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“Spookthink”: intelligence agencies and institutional mindsets

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Civil Service personified.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Civil Service personified.

Intelligence agencies are institutions. If we really want to understand the reality of our domestic and foreign policy, we must remember that every spook is a civil servant, and every agency is ultimately no more than a government department. Increasingly I have adopted the view that Britain’s “intelligence community” have no grand, inter-generational geopolitical plans. In this day and age, what government department really does? That requires vision, which is not the stuff of bureaucrats. What our spooks actually crave is an easy life, except for the ambitious, who seek status and promotion, much like anyone else. I recently encountered two examples which illustrate this nicely.

Alex Wallerstein’s commendable nuclear secrecy blog, Restricted Data, has examined the uncensored Franck Report. Essentially, this was the work of a very small sub-group of civilian scientists who were part of the thousands of scientists working on the Manhattan Project. They grouped to form the Committee on Political and Social Problems, and were chaired by Nobel Laureate and German-Jewish émigré James Franck. They were the only part of the Project to officially register any inquiry at all into the political and social problems of this new atomic weaponry. They predicted the arms race and the problems of proliferation, and observed that a global atomic arms control regime would become imperative. They went on to say that the US would find this difficult to implement if it launched these secret weapons against occupied cities, because its global moral standing would sink to the level of Nazi Germany. They proposed “demonstrating” the bomb instead of using it against civilian populations, and allowing hostile governments to see what it could do.

How Little Boy was eventually "demonstrated".

How Little Boy was eventually “demonstrated”.

Their report was more or less ignored. President Hoover was never told it existed. Nobody even mentioned the  demonstration option to him. The report remained classified until after the war, and when it was finally published, in the May 1946 Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, it was heavily censored. Unredacted reports began circulating on the net two or three years’ ago (Wallerstein’s research shows that the redactions were entirely political, and nothing to do with national security).

“It doesn’t appear that anybody who had the authority to drop the bomb agonized over the question before dropping it,” Wallerstein writes. “What agonizing there was mostly came after the fact.”

As the notes of the Targeting Committee reflect, the men of the Manhattan Project spent far, far longer deciding where to drop the bomb than whether they should drop the bomb at all, and what the wider consequences of that act might be. The most awesome and destructive weapon mankind had ever devised was dropped simply because it was built. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the inevitable consequences of institutional mindset, with its inherent inability to question itself from any external perspective.

Franke’s Committee succeeded, at least, in raising the concerns of the US Secretary of War, who safeguarded himself by demanding that some other senior scientists be found to disagree with it. This doesn’t seem to have been particularly difficult. The Manhattan Project promptly supplied another committee in response, the so-called Scientific Panel of the Interim Committee on Nuclear Power, an ad hoc line-up consisting of Arthur Compton, Ernest Lawrence, Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi. They signed off on a short paper titled Recommendations on The Immediate Use of Nuclear Weapons.

Ernest Lawrence later told a friend that they only debated the matter for ten minutes prior to signing the document. That bears some repeating: the architects of the atomic bomb spent ten minutes debating whether or not it should be used. The Manhattan Project had by then been running for about three years.

After Hiroshima, Ernest Lawrence told everyone he had been in favour of the demonstration option all along. James Franck abandoned atomic physics and worked on photosynthesis instead. Only one scientist ever left the Manhattan Project on the grounds of conscientious objection. He was a Pole named Jospeh Rotblat. When he asked to leave, he was immediately and groundlessly traduced as a Soviet spy.  Unknown sources fabricated evidence to this effect.

(That Rotblat was eventually awarded the Nobel Peace Prize is a reflection of how independent the Nobel Committee, and Sweden, used to be. Would Martin Luther King get a Peace Prize from today’s Committee? I think they would be more inclined to J. Edgar Hoover’s view. But I digress.)

One should bear Joseph Rotblat in mind on the rare occasions when the employees of secret institutions are openly seen to display objective thought. The treatment of Edward Snowden shows that nothing has changed. This is how institutions work. Such entities cannot question themselves, and reflexively abhor constituent individuals who can. This tendency is probably strongest in “secret” institutions, because the nature of that secrecy acts to further prohibit scrutiny while providing easier ways to castigate dissent. Meaningful self-inquisition is vital for institutional functionality, and it is a virtual impossibility in places like GCHQ, SIS, MI5, the DIS, or indeed anywhere in the MOD.

