Saturday September 30, 2023

Espionage for good

November 29, 2022

Espionage has been around since forever as one of the most effective means of gaining an advantage over rivals and competitors. It has been utilized throughout history – by kings, their courtiers, and armies, to modern-day governments, parliaments, and militaries.

Inexplicably some of the greatest feats of espionage are those that remain unheard of. Many times, it is the unsung heroes who avert wars and save lives. My career as a law-enforcement officer gave me the opportunity to witness some amazing intelligence-gathering operations, especially those that concerned international terrorism and organized crime. Their details are not mine to make public, and some of the greatest stories about our on-ground achievements remain confined to files gathering dust in some dark corner.

However, there is a certain mystery and element of thrill attached to the profession. Popular fiction and film character James Bond is often depicted as an unrivalled spy, notoriously charming, and a masculine icon. In reality, spies are often themselves spied upon and forced to live very difficult lives. The life of an intelligence officer is always at grave risk. They must make big sacrifices to secure remarkable results.

Seemingly the lives of real-life spies have been no less fascinating than their fictional counterparts. Famous British spy Greville Wynne was an engineer and businessman recruited by the UK’s MI6 in 1960. As he would travel frequently to Eastern Europe for business, he was tasked with acting as a courier for Soviet agent Oleg Penkovsky who would give him secrets, which Wynne would bring to London. The duo worked together for years. Some of the information they gathered proved crucial during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, both were caught in 1962 by the Russian KGB. Penkovsky was executed and Wynne jailed for several years. Though the British spy was released early in 1964, his personal life was deeply traumatized, and he later suffered from depression and alcoholism.

Then there’s the story of ‘Operation Mincemeat’ – a British plan during World War II to plant falsified communications about the Allies’ impending invasion of Europe on a dead body made to look like a British officer. A submarine dumped the body off the coast of Spain, in the hope that the Nazis would be fooled into thinking that the Allies were invading Greece rather than Sicily. The ploy worked, resulting in thousands of Allied soldiers' lives being saved, Mussolini's downfall and an early end to the war.

More recently, there was the 1980 extraction operation led by CIA technical operations officer Tony Mendez, who posed as the head of a Canadian film production team scouting locations in Tehran to rescue six American embassy officials who had escaped from a hostage ordeal. While his operation was successful, the other hostages took years to return to their homeland.

A variety of forms of espionage are used across the globe, yet one thing they all have in common is that they involve a betrayal of trust. After all, deception is the foundation of all warfare. However, after living such a life for a while, it becomes impossible for spies to just let go of that part of their life. It is impossible not to lose the grip on your mind when you are working in espionage. In the last decade of the character’s life, even the fictional Bond becomes a lonely and lost man – without a family and unable to settle down. It is perhaps a more accurate representation of the lives such men and women live.

For years, espionage has been an institutional effort by or within nations to secure military and security interests. Its opposite is counterintelligence, which is the practice of thwarting espionage and intelligence gathering by enemies. Knowing and not knowing are the two pillars of a spy’s life. The scope of surveillance is often unlimited, but operators may be tasked to watch other governments, armed forces, militant groups, human rights activists, social media critics, or even citizens. However, freedom cannot be protected by forcing people to spy on one another.

Unfortunately, many former intelligence officials have admitted to hacking computers, servers, and electronic devices, including those belonging to their colleagues, corporations, and national assets. It was Edward Snowden who first learnt that governments were planting malware on computers being used in various sectors of the economy, as well as on citizens’ personal devices.

In contemporary times, espionage also has a newer dimension: spying for commercial reasons and regional geopolitics. A world shaped by geoeconomics has seen espionage priorities shift from strictly national security to commercial espionage, including industrial and economic espionage. Among the traditional ways to gather information on rivals is to infiltrate their ranks, steal their technology or sabotage their operations. More recently, economic and industrial espionage involves the use of computer technologies. Malware and spyware infections are increasingly being used as tools to this end since they enable a user to transmit trade secrets, customer plans, future directions, and contact information digitally. Pegasus that switches on mobile phone cameras and recorders, is one of the newest types of tools for eavesdropping.

Perhaps there is now a need for a paradigm shift. The practice of clandestine operations may be legal, but the methods employed are often not. The truth is that espionage often creates huge liabilities as matters can easily fly out of control. Spies may go rogue, creating a major headache for their parent organizations and embarrassment for the country.

Perhaps it is time that the schools of intelligence where the prime focus right now is learning how to deceive the other also teach how to use the art of spy craft to protect those most vulnerable. Amid growing inequality and social differences and a world beset with social, political, and economic crises, perhaps the people fighting for good causes need the help espionage can give.

The writer holds a doctorate in politics and international relations and has served as a federal secretary andinspector-general of police. He tweets @KaleemImam and can be reached at: