Robert Fulford's column about imaginary spies

(Globe and Mail, February 18, 1998)

The article about espionage in the February issue of the Atlantic may look at first glance like a routine account of how rampant careerism wrecked the Central Intelligence Agency. In "Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?" a former CIA case officer writing under the name Edward G. Shirley says that living in secrecy for two generations has made the agency fat and stupid. That's by now a commonplace view. But Shirley also has something striking to say: he cites a renowned CIA officer in Latin America who "invented most of his agents and probably pocketed some agents' pay" and mentions other case officers "caught fabricating agents and intelligence reports."

Invented agents? Fabricated reports? It sounds so familiar. We've been here before--at least twice, in fact, in Our Man in Havana, by Graham Greene, and recently The Tailor of Panama, by John le Carré. But those stories of intelligence concocted for profit were comic fantasies. It had never occurred to me they were rooted in experience. When you think about it, though, spy agencies circulate a tempting amount of money. The CIA alone has (Shirley says) about 2,000 case officers, most of them hiring spies. Since spies don't give receipts, it might be easy for an imaginative spymaster to turn criminal entrepreneur. Larceny must play a considerable role in spying.

And it turns out that real events inspired Our Man in Havana. David Stafford, in The Silent Game: The Real World of Imaginary Spies, says that when Graham Greene was studying decoded German despatches for British intelligence during the Second World War, he made a remarkable discovery: German espionage officers in neutral Portugal were sending invented information back to Berlin, claiming to have received it from agents, who were also invented. The officers kept the pay of the non-existent agents. We can imagine the glee with which Greene greeted this revelation. The German spies were doing what he did in peacetime, writing stories, but selling them in an ingenious if dangerous way.

In 1958, Greene transferred the German tricks to a character of the kind he liked best, someone on the ambivalent edge of morality, "the honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist." Wormold, an Englishman employed as a vacuum-cleaner salesman in Cuba, joins British intelligence and prospers by falsifying reports. He dreams up military constructions in the Cuban mountains and even provides drawings based on vacuum-cleaner parts. Wormold's deception has tragic consequences, but he's not harmed. He's recalled to London, expecting imprisonment; instead, the intelligence service covers up the scandal by giving him an OBE and a job teaching young spies.

The title of Our Man in Havana gave a phrase to the English language, and in 1960 Carol Reed made the novel into a delightful film, with Alec Guinness as Wormold. The only people who weren't pleased were the directors of British intelligence. They thought Greene had broken the Official Secrets Act with his knowing, accurate account of the relationship between an agent and the head of station. Apparently they had a lawyer preparing to prosecute until they came to their senses.

Speaking of theft, the last line in John le Carré's The Tailor of Panama says, "After Greene's Our Man in Havana, the notion of an intelligence fabricator would not leave me alone." Long before reaching the acknowledgements, most readers will already know what Le Carré owes Greene. In fact, there are times when the only suspense in this suspense novel turns on the question, "How much will he steal?" Like Greene, Le Carré sets his story in a steamy, downtrodden, intrigue-ridden Latin American country, heavy with the American presence. Like Greene, he chooses a shopkeeper hero with a big overdraft and an inability to keep from walking toward disaster even when it's plainly just ahead. But Harry Pendel, the tailor of the title, is a dubious character even before a British intelligence recruiter blackmails him into providing whatever he can learn about "balance o' global power in the 21st century. Future o' world trade." Based roughly on Le Carré's con- man father, Harry is a jailbird from England who has re-invented himself as a Savile Row tailor. The results of his fabricated intelligence are much more violent than anything caused by Wormold. Even so, The Tailor of Panama has a recycled air.

If this kind of bogus intelligence-gathering is going on today in the CIA, the reason is apparently institutional rather than individual. As Edward G. Shirley explains, the CIA's problem is a management-by-objectives system run amok. In the 1970s, the Directorate of Operations began rating case officers according to how many spies they recruited; quantity rather than quality became the goal of the ambitious. So "the clandestine service encourages decent case officers, gradually and naturally, to evolve into liars." CIA management tries to weed out bad or fictional agents with an Asset Validation System, dedicated to "agent scrubbing," but Shirley says little has changed. As for the renowned case officer in Latin America who was found to be a fraud, he was fired but not jailed. Perhaps the CIA reasoned that prosecuting him would have created an embarrassing scandal. So he was allowed to get away with it, just like Wormold.

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