Modern Spies is a two-part BBC TV series that looks at the real world of modern spies and compares it with the fictional spy world. There were clips from Spooks, 24, James Bond and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but the programme was mostly concerned with the real world. It was presented by Peter Taylor, a BBC journalist who specialised in Northern Ireland in the 1990s and has reported widely on al-Qaeda since 9/11.
For the first time interviews with serving British intelligence officers were broadcast on TV. They were identified by only their first names, their faces were obscured and actors spoke their words, so we have to take their word and that of the BBC that they were who they claimed to be. Given Peter Taylor’s reputation, I would be surprised if they were not genuine.
They came from all three UK intelligence agencies; the Security Service, better known as MI5, which deals with threats to the UK’s national security; the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, which is responsible for intelligence operations abroad; and GCHQ, responsible for electronic security, codes and cyphers. This was the first time that cameras had been allowed inside GCHQ’s main site at Cheltenham. Science fiction fans (and perhaps conspiracy theorists) may be amused to learn that Britain’s military satellite communications network is called Skynet, the same name as the computer network that is humanity’s enemy in the Terminator films.
Some of the interviewees were from the CIA and FBI; they were named, but were either senior enough to already be publicly known or else retired. A lot of it was devoted to recruitment; British and American intelligence agencies now have recruitment films on their websites. In the past, MI5 and MI6 recruited via informal approaches at universities, mainly Cambridge and Oxford.
Post 9/11 there has been a need for Asian agents who can infiltrate al-Qaeda. A ‘sting’ operation was re-enacted. British Asian MI5 agents persuaded a British member of al-Qaeda that they could supply him with weapons. The al-Qaeda man was arrested.
One of the FBI officials interviewed said that 9/11 led to a downgrading of counter-intelligence (operations against foreign intelligence services) as counter-terrorism was expanded. This created problems because, despite the end of the Cold War, Russia continues to spy on the West. It was claimed that there are now as many Russian spies in the USA as there were Soviet ones during the Cold War.
In a well publicised case 10 Russian spies were arrested in the USA in June 2010. Most of them were ‘dead doubles’; Russians who had taken the identity of Americans who were born around the same time as themselves but died young. The exception was Anna Chapman, who has become the best known of the 10 because of her looks. She was able to operate under her own name because her ex-husband, Alex Chapman, is British.
The FBI investigation into the Russian spy ring was also re-enacted. Chapman did not meet her contact, but used a laptop with an encrypted wi-fi connection to send information to somebody a short distance away. The FBI broke the encryption and arranged a meeting between her and one of its own agents, who took the laptop for repair.
The Russian agents were arrested when the FBI realised that they were getting close to a Cabinet official. It was suggested that she might have been a ‘honey trap’ agent; one whose job is to obtain sensitive information by seducing somebody who possesses it. The FBI has subsequently issued a statement saying that Chapman had not attempted to seduce the Cabinet official. In fact, another Russian spy, Cynthia Murphy, who worked on Wall St, had several meetings with a financier who was a friend of the Cabinet official.
The 10 Russians were eventually swapped for four Russians accused of spying for the West. One potentially tragic impact of the case is on the two daughters of Cynthia Murphy and her husband Richard, also a member of the spy ring. The BBC programme suggested that their marriage was arranged as part of their cover by the Russian intelligence services. The daughters, having been born and brought up in the USA, now find themselves living in Russia with parents whose marriage may be a sham.
The programme talked about honey traps as if they were always used to entrap men by having them approached by younger and extremely attractive women, who would use pillow talk to obtain secrets. However, I recall reading during the Cold War of handsome and charming male agents who would seduce lonely government secretaries in order to obtain secrets.
Intelligence depends on the sources of information. An enormous risk is of acting on intelligence provided by a rogue source. Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, an Iraqi defector code-named ‘Curveball’, told German intelligence, the BND, about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. His information was used by the USA to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He admitted on-screen that he made up his stories of secret factories and special trucks carrying bio-weapons. According to The Guardian, he did so in order to bring down Saddam’s regime and had an agreement with the BND that they would not pass his information onto other countries. He claims to be ‘comfortable’ with what he did.
A major intelligence threat to the West is coming from China. The Chinese intelligence services like to operate via what are known as ‘cut-outs.’ These, rather than a Chinese intelligence officer, deal with the sources. The sources may not know who they are supplying information to, and the risk that the intelligence officers may be arrested is considerably reduced.
It was claimed that China has obtained full details of all US nuclear weapons and it was pointed out that China’s newest combat aircraft, the J-20, is very similar to the Lockheed Martin F-35. It was alleged that the Chinese had obtained details of the F-35 by hacking into the computers of BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin’s British partner.
A very interesting programme. albeit on a subject where you can never be sure that you are being told the whole truth. Like the spies, you are reliant on your sources. However, Peter Taylor has a good reputation so I think that we learnt as much of the truth as we are likely to on this subject.
More to follow on the second programme, which deals with the questions of how far the British intelligence services will go to protect the country from terrorist threats and whether or not they have a licence to kill.
For UK viewers, the programme is available on the I-Player until midnight on 16 April. There were no co-producers, so I do not know if it will be shown in other countries.