The Power of Secret Knowing
A DISTINGUISHED ENGLISHMAN, THEN THE CHIEF OF HIS Britannic Majesty's secret services, once showed me, with justifiable pride, his extensive library on secret intelligence and operations. With wry amusement, he chose an ancient volume, which turned out to be the journal of one of his predecessors, the secretary to Sir Francis Walsingham, who was, besides his many other duties, in charge of intelligence for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the First. Opening the book at random, we glanced at an entry in which this gentleman, almost four centuries before, noted: "I today went out and hired me a base fellow." He then went on to record the "base fellow's" duties, which were quite simply to inform on a particular group of his fellow subjects.
Although the officer's terminology is today archaic, something of his attitude remains with us. Those who inform in secret, those who are not what they appear to be, those who accept hospitality in order to probe the weaknesses by which the host can be brought to his knees, those whose true purposes are masked behind a tissue of lies and stealth - all such people generally inspire what we take to be a certain repugnance. In America it is usual to identify this repugnance with morality; to feel it is to be a moral person. The story of the parent punishing the child who tattles instead of the culprit is almost - but unfortunately not completely - a relished part of American folklore. The story has often been recounted of Henry Stimson's cold reply when, as Secretary of State, the American code-breaking operation was explained to him. "Gentlemen don't read each other's mail," he said, pushing aside the pile of proffered telegrams.
Regretfully, I must demur from the viewpoint that this repugnance is an evidence of moral quality in the person experiencing it. It is, in modern man, no more a sign of a moral attitude than the phraseology of Good Queen Bess's police chief really reflected contempt on his part for his hireling. Resentment and dislike in both cases, yes, but in neither case caused by anything so reassuring as moral or social superiority. On the contrary, it is the very need for reassurance which provokes the assumed superiority. For what the informer or secret agent really inspires in us is fear.
Historically, in every age, in every kingdom, in every state, informers have played a key role as one of the means by which rulers have maintained their power over the ruled. In ancient Athens there existed an entire class of people who made their living and were entitled to some important privileges by virtue of being informers: their existence and their privileges were a principal bone of contention between the democratic and oligarchic factions; but they were still used even in the periods of democratic rule. Byzantium, Renaissance Italy, Stuart and Puritan England, the Japanese Shogunate - all contained a similar class. Great as was Napoleon's power over France at the height of his career, it was thoroughly consolidated by an enormous network of informers established by his redoubtable Minister of Police, Fouché, often described as the founder of the modern police state but, historically speaking, far from an innovator. As an English journal described the situation in 1887, "In the absence of 'informer' evidence, the great majority of cases would fail for want of legal proof." Today, in the United States of America, if you denounce your neighbour to the Treasury for income tax evasion, you will receive a negotiable percentage of what the Treasury collects. Every American municipal police force in any town or city of size is dependent in large measure on informers. The F.B.I. assiduously adds to its files, both criminal and political, by means of informers. Whether used to reinforce the police power or political power, informers are a universal prop to authority.
Culturally, the memory of the days when political power was greatly dependent upon informers lingers in our civilization. Even without the living example of the technique offered by modern Communist states, we are all instinctively fearful of the informers, the secret agent. Whether we know our history or not, our civilization remembers, with unspoken fear, that the informer, the man operating in secrecy, is a threat to every man's life and physical freedom. To be denounced is to run afoul of authority; to run afoul of authority is to be exposed to the cost and the caprice of justice - and justice, at its best human and imperfect, is always, to greater or lesser degree, but one aspect of the established political power.
Resentment against the informer and secret agent is not only a matter of historical memory. Any organized society is intolerant of those who set themselves apart from the prevailing norms. Any group's major rewards are reserved for those who most wholeheartedly accept and most vigorously personify the group's ideals. Psychologists, sociologists and philosophers have abundantly remarked the similarity between the position of the artist and that of the criminal in any society. What the two have in common is the fact that they set themselves apart from society; they are by nature sceptical of its ideals, of its morals and interests; they arrogate to themselves the right to reject the established code and to live by their own. It is human nature to resent such independence, even arrogance. This resentment is the price the artist pays for the independent point of view which nourishes his art; punishment, the active expression of this resentment, is the price the criminal pays for his attempt to achieve the society's aims by asocial means.
