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Le Carré’s people: CIA vs MI6

The movie of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, that outstanding Cold War espionage novel that could only have been written by an Englishman, has opened in London theatres to well-deserved acclaim. I watched it on the day British police made seven arrests in a major anti-terrorist raid in the city of Birmingham.

world Updated: Sep 21, 2011 00:57 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

The movie of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, that outstanding Cold War espionage novel that could only have been written by an Englishman, has opened in London theatres to well-deserved acclaim. I watched it on the day British police made seven arrests – six men and a woman – in a major anti-terrorist raid in the city of Birmingham.

The Cold War has given way to War against terror, and spies are once again on the frontline of this war. Now too, intelligence gathering spans operations both at home and abroad – but radical mosques have replaced the smoky offices of communist parties and workers unions as their targets

Millions find John Le Carré’s books fascinating. His spies, such as the MI6’s George Smiley, are human and complex individuals.

Smiley is the very antithesis of the gadget-loving Bond, James Bond. A CIA study from the 1990s of Le Carré’s novels analyses how he approaches Sigint (signal intelligence). Its conclusion is that Le Carré is far more sympathetic toward human intelligence (Humint) than the technology-strewn world of Sigint.

This, according to the report, reveals “an obvious anti-American bias” in Le Carré. Intelligence-gathering technologies, in which the Americans excel, “exemplify American technological arrogance” for Le Carré.

Its wider implication, says the author of the CIA report, is that American policymakers unfamiliar with the nuances of intelligence gathering end up spending disproportionately more money on human intelligence than on technology. “In a perfect world decisionmakers should be so well informed that they couldn’t possibly be influenced by an Ian Fleming, a John le Carré, or a Torn Clancy, but in this imperfect world it sometimes happens.”

In the post-Cold War world, does an emphasis on human intelligence continue to mark out British from American spying? In the hours after 9/11, Eliza Manningham-Buller, then deputy director and later head of Britain’s spy agency MI5, attended an emergency meeting with top American intelligence bosses at Kennedy airbase.

There was “an understanding” that the assault on the twin towers would lead to a military response against Al Qaeda strongholds, Manningham-Buller revealed recently. Later, British officials met their Embassy lawns. “Despite talk of military action, there was one thing we all agreed on: terrorism is resolved through politics and economics, not through arms and intelligence, however important a role these play,” she said.

Le Carré readers love his attitude. There is something very English about his refusal to allow his novels to become easy platforms of patriotism.

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