Report from London
The United States and Britain could not be closer when it comes to sharing intelligence information, but they could hardly be further apart when it comes to attitudes toward secrecy.
The British have been at the business of spying in an organized way for a few hundred years and thus apparently do not hesitate to give advice to their rich American "Cousins." It was supposedly Sir Francis Bacon in the 16th century who first used the term "mole" for an agent who penetrates deep into an opposing country's government or intelligence service.
Britain is said to have thousands of persons working in electronic intelligence. But the intelligence officers working directly for the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI.6, number in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Their real budget is kept secret, but according to the New Statesman magazine, it has been increasing steadily in recent years.
Americans who have worked with British intelligence officers say the British service has concentrated increasingly on the gathering of economic intelligence in recent years. British officers are considered underpaid by American standards , but some of them are admired by the Americans for being all-round generalists. American intelligence officers tend to be more specialized.
"They know everything across the board," said one American who has worked with the British. "They know how to recruit, how to pitch, how to code -- they really are all-purpose scouts."
One US official says the United States and Britain share intelligence to the point where they work from "the same information base." The official said that by sharing work in the fields of communications and signals intelligence, the two nations save as much as $500 million to $1 billion each year.
The British tend to believe, however, that US intelligence officers are too dependent on technology and the latest gadgetry and that they are not as knowledgeable as they should be about areas such as Middle East.
Three former MI.6 officers interviewed by this reporter maintain that the morale of the secret service is high. But reports prepared by the New Statesman magazine suggest that the intelligence services have suffered from problems of corruption, at least on the electronic side of the business. The left-wing magazine has also reported cases in which the secret services engaged in domestic phone-tapping and mail opening.
The British intelligence relationship with the United States suffered greatly when it was discovered in the 1960s that a high-ranking MI.6 officer, Kim Philby , was a Soviet "mole." But mutual trust seems to have been almost completely restored in recent years.
Little is known publicly about Arthur Temple (Dickie) Franks, the chief of MI.6 He has served in the Middle East, plays golf, and belongs to a club. But under the self-censorship system in place since 1921, British journalists are asked not to publish the names, whereabouts, or activities of present or former intelligence officers. Only the New Statesman is known to have published Mr. Franks' name.
Although the public seems to have little control over MI.6, it comes under the tight control of the prime minister and Foreign Office. In this regard, some Americans as well as Britons think the US might learn something from the British system.
Writing in the London Economist newspaper earlier this year, however, R. D. Foot, a professor of modern history at Manchester, made this criticism of the British system: ". . . The head of each British secret service has to satisfy the controller and auditor-general, in person, that the money allocated to his service has been properly spent to the public benefit; one civil servant has to reassure another, but Parliament has no say."
Quite a contrast with the American system. British intelligence ingenuity
According to one former MI.6 man, a classical rule of British espionage is that one must "butter up" one's agents. Even if sometimes underpaid, they must at all costs be made to feel important.
The former MI.6 man said that in the early 1950s the secret service found a potential recruit in a relatively high position in an African government. But the man refused to commit himself to work for the SIS until he had actually met the nameless chief of the service known then to all but a few persons as "C."
"We had a number of ex-MI.6 staff members -- men in their 50s -- who has retired on half service, the former MI.6 man said. "We chose one who was distinguished looking enough to be 'C,' and we dressed him up for the part.
"We gave him a fine suit, an umbrella, and a bowler hat. He flew out and met the man.As far as that man knew, he had been personally recruited by 'C' and he was delighted."
As an American official tells it, the British secret services managed to discover where the Soviets were testing atomic weapons in a "wonderfully nonsophisticated way." They read the provincial Soviet newspapers and saw that there were two locations that were never mentioned. They assumed that these were locations for test sites. U-2 aircraft made photographs and there were the craters from the tests.
An American official once paid the head of the British service's liaison in Washington a compliment for a British report on Soviet regional councils and economics that was one-third the length of a comparable American report but twice as clear.
"Well, when you're a minor power, you can only concentrate on that which is important," said the British official. Conversation with a spy expert from "the Firm"
The veteran of MI.6 sat by a window in his London club, his face hidden by the shadows, not letting the light fall on his face.
On the basis of an introduction, the British spy expert had agreed to an informal talk, "a little gossip," as he put it, as long as his name was not disclosed.
Describing the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) as a "close and friendly club," the man whom we shall call "Collins" said the morale of the service was surprisingly high. The men and women of "the Firm" regarded themselves rightly or wrongly, as an elite. They came into the service at different ages, so that some of them would have practical experience in the world before taking on intelligence work.
In Collins' view, Americans did not have a natural aptitude for secret operations. The British did have, partly as a result of learning to survive, and then maneuver, under the harsh discipline of boarding schools.
