Showing posts with label Espionage. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Espionage. Show all posts

02 January 2019

Spy TV

by Robert Lopresti

I recently had an experience that carried me off on a cheerful wave of nostalgia.  Our current TV package provides access to an obscure channel called TubiTV.  And on it I was able to make my reacquaintance with The Sandbaggers, a spy series from Britain's ITV.  I had watched it on PBS back around 1980 when it premiered.  I was surprised at how much I remembered and how well it held up.  (It also seems to be available on Youtube.)

The series revolves around the Secret Intelligence Service (never called MI6 in the show), and it's Director of Operations, Neil Burnside (played by Roy Marsden, before he became better known as Adam Dalgleish).  Burnside is in charge of all the British agents in foreign countries around the world, but his first love is the Special Operations Section, known as the Sandbaggers.  These are the smash-and-grab boys, the ones who get sent to perform an extraction or an assassination (or prevent one). Please don't compare them to James Bond or Burnside will slit your throat.  He hates Ian Fleming's famous creation.

And as for slitting your throat, he is himself a former Sandbagger, and as ruthless as they come.  And yes, this crowd is pretty ruthless.  In the 20 episodes you will see virtually all the characters lying to each other, and often doublecrossing their superiors and allies.  Burnside would defend himself by saying he is true to the service and to his ultimate goal: destroying the KGB.  And he is willing to destroy his own career to do it.

An example of Burnside's charming personality.  In one episode he is in a restaurant and someone informs him: "I just saw your ex-wife out on the street."

"Best place for her."  Like I said, charming.

One thing I love about the show is the title.  I like to imagine it made John Le Carre, the master of fictional spy jargon, terribly jealous.  His name for the same type of group was the Scalphunters, but Sandbaggers is so much better.  "To sandbag" means "to launch a sneak attack" but it also means "to build emergency defenses."  Clever, eh?

The show had its flaws, of course.  The SIS is seen to be strangled with personnel shortages but it felt like that had more to do with TV budgets than anything else.  The inside sets look like a high school drama club production.  So many of the international crises take place in Malta that one can only assume ITV had a deal with the local tourist board.  And the last episode of the show only makes sense if you forgot everything that happened four episodes earlier.

None the less, it has been called one of the best spy shows of all time, and I'm not arguing.

The show was created, and most episodes were written, by Ian MacKintosh, a former naval officer.  Because of the series' sense of realism there was speculation that he had been involved in the spy world, but he played coy about it.  The series ends with a (hell of a) cliffhanger, because MacKintosh died unexpectedly and the network decided no one else could do it justice.

But I oversimplified when I said MacKintosh died.  In reality he and his girlfriend disappeared in a small airplane over the Pacific Ocean after radioing for help. The plane disappeared in a small area where neither U.S. nor Soviet radar reached.

I wonder what Burnside would make of that.

Oh, the show also has a great musical theme (just about the only music ever used in the program). Listen all the way to the last note.



But wait, there's more!  In the midst of my Sandbaggery I discovered a very different spy show which is, curiously, both older and newer than The Sandbaggers.  Available on Netflix A Very Secret Service (Au Service de la France) was created in 2015, but is set in 1960. And now let's give Grandpa a moment to marvel here over the fact that The Sandbaggers is set closer in time to 1960 than to 2015.

The series (in French, with subtitles) tells the story of Andre Merlaux, a naive young man who is forcibly recruited into the French Secret Service, which promptly makes it clear that they don't much want him.   It is a rather peculiar agency where doing your job is much less important than turning in proper receipts and wearing suits from the correct tailors.

On his first day on the job Merlaux gets in trouble for committing the incredible faux pas - I know you will be stunned by this blunder -- of answering the ringing phone on his desk. Quel imbécile!

This show is wildly and wickedly funny.  In one episode Merlaux assumes that a suspect cannot be a terrorist because she is a woman  His tutor firmly instructs him: "In cases of terrorism women must be considered humans!"

In another episode the French capture a German on his way from Argentina and suspect he is a Nazi. Fortunately they have a scientific survey which allows them to detect such barbarians.  (Sample question: "Adolf Hitler: pleasant or unpleasant?")