You could improve the efficicency of this place simply by setting it on fire.

You could improve the efficiency of this place simply by boarding it up.

My second lesson on how the institutional mindset affects intelligence agencies was provided by a reading of Kim Philby’s autobiography. As far as I’m aware, Kim Philby is the greatest British spy who ever lived. He spied for the other side, of course, but the fact remains (and tells us something about the nature of the intelligence world itself, but I digress).  Anyway, during World War Two, the British Legation in Berne had a German walk-in carrying suitcases full of Nazi documents. It took a lot of nerve to cross the Swiss border with a suitcase full of secret Nazi paperwork, so the Brits rejected him out of hand as a plant. Undeterred, the German promptly walked over to the Americans’ newly opened OSS office, then headed by Allen Dulles, where he was warmly welcomed. The documents he carried proved to be authentic and were highly valued by all customers. Dulles reckoned he was the best Nazi source of the war. He was almost certainly Fritz Kolbe.

One of the greatest walk-ins of all time. We told him to bugger off.

One of the greatest walk-ins of all time. We told him to bugger off.

Philby recounts how senior officers at SIS responded to news of their mistake not by accepting and learning from the obvious truth, but by continuing to dismiss the intel as fake without even attempting verification. The worst of the bunch were Claude Dansey, then Assistant Chief, and Felix Cowgill, Six’s head of counter-espionage, both of whom sought to repress any product from the Berne walk-in purely to protect their own reputations and advance their own careers. Bear in mind this was before 1943 was over; prescient minds may have seen which way the war would end, but there was still an awful lot of it left. Philby was only able to authenticate this valuable information, via the Government Code and Cypher School, because his superior, Cowgill, went off to America for a few weeks. And he was only able to secure authorisation for distribution from Dansey by offering to fake its origin, so that when the OSS’ Berne stuff arrived on British desks it looked like it was from a British source (with this in mind I am extremely curious about the actual origin of things like the Oslo Report).

Lieutenant Colonel Sir Claude Dansey thought he was pretty amazing.

Lieutenant Colonel Sir Claude Dansey considered himself pretty amazing.

I find the attitudes Philby relates very telling. They are entirely in accordance with the institutional mindset. Namely, that the first priority of any member of any institution is always their standing within that institution. Their second priority is the reputation of the institution itself: Dansey did tell Philby he didn’t want SIS to be overshadowed by the OSS, but this only as a subsequent justification when his transparent careerism came to light. These priorities, together with the incapacity for objective judgement outside the institutional lens (see above), comprise the Iron Law of Institutions, which needs to be borne in mind whenever one considers any intelligence agency or service. We might call it spookthink.

Spookthink does a lot to explain Iraq, and indeed Iraq does a lot to affirm the Law. There are a lot of people who could probably have stopped us waging an illegal, destructive, misguided war if they a) had some objective, non-institutional idea about the failings of their department/s and b) hadn’t cared more about their own good standing (as they saw it). Perhaps, like Dansey did, some of these folk argue they only sought to protect the reputation of their employer instead. If so, that reputation was upheld only in certain parts of Washington, and perhaps not even there. Amongst the British people, and maybe most of the world, it remains irrevocably damaged.

Two conclusions spring to mind. One: institutions are probably the worst entities which could exist for collecting and analysing secret, important information (“intelligence” is wholly an institutional term). Two: if, as Karl Popper argued, our institutions are what safeguard open society, they might just as easily close it too. Perhaps, by dint of their very structure, they might be more inclined to do so.

The Master of Pembroke College.

The Master of Pembroke College. Worryingly.


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  1. Chris Smith is now the Master of Pembroke College, though Dearlove’s Wikipedia page appears not to have been updated to reflect the fact he is no longer the Master of Pembroke College.

    I find it very odd that Dearlove was allowed to sign up to the principles of the Henry Jackson Society.

    • A worthy correction, thank you. Pembroke has gone up somewhat in my estimation. I wonder to what extent, if any, Smith’s appointment was a Cantabrigian reaction against the tenure of his predecessor.