Spies and Their Contractors

Article excerpt


I confess to being a fan of John le Carre, both for his skill at storytelling and for the razor-sharp characters he creates. Laser portraits of even secondary characters make the reader believe he actually knows people like that.

I also like and admire David Cornwell, the man behind the nom de plume. Unlike many writers of crime and espionage literature, Mr. Cornwell has walked the walk. He worked for both Britain's MI-5 (domestic counter-intelligence) and MI-6 (foreign intelligence) cracking safes, tapping telephones, running agents and other covert ops. Indeed, he was so employed when he wrote his first two books, Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962), both of them worth a read, by the way.

But one of the hallmarks of a le Carre book is its topicality. Considering the long timeline it takes to bring any book from conception through research and the hard slog of writing, Mr. Cornwell has been remarkably prescient in spotting trends and the ever-shifting landscape of the international spy game.

So it is with A Delicate Truth. Unlike that portrayed in so many of Mr. le Carre's early novels, a spy operation in today's world is no longer a gentleman's game carried on by small agencies of highly educated, usually aristocratic, professionals who are both ruthless in the interests of their nation's security but also wedded to a certain set of mutual rules of engagement between their adversaries and themselves. Think of Allen Dulles and the early Ivy League cadre in the early days of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Today, independent contractors carry the heavy water for most Western intel services and while this has the benefit of expanding the reach of budget-strapped governments, it also pushes a dangerous amount of control beyond their oversight. Even powerful nations find themselves swamped by the war on international terror that is rapidly becoming indistinguishable from the global trade in drugs and arms - often weapons of state policy used by our adversaries.

The plotline of this story is as fresh as today's headlines about overreaching spy agencies, the private contractors who serve those agencies and what happens to whistleblowers who try to reveal just who it is behind the curtain twiddling the dials.

But instead of Edward Snowden, Mr. le Carre gives us Sir Christopher Kit Probyn whose mediocre career as a Foreign Office diplomat had ended after a nondescript ambassadorship to one of Britain's former island colonies in the Caribbean. He got his knighthood, his pension and decamped to the life of a rural squire in darkest Cornwall. Unlike the archetypal George Smiley of other le Carre tales, Kit tends to let his emotions take hold of him; also, he finds retirement boring.

So when he is summoned back to harness by a thuggish minister-on-the-make in the dismal days of Gordon Brown's new Labor government, he leaps at the chance. …