The best spy in the bunch is Clayborn, who will never get promoted because she is a woman.  All her operations are described as "courtesy missions," which means they involve getting naked with someone, but don't think that means they don't also involve theft, blackmail, and murder.

At one point Merlaux pours out all his troubles to Clayborn. She is, of course, sympathetic: "You feel out of place.  I understand.  This is the women's bathroom."

Neil Burnside would not be amused, but I was.


10 July 2013

Legends

by David Edgerley Gates

In the spy world, a 'legend' is a false biography. Not a cover story, which is often temporary and mission-specific, but an entire history, all the blanks filled in.

A good example is LeCarre's SMILEY'S PEOPLE. One of the characters tells Smiley, "Karla is looking for a legend for a girl," and this is in fact the engine of the story. The old Russian emigre lady whose daughter she believes lost to her is persuaded to apply for her daughter's release, or expulsion, from the Soviet Union on what she's told are humanitarian grounds. Why she thinks such a thing would be granted without strings attached is another question, and she's nowhere near as naive as her clumsy handlers imagine. The point, of course, is that the one girl's background story can be substituted for another's, as a convenient fiction, and how this plays out, and why, is the plot of the novel, which I won't try to unravel here.

Edward Jay Epstein, some years ago, actually wrote a book titled LEGEND, which suggests that Lee Harvey Oswald's years in Russia were a carefully constructed KGB fabrication. You can buy into this or not, but it's a fascinating premise. Norman Mailer and Lawrence Schiller later plowed this same ground, with better resources, and came to the exhausted and disappointing conclusion that Lee was no more than an unhappy loser, without any depths to plumb, and the Russian security services had written him off as an embarrassment. There are always going to be unanswered questions about Oswald, but it's probably safe to say he was never a target for KGB recruitment.

A far more sinister spin on this is Richard Condon's THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, which was published, if you can believe it, in 1959! (The movie was released in '62.) The story itself is about brainwashing and the Red Scare---an oxymoron, perhaps?---but for our purposes, the significance isn't political. Raymond, the sleeper assassin, has been programmed, as is everybody in his platoon from Korea. He's been supplied, in effect, with a legend. In this case, a set of implanted memories, but the end result is the same. A false narrative, an assembled history, becomes received wisdom, and accepted as authentic.

It's just as plausible to erase our own past, or sanitize it. Think of all those happy darkies, beating out barefoot rhythms, in the plantation South. Or our comfortable ignorance of the Japanese internments during WWII. Or simply the fiction that we've outpaced or outgrown ethnic hatreds and religious intolerance. What makes this century any different from, say, the 14th? The eradication of disease, perhaps, and the Black Death no longer the hand of God, punishment for our sins. Then again, contemporary weapons of war are that much more effective than the mace and the longbow. For sheer barbarism, can the Middle Ages– the massacre of St. Bartholomew, the Mongol horde, the pope giving his blessing to holy war---bear comparison with the past hundred years, in economies of scale? It seems more than a difference of degree. But for this, too, our collective memory supplies a less complicated substitute, a sense of moral superiority, of avoidance, or denial.

What if it were possible to reinvent yourself, to escape your personal history, to slough it off like a chrysalis, to create an entirely new identity, to become a different character, cast in an altogether different drama? A sort of Witness Protection Program, where you hide in plain sight. What imaginary model would you choose, what secret self? The problem being that the world around you wouldn't change. You might be thinner, or bolder, or have better hair, but individual actions won't roll away the stone, or turn back the sea. Putting on the clothes of concealment isn't safety. Seen back to front, there is no new-found freedom. The legend is a trap, an illusion of choice. The fault lies in our stars.

If this seems too deterministic, or cynical, consider that reinvention, or camouflage, is a means to an end, not in and of itself the end purpose. Disguise serves as part of a larger deception, and to be effective, we don't simply act the character, we inhabit the part. We become what we pretend, and fade into the background noise. The danger is that when we shed our old skin, and grow a new one, older habits of mind have to be discarded as well. We are no longer who we were. Living a lie, we trust it to protect us. As the Russian proverb has it: "If you play the sheep, you'll meet a wolf nearby."

