The Paradoxes of Spying Part 1

For all its deception, double-dealing and treachery spying would appear to be straightforward. Side ‘A’ recruits and infiltrates a spy or mole into side ‘B’. Once installed in ‘B’ the mole begins leaking information to ‘A’ to the detriment of ‘B’ and the immense advantage of ‘A’.

Simple. And that’s how most espionage and spy movies and books portray it.

In reality, as with almost everything in the secret world keeping moles in place is a lot murkier and more complex than at first appearance.

At its simplest you have one stark problem confronting you the instant your mole commences operating and your side begins acting on their information:

You alert your opponent that you have a spy in his midst

Think of your personal life. There are only a few close friends and family you would reveal very personal information to. Consequently, the moment you became aware other people are aware of that information, your suspicions are heightened and it won’t take you long, by a process of elimination to work out who it was who has broken your confidence and your trust.

Similarly, in the secret world, when you act on the information supplied by the mole, your opponent not only knows there’s a spy in their camp, but will now go to great lengths to detect and eliminate that mole.

There’s also the further twist that if your mole is uncovered, your opponent might well try to ‘turn’ her i.e. she becomes a double agent: ostensibly supplying you with information but in reality feeding you disinformation. And by revealing what it is you want to know about your opponent, you reveal what your weaknesses are and what you don’t know about you opponent, which he can now use to maximum advantage.

So how do you resolve this problem? Two ways:

One is you have to act very sparingly with the information you get from the mole. Her information (indeed her very existence) must be severely restricted to very few people and select snippets given to others for precise purposes, the source heavily disguised and mixed in with a variety of other information culled from various places; in other words immersed with a lot of chafe.

This was how the decrypts derived from the Ultra intercepts (the top secret German Enigma codes the allies had deciphered) were distributed to the various fronts during World War 2. And it worked as the Germans did not change their codes during the campaign in spite of their massive defeats. But only morsels of Ultra intercepts could ever be passed on at any one time.

The other way to resolve the mole paradox is to provide your mole with such a brilliant cover or ‘legend’ that your opponent is deflected from suspicion of her. There are many ways of doing this, but the most common is to actually supply her with genuine information about yourself which you feel you can, effectively, sacrifice.

This information of yours cannot be bogus, otherwise the credibility of the mole is seriously impaired and suspicion might start to be cast upon them: precisely what you’re trying to avoid.

As such, in the cold, ruthless and objective world of intelligence this has to involve you looking at what you can give to the mole which will firmly divert suspicion from her while she can go on providing you with her intelligence from your opponent.

The trade-off is that the information you sacrifice is less than the quality of the information the mole is supplying. Nevertheless your sacrificed information is still tangible: the name of a new weapons system, the list of new diplomats assigned to a foreign capital who are intelligence personnel, which political activists are receiving funding from your own government and so on. All of which can do damage to you and your interests but in the great game of spying is still less damaging than the superior intelligence you’re gaining from your mole.

Moles have to be fed, secured, sustained and provided with deep cover and credible, consistent legends often based on serious information provided by you about  your own side.

And in extreme circumstances, it has not been unknown for agencies in the intelligence game to sacrifice their own human agents to keep a mole in place.

This is the paradox of spying at least where maintaining moles in place are concerned. But there are even murkier paradoxes to the spying game which we’ll explore in the next two blogs.