The secret agent is akin to both the artist and the criminal. His techniques are similar to those of the criminal: they are illegal or anti-social. His point of view is similar to that of the artist in that he does not accept - at least after sufficient experience he should not - the society's myths about itself. He is prone to see the society from a distance, to exploit its customs and relationships for ends which are not part of its publicly avowed ideals. While the secret agent's work gives him a valuable opportunity to see from a broader, more realistic, even if harsher perspective, he is none the less a man apart. We sense this, and we are disturbed by it. The fact that the secret agent in effect abuses the habits and relations of our society with the sanction, however secret, of established authority, only adds resentment to the disturbance.
He is a species of legal criminal: his connection to sources of power only reinforces the underlying human reaction that he is not only a man apart, but a privileged one at that. He adopts the stance of the artist or criminal, but by a special dispensation of the powers-that-be he is exempted from the normal risks of such behaviour. This cannot help but strike us as unfair and abnormal.
The secret possessor of information produces a feeling of unease in us for an even more fundamental reason than the political history or social organization of the human race. It is simply that in any situation of human conflict information is power. Blackmail - that is, the exercise for personal advantage of the power conferred by information about another's wrongdoing - is only a crude and specialized expression of this power. The power of one man over another by virtue of superior information extends far beyond the special situation of the wrongdoer. This power is an element in every situation of human competition or conflict.
The businessman's assets are not limited to his inventory and his holdings of cash and securities; they include notably what he knows about his competitors. The responsible lawyer, before entering into negotiations, studies every available source for information on those whom he will be confronting. Indeed, the American business community alone generously supports a number of enterprises whose sole function is purveying information about persons and corporations. The employer telephones concerning a prospective employee: "What do you know about him?" The suitor who knows his rival's plans is thereby enabled to forestall them. The general preparing an attack must know the relative strength of the forces opposing him. It is worthy of note here that the student who steals the questions for his examinations is not in fact making use of the axiom that information is power. The axiom is true of situations of competition and conflict; the student by his action shows that he has misinterpreted a situation of long-term competition with his fellow-students as being a temporary one of conflict with his professor. His secret, and misdirected, action to uncover what is in his professor's mind is of no avail against the long-run competition of his fellow-students. The principle, "Know your enemy," has a double meaning.
By and large, for information to be power it must be secret. (The qualifying "by and large" covers the instances where the opponent has not, so to speak, done his homework: he has not prepared himself for the encounter, nor marshalled his resources in the most efficient manner. In this case, he is by definition in an inferior position and has, in effect, abandoned the contest.) Our businessman whose assets include what he knows about his competitors also has liabilities which consist of what his competitors know about him. But what he knows they know about him is not a liability; that much he can take into account in estimating and meeting competition. What he does not know that they know about him, his resources and his plans, is precisely what they can use against him, to outwit and outmanoeuvre him. The rival of our suitor, knowing that his next manoeuvre has been given away, can alter it. Or the defending general who does not know that the size and state of his forces are known accurately by the enemy, sees no reason to reinforce or regroup them, and thereby confers value on the attacker's possession of that information. This is basic to all human competitive activity or conflict. Therefore, for a fundamental human reason also, the secret agent, the informer, provokes in us a feeling of unease. We do not know what or how much he knows.
Fundamental as these reactions may be, they are not, of course, the entire story. Other pressures tend to produce quite opposite reactions, particularly in our own times. A trace of envy of the supposed ability of the secret agent to cast aside established conventions and relationships is apparent in the fiction about private detectives and in spy thrillers. Romanticized, melodramatic, they are first cousins of the Anglo-Saxon legend of Robin Hood, the Teutonic Til Eulenspiegel and Islam's Nasreddin.
