Espionage Books Worth A Damn: The New Spymasters


The New Spymasters: inside espionage from the Cold War to global terror, by Stephen Grey

Despite the continuing value of intelligence methods like telecommunication interception and satellite imagery, when operating against a shadowy terrorist group—especially one hiding within a civilian population—one of the best sources an intelligence organisation can have is a trusted insider who’s prepared to reveal the inside workings of the target. The decades long Cold War allowed both sides to be patient in their efforts to recruit such sources. One of the most notorious spies of that era, Kim Philby was first recruited by the Soviets in the mid 1930s. Fifteen years later he was the leading British intelligence figure in the United States, responsible for liaison with the CIA.

But there’s an intrinsic uncertainty with human sources of intelligence. The Soviets were never sure about the bona fides of their agents in the west, and were deeply suspicious of the information they passed. The risk that an agent is actually a double—still loyal to their own nation or group while posing as an agent for an adversary—always hangs heavily. In 2009 the CIA and Jordan thought they’d found a well-placed al-Qaeda insider in Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, only to have seven CIA staff killed when he detonated a suicide bomb at a CIA base in Afghanistan.

Stephen Grey’s well-researched book is a good primer in the tradecraft of human intelligence, or ‘humint’. It’s not an edifying business—ultimately a successful humint operation relies on someone being persuaded to betray their country, cause or friends. As a result, it’s a difficult ethical landscape, and both the agents themselves and their handlers face dilemmas in deciding where lines are drawn. As Grey describes, the relationship between the source and the handler works best when there’s a real bond between them—but that has to coexist with the intrinsically problematic reason for the pairing.

It’s not just the interpersonal aspects that are difficult. If the agent is inside a criminal and/or violent organisation, the agency running the operation has to decide how much criminality can be tolerated from their ‘asset’. British intelligence had to weigh the benefit of having a well-placed IRA informer (codenamed SteakKnife) against the acts that he had to be complicit in to maintain his cover. There are allegations that even murder was tolerated to keep SteakKnife’s cover intact.

The ‘classic’ spy like Philby or SteakKnife is allowed to work their way up in an organisation to be able to provide intelligence on the innermost workings and thinking of the leadership. In state-on-state intelligence that takes time, but climbing the hierarchy generally doesn’t involve involve the agent openly committing violent criminal acts. In the case of a violent organisation like the IRA, it gets harder, and the argument may have come down to the prevention of a ‘greater harm’.

Those issues perhaps become more problematic when the agent concerned is inside a terrorist group bent on inflicting mass casualties. Grey’s chapter on Jihad hints at a disturbing possibility that French intelligence was prepared to allow an inside source they were running within an extremist group to deliver a car bomb to a group in Algeria which ended up taking the life of 42 people. Given that western authorities have tended to take an approach of acting quickly to prevent terrorist attacks in their own countries whenever possible, even at the expense of blowing the cover of their intelligence sources, it’d be profoundly cynical to tolerate an act of mass murder elsewhere.

Grey’s main thesis is that humint successes like those in the Cold War or against the IRA can be replicated against even the most dangerous jihadist groups. He starts with a fair point: proselytising groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS welcome converts, so it should be possible to offer them some. Westerners have been able to get into those organisations, so it should be possible to place an agent. Of course it’s likely that’s already happening, but it’d be very dangerous work as ISIS gets increasingly paranoid about any traitors in the ranks.

Grey also takes issue with the west’s policy of pursuing a process of ‘decapitation’ of terrorist groups. Forcing them into a more cellular and less central structure reduces the strategic value of intelligence and the chance of getting an agent into a place to gather real insight. Grey also observes that the IRA wasn’t ‘decapitated’. Instead, its leadership aged and mellowed, and was eventually brought into a political process that helped end the problems. That won’t be possible if we keep rejuvenating the leadership with younger hotheads.