12 June 2013

The Haunted Wood

by David Edgerley Gates

The hysteria of the Red Scare in the 1950's is a sad chapter in recent American history. Joe McCarthy was a blowhard and an opportunist, who targeted the innocent along with the merely suspect, and destroyed the careers of honorable people, inside the government and out.

To take one example, it was an article of faith on the Left for many years that the Rosenbergs were railroaded to the electric chair. And likewise, that Alger Hiss was the victim of a smear campaign by the despicable turncoat Whittaker Chambers. The fact that the Hiss case gave legs to Richard Nixon's early political career is only proof positive that the bottom-feeders of the Far Right have no shame, and are happy to use the basest of lies to promote a culture of fear.




Slight cognitive dissonance, here. What gets lost in the shuffle is that Stalin had in fact mounted an enormous clandestine espionage operation inside the United States in the postwar years. Not that McCarthy made a dent in it.

Which brings us to THE HAUNTED WOOD.  In 1995, the FBI began to release the declassified transcripts of the Venona intercepts. Venona was a U.S. counterintelligence program that decrypted cable traffic, specifically Soviet agents reporting back to Moscow. The authors of THE HAUNTED WOOD were given access to KGB archives, and cross-collateralized with Venona, they reconstruct a secret world.



There's an obvious question of provenance. To what degree are the KGB documents---or the FBI documents, for that matter---redacted, or sanitized, or doctored? No security service wittingly gives up material that makes them look bad. The answer seems to be that when both versions of the traffic are available---e.g., the original Russian in Moscow's archive, and the FBI translations---the content matches, with only minor differences such as wording, small errors in vocabulary or grammar that would naturally creep in. A non-native Russian speaker (like this writer, for instance) is bound to make some mistakes. In other words, the resulting analysis is trustworthy. The authors haven't been led down the garden path.

THE HAUNTED WOOD makes a hash of the apologists' case. Alger Hiss, for one, was alomst certainly recruited by GRU, Soviet military intelligence, in the 1930's. And the Russians, of course, found other sympathizers among the anti-Fascist Left, particularly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. You could ascribe this to idealism, or naivete, or a thirst for social justice. There were a lot of people on the Left, in the '30's, who saw the rise of Hitler as the handwriting on the wall, nor were they far wrong. It took a willing blindness, though, to see Stalin as a champion of the oppressed, and as time passed, many of these former willing acolytes fell away from the faith. After the arrest of the Rosenbergs, the Moscow intelligence apparat discarded well-intentioned Old Lefties and turned to pros. Rudolph Abel established a spy network out of Brooklyn that lasted nine years before the FBI rolled him up. Soviet illegals, working under deep cover, weren't a fabrication of J. Edgar Hoover's fevered reptile brain.




None of this is meant to be an alibi for malignant windbags like McCarthy, or the moral cowardice of his enablers. It's widely accepted that the Red-hunters never exposed a single agent of Communist influence. It was all smoke and mirrors. What they did do was create an abiding climate of mistrust, and enshrine the habit of betrayal. It's not a stretch to say that the hearings themselves, with their odor of Stalin's purge trials, the posturing, the parade of friendly witnesses, the public disgrace of others, and the blacklist, the fruit of a corrupt bargain, did more to damage the American political fabric than any number of actual enemy subversives could have hoped for. It poisoned the well for a generation.

The war in the shadows went on. A long stalemate, between two adversaries who each recognized a genuine threat in the other, and found, it seems, their mirror image. This is not in any way to suggest a moral equivalency, but there's a lesson to be taken from the Cold War. We were looking into the past, and trying to see the future through the wrong end of the telescope.




12 December 2012

Cold War Berlin: A Whiter Shade of Pale

by David Edgerley Gates

David Morrell's forthcoming new thriller, MURDER AS A FINE ART, takes place in Victorian London, and he remarks that his research and the writing itself so completely immersed him in the time and place that it became more real to him than the contemporary, so-called 'real' world. Anybody who's ever written period stories, whether in the distant past or more recent history, can relate. The language you use changes from modern usage– not so much "prithee, sirrah," as perhaps word order– and even the thoughts of your characters are different, because their view of themselves and the world are different from the present day. The easiest trap to fall into is anachronism, a modern viewpoint bleeding into the past, which could be something as simple as cause and effect: we know the Black Death was caused by a bacillus; the people it killed thought it was the hand of God. Specific details are simpler, as in, when did Lucky Strikes go to war? 1942, as it happens.