The ideological content of the secret war today - which resembles nothing so much as the European religious wars of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation - plus the enormous growth in population, have brought the prestige of the State to bear on the question of informing. The theory is advanced, and supported by all the power of the State, that it is the duty of every citizen to inform. This is official doctrine even in the United States, although it is by no means clear that every American citizen has wholeheartedly accepted it. I have been, of necessity, many times approached by the F.B.I, or by other security agencies, about various of my fellow citizens. I have each time accepted the official view that it was my duty to speak fully; but the only times that I was ever able to do so without an underlying feeling of discomfort were when I realized that I was in a position to help someone unjustly under suspicion-a far from infrequent occurrence. Informing to the F.B.I. is still in America a matter of individual conscience. It is not clear whether this is still so when the investigating body is a Congressional committee, and the issue is the denunciation of other citizens. But the pressure of official morality is on the side of informing, and it is probably accepted by the majority of Americans at this stage.
More important, however, than either escape fiction or official morality as counterweight to an instinctive negative reaction to the secret agent is the age-old principle, "It depends whose ox is gored." This principle succeeds in polarizing and simplifying the matter, so that my agent is a hero and yours is a villain. Attitudes within the nation towards the "base fellow," the police informer, the F.B.I. informant, the Senator's secret source in a Government department, the bank's confidential investigator, the private detective for hire, depend on to whom you talk. Discussing this subject, a former Vice-Chairman of the Democratic National Committee told me that his ouster from that post had come about because another faction in the party had subverted his secretary - with money - so that all his confidential correspondence was betrayed. He had finally become philosophical about it, but it took years for his rage to subside. On the other hand, one of the most imperturbably jolly men I ever knew was a man who commanded a six-figure annual income because his confidential connections in the U.S. Government were such that he could inform his clients in private industry of the details of their competitors' plans and contracts.
Among nations, in the international secret war of our time, the problem is even more simplified. Here, it is the sacred cow of nationalism that decides whose ox is gored. This standard of judgment is inculcated early. Every American child exposed to American history knows the story of Nathan Hale, the Connecticut militia officer who volunteered to go behind the British lines disguised as a schoolmaster in order to provide General Washington with information about British forces on Long Island, and who was caught and hanged by the British. American children also know about John André, the British officer who, on behalf of General Clinton in New York, secretly negotiated the agreement with Benedict Arnold to deliver West Point into British hands, and who was caught and hanged by the Americans. Concerning these two secret agents, a leading American encyclopedia phrases the opening sentences of the entries under their names as follows: "Hale, Nathan; 1755-76: American patriot in the American Revolution," and "André, John; 1751-80: British spy in the American Revolution." At the same time, few British children have ever heard of Nathan Hale, and Major André is commemorated in Westminster Abbey.
The arrangement is emotionally very practical, since it allows us to separate the conflicting elements in our ambivalent attitude towards the secret agent into "good" men and "bad" men. It is also useful in guiding popular feeling into support for the State. Thus, many Western observers commented unfavourably on the virulence of the prosecutor and of the Soviet Press during the Moscow trial of Francis Gary Powers, pilot of the U-2. On the other hand, a judge trying an accused Soviet secret agent in New York in the summer of 1961 stated in court that "conspiracy to commit espionage is analogous to mass murder," a remark the Press reported entirely without comment.
This simplification into melodrama is avoided by the professionals of the secret war. It is neither a lack of patriotism nor of determination to win, but a simple recognition of the facts of international life, an unwillingness to underestimate their tasks, and a desire for precision which lead them to use a different terminology from that employed by public orators, prosecuting attorneys, and mystery writers, Thus, the words "spy" and enemy are not used among professionals; they become, respectively, "agent" and "the opposition." And there is in this certainly a tacit, even if precarious, mutual respect which is the universal mark of competing professionals. This mutual respect should not, of course, be confused with any code of chivalry; the basic theory of this kind of conflict begins with the premise that no holds are barred.
