Spycatcher and Wikileaks: history repeats

By Legal Eagle

[To be cross-posted at the Fortnightly Review in the coming week or so]

Who enjoys reading spy fiction, or watching spy movies? I do. There’s something interesting about espionage. Perhaps it’s the secrecy which makes it so fascinating. People love to know secrets: it reflects the broader idea that if something is scarce, it must be good. In his book Influence, Robert Cialdini describes the following experiment at pages 246–7:

One Virginia-based study nicely captured the terrible twos style among boys who averaged twenty-four months in age. The boys accompanied their mothers into a room containing two equally attractive toys The toys were always arranged so that one stood next to a transparent Plexiglas barrier and the other stood behind the barrier. For some of the boys, the Plexiglas sheet was only a foot tall–forming no real barrier to the toy behind, since the boys could easily reach over the top. For the other boys, however, the Plexiglas was two feet tall, effectively blocking the boys’ access to one toy unless they went around the barrier. The researchers wanted to see how quickly the toddlers would make contact with the toys under these conditions. Their findings were clear. When the barrier was too small to restrict access to the toy behind it, the boys showed no special preference for either of the toys; on the average, the toy next to the barrier was touched just as quickly as the one behind. But when the barrier was big enough to be a true obstacle, the boys went directly to the obstructed toy, making contact with it three times faster than with the unobstructed toy. In all, the boys in this study demonstrated the classic terrible twos’ response to a limitation of their freedom: outright defiance.

If you want to make something attractive, make it secret…then everyone will want to know about it.

The other reason we find spying interesting is because of the vicarious thrill of the chase. Basically we are hunter-gatherers who have an inbuilt love of chasing things down and collecting things. Getting information from another person without them knowing about it is a chase extraordinaire. There’s also a clever problem-solving aspect which is attractive to people like myself, who love a puzzle (the only thing I regret about cancelling my various newspaper subscriptions is that I no longer get the cryptic). In addition, one is spying on the Other Side, and therefore, nefarious and tricky techniques are allowable.

Spy fiction as a genre arose in the 19th century, with its roots in the adventure genre. Novels such as the Prisoner of Zenda, which I love, are precursors of the genre. It is related to detective fiction, and some of the Sherlock Holmes stories straddle the two genres. Public interest in spying was also roused by incidents such as l’affaire Dreyfus, where a young French Jewish Army officer named Dreyfus was convicted of treason after it was alleged that he had leaked French military secrets to the Germans. Later evidence indicated that Dreyfus had not leaked the information and that an Army officer called Ferdinand Esterhazy was in fact the culprit. However, top ranking army officials suppressed the evidence, and engaged in a cover-up. After author Emile Zola wrote a letter in the newspaper, the case had to be reopened, and Dreyfus was eventually exonerated.

The various World Wars, followed by the Cold War, meant that international spy agencies were established and were naturally then the subject of fiction. The Cold War and the Soviet threat provided fruitful grounds for authors, particularly after a number of high profile double agents were uncovered in the 1950s and defected to the Soviet Union: Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and Kim Philby.

James Bond is a romanticised fictional spy from that era, a dashing hero who seduces women and overthrows the villain every time. There is no doubt as to who is right with depictions of Bond: Bond is the Good Guy, up against guys who are indubitably Bad. Perhaps these novels seek to deal with the anxiety that, despite double agents and the like, the Good Guys are winning. Subsequent spy fiction has more complex portrayals: for example, Le Carré’s fictional spy George Smiley is of a bureaucrat who has to maneuver to get what he wants from the various government departments. Le Carré’s novels are more equivocal about the unethical and unpleasant aspects of the job. Many authors of spy novels in fact had worked in spy agencies themselves, including Ian Fleming, John Le Carré, and Graham Greene (who was a friend of Philby).

In Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy, featuring his anti-hero, Magnus Pym, two threads can be discerned. First, there is the oxymoronic nature of spying: one is breaking the law on behalf of the state, in the name of the safety of the state. One character observes about spying at page 324:

‘Hell…we’re licensed crooks, that’s all I’m saying. What’s our racket? Know what our racket is? It is to place our larcenous natures at the service of the state. …’

The other aspect which comes through is the ‘boy’s own fun’ aspect. There is an account of Magnus’s training at pages 533 – 4:

“Imagine Pym’s enjoyment of this… The fun of it. The free-wheeling unreality. He has chased Buchan’s ghost across the moors of Argyll. He has messed about in rubber boats, made night landings on sandy shores, with hot chocolate awaiting him in the vanquished enemy’s headquarters. He has fallen out of aeroplanes, dipped into secret inks, learned Morse and tapped scatological radio signals into the bracing Scottish air. He has watched a Mosquito aeroplane glide a hundred feet above him through the darkness, dropping a boxful of boulders in place of genuine supplies. He has played secret games of fox-and-geese in the streets of Edinburgh, photographed innocent citizens without their knowledge, fired live bullets at pop-up targets in simulated drawing rooms, and plunged his dagger into the midriff of a swinging sandbag, all for England and King Harry…

Then back to base camp. Somewhere in Scotland to resume the red thread of violence that has been spun into every new thing he is learning. This violence is not only of the body. It is the ravishment that must be done to truth, friendship and, if need be, honour in the interest of Mother England. We are the chaps who do the dirty work so that purer souls can sleep in bed at night. …”

The other thing is that spies are constantly acting a part. It is hard to know when they are telling the truth and when they are lying, and what the nature of the real person is. In The Perfect Spy, Pym tells various people totally contradictory things at different times, and at the moment he says them, he believes what he says entirely. It is as if he is a functional sociopath. Le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl also plays with this, when the Israeli secret service use an English actress, Charlie, to entrap a Palestinian terrorist. The Israeli chief operative tells Charlie at 136 – 7:

“Do not confuse our play with entertainment, Charlie,” he told her earnestly. “We are not speaking of some enchanted forest. When the lights go down on the stage, it will be night-time in the street. When the actors laugh they will be happy, and when they weep they will very likely be bereaved and broken-hearted. And if they get hurt–and they will, Charlie—they will surely not be in a position, when the curtain falls, to jump up and run for the last bus home. There’s no squeamish pulling back from the harsher scenes, no days off sick. It’s peak performance all the way down the line. If that’s what you like, if that’s what you can handle–and we think it is–then hear us out. Otherwise let’s skip the audition right now.”

What struck me again was that Charlie’s character genuinely believes the part she acting while she is in it – she does not allow herself to think of the deception she is undertaking. She feels sympathy for the people she is with and empathises with them, all the while deceiving them.

Spy autobiography – Spycatcher

Spies, and spy books, are fascinating. No wonder, then, that autobiographies of spies are big business. If novels are interesting, one would think that an account from a real spy would be far more interesting, particularly if the government is trying to ban people from reading it. Spycatcher was such a book: a autobiography written by Peter Wright, a former Assistant Director of MI5.

In 1987, Spycatcher was No. 1 on the US hard-cover non-fiction book list. The initial print run was 50,000, but this later rose to 760,000. It was apparently a surprise hit: but if one bears in mind the experiment with the toddlers recounted above, the success really shouldn’t have been a surprise. If you want to make something popular, there’s nothing like a bit of scandal to fuel that popularity. Here was an insider’s account of MI5, one that was so scandalous that the British government had attempted to ban its publication in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong (with noted lack of success in Australia and New Zealand). Litigation drew attention to the book, and the British government was largely unsuccessful in achieving the remedies it sought.

After reading the various Spycatcher cases, of course I couldn’t resist reading the book either. My father had it on his bookshelf, and professed that I was free to take it. When I looked at the book, I was interested to see that there was a faded, dog-eared bookmark about one third of the way through. The bookmark apparently dated from around 1988. Dad had never finished the book. And I confess that I had great difficulty finishing it as well. I had to flog myself to read the final chapters.

I have a theory about books. There are two things that make a book enjoyable:

  1. A “hook” to pull you through – that is, a plot line which instils in you the need to know what happens; and
  2. Good writing that is not clichéd or grammatically incorrect.