In both the bounty hunter stories, which take place in the years just before America's entry into World War I, and the Mickey Counihan stories, which take place immediately after World War II, I've found myself slipping into a habit of mind, not so much a slavish devotion to accuracy ('the smell of the lamp') as a mental device, or discipline, trying to think my way into the characters' heads, which is more than just the correct vocabulary. It's time travel.

I've had a much different experience e-formatting my Cold War spy novel, BLACK TRAFFIC, for upload to my website. I hadn't actually taken a close look at the book in over a year, so it came as a surprise to me how evocative, to my mind, the story-telling is, an era and a city that might as well be as distant and foreign as the Mexican Revolution, or postwar New York. It's time travel, but into living memory. The book takes place in Berlin, in the mid to late 60's, and I was in fact there. Much of BLACK TRAFFIC is based on my personal experience of both Berlin and the spook trade of the times. In other words, it's firsthand recollection, and the problem, often, wasn't a lack of specificity, but too much, an overwhelming flood of significant detail. How to pick and choose? Memory is a chancy thing, an unreliable guide to history. I found I second-guessed myself a lot, was such-and-such a thing for real, or something my subconscious overheard, a trick of the mind's eye? Authentic reconstruction is a false hope.

So what I was left with, after filtering out the generic and over-familiar, while keeping the untidy and simply bizarre---the story of the would-be U.S. defector to the Russians returning to West Berlin to feed his cat is based on fact, for example---was still an indigestible stew, underdone and lumpy, needing better seasoning and more time in the pot (which was true of the book as a whole), but in the end, I could only follow my own likes, and forgetting caution, there were a couple of things I cherished too much to discard.

Berlin had a soundtrack in those years, Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale." Actually, you heard it all over Europe in the spring and summer of '67, but I always associated it most closely with Berlin, and so did a lot of Berliners. It remains an anthem, even today, for that certain generation, both triumphal and melancholy. Why that particular theme song? I've got no idea. Germans can be a sentimental lot.

The other totemic association I have with Berlin is currywurst. All over town there were food stalls set up in the street, and wurst stands were the most popular. You got brats or a knock with potato salad and a hard roll, with a dab of mustard on the side, on a paper plate. The odder iteration was currywurst. Basically pork sausage slathered in ketchup mixed with curry powder, and served with French fries. An acquired taste, as you might imagine, but once acquired, not forgotten.

I saw a recent news article saying that landmarks which had been inaccessible when the Wall was up, the Brandenburg Gate, for instance, were now overrun with people, both native Berliners and a raft of tourists, and of course they were teeming with so-called Schnell-Imbiss, fast food. A new wrinkle is that they aren't even stalls, but guys with a hot-top rigged up to a shoulder harness, so they can work the crowd, and your wurst comes to you, not the other way around. Interestingly enough, this has generated some political controversy---not the serving method, but the perceived disrespect of public monuments. It's just part of the urban scene, in my opinion, but the politics of Left and Right in Germany often fixate on irrelevancies. The presence of all that cheap food is is seen as an insult to the historic significance of these symbolic places.

Germans are often accused of wanting to conveniently erase or reinvent the uglier passages of their own history, not just Hitler, say, but the Soviet occupation of the East, and the reinterpretations have a definite bias, Liberal or Conservative, depending on your sympathies. In other words, which history, and who appropriates it. Symbols mirror desired meanings, old wine in new bottles. It seems odd to me that currywurst has fallen afoul of politics and now wears a badge of dishonor, in some quarters. It's only sausage links and tomato paste, after all, and has no dog in the fight, so to speak. Then again, one man's relish is another man's distaste.