The CIA, as far as Collins was concerned, was in a lamentable state. What had really done the CIA in, he said, was its intervention in Chile, its paramilitary operations -- the "secret army" of Hmong tribesmen in Laos, the connection with special forces and "pacification" teams in Vietnam -- and, of course, the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion against Fidel Castro If you were determined to overthrow Castro, he suggested, it would be best to be straightforward about it, get you country behind it, and use a division of marines. But involving a secret service in such things caused endless problems and diverted the service from its real missions of intelligence gathering and counterespionage.
The veteran thought it would take the CIA some five years to "get on its feet again" and become capable of effective intelligence work.
"The first thing the Americans must do," he suggested, "is establish a new relationship based on mutual trust between the intelligence agency and the government bureaucracy." In Collins' view, the CIA had long been overstaffed, to the point where it couldn't get its priorities straight. He also felt there were times in the past when the CIA had too much money to spend for its own good.
The British veteran agrees with the moves now under way in the US Congress to reduce from eight to two the numbers of committees that have to be informed "in a timely fashion" of secret operations.
Submitting sensitive information of this kind to eight committees was "absolutely batty," he said. "It means your hands are tied."
Like so many other specialists intelligence work, Collins rates the Israelis as the best in the field.
The Soviets, he says, are to be admired for their patience (although it is not clear how much patience they showed in Afghanistan not long ago where they were apparently responsible for the killing of a government leader).
Collins said the Soviets might take great pains to plant a "mole" inside a Western intelligence agency. The Soviets, he said, were prepared to let that agent "sleep" for 10 years or more before activatng him.
"The old KGB thug is still there with Russians, but there's a new type as well, he said. "The Soviets recruit new men from the universities, and they try to get people who would be suitable for any drawing room." The best spy ever, he said, was Richard Sorge, a German journalist close to the German Embassy in Tokyo who fed secrets to the Soviets prior to and during World War II. Unfortunately for the Soviets, Stalin did not always listen to Sorge and that may have cost tens of thousands of Soviet casualties.
But when Stalin did listen, the payoff was enormous. Sorge prediction of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor allowed Stalin to transfer troops from the eastern front to meet the Germans on the western front.
The British veteran said that while a master spy like Sorge can provide extraordinary intelligence, this is rare in the spy world. Government leaders in the West should realize there are limits to what an intelligence agency can do.
In reading about John F. Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, Collins was most struck by the American President's naivete in thinking the CIA could somehow achieve a miracle with limited means at the Bay of Pigs. The problem, he added, was that through spy novels, the public -- and sometimes the politicians -- got the false notion that intelligence services can do anything.
"James Bond and all that -- it just confuses things," he said.
But the CIA, while limited in what it can do, should get used to being blamed for just about everything, everywhere, anytime, he said.
Earlier, the British secret service took the blame, he said, and got used to it. Everyone needs a villan, he continued, anytime, he said.
Earlier, the British secret service took the blame, he said, and got used to it. Everyone needs a villan, he continued, Greek gods once supplied it, today the intelligence services supply that need.
The most demanding of all intelligence work is counterespionage, he said.
"About 20 years of that is enough, because your judgment starts to go," he said. "First, you have to watch your tongue at all times. Second, you get so involved that developments going on in the world tend to pass you by." Current literature on spies and intelligence gathering recommended for further reading:
1. "The Man Who Kept the Secrets; Richard Helms and the CIA," by Thomas Powers, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1979.
2. "KGB," by John Barron, Bantam Books, 1974.
3. "The Codebreakers," by David Kahn, Signet Books, 1973.
4. "High Treason; Revelations of a Double Agent," by Vladimir Sakharov with Umberto Tosi, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1980.
5. "Intelligence requirements for the 1980's: analysis and estimates," edited by Roy Godson, National Strategy Information Center, 1980.
6. "Sin Tzu, The Art of War," translated and with an introduction by Samuel B. Griffith, Oxford University Press, 1977.
7. "Smiley's People," by John Le Carre, Albert A. Knopf, New York, 1980.
8. "Decent Interval," by Frank Snepp, Random House, New York, 1977.
9. "In Search of Enemies; a CIA Story," by John Stockwell, W. W. Norton & Co. , Inc., New York.
10. "The Hit Team," by David E. Tinnin with Dag Christensen, Little, Brown & Co., Boston/Toronto, 1976.
11. "Iran: Evaluation of US Intelligence Performance Prior to November 1978," staff report of subcommittee on evaluation, permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, US House of Representatives, January, 1979, US Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.
12. "The Role of Intelligence in the Foreign Policy Process," hearings before Subcommittee on International Security and Scientific Affairs, Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, Jan. 28 to Feb. 20, 1980, US Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.