The Risky Business Of Being A Spy

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The Risky Business Of Being A Spy

Words by Mr Tom Cheshire

6 September 2017

_Cold War-style espionage doesn’t cut it in the digital age, but the risks for the modern-day spook are higher than ever


At 4.30am on 23 November 1941, a dinghy was lowered from the side of a British gunboat. It cut quietly through the black waters, carrying three Dutch resistance fighters and a naval lieutenant. As the boat approached the beach at Scheveningen, near The Hague, the Dutch agents slipped off and waded ashore. There, Mr Peter Tazelaar removed his drysuit. Underneath was immaculate evening dress. Another agent took out a hip flask and soused Mr Tazelaar in cognac.

Scheveningen was where high-ranking Nazi officers stationed in the Netherlands went to party. Mr Tazelaar approached the Palace Hotel, pretending to be a drunk guest to fool his way past the sentries. He quietly knocked out one guard, then planted explosives. He then retired to a nearby bar, lit a cigarette and watched the explosions.

Seventy years later, another lethal intelligence operation unfolded meticulously. Messrs Reeyad Khan and Junaid Hussain, both 21, had left the UK to join Islamic State (IS). Now in Raqqa, Syria, Mr Khan was directing plots back on UK soil – as many as seven, according to intelligence reports published later. Mr Hussain was running Islamic State’s hacking operations, as well as helping Mr Khan with communications. To do that, they used an encrypted messaging app. Unknown to Mr Hussain, one of the fighters he was speaking with was an undercover agent. During a chat, the agent sent him an innocuous message with a link to a website. When Mr Hussain clicked on the link, it was enough to reveal his location. On 21 August 2015, an RAF predator drone let loose its Hellfire missiles and destroyed the vehicle Messrs Khan and Hussain and another British IS fighter were travelling in. The drone was flown by two pilots sitting in a hangar in Waddington, Lincolnshire, 3,000 miles away.

It was a thoroughly modern assassination,“a standard kill”, according to Mr Nicholas Anderson (a pseudonym), who worked for the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) – better known as MI6 – from the 1970s until 2007.

In 2017, there’s a fundamentally different spy game going on in society’s shadows. Where once agents went up close and personal, relying on cover stories and their wits, intelligence is now conducted remotely and on a vast scale, thanks to the scope of the internet. Digital techniques are radically different from the old-fashioned subterfuge of the past. Mr Tazelaar would not recognise the world of former US National Security Agency analyst Mr Edward Snowden, even though both had the same job. In the popular imagination of espionage, James Bond, Harry Palmer and John Steed never had to hack a computer. Mr Desmond Llewelyn’s Q busied himself inventing cyanide cigarettes; Mr Ben Wishaw’s modern incarnation has a laptop. “It may seem hard to imagine this from the outside because the clichés are so prevalent, but life in the agencies is utterly unlike the experiences of George Smiley,” says Mr Dave Palmer, a former GCHQ analyst.

The reason those clichés endure, though, is because fact and fiction were hard to separate in the early days of intelligence. Mr Tazelaar is a good example. His real-life tuxedoed marine assault was turned into celluloid for the pre-title credits of Goldfinger. (With a little exaggeration. Sir Sean Connery wears a fake duck on his head.) And the reason it made its way into the James Bond franchise, according to Mr Jeremy Dun, the official historian of MI6, is because Goldfinger’s scriptwriter was also a senior intelligence officer during WWII.

That continued into the 1970s. Mr Anderson now lives on the French Riviera and writes spy novels that draw on his own experiences, which themselves sound like spy novels. When he ran “denied ops”, he was fitted with two false teeth: one containing a satellite transmitter, the other a cyanide capsule. He carried pens with cameras and recorders in them and robotic spiders that could crawl inside rooms and take pictures. “The Soviets could smear the clothes or footwear of a target with excretion from a female insect and when the target passed a particular junction, they had a male insect in a box that would go mad with desire,” he says.

Initiative was more important than gadgets, though, and the dangers spies faced were real. “In the Cold War in the 1970s, I was captured in Bulgaria,” says Mr Anderson. “Spent 11 weeks naked in an underground prison. I suffered repeated torture. My fingernails on my non-writing hand are still warped. I was lucky.”

