A Spy Among Friends

Another spy book, but this one will be the last one for a while.

Review: A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, Ben Macintyre, 2014.51iInMVMdeL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

“I was asked about him, and I said I knew his people,” and with that Harold Adrian Russell aka Kim Philby passed his security check on the personal word of Valentine Vivian, deputy head of the Secret Intelligence Service aka MI6, and started on his legendary career as a double agent.

My impression of the British Empire is that, for a long time, it ran on the cheap and its administrators were often picked via nepotism and allowed a great deal of flexibility. (That element of nepotism was a large resentment on the part of the rebels in the American Revolution.) That method worked for a long time. But the career of Kim Philby shows its downside.

Macintyre assures us

this is not another biography of Kim Philby . . . it is an attempt to describe a particular sort of friendship that played an important role in history.

There are a lot of biographies of Philby. I myself have read three, but there are several in this book’s bibliography that I’ve never heard of much less read. Philby himself, when he died in 1988, had a bookshelf full of them in his Moscow apartment. Continue reading “A Spy Among Friends”

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Eyes in the Sky

This one makes a nice companion to the last post on David Hambling’s Swarm Troopers though it’s not as tightly written.

Review: Eyes in the Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare and How It Will Watch Us All, Arthur Holland Michel, 2019.51zYpraxPqL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

Imagine above you is a camera. It can survey tens of miles at a time yet take in enough detail to read license plates and distinguish faces. It records all it sees. It’s a spy TiVo.

If you’re a terrorist, it knows where you are, where you’ve been, whom you’ve met.

If you’re a politician with an embarrassing secret, bribes or some sexual picadillo, it knows where you’ve been and whom you met.

If you shot a drug dealer on a street corner, it saw you and the past movements of the dealer.

If you’re a plumber not paying your taxes, it can track your service calls in real time and perhaps the tax authorities can serve a levy on your customers or do an audit.

If you’re a child snatched and put in a van, it knows the license plate number of your abductor.

If you’re on a rooftop after a hurricane, it can help rescue you.

If you eschew electronic communication with your fellow political dissidents, it can follow you to an in-person meeting with them.

You don’t have to imagine this camera. It exists already. It’s been built and used for some of the above purposes. It could be used for all of them. Continue reading “Eyes in the Sky”

Swarm Troopers

Long before I read David Hambling’s excellent Cthulhu Mythos fiction, I knew him as a popular science writer on weird or speculative science for Fortean Times and on military technology. I read his earlier Weapons Grade: The Revealing History of the Link Between Modern Warfare and Our High Tech World which I recommend as a look at civilian spinoffs – some social like the public relations industry – from military research and weapons. (I did not review it though.)

Before I read Arthur Holland Michel’s Eyes in the Sky, I decided to actually read this one which I got last year though it is several years old.

Review: Swarm Troopers: How Small Drones Will Conquer the World, David Hambling, 2015.51NFMTI0jwL

To paraphrase a prophet,

Beat your iPhones into swords, and turn your Christmas toys into spears: let the weak say, I am strong.

This self-published work draws upon David Hambling’s extensive writings about modern drone technology for various magazines. It may be four years old, but it’s still worth reading. The kindle versions has extensive links to various online resources, and Hambling’s blog swarm-troopers.com has kept current with news on the types of drones central to this story. Hambling’s presentation seems to almost be intended as a concisely written academic precis on the subject with an abstract given for each chapter.

I haven’t kept that current with developments in drone technology, so this book was valuable.

Valuable and frightening.

The first thing one learns is that militaries have been messing about with unmanned aerial vehicles since 1849 when an attempt was made to bomb Venice with unmanned balloons. The British military developed a remote-controlled airplane in 1916. Drones piloted remotely via onboard tv cameras were successfully deployed by the U.S. Navy in 1943. A Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter (that would be DASH — this book is full of often strained military acronyms) was developed in the early 1960s. Continue reading “Swarm Troopers”

The Spy and the Traitor

More spy stuff because I decided to read a spy book from my library for every new one I reviewed.

Review: The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, Ben Macintyre, 2018.untitled

For once, the subtitle on this one is not an exaggeration. The only other contenders I can think for “greatest espionage story of the Cold War” would be those of Oleg Penkovsky and, of course, Kim Philby who Macintyre also wrote a book about.

