In the last blog I explored how keeping a spy or mole in place is a complex and quite murky pursuit. The instant you act on your mole’s information you alert your opponent you have a mole in his ranks, so information derived from the mole has to be heavily disguised to avoid detection of the mole and severely restricted to those who really need to know. More importantly, the mole has to be provided with such a good cover or legend that suspicion is deflected from them. And one of the most effective ways of doing that is actually providing them with genuine information from your own side that you’re prepared to sacrifice (including, in some extreme cases, the lives of your own agents) to keep the mole in place.
But there’s a further consequence of this. All the while your mole is working for you they have to keep operating normally as a fully functioning agent of their own service. This seems obvious, but the consequences can be far reaching.
At the least murky level, if you have recruited a mole in a government, diplomatic or military position, then they will have to keep working and functioning normally in that position. Their day job doesn’t stop when they start spying for you and the necessity of providing a good legend for them means they have to be highly effective and maintain their enthusiasm in their role.
Applied to moles recruited in an opponent’s intelligence agencies, police forces or special forces units, this logic makes it imperative they are very efficient and in the first rank in countering espionage, catching dissidents and hunting down rebels which your own side is actively supporting. It really doesn’t mean much to members of a rebel commando unit that the commander of the special forces that’s’ just captured them is in fact spying for the west; they’re still going to get tortured and probably executed.
But take it a stage further. A mole in a terrorist organisation such as ISIS or al-Qaeda has to be to be seen by their peers to be actively engaged in terrorist activities. To be sure intelligence agencies will strive to monitor an active terrorist cell, based on an informant’s information, up to the point where they’re about to mount an attack and then pounce. Sure you’ve averted a terrorist attack and the resultant carnage, but the mole’s usefulness is finished.
ISIS and al-Qaeda, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, are actually quite unique in carrying out attacks aimed at mass destruction of civilians. Most terrorist organisations or as they would prefer to style themselves, guerrillas or liberation movements in fact aim at specific targets such as assassinations, attacks on military or police forces or economic bombing campaigns.
This has been and is the hallmark of various groups such as the IRA, FRAC, the various PLO armed factions and the Kurdish PKK amongst others. And infiltration of these groups has meant that to keep moles in place, their intelligence paymasters such as MI5, MI6 or the CIA have allowed them to or connived at them carrying out a range of activities in their ostensible role as members of these organisations.
This has been exposed by a series of inquiries looking at the relationship between various British intelligence services and Irish paramilitaries during the Troubles. Clear evidence has emerged indicating strongly that moles recruited by MI5, various army intelligence units and the former RUC Special Branch carried out assassinations, bank robberies and armed attacks on police and army patrols which their ‘controllers’ knew of, but were deemed necessary to keep their agents in place.
The most graphic example of this was Freddy Scappaticci, otherwise known under the alias of ‘Stakeknife’ who, allegedly for 25 years, operated as a senior officer in the Provisional IRA, including their counter-intelligence unit while actually acting as a mole for the British Army’s Force Reconnaissance Unit (though Scappaticci has vigorously denied this). Similar high-profile moles have been identified as operating within Protestant paramilitaries such as the UDA and UVF.
The logic of this is the same as that which impels intelligence services to provide genuine information or sacrifices about their own side in order to provide a legend and deflect suspicion away from their moles. Allowing moles to carry out their ‘normal’ duties whether as diplomats, government ministers, military personnel, businessmen, intelligence agents or even high-level terrorist operatives is, in reality, indispensable, to maintain an efficient mole in their role.
It’s a long way from the black and white world of James Bond, but the intricacies, chicanery and deceptions inherent in the secret world mean that the paradoxes of spying can affect civilians and friends as much as foes. The only excuse that can ever be cited in mitigation is that the information gained about the foes is worth the sacrifice of the friends in a greater good. But is that always the case? And who is to be the arbiter of that?
In the final blog in this series I’ll explore how the paradoxes of spying can extend to keeping entire organisations, ostensibly regarded as hostile, in being in order to keep a mole in place and the information flow continuing.