The possibility of isolating and identifying a class of professionals in this type of conflict is a unique feature of modern times. The conflict itself, its techniques and manoeuvres, are as old as mankind because they are an intrinsic aspect of human relations. Before the end of the eighteenth century, these skills were part of the attributes of every man concerned with public affairs. The famous description of Jefferson - "a gentleman who can plot an eclipse, survey a field, plan an edifice, break a horse, play the violin, dance the minuet" - could, if applied to almost all of his peers and contemporaries, have included "and conceive and execute a secret political intrigue." Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, among Jefferson's American contemporaries, distinguished themselves in this field. And to this day, the bribes and clandestine intrigues of Don Bernardino de Mendoza, Ambassador of Philip II of Spain to the Court of Henri III of France, who - by playing on the ambitions and avarice of the Duc de Guise, the selfishness of Catherine de Medici, and the Parisian Catholic mobs' suspicion of the Huguenots - insured that France would be so embroiled in internal strife that she could make no move either to aid the English against the assault of the Spanish Armada or to endanger the exposed Spanish flank in Flanders, remain a model of a successful combined secret intelligence and political operation. In effect, an important military victory, however temporary, was won for Spain without a single Spanish soldier ever being involved.
Ambassadors today are often expected to obtain similar results; they are enjoined, however, from using Mendoza's techniques. A division of labour in this, as in all other fields, has developed whereby only a particular group of people work with these tools. These are the professionals of the secret war. These professionals are not limited to officials and agents of the Central Intelligence Agency in the United States, of M.I.6 in Great Britain, of the Service de Documentation et Contre-Espionage in France, of the Gehlen Organization in West Germany, of the State Security agencies in the Communist countries, or of their numerous counterparts in other governments around the world. The circle is larger and more flexible than that. To be sure, these official employees constitute a core - and, in our day, a bureaucratic growth - among those who may be termed professional. But beyond them anyone who at any time has had to master in action the techniques of secret operations against a stake involving his life, his freedom, or his livelihood, must also be counted a professional.
Such mastery is not necessarily a matter of formal training. All governmental secret services maintain training divisions and schools, but mere exposure to their courses does not make a professional. The man must be tried. The fact that I was myself some eight years actively engaged in secret operations before I was finally dragooned into a training course does not of itself prove the point. However, the successes of the American Abolitionist underground in the mid-nineteenth century are a persuasive example, as were the various European undergrounds organized during World War II. In these resistance movements there were neither time nor facilities to train the thousands of men and women who entered into clandestine life. Some died learning, some had a natural talent, some learned and lived-all were professionals and remain such, whatever their later work. The experience, if genuine, and however gained, makes a professional and marks a man. The Director-General of the French Sûreté once remarked to me apropos of some of his own more lurid Resistance experiences that he did not believe a man could fully understand our age unless he had spent some time in prison. The remark is not inapplicable to secret operations.
The individuals who work inside the circle of secret operations share one thing in common: a conscious awareness of their purpose and function. Beyond this, however, there are great differences, individually speaking, in degree of knowledge and in function. So far as degree of knowledge is concerned, the scale is hierarchic: that is, the man at the bottom of the hierarchy - in theory - knows the least; the man at the top again in theory knows the most. Information is power in this context too. The reason that this hierarchic arrangement does not work perfectly in practice is because secret operations, while secret in their conduct and techniques, deal with the relations among human beings and are therefore accessible or visible to the correct perception. After a certain amount of experience has been gained, a competent agent develops this perception; he knows in principle what secret operations are being conducted, and he can often recognize them in fact and detail when himself unconnected with them. To compensate for this, as well as to protect information from too wide a dispersion, compartmentalization - only a bureaucracy could have invented such a word - is standard practice in all secret services. This is simply the organized application of the principle that an individual may know only that which he needs to know for the performance of his own tasks. In a secret intelligence operation, for example, the ideal - not often achieved - is to limit any individual agent's knowledge of the identities of other agents to one only, or, at a maximum, two. This minimizes risk, safeguards the secrecy which makes information power, and confines broad knowledge to a relatively small concentration of persons at the very top of the hierarchy. In this sense, the oft-used simile which likens secret operations to an octopus is especially apt.
