Dancing with Spooks

9 September 2011


    Happiness, remembering the night of drinking and dancing, dancing by myself like a peasant, a faun, with couples all around me.
    Alone? Actually: There we were dancing face to face in a potlatch of absurdity, the philosopher — Sartre — and me.
    I remember whirling about, dancing.
    Jumping, stomping down the wooden floor.
    Acting rebellious and crazy — like a fool.
    For me, there’s a connection between this dance, with Sartre oppsite me, and a painting I recall (Picasso’s Demoiselles d’ Avignon). The third character was a store-window dummy made out of a horse’s skull and a flowing, striped yellow and mauve dressing gown. A grimly medieval canopied bed presiding over the fun.
    Five months of nightmare ended in a carnival.
    What a surprise — fraternizing like that with Sartre and Camus (I’m talking like a schoolboy).

Georges Bataille, On Nietzsche, VII, p. 73

If there is anything more surreal and hallucinatory than Bataille’s account of “dancing” with Sartre, it would have be to the diplomatic dance of nation-states and especially of the spooks, spies, agents, and diplomats who ultimately make it all possible. Diplomacy makes for some strange bedfellows, and so it makes for great stories. Not surprisingly, many of the best films of the twentieth century were spy thrillers of one sort of another, from The Lady Vanishes to Enemy of the State — and, of course, the spy thrillers haven’t stopped just because we’re in a new millennium.

One of the amazing things about espionage is that the true stories are often more shocking and surprising than the fictionalized stories of the cinema. Alfred North Whitehead had an explanation for this:

“Literature must in some sense be believable, whereas experiences of human beings in fact develop beyond all powers of conjecture. Thus Social Literature is conventional, while History exceeds all limitations of common sense.”

Lucien Price, The Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, Prologue

The true stories, however, if they come out at all, come out so long after the events in question actually transpired that the world has moved on. The fictionalized stories come to us as events are unfolding, and so we recognize in them the truth of our time. But it is not the whole truth. Recent revelations from Wikileaks and from files recovered in Tripoli after the Gaddafi regime abandoned their capital in an unseemly rush is showing us, in real time, some of the sausage-making machinery of diplomacy.

And, of course, this is not limited to Libya. I noticed a very small item in the Financial Times earlier this week (on Tuesday 06 September) that explicitly noted the involvement of the US in the ISI capture of Younis al-Mauritani. The next day this item appeared in more detail on the Voice of America (US-Pakistan Joint Raid in Pakistan Viewed as Rare, Hopeful Sign for Troubled Ties) where it was spun as a “rare, hopeful sign.”

The VOA story makes an odd claim:

“Ties between the intelligence agencies of Pakistan and the United States have been severely strained since the killing of Osama bin Laden in a covert U.S. raid in Pakistan in May.”

“Both sides have attempted to play down the tensions through public statements, but the expulsion of American security personnel by Pakistan and the suspension of some U.S. military assistance have highlighted the distrust on both sides.”

Severely strained” is right, but the following paragraph is what strikes me as a bit odd. The public diplomacy has in fact been quite rancorous, and if this is what counts as “playing down” tension it would be frightening to see what escalating tensions look like. But now we see these tensions of public diplomacy in context, and the context is that of continuing cooperation between US intelligence and diplomatic services and the Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), which latter is so notorious that it is frequently called “a state within a state,” is known to have had close relationships with stateless militants, has recently been accused in the assassination of a journalist, and is usually presumed to be a loose cannon beyond the control of Pakistan’s civilian leadership.

What has emerged from Libyan secret police files is that Libya’s intelligence agency (the Mukhabarat el-Jamahiriya), led by Moussa Koussa, was actively working with several intelligence agencies of Western powers — obviously, the CIA and MI6, but not only the British and the Americans. The US and the UK were involved in renditions that brought targeted individuals to Libya for questioning, and one assumes that these interrogations would not have observed the niceties that Western nation-states and their intelligence operatives must at least appear to respect.

After Gaddafi’s regime accepted responsibility for the Pan Am Flight 103 attack (the Lockerbie bombing) and the UN Security Council voted to lift sanctions against Libya on 12 September 2003, and then Libya formally renounced its WMD programs on 19 December 2003, it seemed that Libya was making a good faith effort to re-join the civilized nation-states of the world. The WMD programs were dismantled to international specifications, and relationships between Libya and the Western powers began to lurch toward normality. This reconciliation must also have involved increasing contacts between Libya and Western intelligence agencies. In fact, we now know that these intelligence relations became so close that the US and UK were using Libya for its extraordinary renditions.

It is important to point out that this close relationship between intelligence agencies did not save Gaddafi. The notorious Moussa Koussa resigned his position in the Libyan regime and fled to the UK, where he is still “in custody” (which could mean any number of things, from being held in a dank cell to enjoying a rather comfortable house arrest). Even while the US, the UK, and other Western powers began to work with Gaddafi, when they saw their chance to be rid of him, mostly they did not hesitate. (One suspects that intelligence relations with the ISI have a similar character.) Even in his reconciled state, Gaddafi was a pariah — had made himself into a pariah.

There are all kinds of lessons that can be taken from this drama. No one lesson is entirely right; no one lesson is entirely wrong. Therefore, to learn only one lesson is to learn the wrong lesson. The world is a complicated place. Some day perhaps someone with the requisite experience, knowledge, and theoretical acumen will write a definitive treatise, The Philosophy of Espionage, in which the complexities and contradictions of the secret side of the relationships between nation-states will be laid bare and analyzed with a dispassionate eye. I hope I live to see that text.

The people who conduct these backroom deals with others whom they know to be brutal and unscrupulous representatives of brutal and unscrupulous regimes are put in a difficult position. They literally must learn to live a lie. Every day they find themselves justifying their actions in terms of the end justifying the means, which they must know in their heart-of-hearts falls far short of even a modest human ideal for a moral life.

And the lying starts immediately. One of my sisters once attended a CIA recruitment event. They had advertised in the local newspaper for people who wanted a career that involved foreign travel. At the very first acquaintance with the CIA, prospective employees were told not to say anything about their initial meeting with CIA representatives to families, friends, and loved ones.

Dancing with spooks is not for the faint of heart, and it isn’t going to go away anytime soon. So, being the Socratic fundamentalist that I am — that is to say, I truly believe that knowledge is virtue — it is better to know it and understand it. The alternative is to pretend it doesn’t exist and hope it will go away. It won’t. Spooks are here to stay, and that’s why we need someone to write a Summa of espionage.

. . . . .

Note added Thursday 22 September 2011: It was widely reported today that outgoing chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, speaking to a US Senate panel, accused Pakistan’s spy agency of supporting the Haqqani group in last week’s attack on the US Kabul embassy. Mullen was quoted as saying, “The Haqqani network… acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency.” Note that this is “public diplomacy.” No one of Mullen’s stature says something so inflammatory for media consumption without approval at higher political levels. There are many things that could be going on here, so soon after the above mentioned “rare, hopeful sign.” There may be elements within the ISI that have gone rogue, and this is a warning by the US for Pakistan to bring it under control. There may be political division within the ISI or within Pakistan’s civilian leadership, and the US in wants to warn them about any choice that might come out of such a dispute. It may simply be for US domestic consumption, to remind people that the US works with the ISI but doesn’t trust it. Public diplomacy often serves its most crucial function when it contradicts private diplomacy.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One Response to “Dancing with Spooks”

  1. […] of common sense.” Lucien Price, The Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, Prologue; cited at; Whitehead image from VIDEO TEDxDanubia 2011 – Simonyi and Kounalakis – "How and Roll Saved […]

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