Like Penkovsky, Oleg Gordievsky was a Soviet intelligence officer who was a double agent for the West. Like Philby, Gordievsky made a daring escape to be with the country he secretly served. In Philby’s case, though, it was the considerably easier task of smuggling himself out of Lebanon and to the Soviet Union. Gordievsky was smuggled out of Moscow while he was under surveillance.

I certainly have not read every espionage memoir or case history ever written, but I’ve read a fair number, and Macintyre’s book is simply the best book on a spy case I’ve ever read. Macintyre not only has a nice turn of phrase but also delves into the psychology of the spy. This is a book that examines the complex motives – more complicated than the acronym MICE (money, ideology, compromise, and ego) would suggest – of the spy, and their intimate relationships with the case officers who “run” them. Macintyre shows the KGB and MI6 and the CIA as bureaucracies full, to varying degrees, of time servers, those psychologically unsuited for the work, and, of course, the usual bureaucratic tendency to bury failure or shift blame for it. Continue reading “The Spy and the Traitor”

The Moscow Rules

More spy stuff.

This one came to me for review from the Amazon Vine program.

Review: The Moscow Rules: The Secret CIA Tactics That Helped America Win the Cold War, Antonio Mendez and Jonna Mendez with Matt Baglio, 2019.51L4Zb7vRoL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_

You’re in a gloomy city, Moscow. The natives, out of self preservation, don’t like to talk to you. Everywhere you go, you are followed. In fact, if you’re a diplomat or a CIA agent operating under diplomatic cover, there are tens of thousands of KGB agents in the city to watch you every time you step out. They’ve bugged your embassy. They’ve bugged your apartment. They’ve bugged your phone.

Go out and chat up the local Russians and try to recruit them to be spies? If you do manage to recruit any, if they actually volunteer to give you information, authentic information and not “dangles” meant to embarrass you to create a diplomatic incident or feed you misinformation, how are you going to get it? A dead drop when your surveilled by multiple teams of KGB agents? A brush contact?

You might as well try to try to recruit agents on Mars. In fact, that’s just what your boss, Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms, said. Continue reading “The Moscow Rules”

The World Was Going Our Way

I’m still in spyland.

This is a sequel to the excellent first volume of the Mitrokhin Archives. However, I wrote no review of that and have no plans to. (It’s a thick book, like this one, and I’d have to re-read it.)

Review: The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World, Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, 2005.9780465003136

Vasili Mitrokhin was a KGB officer who had access to some of the organization’s archives on its foreign intelligence work. From 1972 to 1984, he’d take some documents home every weekend, make notes on them or, sometimes, copy certain documents in full. He’d hide the notes under the floorboards of his dacha.

In 1992, he defected to the British government with several boxes of those notes.

Whereas the first volume of the Mitrokhin archives, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, documented KGB operations in Europe and North America and Australia, this one covers operations in the rest of the world though Japan, definitely not a Third World country, is included.

493 pages of this book are text filled with hundreds of names of agents, their codenames as well as the codenames of operations and places. The rest of the 677 pages are indexes, appendices, footnotes, and a bibliography. This book is not a light read and near the hardcore end of the spectrum for those interested in espionage as well as foreign policy and modern history. Continue reading “The World Was Going Our Way”

George Washington’s Secret Six

This one came to me as a gift. If I had known it was published before Spies, Patriots, and Traitors, I would have read and reviewed it first.

Review: George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, 2013.51jjYdZGXJL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

This is a popular history – no footnotes but a brief bibliography and index – and it’s tightly focused on the Culper Spy Ring operating in British occupied New York City. It covers much the same territory as Chapter Nine, “American Intelligence Activities Reach Maturity” of Kenneth A. Daigler’s Spies, Patriots, and Traitors. It even relies on the same histories of the Culper Spy Ring as Daigler: John Edwin Bakeless’s Turncoats, Traitors, and Heroes (1998), John A. Nagy’s Invisible Ink: Spycraft in the American Revolution (2010), and Morton Pennypacker’s General Washington’s Spies (1939).

That focus allows a couple of things missing from Daigler’s account: an in-depth profile of the six spies (well, five actually because the identity of No. 355, as she was known to Washington, is not definitively known), a greater sense of what it was like to live in occupied New York, and quotes from the correspondence of the spy ring.

Kilmeade and Yaeger, to make the story more vivid, provide dialogue at certain points based on written documents. Continue reading “George Washington’s Secret Six”