Guest Commentary

On Jeffrey Simser's
"Quiller and the Secret World"

Michael Gazaway

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The secret world's fall from grace coincided with expanded communications capability and the rise of tabloid journalism.  As the money-making potential of tabloid journalism became evident, the mainstream media jumped on the sensationalist bandwagon.  (To be fair, the mainstream media had little choice; news is, after all, a business that must pander to the bottom line.)  The media discovered that stupid spies and dastardly plots were good press.  Covert operations were dragged kicking and screaming out of the shadows and into the public's homes.  As this is written the headline in a newssheet posted at my workplace reads:  "BUNGLING AT THE CIA."  The story reports on the failure of the CIA to predict that India would test a nuclear device.  The implication of the story is that the test would not have occurred had the CIA done their job.  Setting aside the question of whether that assumption is correct, the choice of the term "bungling" pretty much sums up the prevailing opinion concerning the espionage community.

Exposed to failure after failure, the public developed a deep cynicism about the intelligence community.  Eventually, the very nature of espionage (secrets and lies) became unacceptable behavior for the State.  In order to protect elected officials from ruin, questionable actions must never be tied to the State.  The concept of plausible deniability solved this problem for a while.   To quote no less an authority than Bart Simpson:  "I didn't do it.  Nobody saw me.  You can't prove anything."  Now we've become too cynical for this ploy.  We're wise to plausible deniability, and spin-doctors, and we assume that the higher-ups are aware of and sanction what the "lower-downs" are doing.

This illustrates a basic contradiction between the secret world and the fictional world of the Bureau:  the ease with which covert failures are covered up in the Quiller novels.  A wheel comes off, the Bureau puts out some smoke, and the problem disappears.  No investigative journalists sifting for a story, no governmental investigations, no town hall meetings to publish the board of inquiry result.  Perhaps all this takes place offstage in the Quiller books, but in the real world there is no offstage.

Mr. Simser states:  "Covert action is an effort to influence the course of events in a foreign country without the source of the influence being known."  Presumably, there are successful covert actions.  By their very nature, successful covert actions would not come to the public's attention.  In the best case scenario, covert actions would not even be recognized as such.  The secret world is damned by publicity over espionage failure and ignorance of espionage success.  Espions just can't win.

The most important qualifications for public service are spin capability and blame deflection.  Government action is subject to public scrutiny by a nearly fanatic press, and when nearly every decision is submitted for committee approval to reduce individual responsibility, government action cannot be covert.  Witness the nighttime landing of US Marines on an African beach, floodlit by television cameras.

When foreign policy is conducted via sound-bite, when governmental actions are submitted to the UN for approval and when people expect civilized State actions in the face of barbaric behavior, the course of events in a foreign country cannot be influenced in a politically acceptable manner.  Witness the Sandline scandal in the UK, as cited by Mr. Simser.

Hiring mercenaries does not provide a firewall between the action and the State.  If the mission fails, blame travels up the food chain:  Who hired the mercenaries?  Who approved the hiring decision?  Who set the policy that allowed hiring mercenaries?  This process continues until the "loose cannon" (spelled, "scapegoat") is uncovered, publicly showered with blame and summarily sacked.  The US "wait for Castro to die" policy cited by Mr. Simser speaks directly to the impotence that resulted from dependence on an independent group to accomplish State goals.

The hands of the secret warriors are tied.  Someone has to do the dirty work (not too dirty, please), but we don't want to know about it, and we certainly don't want the State involved.  This can only be accomplished by totally disconnecting the covert action from the government.  Thus, we have the Bureau and the "Sacred Bull" of absolute secrecy.  In order for the Bureau to carry out effective covert action, there must be no link to the government, because the State has proven time and again that it cannot keep a secret.  It is simply too big, with too many hands involved in any decision.  Whether for fame or money or principles, someone will spill the beans.  It is not sufficient that the Bureau's actions remain covert; the Bureau itself cannot exist.

In a perfect world, we could all live in peace and harmony, and there would be no need for covert action.  In the real world of conflicting ideologies and goals, covert action is necessary to accomplish the goals of the State, but has become unpalatable to the general public.  Given this paradox, the Bureau is not only plausible, it is desperately needed.