Spying, though overrated, has much redeeming value

The Argument

A sweep of the most reliable writing on espionage reveals more disasters than triumphs.

July 08, 2001|By Scott Shane | By Scott Shane,Sun Staff

When that celebrated spymaster Moses dispatched 12 agents to the Promised Land on a 40-day reconnaissance mission, the operation ended in debacle. Some spies came back talking of milk and honey; others reported terrifying giants. The bewildered Israelites rioted, provoking the Lord to consume some with fire and sentence others to 40 years in the wilderness.

But did Moses swear off espionage? Oh, no. He sent more spies out, the Book of Numbers tells us. This time, his agents were taken prisoner.

Three millenniums later, the intelligence game hasn't changed much. Spying remains irresistible to leaders and fascinating to the public. It is occasionally of spectacular value, particularly in wartime. Like homeowners' insurance, it may be worth paying for even if you hope you'll never have a fire.

But most of the time spying has only a marginal effect on the competition among nations. And always, it is prone to catastrophe.

The secrecy necessary for espionage promotes foolhardy schemes and covers up waste. Genuine intelligence scoops are lost in masses of reports or ignored by political leaders. Trusted agents turn out to be working for the other side, as FBI agent Robert Hanssen allegedly did for a decade before his arrest in February.

Consider the gripping story told by David Wise, this country's most prolific author on espionage, in "Cassidy's Run: The Secret Spy War Over Nerve Gas" (Random House, 230 pages, $25). Joe Cassidy, an ordinary U.S. Army sergeant, was "dangled" before Soviet military intelligence in 1959 and for the next 20 years sold classified U.S. military documents to Soviet agents who never suspected he was actually working for the FBI.

U.S. officials who used Cassidy to feed the Soviet Union false information and expose several Soviet spies considered "Operation SHOCKER" a remarkable success. But for outsiders, the real shock of SHOCKER may be its modest gains and huge costs.

Much of the information fed to the Soviets was true, since the U.S. needed to establish Cassidy's bona fides. Eventually he pulled off a major deception -- passing false documents indicating the U.S. had developed a potent new nerve gas.

But by providing some valid data, and by spurring the Soviet military to accelerate its nerve gas program, Wise speculates, Operation SHOCKER may actually have made the United States less safe. At best, it prompted the Soviet Union to waste resources on fruitless research -- a minor achievement.

Moreover, the Justice Department, ignoring FBI protests, ultimately declined to prosecute the most important Soviet agents exposed in SHOCKER, a Mexican couple named Gilberto and Alicia Lopez. And before that decision was made, two FBI agents were killed in a plane crash while tracking the Lopezes from the air.

Were their lives, in addition to the huge investment in money and manpower over two decades, worth what was gained? Surely not.

But was the intelligence sting a bad idea from the start? Not necessarily. A double agent such as Cassidy might have been of immense value if World War III had suddenly loomed. Only in hindsight does the price paid appear too high.

The cost in lives of espionage is modest by comparison with war, but it is real, as Ted Gup demonstrates in "The Book of Honor: Covert Lives and Classified Deaths at the CIA" (Doubleday, 390 pages, $25.95). Gup's impressive reporting unearthed many of the stories represented by the 71 stars on a wall at CIA headquarters representing agency employees who died on the job.

Despite the risks, the curiosity and competition that fuels spying are congenital human attributes: I spy, therefore I am. The invaluable "Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage," meticulously researched by Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen (Random House, 633 pages, $30), shows that the United States, like most countries, runs spies in or eavesdrops on every nation where there might be useful information that can't be acquired openly.

So it is always amusing when American officials, "Casablanca"-style, pronounce themselves "shocked, shocked" at foreign espionage. After Hanssen's arrest, the Bush administration expelled 50 Russian diplomats for spying, declaring that their presence did not represent the "kind of relationship" the U.S. wants with Russia.

The officials who say such things know that two-way espionage characterizes the "kind of relationship" the U.S. will always have with Russia -- or, for that matter, with France, which accused five CIA officers of economic espionage in a 1995 imbroglio. The U.S. denied everything -- before quietly withdrawing the key officer and, as Gup reports, forcing the resignation of her CIA boss. Not, of course, because the woman had been spying, but because she had been caught.

After such scandals, some Americans suggest that the CIA, the National Security Agency and the rest of the nation's $28 billion-a-year spying operations could be more effective if they were freed from media scrutiny and congressional oversight.

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