Tinpots, saviors, lawyers, spies

John le Carre

May 05, 1993|By John le Carre

IN the secret world, when I duly entered it, the law was the ghost at every clandestine feast.

For how can you flout the law without first knowing what it is? You might as well try to commit adultery without the benefit of marriage.

The very life blood of America's intelligence community has been drawn from the legal profession. Its heartland is in Boston, at Yale, in the pretty white mansions scattered up and down the coast.

Historically, it was the American lawyers turned spies -- the good old boys of the East Coast legal Establishment -- who pushed and pulled the borders of American constitutional legality and sometimes just damn well kicked them down, for the purpose of defending it against the forces of darkness.

"He's a man," remarked a former director of the CIA about a colleague, "who, when he smells flowers, looks around for the coffin." I guess there are a few lawyers like that.

But I often wonder, nonetheless, quite what so many of your profession thought that they were bringing to the secret world. And what the secret world thought it was getting for its money.

Lawyers, I notice, are pleased to look respectable. Well, so are spooks. The grubbier a spook's work, I quickly discovered when I became one myself, the more immaculate his appearance.

Lawyers bring a certain tone to the committee room. Spooks, too, like a lofty tone.

Lawyers are natural clearing houses for questionable testimony. Who better than a lawyer to separate fabrication from hard fact and the bearers of false witness from the bearers of truth?

Lawyers know how to walk the dark side of the street. They understand harsh expediency and human cost and the frailty of systems, whether judicial or political or bureaucratic.

Lawyers know that the innocent sometimes go to the wall in order to further or protect a grand design. Lawyers know that truth is a kind of seeming, a subtle blend of what is demonstrable and what cannot be disproved.

All of these attributes, it is true, commend themselves warmly to the spies.

But the patchy history of the secret world on both sides of the Atlantic also suggests to us another kind of player, and he may be a lawyer or he may not.

Either way, he is the poor fool of the secret world -- but also a dangerous one. He is the hard-bitten realist who has only to pass through the secret door to become a raging zealot overnight: "I am Superman! All alone I can achieve more than all the committees in the world! I am the great protector. I order governments and kings!"

Alas for him. He has fallen into the oldest trap in the trade. His awareness of the real world's imperfections has deluded him into believing that the secret world can redress them.

He sees himself no longer as a mere collector of knowledge but as someone who can make the rivers flow uphill. And it is a peculiarity of these converted cynics that they are the most persuasive and far-seeing of their kind -- or apparently so.

They are the global architects, the world-order men, the political charm-sellers and geopolitical alchemists who in the Cold War ,, years managed, collectively and individually, to persuade themselves -- and us, too, now and then -- that with a secret tuck here, and a secret pull there, and an assassination somewhere else, and a destabilized economy or two, or three, they could not only save democracy from its defects but create a secret stability amid the chaos.

And they themselves would be its custodians. Its rationalists. Its lawyers. The whole world would be their client: "Let overt democracy rant and fail. Our secret inner caucus of saviors will act!"

Some of them, the saddest, ended up pleading faulty memories on their way to jail. The Cold War for them was a ticket to the world's game. No wonder if they are suffering from post-Cold War tristesse.

It wasn't the spies who won the Cold War. I don't believe that in the end the spies mattered very much at all. Their capsuled isolation and their remote theorizing actually prevented them from seeing, as late as 1987 or 1988, what anybody in the street could have told them: "It's over. We've won. The Iron Curtain is crashing down! The monolith we fought is a bag of bones! Come out of your trenches and smile!"

Even the victory, for them, was a cunning Bolshevik trick. And, anyway, what had they got to smile about? It was a victory achieved by openness, not secrecy. By frankness, not intrigue.

The Soviet empire did not fall apart because spooks had bugged the men's room in the Kremlin or put broken glass in Mrs. Brezhnev's bath but because running a huge, repressive society in the 1980s had become -- economically, socially, militarily and technologically -- impossible.

And the joke is that if the outcome of the Cold War had been left to the spies, then on all the evidence so far our spies would have come a poor second. And thank God for it.

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