12 September 2012

MANNING COLES: A Toast to Tomorrow



by David Edgerley Gates

The first spy stories I remember reading were the Tommy Hambledon books, written by Manning Coles.  I was probably nine or so.  I took an omnibus edition of three Hambledon novels out of the Hancock Point library one summer, and gobbled them up.  It was like eating Fritos, but the books were more nourishing.  I don’t think Ian Fleming was much on the radar at that point.  CASINO ROYALE came out in 1953, but Fleming didn’t really get legs until Jack Kennedy told an interviewer Fleming was his favorite writer.  DR. NO, the first of the Bond movies, was released in 1962, so that was later.  I might have picked up an E. Phillips Oppenheim sooner than Coles---my grandmother had them by the yard---but Oppenheim was pretty lukewarm stuff even then, effete and unconvincing: imagine Lord Peter Wimsey without the wit, and no Bunter.  And a writer like Eric Ambler would have gone over my head.  A MASK FOR DEMETRIOS, say.  Too sophisticated. Tommy Hambledon was just right.


Manning Coles was a pseudonym.  They were a writing team, Adelaide Manning and Cyril Coles.  Coles the man, vice Coles the pen-name, was a spy in both wars, and Tommy’s adventures were based on real behind-the-lines derring-do.  The first of the books (there would be two dozen) was DRINK TO YESTERDAY, about a secret mission in the first war, and it’s pretty sharp, with a zinger of a finish, but it was their second book, A TOAST TO TOMORROW, about the next war, when they hit one over the fence.

The premise of TOAST TO TOMORROW is immediately arresting.  Hambledon, washed ashore near Ostend at the end of the earlier book, half-dead, has lost his memory.  He has a head wound, and his face is badly scarred.  The nurse at the Belgian naval hospital remarks that after the scars heal, they’ll look “too Heidelberg for words.”  Slowly, he recovers.  Amnesiac, but speaking the language fluently, Tommy is taken for a wounded German officer.  Tommy himself believes this, a terrific hook for the story that follows.  A later shock brings bits and pieces of his memory back, and he realizes he was once a British intelligence covert operative.  By this time, however, having been recruited by German intelligence, who think he’s a war hero, he’s risen to senior command.  Tommy is now positioned to be a British agent-in-place, at the heart of the Wehrmacht.  His cover is near-perfect, but not quite---nobody actually remembers him from Heidelberg, or officers’ school at Potsdam---and his back story begins to unravel as a canny Nazi spycatcher picks up his scent.  The novel turns into a cat-and-mouse game, and a real stem-winder, at that, with Tommy trying to .stay one jump ahead of the hangman. 

Re-reading the book, fifty-odd years later, you could be forgiven for thinking it hadn’t aged that well.  There are a few too many arched eyebrows and afternoon sherries and old Oxbridge dons with gnomic comments, but what stands up is the tradecraft.  Somebody once asked John LeCarré whether the lingo and the secret handshakes, the culture of the clandestine world, in other words, that LeCarré so lovingly mirrors, was in fact authentic.  LeCarré said, It doesn’t have to be authentic; it has to be convincing.  And here’s where A TOAST TO TOMORROW pays off in spades.  The first clue the Brits get, for example, that they might have a highly–placed asset inside the Reich comes in a radio broadcast.  British communications intercept is monitoring German broadcasts of any description.  This is a propaganda piece, a half-hour radio drama about a wireless operator, and it opens and closes with a burst of Morse, simple background noise, to set the stage, dah-dah-dit, but it begins with a callsign, and the brief message that follows is broken into five-letter stutter groups.  The callsign belongs to a British agent long thought blown, since 1918 and the Armistice, and the coded groups, once recognized as such, can be decrypted.  The scriptwriter is of course Tommy Hambledon in Berlin, and this is how he makes himself known to his former masters in Whitehall.

The two biggest Allied secrets of the Second World War were the Manhattan Project and the code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park, ENIGMA.  The atom bomb wasn’t long a secret after the Japanese surrender, but ENIGMA was still closely held thirty years later.  Cryptography has been a part of war as long as spies have, but the concentration of effort that broke the U-boat codes went on with even greater force into the Cold War.  Bletchley Park was a secret that couldn’t be surrendered, its sources and methods deployed against a different target, Soviet Russia.  For a writer in 1940, or perhaps Cyril, the guy on the team with hands-on experience, to make such an educated guess about the use and importance of encrypted communications, is nothing short of astonishing.  Or perhaps it wasn’t exactly a guess, but an interpolation, filling in the obvious gaps.  A TOAST TO TOMORROW, then, becomes more than a simple story of espionage and pursuit.  It borders on the clairvoyant.