'The New Spymasters: Inside Espionage from the Cold War to Global Terror', by Stephen Grey - Review

By Rifkind, Malcolm | The Spectator, June 6, 2015 | Go to article overview

'The New Spymasters: Inside Espionage from the Cold War to Global Terror', by Stephen Grey - Review


Rifkind, Malcolm, The Spectator


The New Spymasters: Inside Espionage from the Cold War to Global Terror Stephen Grey

Penguin, pp.348, £20, ISBN: 9780670917402

Spying may be one of the two oldest professions, but unlike the other one it has changed quite a lot over the years, and continues to do so.

During the quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, the main preoccupation of our intelligence agencies has not been with classic espionage by the Soviet Union, or with identifying new Philbys operating on their behalf. Espionage still goes on, but it is small beer compared to the terrorist threat that commands no less than 75 per cent of our agencies' time and resources.

Stephen Grey takes us through the transformation in the recent past experienced by MI6, MI5 and GCHQ, as well as their counterparts in the United States. His central theme, however, is the essential requirement of human intelligence (HUMINT) if our agencies are to meet the demands and expectations imposed on them by politicians and the public.

In the last two years we have been mesmerised by, and preoccupied with, the Snowden revelations, the explosive growth of the internet and the effect of all this on the battle against terrorism in its various forms. Since Snowden we have had dire warnings of an onslaught on our civil liberties by GCHQ's alleged bulk surveillance. This has been accompanied by the intelligence agencies' worries that their ability to detect terrorist threats has been seriously compromised by the increased use of encryption on the internet and by their targets' growing awareness of their capabilities.

Grey doesn't dismiss these concerns in his lucid, well-written analysis, but he reminds us that, however sophisticated the technology, the reliability of the information obtained will be limited if uncorroborated by good old-fashioned human sources. He writes of a 'key weakness of modern espionage, when decisions are taken on the basis of technical intelligence alone and in the absence of good human intelligence'. He acknowledges that human spies can be 'frail and unreliable, but without any element of understanding and verification through human intelligence, and without basic common sense, terrible errors are bound to follow. …

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