Some books possess the first aspect in spades, but entirely lack the second aspect (the example I always use is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code). Some books have exquisite writing, but one hates the characters and as a consequence, one doesn’t care what happens to them (the example I use of this is Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm, which I failed to finish with about 70 pages to go – I just couldn’t be bothered any more).

Wright’s book is written in grammatical English. I’m sure it’s fascinatingly interesting if you happened to work in that area, and know the people of whom Wright is speaking. But there is a real lack of a “hook” to pull you through the book. I think it would have been a more exciting read if Wright had said at the outset, “Little did I know that I was to be working with some people whom I believe were traitors, although the British government still denies this.” Then I would have spent the book wondering who the traitors were.

As it was, the main parts which interested me were the parts that deal with the oxymoronic nature of spying – one is trusting people who are paid liars and breakers of the law, and the parts which recounted the fun bits of spying.

  • Pages 31-2: “…MI5 operated on the basis of the 11th Commandment — “Thou shalt not get caught” — and…in the event of apprehension there was very little that the office could do to protect its staff.”
  • Page 45, on the initial interview with double-agent Kim Philby, in which Philby was cleared: “I realized for the first time that I had joined the Looking-Glass world, where simple but unpalatable truths were wished away. It was a pattern which was to be repeated time and time again over the next twenty years.”
  • Page 52: “It was boyish fun chasing Russian diplomatic vehicles through the streets of London, up and down one-way streets and through red traffic lights, secure in the knowledge that each driver carried a Police Pass to avoid tickets.”
  • Page 70: “But in the main, the 1950s were years of fun, and A Branch a place of infectious laughter. As Hugh Winterborn always said: “MI5 is a great life, if you can stand the excitement!”

The controversial part of the book seems to have lain in the allegation which arises in the latter part of the book: namely, that the former Director-General of MI5, Roger Hollis, was a Russian double agent. However, as was noted in the various Spycatcher trials, this was not a new allegation, and it had previously been published in a variety of other books and television programs. Indeed, the powers that be were so worried about the possibility of Hollis being a double agent that, as Wright recounts, they pulled him in to interrogate him once again after his retirement.

A book I found rather more interesting is Malcolm Turnbull’s account of the trial, entitled The Spy Catcher Trial – The Scandal Behind the #1 Best Seller. Perhaps I’m strange. I bought the book for the princely sum of 1¢ from Amazon, so evidently no one else is much interested in it anymore, but I enjoyed it vastly more than Spycatcher itself. Turnbull’s book explains precisely why the Thatcher government was desperate to suppress Wright’s book, something I had not really understood with the benefit of hindsight. I had always thought that surely it would have been a better course for the British government to let the book sink into ignominy than give it loads of free publicity? The British government did not want its mistakes publicly known. It had already faced embarrassment with the exposure of Anthony Blunt, another of the “Cambridge Five” spy ring of which the defectors Philby, Maclean and Burgess were also members. Blunt was Professor of the History of Art at the University of London and Surveyor of the King’s Pictures. He was also a Soviet double agent. He was only exposed in 1963, and the Spycatcher book describes a number of interrogations of Blunt. However, Blunt’s double agency only became public knowledge in 1979 when a book called Climate of Treason was published which outlined the activities of “Maurice”. Blunt sued to prevent publication of the book which immediately drew attention to him. Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister, revealed Blunt’s treachery in the House of Commons.

The government was concerned that there would be a similar hoohah when revelations emerged that Hollis had been suspected of being a double agent. In 1981, Chapman Pincher published a book called Their Trade is Treachery in which the allegations against Hollis were revealed. Pincher’s book was based in part on conversations with Peter Wright, and Wright had been flown out to England to talk to Pincher, and had been paid for his services. A week after Pincher’s book had been published, Mrs Thatcher told the House of Commons that Hollis had been cleared by an independent inquiry and that all evidence against Hollis related to events which could equally be attributed to Kim Philby or Anthony Blunt. Turnbull recounts at page 32:

Wright told me Mrs. Thatcher had misled the House of Commons. “The evidence against Hollis was all post-war. It couldn’t have been laid at the door of Philby or Blunt. The Prime Minister was given a misleading brief by MI5.”

