Friday, July 16, 2010

The Great Cause and the Human Folly

John Le Carré

Both, America and Russia, looked 'daft and comic' in the recent spy story, according to John Le Carré, a former intelligence officer himself and the author of classic spy novels, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and the Smiley cycle.

It has been suggested that expelled Russian spies may have been a decoy for a more sophisticated operation. Or that it wasn't about spying at all, but about laundering or hiding money siphoned off from Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union. Le Carré doesn't touch upon this side of the story, even though in his recent novels greed, political provocation and self-interest stand out as big driving forces in international events. 
"modern day Russia and modern United States, they are both extremely wild capitalist countries dedicated to making money"


'The only thing I can compare it with is the story of the Japanese soldier who was left on an island and didn't know that Japanese had lost the war', he said in an interview with BBC's Radio 4 The World This Weekend programme.

'This is cold war stuff. It's using devices which are completely discredited, for example using the passports and birth certificates of people who are dead which these days just doesn't play because of all the advances in electronic investigation and so on', said Le Carre. 'And then what was the target? What fantasies had those people who recruited, and trained and manipulated these children as they were then? This is just too crazy'.

'It must have been planned, I would think, 14-15 years ago and then they must have been theoretically in place and active for 8 to 10 years. All of that took a long-long time. I can understand that such an operation was planned and set in progress in the middle of the cold war, but what is completely daft and comic is that nobody put a stop to it, nodoby said 'hey, we don't do this stuff any more'. 

'I think they look like complete fools', said Le Carré.

Complicity and self-interest

'One must build into one's assesment of these things the amount of human folly which is enshrined in intelligence services on both sides of the Atlantic and indeed in this country', the English writer pointed out.  'People who are living in capsules lose touch with the reality and this operation, on both sides of the Atlantic, shows all signs of losing touch with reality.'

'From the security point of view, he continued, if you are identifying, tracking, listening to a group of foreign spies for 8-10 years, are you telling me you don't also penetrate the group, you don't put one of yours inside, you don't put an agent provocateur up against them? There was a kind of complicity on the Western side as well.'

Asked if the capture of Russian spies was conjured up by American intelligence services as justification for their operations, John Le Carré said: 'Whichever of the intelligence services were involved, I think there are 18 of them in the United States, all competing with one another and failing to communicate, as Obama himself told us. Yes, I think probably there is an element there of people feathering their own nests, people who are experts in Russian espionage trying to demonstrate that this is the hottest show in town. And in larger political sphere there are people who find it very convenient to whip up the tensions of cold war, to recreate them and get behind the barricades.'

The BBC interviewer suggested that that was the reason why Vienna was chosen for the exchange. 'Yes, said Le Carre, they wanted a bit of show biz. Maybe on both sides of the Atlantic they wanted an element of dramatic and theatrical, so long as it reflected in a good way. Vienna, with it's resonance of The Third Man, seemed to be such place. If so, said Le Carre, they made  a very silly mistake because Graham Greene's novel was about adulterating penicillin, poisoning children, it was about really nasty people who had nothing to do with the cold war, but with the post-war chaos which is what the novel is about.

Asked if it looks like good novel material, the writer said: 'It would make a very poor story. It's almost a child's story.'

Great Cause

Le Carre wasn't really prompted to say the following, but what he chose to say about the motive is important. In his recent, post Cold War novels he sounds bitter, simply angry about the lost opportunities and that the world is developing into a colder, crueller, more cynical place. It is not, I think, an ageing man's longing for the perceived certainties of the past, it's more of a wise concern for the lack of big ideas that drive men, the spiritual vacuum which neither religion, nor greed can fill.

'I try very hard to imagine what their motive must have been,' he said. 'If you think of taking the vow to be trained and introduced into a foreign country, you then have to ask yourself,  how you motivate them as an agent runner? During the Cold War, if you think of people like Colonel Abel, a Russian who was planted in the States, it was always possible to whisper in his ear 'you are doing it for the great cause, the cause of communism'. And conversely our own spies, who spied against us, the Philbies, the Burgesses and the MacLeans, they could, in the silence of their rooms at night, they could tell themselves they were doing it for the great cause. I can't imagine what cause these people thought they were acting for. When you compare modern day Russia with modern United States, they are both extremely wild capitalist countries dedicated to making money and expansion and so on. I don't know exactly what flag these children, as they then were, thought they were sailing under.'

Photo of John Le Carré by Krimidoedel
Quotes transcripted from the radio, 
please excuse possible little errors, 
but I am sure there is nothing that could distort the writer's ideas.

Please also read on 'Tetradki':
The Great Spy Exchange
Graham Greene's letters
"Боги Багдада", Андрей Остальский

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