The quixotic missions and personalities of post-war spying, which inspired so much film and fiction, gave way to a more professional approach in SIS, especially after the intelligence disaster of the Cambridge Spy Ring, which led to the deaths of scores of agents in Eastern Europe. “It’s gone from educated guesses to concrete delivery of insightful intelligence that can be used,” says Mr Anderson. For him, the golden age of spying was up to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. “My generation’s instincts were sharper than today’s simply because we didn’t have all the gadgets available to us that they do now,” he says.

Mr Palmer joined GCHQ in 2000, exactly one year before the Twin Towers were attacked. He says that 9/11, the second Gulf War, Afghanistan and the 7/7 London bombings prompted a change of direction from intelligence agencies. Rather than undermining rivals in the geopolitical game, agents had to track terrorists across borders. Even more important, though, “the modern era has seen the greatest technological change in history to date”.

GCHQ was the main beneficiary. The signals agency now has about 6,000 spies, compared with SIS’s 2,500. The networked world meant much more opportunity for eavesdropping. An internal memo in 2009, according to one of the documents leaked by Mr Snowden, had the title “Mastering The Internet”. The UK, along with the other Five Eyes countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US), enjoyed an unprecedented level of global surveillance. Spies no longer had to wade ashore in tuxedos. From the colossal “doughnut” HQ at Cheltenham, with much of the world’s internet traffic piped in, they could access the most sensitive intelligence at a few keystrokes. Armchair espionage.

But that led to its own challenges. “This era created interesting new problems, the chief of which was simply too much data to look at,” says Mr Palmer. Mr William Binney, a former technical director of the NSA, told parliament last year, “This approach costs lives, and has cost lives in Britain because it inundates analysts with too much data. It is 99 per cent useless.”

The networked age also opened up new threats, notably in cybersecurity. “The world is now a much smaller place,” says Mr Palmer. “From a hacking perspective, being able to have an asymmetrical impact against a country like the UK, with substantial armed forces and where physical attack is extremely rare, is now attainable by anyone in the world who’s prepared to invest the time to develop skills.” Mr Palmer, now the chief technology officer of cybersecurity firm Darktrace, has watched it unfold first hand. North Korea (indirectly) attacked the US with its hack of Sony. Russia took a French TV station off air. And the WannaCry malware shut down NHS hospitals, which meant patients had to be sent home in the real world. (Recent leaks from suspected Russian hackers show that the NSA and GCHQ are “astonishingly far ahead”, Mr Palmer says, when it comes to hacking.)

Digital espionage continues to evolve. Russia is pioneering a new form of social and information warfare, one that combines hacking with leaks and misinformation. The MI6 motto semper occultus (always secret) is turned on its head. During the US presidential election, hackers broke into Democratic Party servers, making no effort to cover their tracks, and duly released emails into the public domain. Fancy Bears, the group behind the hack, routinely approaches journalists, offering information in return for publicity.

Ironically, the 20-year glut in technology by spy agencies means they are now turning away from it, or at least modifying their approach. Targets are aware of agencies’ capabilities and prefer encrypted apps. Tracking them thus becomes a lot harder (although, as the killing of Messrs Khan and Hussain shows, not impossible). That means “human intelligence is even more required in the frontline”, says Mr Anderson. “Those involved in face-to-face interaction, and street surveillance especially, become more important.” Mr Palmer agrees. Human intelligence “remains the most effective mechanism, although it is the hardest to scale and to build up for new topics/areas”, he says. “You can’t suddenly start up in a new area topic or geographical area overnight.”

Perhaps, then, 2017 isn’t too dissimilar from the Cold War and the golden age of spying. Undercover agents remain vital. Russia has returned as the bête noire of western intelligence. And as for hacking the US presidential election? “For as long as I can remember, the Russians have always meddled in Western elections,” says Mr Anderson. “Likewise, the Americans have always messed in Russian politics.”

There’s a veneer of novelty. “The process has changed, but the mechanisms remain the same,” says Mr Palmer. “What hasn’t changed is the extreme bravery of small numbers of people doing extraordinary things and taking huge personal safety risks to protect us all. Not macho James Bond clichés, but normal people taking a deep breath and slipping undercover or into war zones to keep the rest of us safer.”

Spy gear

Illustrations by Mr Matteo Berton