We all know the story: A liberal government finds itself embarrassed by intelligence collection activities. So it appoints a senior panel of Wise Men to recommend reforms. The Wise Men rein in the intelligence community, proscribing a series of practices that had once been the bread and butter of collection. The intelligence community feels betrayed, micromanaged, and unvalued.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s the beginning of John LeCarre’s famous book, Smiley’s People.
The context in the book is a bit different from our current controversies over the president’s Review Group, the NSA, and bulk metadata collection. LeCarre’s story is about British intelligence officers, not American. Its background is the Cold War confrontation with the Soviets. And the controversies in it involve human intelligence collection, not technical collection.
Yet for me anyway, Chapter 4 of Smiley’s People is a kind of urtext of our current situation — a piece of fiction that captures nearly all of the forces now operating in the NSA debates with an economy of words nothing else I have read compares with. In the key exchange, Oliver Lacon, a political overseer of the service, explains to George Smiley, who has been plucked from retirement in the middle of the night after a former agent is murdered: “[Y]our successor [as head of the agency] decided on certain far-reaching changes of intelligence practice.” Lacon expounds at some length. The following excerpts offer a flavor:
“One of the less controversial exercises of the Wise Men, George — one of their first duties — conferred upon them specifically by our masters — enshrined in a jointly drafted charter — was stock-taking. To review the [agency’s] resources worldwide and set them beside legitimate present-day targets.”
. . .
Lacon hesitated a moment longer, then continued: “Now as a result of this axe-laying — this stock-taking, if you prefer — on the part of the Wise Men, certain categories of clandestine operation have been ruled ipso facto out of bounds. Verboten. Right?”
Prone on his sofa, Strickland incanted the unsayable: “No coat-trailing. No honey-traps. No doubles. No stimulated defections. No émigrés. No bugger all.”
After listening to a bit more, particularly about how the émigré groups — one of which his dead former agent previously headed — had been “dustbinned,” Smiley finally responds: “What utter nonsense.”