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UK spy conference investigates double agents

Espionage still evokes fear and admiration, yet competing nations display different takes on their spying legacies.

Last updated: 29 Apr 2014 09:22
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Double agent Kim Philby (right) is regarded by some as 'the most remarkable spy of modern times' [Getty Images]

On a cool Beirut evening in January 1963, Kim Philby, a correspondent for the Economist and the Observer, skipped a dinner party and slipped aboard a Russian freight ship docked in the port.

A former MI6 agent, he had been spying for the Soviet Union for years and suspicions that he was an agent had forced him into journalism - the preferred cover for British spies. That winter, MI6 had finally gathered enough evidence and was moving in on Philby when he escaped - a feat that has fuelled the British popular imagination ever since, the backdrop for countless books and films celebrating the double agent as a dark James Bond, a spy who betrayed his country but was still somehow magnificent.

A recording of Philby's voice delivering a lecture to the KGB aired publicly for the first time last weekend at a symposium at Trinity College, Cambridge University, where the members of the spy ring known as the Cambridge Five first became friends. There is no US equivalent to Philby and his Cambridge set, a group that sprang from the country's elite circles to go undercover for the Soviet cause.

These were well-bred, clever young men who, unlike the US' most destructive double agents - Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen - weren't drab suburbanites who simply did it for the money.

"I had a deep emotional commitment to the weak, the poor and the underprivileged against the strong, the rich and the arrogant," Philby said to the officers he addressed at KGB headquarters in 1977.

The packed audience in Cambridge - a collection of academics, former officials and celebrity journalists - listened raptly for traces of the famous Philby charm, seen as crucial to his success. According to Ben MacIntyre, a British journalist who has written a new book on Philby, A Spy Among Friends, MI6 still shows new recruits footage of Philby's 1955 press conference as training in lie detection.

Public appetite for spy entertainment 

But why, after all these years, does Philby and the world of espionage still command our attention? "Don't underestimate the influence of James Bond, our biggest export," said MacIntyre, whose bestseller books recount dramatic moments in spy history. "But these stories are also the backdrop for betrayal, love, for all these other things that we're fascinated by."

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Although public appetite for spy tales in the West seems to have been forged by Ian Fleming novels, there is a more subtle context to the rise of the genre. "The popularising of spy stuff is not purely accidental," said Jonathan Haslam, a professor at Cambridge University and the author of the forthcoming book Near and Distant Neighbours, a history of Soviet intelligence.

"The CIA and our people connived to popularise in the 1950s and Cold War era a whole series of things - from Fleming to American films about World War II espionage... so that people would not see intelligence organisations as threatening their human rights, but furthering defence of the state against the enemy."

State-encouraged spy entertainment has now been revived by President Vladimir Putin's Russia, Haslam said, with fictional television dramas often presented by former KGB colonels, that feature key documents from Soviet archives and that intend to reshape public opinion of Russia's past.

These sophisticated dramas reach a far wider audience than typical spy novels. "What they're doing is familiarising the public with this stuff, glamorising it and making it sexy chic, gluing together a psychology of those who can identify [spies] with patriotism, continuity with the past, and the idea that foreigners are bad," Haslam said.

'Neither pride nor particular interest' in Germany

While Putin's revival of the KGB's glory days suits his ambitious foreign policy, some countries that had robust 20th-century intelligence agencies are now keen to put their spying past behind them.

Karina Urbach, a historian at the University of London, said Germany has neither pride nor particular interest in its 20th-century spooks. "Spies have terribly negative connotations: They're seen as either bunglers or hated for exploiting their own citizens," she explained. East Germany's infamous "Romeo Scheme", in which Stasi intelligence dispatched handsome men into West Germany to seduce and infiltrate the secretaries of senior West German security officials, is regarded as a stain on the country's history, she said.

Meanwhile, during much of that same era up to the present day, Iran has also been concerned with spies - but with a trepidation that bordered on terror.

This fear was aggravated by the 1953 Iranian coup, in which MI6 and CIA agents actually did overthrow a popular leader, Mohammed Mossadegh. Iran has since been suffused by a conspiracy theory culture fixated on British spies - parodied in the 1970s novel My Uncle Napoleon. The phrase "kar, kar-e ingilisi-hast" (It's the work of the British), said the Oxford historian Homa Katouzian, represents a fatalistic sensibility that interprets politics through British machination.

Lurking beneath both the fear and the celebration of spies is the reality itself, which in recent years has been especially damaging to the reputation of agencies such as the CIA. Scandals that have arisen between the US and Iran are a case in point. Two US citizens are currently being held in Iran on spying charges - one of whom is former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared in 2007 while on a rogue CIA assignment on Iran's Kish Island, undercover as a private investigator.

The case has embarrassed Washington, which continues to deny that Levinson was working for the US government, though CIA officials have admitted off the record that Levinson was working for an agency analyst who used him as a spy without official clearance. A video emerged in 2010 showing Levinson unkempt but alive, but little progress has been made to secure his release.

US: In the dark on Iran

That rogue CIA officers would feel compelled to stage a covert operation speaks to the frustration felt by many in Washington at how little the US knows about events in Iran. Forced by lack of a diplomatic presence to run a "listening post" in Dubai and to place Iran-watchers in embassies around the world, the US mainly depends on allies for a reading of events inside Iran.

Knowing a country better doesn't necessarily mean liking its government more.

- Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

But Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argued that better "hum-int", or human intelligence, would likely not alter US policy.

"Few foreign ministries in the world have France's expertise on Iran. Several of their senior diplomats served in Tehran and speak excellent Persian. One French ambassador I know even translated [the poet] Bozorg Alavi into French," Sadjadpour  said. 

And yet, he added, the French often take a harder stance on Iran than the Obama administration does, and tend to be more cynical about the nature of the Iranian government. "Knowing a country better doesn't necessarily mean liking its government more," he said.

It is precisely the fraught nature of the US relationship with Iran that seems to churn up alleged spying cases between the two countries so regularly. Some US officials have said that Iran nabs American citizens to use as bargaining chips, such as the three hikers detained in 2009 after wandering across the border with Iraq, or the former US marine Amir Hekmati, who was charged with espionage and sentenced to death in 2011.

Hekmati's family said he was in the country visiting his grandmother and that he had been frank with Iranian officials about his past military work in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Amir was assured that he would have no problems entering Iran with this history," said his sister, Sarah Hekmati. "The lack of transparency has made defending him against these false charges... a path full of obstacles."

Earlier this month, Hekmati told Al Jazeera, Amir's lawyers informed the family that the death sentence had been overturned, and "he is not being charged as a spy but with practical collaboration with the American government". She said the family does not know how to interpret this development.

For those caught up in real-life accusations of espionage, there is no glamour, no cocktail glasses tinkling in the background - just daily hope for a fair trial.

But for those who never cross into such territory, the world of spies retains its aura of mystique - the realm of men such as Philby, who traded in secrets and relied on the grace of friends to get away with it. He was, in MacIntyre's words, "the most remarkable spy of modern times" - a man whose voice people gather decades later simply to hear.

Follow Azadeh Moaveni on Twitter: @azadehmoaveni

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Al Jazeera
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