. The ideas discarded prior to coming up with the Final Solution are the stuff of blackest comedy: a surprising amount of time and energy, famously, were spent behind closed doors exploring the idea of relocating Europe's entire Jewish population to Madagascar.
Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels thought translations of Nostradamus would be "marvellously useful for our propaganda abroad." It's not clear exactly what he had in mind; perhaps print-outs of Nostradamus translations being flung from giant catapults. Less than two months later, Goebbels wrote in his diary enthusiastically that he had observed the testing of "new propaganda weapons" like a "projectile-thrower" that could "launch leaflets over 500 metres" and "an artificial smokescreen, onto which propaganda films can be projected on a huge scale." Let's not forget an earlier declassified bunch of MI5 documents, too, which revealed that Nazi agents had been trying to outfit themselves with killer swastika belt buckles
There have been some famously wacky ideas close to our home as well. What about the CIA's plots
to destabilize Cuba, such as getting Castro's beard to fall out or killing him with an exploding seashell?
So why do "intelligence" agencies come up with so many stupid ideas? Well, maybe they aren't coming up with all that many stupid ideas: maybe they come up with exactly as many stupid ideas as, say, the U.S. House of Representatives, but we pay more attention to the CIA's nonsense because we're more surprised by it. After all, these people, at least, are supposed to have some idea of what they're doing.
But reading through some of these stories, you start to wonder if there might be another explanation. The CIA's looniest notions, after all, bear remarkable resemblance to the loony ideas that seem to constantly pour out of totalitarian dictatorships, including current ones such as that of North Korea. Maybe it's the very fact of brainstorming behind closed doors -- six guys in a room trying to figure out a way to do whatever currently seems impossible -- that encourages it. Desperation plus not having anyone to laugh at you (whether because of secrecy or, in the case of North Korea, because you've got the entire country in a headlock) must be a pretty potent combination.
There's a line in the animated Pixar film Monsters Inc., when the two protagonists are trying to figure out what to do with an illicit human child. "I think I have a plan here," announces one of the characters. "Using mainly spoons, we dig a tunnel under the city and release it into the wild." His partner looks unimpressed. "Spoons?" he repeats. What these world-class intelligence agencies need is that second guy. If Pixar can include a reality check, why can't the CIA?
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is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic