The New Spymasters

Title:                      The New Spymasters

Author:                  Stephen Grey

Grey, Stephen (2015). The New Spymasters: Inside The Modern World of Espionage from The Cold War to Global Terror

LCCN:    2015011888

JF1525.I6 G74 2015


Date Posted:      September 7, 2016

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[2]

British journalist Stephen Grey’s investigations of spies and secret agents have uncovered some new truths about an old profession—at least that is the message he seeks to convey in The New Spymasters. The book begins with a summary of the CIA catastrophe in Khost, Afghanistan, where a double agent suicide bomber killed seven CIA officers, a Jordanian intelligence officer, and an Afghan driver. It was, writes Grey, “a proof-of-life signal” that “the spy game was not over.” (p. 2) Returning to this theme later, he writes, “The secret agent is not dead—far from it. For all his faults, attempts to write off the agent were misguided and misinformed. As will become clear, the nature of spies and the value of human intelligence, had {sic] been misunderstood from the beginning. First rule of intelligence: forget everything you know.” (p. 16) Contemplating these pronouncements one might reasonably ask, “Who said ‘the spy game was over’, the `secret agent was dead’, and where did the ‘first rule’ come from?” Grey doesn’t elaborate, but he does use the term “spymasters” frequently as if it were part of the professional lexicon, which it is not.

As a first step to make things clear and establish what spies do, Grey reviews some classic MI6, MI5, and CIA espionage cases from the Bolshevik Revolution to the end of the Cold War. He includes the exploits of Sidney Reilly; Cambridge spies—incorrectly calling Philby and Blunt double agents; the ‘Steak Knife’ (sic) (actually STAKEKNIFE) case against the IRA; an operation in Cyprus; and some exemplars from Markus Wolf’s East German foreign intelligence agency. He suggests that these cases and others indicate that “the nature of the spy business is frequently portrayed wrongly [and] so, too, is the character of the Cold War’s real warriors—the intelligence officers at the heart of the business.” (p. 49) Just what Grey meant by “character of the Cold War warrior” is never made clear. As an example of the incorrect portrayal of the nature of the business, he considers the recruitment process often depicted in memoirs and novels as the slow, careful development of potential agents until they consent to cooperate.

Citing former CIA officer Milt Bearden, Grey argues that since most agents were walk-ins (though he does cite some exceptions), “The heart of the business was not recruiting, but rather running spies and the handling of active agents… to securely handle people in Moscow under the noses” of the KGB. (p. 53) Few would argue with Bearden’s assessment, but Grey’s conclusion that it constitutes a real change in “the nature of the spy business” is questionable and unsubstantiated.

With this pre-9/11 background, The New Spymasters takes a look at the post-9/11 world of espionage. He discusses the difficulties associated with recruiting and handling terrorist agents, and what happens when one is a fabricator, as in the CURVEBALL case. He also adds a more detailed account of the Khost incident, and then comments on the controversial rendition and drone programs, pointing out how technology has influenced the war on terror.

By way of comparis on, he mentions the improvements in technical intelligence since WWII. Before the digital age, he writes, “over several, decades, the CIA were sent a copy of every telegram in and out of the United States. All overseas phone lines were at one point tapped.” (p. 259) With modern technology, he suggests, this is no longer necessary. This out-of-the-blue unsourced allegation suggests his comprehension of CIA’s mission and capabilities needs some major fine tuning. This is not the only questionable, if not inaccurate, statement in the book. For example, William Donovan did not “found the CIA”—though he did propose such an agency. (p. 35) Then Grey’s quote of what was said about Kim Philby at St. Ermin’s Hotel; it is at best literary license, since there is no evidence that it happened. (p. 38) Also the statement that Blunt was spying on MI5 for the Soviets in the 1930s is inaccurate; he didn’t join MI5 June 1940. (p. 44) And MI5 officer Michael Bettany never tried “to sell secrets to the Soviet embassy in London.” He offered the secrets for free, as Gordievsky explained. (p. 68)

In general, uncertain sourcing is a problem throughout The New Spymasters. Grey frequently cites anonymous intelligence officers, some making astounding claims. For example, the “former CIA chief of station” who told Grey that “before the Yom Kipper War of 1973, an agent had obtained for him all of Egypt and Syria’s invasion plans” but his superiors refused to accept the report, though after the war he was proved correct. (p. 42)

The New Spymasters concludes with some rambling observations on why “spies and spymasters had to become a different breed, because the world is changing.” (p. 276) Just what he means by this is unclear, though it invokes globalization, greater cultural understanding, technology, social diversity, and universal values as considerations. While these factors may influence how the intelligence officer does his job, Grey does not seem to understand that these factors are not new and the fundamentals of the business remain unchanged. Sometimes Grey’s observations amount to non sequiturs: “When intelligence is absent, spying and spies are the last thing you need.” (p. 289) He adds, “If spying is the only way to get a secret, what secrets are really worth stealing?” (p. 292)

For those seeking one man’s introductory perspective on intelligence in today’s world, The New Spymasters meets that need. But it should be treated as the first, not the last, word.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance — at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 2, Spring 2016, pp. 123-124). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editons of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

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