Who else is fascinated by spy stories? Not just Bond-esque, but real life spies, those shadowy figures who risked everything to save the world--or damn it. And do you ever wonder how espionage has changed? Here's our Jungle Red friend Libby Fischer Hellman to give us the scoop.
Hi, Reds and Reds fans. It’s great to be back at the party. Thanks for having me.
I’ve been focusing on espionage recently. Which means reading as many fiction and non-fiction accounts as I can, watching a lot of espionage movies (you can imagine how hard that’s been ☺), and keeping up with the news. I visited the Spy Museum in Washington and Bletchley Park in the UK. The result so far is a novella called The Incidental Spy, set in the early years of the Manhattan Project in Chicago. It’s just been published, and it’s about a German refugee who is forced to spy on the nuclear fission experiments at the University of Chicago from 1940 to 1942.
Today, though, I’d like to share my thoughts with you about the world of espionage and how it’s changed. Because it has changed. Significantly. At the same time, though, it’s brought back some tradecraft I assumed was obsolete.
World War Two at Home
Depending to whom you’re talking, Prague and/or Lisbon were the European spy capitals during the Second World War. Anyone was a potential spy, and they held the future of the world in their hands – the stakes were that high. Unfortunately, many spies were notoriously unreliable or became double agents when their marks realized they were being spied upon.
At home, though, it was a different story. America was physically untouched by the war (except for war bonds and rationing and families sending loved ones into battle). The reality was that if you were, say a farmer in the Midwest, it was possible to ignore the war and go about your business. Which made spying a little easier. Most Americans didn’t constantly look over their shoulder fearing someone was out to stealprivate secrets.
Still, there were some infamous (and unreliable) spies. Take Doctor Ignatz Griebel, who served in the German Army during World War I. He emigrated to the US, became an American citizen, and eventually became the president of the Friends of the New Germany, which eventually merged into the German-American Bund. When Griebel was arrested by the FBI, he revealed the details behind a German spy ring operating in the U.S. A Federal grand jury subpoenaed him, but in 1938 he escaped aboard the German ship Breman, taking vital intelligence with him. And in a brazen act of chutzpah, he even tried to come back to America after the war, but was arrested before disappearing into obscurity.
|Dr. Ignatz Griebel|
The Duquesne spy ring was a German attempt to spy on the US arms industry and their preparations for war. The network's head, Frederick 'Fritz' Joubert Duquesne, hated the Brits, fought for the Boers, and worked for German intelligence during World War I. He was determined to keep the USA neutral and out of the war. His ring came to a rapid end, thanks to William Sebold, a freshly-naturalized US citizen who ended up working for the FBI. 33 people were tried as a result of the ring's break-up, 19 pleaded guilty and the rest were found guilty anyway. One Abwehr officer later said the ring's demise proved the 'death blow' of wartime German espionage on US shores.
When we think of the so-called Atomic spies, based in the US, UK and Canada, we, of course, think of the Rosenbergs who gave away information about the US nuclear weapons program to the Soviets. In reality, though, physicist Klaus Fuchs was probably the most notorious Communist spy—he actually worked on the Manhattan Project and had extensive access to high-level scientific data. The Venona project intercepted Soviet intelligence reports sent during and after the war, which gave US officials clues to his identity. Many believe there had to be other spies as well, perhaps even at Los Alamos. Rumors swirled about Oppenheimer
and David Greenglass, and their reputations were ruined forever.
The 1950s and McCarthyism
As fear of the Nazis waned, America's fear of communism grew, and our reaction to alleged spies in our midst exploded. Government official Alger Hiss was accused of being a communist spy. After a mistrial he was tried again in 1950, convicted of three counts of perjury, and served over three years in prison. (Thank you, Richard Nixon). Throughout his trial and after, he denied any wrongdoing.
That paved the way for McCarthyism, which kick-started an extraordinary period of Communist-driven fear in the 1950s. As you probably know, thousands of American citizens, from government workers to movie stars, were asked by a congressional panel: "Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist party?” Their answers weren't always taken at face value and countless reputations, careers, and lives were ruined. The public seemed not to react to the horrors of the situation until Joseph Welch uttered the famous question “Have you no sense of decency sir?” at the Army-McCarthy hearings, and Edward R Murrow took him down on national TV.
Lack of Clarity Today
Today the game has changed. Technology has proven to be a double-edged sword. The motivation for espionage has changed, too. In the past it was truly a matter of life or death. Soldiers’ lives were at stake during the war; everyone was at risk during the atomic bomb scares. There was a clarity to espionage. There were good guys and bad guys, and we were always the good guys.
It’s not so simple today. While anyone could be a spy during the war, today we all can be spies all the time. All we need is a camera, perhaps a drone, a bug on a phone, a computer hacker, or a really good decryption code.
Which makes figuring out who’s spying on whom and why murky. Today governments spy on individuals. Corporations spy on competitors. Nation states spy on each other. And while espionage used to be motivated by the defense of one’s nation, we now know espionage is used for corporate advantage…manipulating election results… or stealing the latest technological advances.
Ironically, that has brought some of the old spy tradecraft back in vogue. Why write an encrypted email when you can just arrange a dead drop? Why risk being recognized on a video camera when you can disguise yourself with a wig and pair of glasses? (Don’t forget to change your shoes.) And that American flag you used last July 4th? Plant it in a flower pot to signal a meet. Who’s going to know?
Our reaction to the murkiness of espionage is equally murky, and I could go on for another three pages about it. If I do, though, the Reds will have me for lunch. Happily, I have a new Ellie Foreman book coming out next March (it’s been over 10 years since the last one), and it deals with —what else? — espionage in the post-Snowden era and our reaction to it. It’s called Jump Cut, and I’ll (hopefully) be back to talk about it next year. Meanwhile, what do you think about the current state of espionage? Or do you refuse to think about it at all? What tradecraft techniques do you admire? DId you ever want to be a spy? Why or why not?
Libby Fischer Hellmann left a career in broadcast news in Washington, DC and moved to Chicago
DEBS: I was not only fascinated by spy stories, I played spy! My friend and I had secret drops, and codes, and I'm sure we annoyed the hell out of the neigbors by watching them with binoculars, just waiting for them to do something sinister...
What about you, REDS and readers? Any secret hankering to practice your tradecraft?
REDS ALERT: Kaye Barley, you are the winner of Peter Robinson's In the Dark Places! You know the drill:-)
And Libby, fascinating stuff. I can't wait to read The Accidental Spy. Just bought it!