“Here is a book you should have, Mr. Director.”
With that, Jacqueline Kennedy handed CIA director Allen Dulles a copy of “From Russia with Love” by Ian Fleming, the latest novel in the series about lethal British agent James Bond. Their 1957 encounter in Palm Beach bears on national security, essential by definition.
Effective intelligence gathering and analysis is vital to any nation. The 2020 deaths of actor Sean Connery and author John Le Carré add poignancy to this distinctive, complex subject.
Connery was the first James Bond in the durable movie franchise. Le Carré is arguably the most successful, as well as subtle and challenging, among contemporary spy novelists on either side of the Atlantic.
Peter Gross includes Mrs. Kennedy’s comment in “Gentleman Spy,” a comprehensive biography of Dulles. At the time, her husband was emerging as frontrunner for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination.
John Kennedy’s fondness for Bond novels sparked the durable movie franchise. Hollywood Bond’s fetish for high-tech equipment, however, contrasts with Bond of Fleming’s novels.
Both Dulles and Fleming served as intelligence officers during World War II, as did le Carré during the Cold War. Anglo-American intelligence cooperation, begun in World War I, grew close after World War II began.
Agent Fleming recommended in detail the sort of American to head a new office in New York. Dulles fit Fleming’s description and got the job.
Dulles later managed operations in Switzerland, a neutral arena for agents of the Allies and Axis. A vast cast of characters in between encompassed fanatics, fools, fraudsters and geniuses. Electronic surveillance existed, but the working environment and challenges were essentially human.
Dulles handled an overwhelming job skillfully, contributing to ultimate Allied victory, and President Dwight Eisenhower picked him to run the CIA. Then and later, the agency effectively combined human and technological means. The less visible NSA (National Security Agency) favors sophisticated electronic surveillance.
By contrast, the British traditionally and currently place a much higher priority on human intelligence. Arguably, this has been one factor among others in their success in handling varied insurgencies. This observation holds during their long colonial history and since.
Human intelligence was important in finally achieving the extraordinary peace agreement in Northern Ireland at the turn of the century. Skillful negotiation, where former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, D-Maine, was a leader, was also important.
Modern technology greatly facilitates surveillance. Americans seem more aggressive than British regarding this dimension, a bias that undermines effectiveness.
In 1967, amid public unrest, U.S. Army Gen. William P. Yarborough, assistant chief of staff for intelligence, initiated illegal domestic surveillance involving Army Intelligence and the CIA as well as the NSA. The following decade, public exposure by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee led by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, ended this. Nonetheless, since the 9/11 attacks, security agencies have renewed broad public surveillance, especially electronically.
From the early 1950s, various investigations and developments revealed five British government professionals were Soviet spies. The U.S. also has had such traitors, including recently Aldrich Ames (CIA) and Robert Hanssen (FBI); both are now serving life sentences.
Late in 2020, Britain left the European Union and the U.S. elected a new president. This provides opportunity to review frayed cooperation, including the right balance between human and technical intelligence.
Likewise, reasonable balance between civil liberties and national security is inherently challenging but ultimately essential.
Learn more: John le Carré, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” book, film and miniseries.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU and Palgrave/Macmillan). Contact email@example.com