News of political espionage
Sign up for myFT Daily Digest to be the first to know the news about political espionage.
The writer is the director of the consulting firm Mayak Intelligence and an honorary professor at UCL
What is interesting about security news in British Embassy in Berlin caught in passing confidential documents to a Russian leader, that it was so banal. As such, it reminds us that modern espionage is still not that far removed from the world portrayed by John le Carré and Len Deighton during the Cold War.
We are conditioned by the high-tech antics of cyber spies and intelligence agencies eager and early adoption of the latest tools and techniques. But the case in Berlin, assuming the allegations are proven, is a key reminder that human intelligence — humility — remains the most important of all so-called “collection disciplines”.
Hacking can access documents stored on a computer, intercepting a phone can hear a conversation, and a satellite can record an installation. But they all have workarounds. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards are sending key orders on paper via motorcycle courier to avoid wiretapping the U.S. and Israel, and Russia is using inflatable tanks to trick satellites. People are imaginative, self-sufficient, able to notice context and tell you things you didn’t know you needed to know. That is why everyone, from MI6 and the CIA to the Russians, continues to put so much effort into recruiting them.
As in the case of Berlin, most are not Kim Philbys or even Sergei Skripals of this world, but petty fry: clerks and consular officers, drivers and drinking friends, girls and guards. They will generally not have access to top secrets, but they will not pass the highest levels of verification either. Still, they will know something, and a motivated source can always get more.
Today, it may not only provide low-level intelligence, but it will also give its leader a wealth of insights at the human level. What’s the Wi-Fi password (so they can break in)? Who has a drinking problem or is again neglected to advance (maybe they are ready for employment)? It seems that which cultural attaché does nothing cultural (maybe they are a spy under diplomatic cover)? The source could be upgraded, and their guides will already have their hooks, or they may be valuable as an “access agent,” through which the case officer can come to a more enticing perspective.
It’s all pretty silly, but often tragic. When things go wrong, tiny younger ones threaten prison or worse, depending on the regime they live under. Their leader probably has diplomatic immunity and at their next annual checkup is just waiting for a trip home and maybe a middle grade.
Berlin, like any capital city, is a hotbed of intelligence, although it is not exactly what it was when it was still divided by a wall. Agents later mingled in Prague, but that ended with the Czechs recent excretion huge Russian embassies and hers residence, or an intelligence station. Instead, Vienna and Brussels are well-chosen new spy playgrounds, local counterintelligence fails, and restaurants are excellent.
Berlin is important because Germany is important – all the more so as Brexit has removed one of the poles of power on the continent. Shortly after the 2016 referendum in the UK, a former SVR officer, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, told me that “Moscow will now see Europe only as Berlin versus Paris” and that they expect “many more guys to learn German”. Whether or not this is true, the US, Britain and even China are paying more attention to the city. Russian spies equally want to know what their rivals are doing, which is illustrated by this affair.
The only unusual aspect of this case is how it became public. Counterintelligence officers usually try to turn agents into double agents. They also tend to hide how suspicious they have become. The source could simply be found “routinely” moved to a new position away from confidential materials or their contract terminated.
In this case, however, the German government is acting particularly willingly in an effort to prosecute publicly. He made a (shamefully) small noise when the Russian killer, under a contract with false documents, was submitted by the Federal Security Service – Moscow Political Police – killed a Georgian Chechen in the middle of Berlin in late 2019, and then did everything to ensure the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, perhaps its ministers finally felt they had to take a stand.
However, that will not stop anyone. In today’s world, everyone is spying on everyone else, and given that there is a technological or procedural response to every technological breakthrough, modesty will continue to be at the heart of the intelligence game.