The tentacle of an octopus has no organ enabling it to know what the other tentacles are doing, and yet it does not act independently. A single brain guides the movements of all the tentacles, co-ordinating them by means of nerves and muscles. The muscles of the octopus of secret operations are the ingredient of discipline in the human relations of the personnel of the operations. If this discipline - the muscle - is ineffective, obviously the operation - the tentacle - is defective. However, what constitutes effective discipline in secret operations is not the same as the military version of this quality; it is described in detail in the next chapter.
The nerves, however, must be visualized as a chain of knowing, in which the sensitivity or electric impulse which marks the function of the nerve is represented by the control of knowing. By control is not necessarily meant the limitation of knowledge; this is the function of compartmentalization. Control means simply knowing who knows what. It is important in secret operations for the reason that a man possessing certain knowledge will behave differently than if he did not possess that same knowledge; he will also have a different understanding or conception of himself and of the circumstances surrounding him.
This is obviously not true to the same extent of all kinds of knowledge, nor even of the same item of knowledge in all circumstances. The knowledge of Hopi Indian lore would not particularly affect an American agent working in Poland, but his knowledge of the identity of every other American agent in Poland would be a dangerous risk for all the other agents, besides endowing him with undesirable power and possibilities of action. A more concrete example was the Allied invasion of Normandy. Everyone in the British Isles in 1944 knew there was going to be an invasion; only a specifically authorized few - the "bigoted" - knew the date or place, and even fewer knew both. And no one knew either or both without having that fact recorded in a central register - which is a more than usually formal version of control. When Hitler contemplated the invasion of the Soviet Union, the German Ambassador to Moscow was kept totally in the dark until the attack had already been launched. Knowing the Ambassador's sentiments against such an attack, Hitler and Ribbentrop well knew that he could not perform his task of allaying Soviet suspicions if he possessed the knowledge. Again control.
To some extent this matter of control is one of the functions of counter-espionage. However, it is also a daily ingredient in the work of anyone engaged in secret operations. It can become a passion. One of my colleagues, directing an operation in which control was one of his principal preoccupations, gave a vivid example of how far this passion can go. An associate, coming into his office one night to work, strolled across to his window before switching on his light. Looking across the courtyard, he saw my colleague, in his office, locked in passionate embrace with his secretary. Reflecting but a moment, the observer went to his telephone and dialled the appropriate number. Regretfully relinquishing his secretary, my colleague answered his telephone, only to have the voice of the unseen observer say, "This is God speaking. Aren't you ashamed?" As my colleague later confided to a friend, he finally broke off the relationship with the girl, since all he could do when with her was worry about the fact that he didn't know who knew.
Neither discipline nor control, of course, are the object of secret operations, any more than mere motion is the object of the octopus's movements. The octopus seeks food; secret intelligence operations seek information, The information sought is by no means limited to that concerning actual or potential enemies, although that is of primary importance. Relations between states, even in an organized bloc such as the Soviet Union and its satellites, always have sufficient elements of conflict and competition so that information about each other always has value. One measure of the degree of friendliness in relations between states is the quantity and type of information they make readily available to each other. Even among the closest allies, however, there is information which is withheld - and therefore sought. If it is withheld because it would adversely affect relations, then it is of value as revealing negative elements in those relations. If it is withheld as a prerogative of sovereignty, an exercise of independence, the very reason suggests that the information is power. And in the case of a friendly, but not allied, state, there is always the added attraction that a mutual friend can often tell you much about your enemy - even if he is also performing the same service for your enemy with respect to you. Nevertheless, secret operations between allied friendly states are usually held to a minimum, and the greatly preponderant effort is to find information about the enemy - actual or potential.
The information sought about the enemy concerns his capabilities and his intentions. It is much easier to find out about capabilities than it is about intentions. The difference is that between poker and chess. In poker that which is hidden is the strength of the opponent. His intentions play no part in the game, which revolves around guessing or deducing his strength - his capabilities. Thus the characteristic play in poker is the bluff-the masking of capabilities. In chess on the other hand, the opponent's strength is on the board, readily visible. The game centres entirely on the opponent's intentions, and the characteristic play is the feint-the masking of intentions. In poker the player wants to know what cards his opponent holds; in chess he wants to know what moves his opponent intends to make with his visible resources. Obviously, of the two, intentions are of much greater importance, since from them flows action.