Importantly, the government did not object in the least to Pincher’s book, even though it covered very much the same material as Spycatcher. In part, this was because the tenor of Pincher’s book was different: he noted that the secret services had had a problem with Soviet double agents, but concluded that the present day secret services were in the clear. By contrast, Wright’s book alleged that there were still double agents in the service, and that more questions had to be asked about the operations of the secret service. Turnbull’s book argues that the only reason why the government didn’t mind Pincher’s book is because they actually wanted Pincher to bring the Hollis allegations out into the open in the most uncontroversial manner possible so that they could be tidied up and swept away. Nor did Thatcher want her statement before the House of Commons questioned. The inference from Turnbull’s book is that the orders to persist with the case were coming straight from Thatcher herself.

Turnbull gives an electrifying account of his cross-examination of Sir Robert Armstrong, Thatcher’s Secretary of Cabinet, who attempted to justify in cross-examination why action had been taken in the case of Wright but not in the case of Pincher. Suffice to say, Turnbull took Armstrong to pieces. After reading the book I now understand precisely the flavour of the New South Wales Supreme Court case at first instance (Attorney-General (UK) v Heinemann Publishers Australia Pty Ltd (1987) 8 NSWLR 341). Powell JA found that the information contained in Spycatcher was no longer confidential because it had been published in a number of other publications to which the British Government had authorised or at least acquiesced. He said acerbically at page 378 of his judgment, ‘it must have been apparent to anyone who had cause to consider the matter, that, as a result of the acquiescence, or inaction of the British Government, the Service has, for years, leaked like a sieve.’


This provides a nice segue into modern times. Have things really changed so much since Spycatcher? I suspect that they have not, and Turnbull agrees. On 9 December 2010, Turnbull wrote a column drawing parallels between Spycatcher and Wikileaks. He noted that the British government would have done far better in the Spycatcher debacle if it had not relied on the law of breach of confidence but had simply let Wright publish and ignored the book. In this context, Turnbull said of Wikileaks:

“Mr Assange should make sure that any further documents published do not contain information that would impact on current operations and especially in a way that would put lives at risk. We are engaged in a global struggle with Islamist fundamentalist terrorism and any material which assists our opponents should not be published. Any material which puts the lives at risk of those who help us in that struggle should not be published and to do so is morally reprehensible whatever its legal character.

Governments and politicians should be very careful not to make a martyr of Mr Assange and fools of themselves. Julia Gillard’s claim that Assange had broken Australian laws when it is clear he has not only demonstrates how out of depth she is in this as in so many other areas.

And one may well ask whether her denunciations would be so shrill if instead of the documents being given to Mr Assange they had been handed to a powerful newspaper group.

If The Australian had received that file and its contents were being dribbled out by News Corporation newspapers would she be accusing Rupert Murdoch of high crimes and misdemeanours? I don’t think so.”

I suspect secrecy just encourages people to want to look, like our toddlers at the start of this post. I’m no different – I’ve been fascinated with the revelations arising from Wikileaks, although like Turnbull, I worry about leaks which might harm operatives or society generally. I would be very careful of how I handled Assange. It seems that most Australians support his actions. Government never looks good if it comes down heavily on people like Wright or Assange.

When I was younger, I confess that I had dreams of being a spy. My A-Level History teacher snorted, “You!?! You couldn’t keep a secret for five seconds!” “Ah ha!” I said. “I bet that if I were a spy, I would run around shouting ‘I’m a spy, I’m a spy, I’m a spy!’ Would you believe me? Of course you wouldn’t. You’d think I was a foolish voluble buffoon. I’d be the best spy ever.” She laughed but said, “Maybe you’re on to something”. I think these are the principles I operate on. If I were trying to hide something, I confess that I’d probably hide it in plain sight, amongst all kinds of other totally irrelevant items. Secrecy makes people curious. Still, secrecy makes for interesting stories.


  1. MsLaurie
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    “I bet that if I were a spy, I would run around shouting ‘I’m a spy, I’m a spy, I’m a spy!’ Would you believe me? Of course you wouldn’t. You’d think I was a foolish voluble buffoon. I’d be the best spy ever.” She laughed but said, “Maybe you’re on to something”.

