Imagine the following scenario: A police drugs unit is about to embark on a raid in a major city. They have in their sights a top-level dealer distributing considerable quantities of heroin and other drugs into a deprived community. The case against the dealer has been prepared for months and has involved intensive surveillance, including wiretaps and information from informants, which incurs costs in terms of police resources and paying informants. But this is essential to ensure the police case is watertight and can withstand rigorous cross-examination and scrutiny.

Okay, the unit is ready to go, the guys are all tooled up and fired up for the raid and the cars are about to move when suddenly…The senior officer in charge of the unit gets a radio call from his superior instructing him to abandon the raid and stand-down the men. Exasperated the officer rushes to see the superior. He pleads with him, pointing out how strong the case and the evidence is and all the time and effort that’s went to ensure this. But to no avail. The superior stands his ground. Bewildered and not a little demoralised the officer gives way: the raid doesn’t go ahead. And the dealer is left unmolested to ply his illicit and damaging trade supplying harmful drugs to the community.

So what’s going on here? Corruption? Incompetence? Neither. What we’ve encountered here is a textbook case of the paradoxes of spying we’ve been examining in the last couple of blogs, albeit within a police context rather than the more conventional intelligence world setting, but the principles are the same.

The mystery is resolved when we realise that the dealer targeted by the drugs is in fact an agent/mole for another section of the police such as a Serious Crime Squad. A section which is both senior to and can pull rank on the drugs unit forcing them to abandon their raid.

This dealer is providing first-rate information about couriers and shipments being organised at the highest levels. And, because he has the confidence of his bosses in the crime syndicate, he is able to gain information on the activities of those bosses and cut across the normal water-tight compartmentalisation that rigidly separates drug barons from the hard drugs they’re dealing in and renders them extremely difficult to move against and successfully prosecute.

With the information supplied from the dealer, Serious Crime can eventually mount a serious, evidence based case against the drugs syndicate and its’ leaders. If the drugs unit had been successful in its raid on the dealer and he was found guilty and imprisoned for some time that gold seam of information from him allowing Serious Crime to build up a strong case against the drug syndicate bosses and move against them to seriously harm, if not destroy their operations, would have been nullified.

This is the third paradox of spying that goes beyond the imperatives of keeping moles in place, feeding them with sacrificial information that deflects suspicion away from them and allowing them to carry on their activities while they are operating. The third paradox is that all operations involving infiltration and amassing conclusive proof on any target, whether it be police led, military or intelligence based (and often these can interact and operations can involve all three) can take years to bear fruit.

The point of such operations is, essentially, to destroy or render harmless your target. But in building up the intelligence to do so, your target has to be active and working at full-strength so that you knew all aspects of what they are up to and then strike against them when the moment is right. To repeat, in order to really effectively destroy, in this case, the drugs syndicate, actually means not harming or disrupting their operations as you build up the evidence against them. Which, in turn, means the trafficking, the dealing and the real power of the syndicate’s network has to be left unmolested as Serious Crime patiently develops a watertight case against them.

In summary, for a long time possibly many years if not decades, an outfit or organisation being targeted  or parts of it has actually to be kept alive before it is, hopefully, destroyed.

This can lead to great tensions between operational units such as police or military outfits aiming at specific targets in order to disrupt criminal or enemy activity and the requirements of long-range intelligence as exemplified with our dealer.

This was vividly illustrated again during the Second World War. Britain established an organisation called the Special Operations Executive (SOE) whose mission, as described by Winston Churchill himself, was to “set Europe ablaze” against the Nazis through sabotage, assassinations and disruptive activities. However, this could clash with the priorities of intelligence agencies such as MI6 whose prime focus was to infiltrate and gather intelligence on the German military for long-term strategic military considerations such as the D-Day landings. SOE’s ‘guerrilla’ activities could often be in conflict with MI6’s objectives. SOE would invariably be the loser.

So to summarise, the example of the dealer succinctly illustrates the three paradoxes of spying:

  1. Her identity has to be kept in place and she has to be protected from other elements of your own side – in this case by standing down the drug units’ raid. If need be you can provide her with lower-level sacrificial information about your own side to sustain and shore up her legend.
  2. She has to be kept fully functioning and active, no matter how harmful and disruptive her operations are to the wider community.
  3. By extension, the support base and infrastructure around her, in this case the criminal syndicate, has also to be kept functioning and protected (again, often from your own side) until such time as you’re ready to move against them, though that may be a long-time coming.

This is the murky, twilight world that all intelligence based operations and the people involved in them inhabit. Though the aims and outcomes of such operations may be moral and ethical, the day-to-day reality, chicanery and deceptions inherent to such operations is anything but.

The question then is are the paradoxes of spying and all the shadowy, messy compromises they entail justified by the end results of helping to protect our liberal democracy and our way of life? Put another way, do we have to be very illiberal to keep on being liberal?

These are some of the issues and their consequences I explore in my first novel, Deception Road, and more graphically in my forthcoming book, Caledonia Smack.

In the end, though, the paradoxes of spying highlight again what has often been said: in the secret world nothing is ever what it seems.