Weekend Reader: In Spies We Trust: The Story Of Western Intelligence

Weekend Reader: <i>In Spies We Trust: The Story Of Western Intelligence</i>

This weekend, The Weekend Reader brings you Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones’ recently released title In Spies We Trust: The Story Of Western Intelligence. There is no shortage of criticism for the intelligence community following whistleblower/traitor Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s PRISM program. In Spies We Trustadds another critical, yet powerful voice to this debate between perceived privacy violations and security. Jeffreys-Jones, Emeritus Professor of American History at the University of Edinburgh and expert on intelligence history, skillfully outlines the history of the U.S.-U.K. intelligence relationship and where this relationship has taken us today. 

You can purchase the book here.

Valerie Plame had already operated under diplomatic cover in Athens. When she arrived in Belgium, she exchanged that relatively comfortable arrangement for more adventurous types of cover — as a student and later as a business executive in Brussels she had fewer restrictions, and got to know a wider variety of useful people with more interesting information to divulge. But should her cover ever be blown, she was also open to retaliation from America’s adversaries.

The retaliation, however, would not come from her country’s enemies. We now cut to the time when Plame had re-located to Washington. From 2002, she worked there for the CIA’s Weapons Intelligence, Non-Proliferation, and Arms Control Center. It was in connection with this work that she found herself at the centre of a shameful Anglo-American intelligence scandal.

Her story became an illustration of a failure in efficacy, and of the wresting of intelligence away from the professionals to the politicians, making the value of intelligence zero.

When the Bush administration opted for military means to achieve regime change in Iraq, it decided that the best way of drumming up support for the policy was to convince the American public that Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, was producing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Plame recalls that in early 2002 Vice President Dick Cheney made frequent and unprecedented visits to the CIA to try to persuade the agency to produce persuasive evidence of Saddam’s intentions.

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By this time, Plame had married a career diplomat, Joseph Wilson, who in common with her had expertise in non-proliferation investigations and had spent some time in the African country, Niger. When rumors came through that Saddam was buying from Niger a supply of uranium ‘yellowcake’ that might help him produce nuclear weapons, Plame suggested that Wilson be sent to Niger to find out. Perhaps there is evidence to suggest that she had by this time already shown signs of wobbling, having ‘gone native’ in Europe and become disillusioned with her CIA career, but there is nothing to suggest that Wilson’s evidence was in any way skewed when on the basis of his Niger investigation he reported that the yellowcake story was in all probability an unfounded rumor.

Both British and American intelligence officials concluded by September 2002 that other rumors were also untrue, for example the one that Iraq would be able to assemble WMDs within 45 minutes. Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee chairman John Scarlett specifically rejected the charge that Iraq had purchased aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment purposes. But all this was sub rosa and, anxious to please the Americans, the Tony Blair government proceeded to ‘sex up’ the evidence to suggest that Saddam was plotting WMDs. News of the deception leaked to the BBC, but not in a conclusive manner.

In his State of the Union address in January 2003, President Bush cited British sources for his statement that yellowcake was going to Iraq, and made the WMD allegation the basis of his case for war. Blair issued supportive statements. The Anglo-American attack on Iraq started in March.

In July, Joe Wilson published an op-ed in the New York Times saying, ‘we went to war on false pretences’.  A furious Bush administration immediately exacted revenge on him by outing Valerie Plame as a CIA official via a leak to the Washington Post, thus destroying her career and potentially placing her life in danger. A few days after that, the body of Dr David Kelly was found in English woodland. A Ministry of Defence adviser on biological weapons, he had been fingered as the source of the BBC WMD-deception story, and had fallen into a depression.

The intimidation of the truth-tellers did not in the long run succeed. True, both Bush and Blair won further general elections in their respective countries, but the drip, drip of ebbing credibility continued remorselessly. The outing of Valerie Plame had been illegal under the  terms of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982. The US Attorney General John Ashcroft refrained from pursuing the matter, and for this neglect of duty had to resign. In October 2005, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, was indicted on a charge of revealing Plame’s CIA affiliation.

Her viability having been destroyed, Plame resigned from the CIA in December 2005. Other events now seemed to confirm that the powerful were crushing the weak. When Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, President Bush commuted his prison sentence. When Plame’s autobiographical account of the intelligence scandal was ready for publication, the administration attempted to suppress it, and when it finally appeared in October 2007, the CIA had severely ‘redacted’ (censored) the book.

But Plame was not the loser. How could she be? Her life story was a bonanza for the press. Her narrative spoke to the issues of the day. Gifted and with a firm sense of women’s rights, Plame had by an ironic twist owed her rise in the CIA to Bush senior’s ‘Glass Ceiling’  study that led the agency to reform its recruitment policies and hire talented females. Then there was the really human element. When her story appeared in Vanity Fair and then in a movie starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, women could sympathize with her workplace problems and with her personal life—she suffered from post-natal depression following the birth of her twins in 2000.

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Nor were the men disappointed, as Valerie Plame was a gift to media photographers—a curvaceous blonde,  yet  with comforting hometown looks. Fair Game, the title of her book, conveyed the basis of her appeal to both sexes—an all-American beauty hunted down and victimized by vile men. Plame won the publicity war by a mile.

I tell the Valerie Plame story not to criticize the Iraq War—the world was well rid of that latter-day Hitler, Saddam Hussein—but as a parable that illustrates the sad state of modern intelligence process. I say process, because the intelligence analysts themselves did not go far wrong in their estimates.

In the case of the WMDs, the process involved the subordination of the special British–American intelligence relationship to the special British– American diplomatic relationship. Blair politicized intelligence in that way because he cherished the diplomatic link. Meantime, Bush also politicized intelligence. In doing so, he evidenced a trend. Contemporary thinking explicitly rejected the traditional separation of estimative and political process. A leader here was Robert Gates, former CIA chief who would become President Obama’s Secretary of Defense.

I would defend the traditional separation of the intelligence and political processes. Less traditionally, I argue that the extra-close UK–USA intelligence relationship has in recent years been both corrosive and obsolescent. I show that it was not always so. Anglo-American intelligence cooperation was the main espionage liaison story of the twentieth century and, in spite of its blemishes, was often successful. My book narrates its history and its lessons; the last of these is that the story should now be told in the past tense.

For the future lies with other types of intelligence liaison, if not through the UN, then through the EU—as Valerie Plame may have begun to realize in those balmy days in Bruges.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase the full book here.

Reprinted from In Spies We Trust: The Story of Western Intelligence by Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones with permission of Oxford University Press. © 2013 Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones.

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