    Well, supposedly the best place to hide a book is in a bookcase!

    Posted January 21, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Yes history repeats and the politicians would be much better off cleaning up their own act, instead of crucifing the proverbial kid who has merely pointed out that the emperor has no clothes.

  3. kvd
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    LE qoutes Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy, featuring his anti-hero, Magnus Pym:

    We are the chaps who do the dirty work so that purer souls can sleep in bed at night.

    I haven’t read the rest yet, but I’m filing this under ‘so close it don’t matter’ to:

    From A Few Good Men – I love the Jack Nicholson speech wherein:

    You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it.

    Or attributed to Orwell:

    We sleep safely at night because rough men stand ready to visit violence on those who would harm us.

    And Churchill:

    We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.

    And I see that Kipling gets a hat tip along the way for:

    Yes, making mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep

    Sorry – had to get that off my chest. Now I’ll go read the rest…

  4. kvd
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    LE sorry about the above. I think it come from my “black sheep” status in an Army family, followed by marriage into a Navy family, whilst always holding close to the ideals and efforts of the “rough men”.

    As to Spycatcher and WikiLeaks, one is about/by a participant and the other is about/by a reporter of others’ secrets. The thing they have in common is as you point out, government embarrassment balanced against the debatable right of the governed’s need/right to know.

    The thing about secrets is that they are always more valued by the insider, the knower, than they are by the rest of us poor plebs.

    As to Turnbull, well I think it is a weird world where the responsibility to protect secrets – particularly those secrets which might affect current ongoing operations – is blithely placed so squarely upon Mr Assange. If they were so important why were they not treated as such by the people we employ, and trust, to do so?

  5. kvd
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    LE no as to Anthony Price, but on your recommend I will try him.

    I agree re Assange’s maybe moral obligation, but my point is gently repeated: he possesses information he should never have had access to, and I just really wish the focus was more on the quite criminal lack of security which has allowed that access. He is just a convenient messenger.

    The difference between Assange and Wright is that Wright begged the British government to point out which bits were objectionable and offered to cut any identified passages from the book. The Brits wouldn’t point to anything specific and just wanted to ban the whole kit and kaboodle.

    Can’t find the references now, but I do remember making precisely this same comment to Jim Belshaw a couple of months ago re Assange from something I had read. The gist was, this started ages ago, and that US State was offered the chance to redact, but refused. Maybe I’m wrong; will try to search it out. It made some sense to me at the time, because State would possibly become complicit in the leaks if they “assisted”. I certainly agree that it seems WikiLeaks does not have the inhouse capacity to edit what it issues – but this is a secondary fault compared to the woeful security I mentioned above.

    And finally – who knows why the leaker leaked? Maybe just Occam’s razor applies – i.e. because he could? Now I’m off to email re Anthony Price.

  6. kvd
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Gee LE. That VF piece re The Guardian is pretty self-serving – don’t you think? I mean, I read it regularly, plus what DEM calls the Torygraph but that’s a bit over the top, I think. There should be a crime for self congratulation. Or maybe even just a moral imperative to avoid it.

  7. Posted January 21, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    One of my facebook friends put up a wonderful quip about Assange:

    Zuckerberg gave our personal information to corporates and became the hero of the year. Assange gave corporate information to us and became the devil of the year.

  8. Posted January 22, 2011 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    the difference is that people consented to Facebook giving out their personal information

    Only last week news reports warned Facebook users that application developers were obtaining access to lots of personal information stored on Facebook and this without consent.

3 Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Legal Eagle, John Hacking. John Hacking said: Spycatcher and Wikileaks: history repeats: [To be cross-posted at the Fortnightly Review in the coming week or s… http://bit.ly/gzQT5t […]

  2. […] when its ability to prevent the flow of information is pushed to the limit. As I’ve described in an earlier post, the Spycatcher case is a primary example: the more the British government attempted to prevent […]

  3. By Twitter Undoes UK Super Injunctions « on June 2, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    […] when its ability to prevent the flow of information is pushed to the limit. As I’ve described in an earlier post, the Spycatcher case is a primary example: the more the British government attempted to prevent […]

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