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