Grey concludes that intelligence against jihadists has ceased to be strategic. Rather than trying to understand the root causes of extremist movements, political leaders and their intelligence agencies have ‘become infected with a control-room mentality’. He quotes an intelligence agent as saying that the mission in Afghanistan was ‘not to understand the enemy but to defeat it’. By taking such a tactical view, we’ll probably end up doing neither. Practiced correctly, intelligence provides understanding at the strategic level and targeting data at the tactical level.

Read the Original Article at The Strategist

The Warrior Ethos

This essay was written in 2012 en route to my second deployment to Afghanistan with a reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition squadron. A family friend and Vietnam veteran recommended I keep a journal to remember my deployments. I used this journal to create “dispatches” that I sent to my family back home.     

“The dictionary defines ethos as: The moral character, nature, disposition and customs of a people or culture…The Warrior Ethos is a code of conduct—a conception of right and wrong, of virtues and of vices. No one is born with the Warrior Ethos, though many of its tenets appear naturally in young men and women of all cultures. The Warrior Ethos is taught. On the football field in Topeka, in the mountains of the Hindu Kush, on the lion-infested plains of Kenya and Tanzania. Courage is modeled for the youth by fathers and older brothers, by mentors and elders. It is inculcated, in almost all cultures, by a regimen of training and discipline. This discipline frequently culminates in an ordeal of initiation. The Spartan youth receives his shield, the paratrooper is awarded his wings, the Afghan is handed his AK-47.”
—From The Warrior Ethos by Steven Pressfield

As I sat in chilly Manas at 0130 waiting to go to bag drop at 0415, I found myself not wanting to sleep, but to read. In a flurry of last minute purchases, I downloaded a few books onto my Kindle for the trip. I’ve always had a place in my heart for military leadership-type books, because I truly believe (through countless lectures) that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. I, however, subscribe to a different thought in the same vein. That is, leaders learn from their mistakes, great leaders learn from the mistakes of others. My philosophy has been to make those mistakes and learn constantly, but if you can learn from others and avoid some, you’ll set yourself apart from the pack.

I started with The Warrior Ethos, and being a short book, finished it in an hour or so. It has been a while since I have highlighted that much in a book (digitally, of course). It got me thinking about the prototypical question that we, as soldiers, receive all too often: Why do we do it?

The Spartans would argue that we do it for love. Love of one another. The Spartans had a phrase: What is the opposite of fear?


I remember my former squadron commander asking me that question while on patrol in Iraq, because he felt (and I agree) that everyone should read Gates of Fire (by Steven Pressfield as well). What this means, is that you overcome fear by love of your brothers.

That is why the punishment for losing your spear or helmet in Spartan culture was a whipping, but loss of your shield was punishable by death. Your shield protects the man to your left; the rest is for personal protection. This is why when you read interviews with Medal of Honor winners, or talk to them in person, their answer is universal: Why did you do it?

For my comrades.

Or, as Pressfield more eloquently put it: “Courage is inseparable from love and leads to what may arguably be the noblest of all warrior virtues: selflessness.”

But why do I have a platoon with men ranging from 19-42 years old? What causes a kid in our society to up and decide he wants to, willingly, enlist in a time of war?

The Warrior Archetype.

Pressfield wrote, “Archetypes are larger-than-life, mythic scale personifications of the stages we pass through as we mature.” He goes on to say, “Something inside us makes us want to jump out of airplanes and blow stuff up. Something makes us seek out mentors—tough old sergeants to put us through hell, to push us past our limits, to find out what we’re capable of. And we seek out comrades in arms. Brothers who will get our backs and we’ll get theirs, lifelong friends who are just as crazy as we are.”

Each of my guys has a different internal drive to serve; my platoon sergeant has a family history with 1-4 CAV dating back to the Civil War; guys were looking to get their lives on track…or back on track; others did it to support their families during the economic collapse. Regardless of what the motivation to join, they are here, and they are brothers in arms.

The Army has a Warrior Ethos that my soldiers have in spades: “I will always place the mission first, I will never accept defeat, I will never quit, I will never leave a fallen comrade.”

Read the Remainder at The Strategy Bridge