Betrayal, seduction and subterfuge: these devilish arts are central to the ancient craft of spying. And, whether in fact or fiction, the literature of espionage continues to fascinate us with the enduring question of whether some kinds of dark, loathsome conduct may be ultimately justified.
The New Spymasters, my new book, is the product of nearly 20 years of writing about and meeting spies, ever since they emerged from the shadows of the Berlin Wall. It has taken me so long because I wanted to provide something I believe is unique – a dispassionate outsider’s perspective on modern espionage, which at the same time is deeply informed. Too much of the spy bookshelf is coloured by ex-insiders with an agenda; or writers either with little knowledge or who negotiate access and as a price submit to fact-bending censorship.
After interviews with people who together have more than 1,000 years’ experience, I hope I have delivered on that promise and explained what it is like, in an era of new technology, to spy on and hunt for traitors among new and ruthless enemies.
Despite the need to watch out for agendas and omissions, there are of course some fabulous and unmissable books about this world of betrayal, particularly from the cold war era. And these are some I could not do without.
1. Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1900)
I never tire of re-reading the classic novels of human intelligence that inspired generations who felt (as Kipling says of Kim) they were created by God with “a lust to go abroad at the risk of their lives and discover news”. In Kim, Kipling depicts an Anglo-Indian “child of the world” who mingles with ease across cultures and wanders effortlessly into the enemy’s lair. A spy to aspire to.
2. The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers (1903)
Another classic, about a yacht trip to the north German coast that uncovers plans to invade Britain. It depicts the sort of upper-class, amateurish japes that set the real-life stage for the early modern secret service. It’s both a wonderful novel about North Sea yachting but also captures the ingenuity and improvisation that great spying coups involve. Contrary to popular belief and most of what you will read, intelligence remains a craft in which the actual work of spying is largely carried out by co-opted volunteers – albeit not so often wearing tweeds these days.
3. Inside the Company: CIA Diary by Philip Agee (1975)
Former CIA case officer Philip Agee, who died in Cuba in 2008, was the Edward Snowden of his generation. Revealing the names of more than 250 fellow spymasters across the globe, this is a raw, blistering account of the lengths to which the US went during the cold war. He describes how the CIA made common cause with dictators and their torturers, how they suborned trade union and political movements, and in short did everything they could to fight communism at all levels.
This fascinating exploration of the motives behind treachery is by a former Soviet spy chief in London, the controller of the so-called Cambridge Five ring of spies. They included Kim Philby, the greatest of all traitors, who became the chief of MI6’s anti-Soviet branch. Modin says the Cambridge spies were essentially self-recruited because of their ideology. They were from a generation “looking for an excuse to betray their parents”. Once hooked into the spy game, their enthusiasm for Marxism fell away, but it was hard for them to escape.
5. The Main Enemy by Milton Bearden and James Risen (2003)
Former anti-Soviet chief of the CIA, Milt Bearden, wrote this brilliant account of the hardest of all assignments: running spies behind the Iron Curtain. Russia in the cold war was a “denied area” in which the limits on contact by foreigners with ordinary Russians made recruitment hard. It required extraordinary ingenuity to keep contact with the few secret agents in place – and to keep them alive. Bearden also helped run the CIA’s 1980s war in Afghanistan – a covert action that had an undeniable impact.
6. A Spy for All Seasons by Duane R Clarridge (1997)
This fast-paced memoir is by the man who founded the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center in the 1980s. Ahead of his time, he relates the early days of a battle against what became the CIA’s main enemy in the 21st Century: the non-state terrorist group. Embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal, Clarridge was and is an unapologetic man of action. But in describing, for instance, how arch-enemy Abu Nidal was defeated, he gives a glimpse into the fusion of covert action, subtle analysis, and classical espionage that counter-terrorist work has become.
7. The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré (1997)
No one matches Le Carré for his masterful plots and compelling, brutal prose. In eschewing the action sequence, he brings alive the psychological tension, the absurdities and the sheer greyness that is spy work. Which of his books to choose? Perhaps some of the recent works (such as the The Constant Gardener, or A Delicate Truth) are a little too moralising: the secret service seems always in league with some evil corporation. I like particularly The Tailor of Panama for laying bare the uneasy marriage between, on the one hand, spycraft and all its deceptions, and the mission of spying, on the other, which is to establish the truth of things.
8. Fallout: The True Story of the CIA’s Secret War on Nuclear Trafficking by Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz (2011)
In Russia and the US, more than 1,800 nuclear warheads are ready to be launched within 15 minutes. And while the bomb exists, and the danger remains of its use or proliferation, it is hard to see how spy agencies, for all their faults, will ever disappear. In this great work, Collins and Frantz reveal the espionage that stopped Libya’s nuclear ambitions in its tracks in 2003. They also recount its dilemmas, among them that to protect a crucial Swiss spy inside the nuclear proliferation network, the CIA may have let deadly bomb secrets escape.
9. Agent Storm: My Life Inside al-Qaeda and the CIA by Morten Storm (2014)
Probably the best account of a modern-day secret agent. Morten Storm, a convert to Islam, vividly recounts his work for the CIA and British intelligence, against extremists in Europe and al-Qaeda in the Yemen. Recruits like Storm are clearly hard to handle, but they may also have the sheer courage needed to operate unsupported deep inside enemy territory.
10. Agents of Innocence by David Ignatius (1987)
Beyond stealing secrets, real-life spy work is also about liaison with the enemy and the establishment of secret channels. Sticking close to a true story, this classic – one of the best of all American spy novels – explores the delicate game played between the CIA and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. It resonates with the fraught work of making clandestine contacts with today’s murderous extremists.
The New Spymasters by Stephen Grey is published by Viking, priced £20. Buy it from the Guardian bookshop for £16.
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