Intentions, however, are so difficult of access that a major role of diplomacy is simply to analyse intentions. Secret operations seek to reinforce the analyses of diplomacy with concrete information.
One of the constant dangers to national destiny - and to international peace - is the fact that military (and Leninist) doctrine resorts to an extrapolation of intentions from capabilities, based on an underlying assumption that intent is always hostile. In its simplest form, this means that if a man has a gun, he intends to shoot you; ergo, if you find out that your neighbour has a gun, either you get a bigger gun, or you move out of the neighbourhood, or you force him out of the neighbourhood, or you shoot him first. This is indeed the proper way to run an army, but far from a responsible way to guide the destinies of a whole people.
Accordingly, a greater value attaches to the information concerning enemy intentions which is produced by secret operations than that concerning enemy capabilities, provided, of course, that information on capabilities is at a reasonably satisfactory level. Before and during the Second World War, one of the favourite problems of all secret operations travellers on the Trans-Siberian Raifroad was whether the Soviets had built a tunnel under the Amur River at Khabarovsk, where the railroad crosses the river on a highly vulnerable bridge. The interest stemmed from the fact that if there was no tunnel, and the Japanese destroyed the bridge in the event of hostilities, then the Soviet Maritime Provinces to the south, including the port of Vladivostok, would be cut off from Soviet supplies. If there were several foreigners on the train, you could usually tell who of your fellow travellers were connected with secret operations: even if the train crossed the river at four in the morning, there would always be a few strollers about in the corridors, peering with bland bafflement into the murk, trying to distinguish a likely-looking spur track. (I reported the tunnel was built, but I don't know to this day whether I may not have been looking at a false entrance. The Soviets knew about all those early-morning risers too.) Nevertheless, this information, interesting as it might potentially be, could not compare with the immediate and more important value which attached to my report in 1945 on the changed line taken by Communist Party agitators in the Soviet factories, as but one indication of inimical Soviet intentions towards the United States.
When all this information has been gathered, however, the job of secret operations is by no means finished. Secret information is indeed power, but it is only power in a situation of conflict or competition. And in such a situation, power is meaningless unless it is used, either implicitly or directly, to achieve desired goals. In the secret war those goals are the fulfilment of national policies; they require the adaptation of secret intelligence operations techniques to political conflict.
This adaptation encounters serious obstacles, however. Every secret operation produces information; a purely political operation - a youth festival, for example - produces information, and depends for its execution upon information; on the other hand, it is almost never that an intelligence operation is without political effect or implication. This interrelation of information and politics, of information as power, and the use of that power, is one of the major problems of secret operations, Ideally, the two should be divorced - but they cannot be. The great majority of secret intelligence operations at some point utilizes an agent, or numbers of agents, whose purpose in the operation is political: they are against somebody or they are for something. At the same time, the purely political agent is to information like flypaper to a fly. Furthermore, the adaptation of secret operations techniques derived from intelligence operations to political operations is hindered - at great cost to the political objectives - if the philosophy and techniques of information for information's sake govern. Similarly, it is out of the question to engage in secret intelligence operations on a purely political basis.
In the 1961 Cuban affair, for example, it was impolitic - to put it mildly - to attempt the political overthrow of Castro with Right-wing Cuban politicians; it would likewise be inefficient to limit our intelligence sources about Cuba to Centre or Left-Wing Cubans. In the one case the political objectives are gravely jeopardized; in the other, possible valuable information is rejected. Nevertheless, the national interest requires that we use all three: how to reconcile them? Particularly when a Left-wing politician, co-operating in a political operation, objects to the use of a Right-wing politician in an intelligence operation as implying political support for the latter - an interpretation favoured and probably even expounded gratuitously by the Right-wing politico? This problem in secret operations is inevitable and eternal. No secret service has solved it perfectly yet. In the United States, unfortunately, the solution has weighed predominantly on the side of information for information's sake, to the great detriment of our political operations, our power and our prestige. The problem will be examined in detail elsewhere.