In Laurent Binet’s novel The Seventh Function of Language (2015), Julia Kristeva is cast as a spy for Bulgarian intelligence, responsible for the death of Roland Barthes. Last Tuesday, the Bulgarian Dossier Committee, in charge of examining and declassifying communist-era State Security records, announced that Kristeva had been an agent of the First Chief Directorate. On Thursday, Kristeva denied the allegations, describing them as ‘grotesque’ and ‘completely false’. On Friday, the Dossier Commission published her entire dossier – nearly 400 pages – on their website. Yesterday, Kristeva issued another statement, insisting she had ‘never belonged to any secret service’ and had not supported ‘a regime that I fled’. She criticised the ‘credence given to these files, without there being any questioning about who wrote them or why’: This episode would be comical, and might even seem a bit romantic, were it not for the fact that it is all so false and that its uncritical repetition in the media is so frightening.
The right-wing press – Telegraph, Times, Mail, Express, Sun – is peddling the old accusation of ‘communist subversion’ against the Labour Party, specifically against Jeremy Corbyn. One leading Conservative MP, Ben Bradley, was forced, under threat of legal action, to withdraw a tweet in which he claimed that Corbyn had ‘sold British secrets to communist spies’. I hope they charge Bradley nonetheless. He’s the man who suggested that the unemployed could be vasectomised to stop them breeding.
Eric Rochant's TV series Le Bureau des légendes, known in English as The Bureau, is everything Homeland isn't: an understated, subtle and nuanced espionage drama. In the first season there are no explosions, the body count is negligible, and there's hardly any talk of patriotism. The hero, undercover agent Guillaume Debailly (played by Mathieu Kassovitz), has risen to the top of the Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure, by adhering to a rigorous, almost ascetic set of principles, but these principles are more artisanal than patriotic, and he eventually finds himself forced to abandon them. The focus is on the work, and most of that work takes place in the cramped offices, and in front of the computer screens, of the DGSE.
In my earlier years I had some dealings with classified material, enough that I was able to see how arbitrary, foolish and transitory security classification can be. That there may be information on somebody’s computer that was classified at some point in the past doesn’t necessarily have any relevance for national security. In summer 1958, I was briefly a consultant for the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica. I had a Q clearance, the most rigorous that the Atomic Energy Commission had. This enabled me to receive classified information on nuclear weapons on a ‘need to know’ basis. During most of my short stay I didn’t need to know anything, but one day the theory division leader descended on me with stacks of numbers he wanted me to add up on a Marchant calculator.
'All intelligence agencies, no matter what controls they appear to work under,' Phillip Knightley once wrote in the LRB, 'are a danger to democracy.' Knightley, who died yesterday, wrote a handful of excellent pieces for the paper in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including a withering assessment of James Jesus Angleton, head of CIA counter-intelligence, and a first-hand account of how the KGB monetised its archive when the Cold War ended:
In his autobiography, My Silent War, Kim Philby reminisces about the food he knew in London in the 1930s. 'Haute cuisine', he liked to label it, only the 'haute' element was more about his appreciation than it was about the food itself. His taste, as two new books about him suggest, was for Mediterranean cooking, food that Elizabeth David would make better known after the war – bouillabaisse, paella, that sort of thing. He apparently wasn't a bad cook, either, which was less typical of men of Philby's background.
The most penetrating exhibit at the Stasi Museum in Leipzig isn't in a glass case. Housed in the 'Runde Ecke' ('round corner'), the nickname for the old Stasi HQ, the museum has sought to preserve the smell of the GDR. It's an antiseptic aroma, with a bleached ageing sweetness to it, as if you found a tube of Germolene from 1912. I don't know how you hang onto a smell, but they've kept the beige patterned lino, the metallic filing cabinets, the creamy grubby walls, so perhaps that's part of it. I wonder what they do if they sense the pong is fading.
From William Gibson's Spook Country (2006): The reason Americans weren't freaking out over this NSA thing, Milgrim assumed, was that they'd already been taking it for granted, since at least the 1960s, that the CIA was tapping everybody's phone. It was the stuff of bad episodic television. It was something little kids knew to be true.
You never know what might happen when you write for the LRB. A recent piece of mine has caused a bit of a stir – unwittingly, so far as I am concerned. I was reviewing Calder Walton’s Empire of Secrets, which is about the part played by the British secret services in decolonisation. One of the questions is whether they got up to any dirty tricks. One that is sometimes attributed to them is the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of the Congo, in 1961. Walton doesn’t rule this out, but has found no evidence for it; so ‘at present we do not know.’ Then came the surprise: a letter from David Lea, who said that Daphne Park, the head of MI6 in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) at the time, told him a few months before she died in March 2010 that she had organised Lumumba's assassination.
On Saturday night the Home Office website went offline for seven hours. The hacker group Anonymous took it down, they said, as a protest against the government’s planned new surveillance legislation. The plan, we learned earlier in the week, was to introduce a bill that would allow the security services continuous access in real time to all UK phone calls, emails and web traffic. It sounded scary, but most people stopped worrying about it after it became clear that nothing concrete would be known about the proposed legislation until the Queen’s Speech in May. There were also vague promises that the law, which would now be published in draft form only and open to consultation, would include the ‘highest possible safeguards’. ‘All we’re doing,’ Nick Clegg said, ‘is updating the rules which... allow the police and security services to go after terrorists and serious criminals and updating that to apply to new technology.’ ‘Let’s be absolutely clear,’ David Cameron said. ‘This is not about what the last government proposed and we opposed.’ He was very nearly telling the truth.
René González spent his 55th birthday on 13 August in a Florida prison. He and four colleagues, known in the UK as the ‘Miami Five’ and in the US as the ‘Cuban Five’, have been in prison since 1998. René is the least unlucky of the five, because his sentence of 15 years was the lightest. However, when I met his mother recently, she was worried that the Miami courts had a further punishment in mind: to send him out on ‘probation’ to one of the areas on the City’s west side where Cuban exiles are concentrated, and where he might very well be shot.
The story of Russia’s deep cover suburban spies in America is the perfect pitch for a 13-part TV series. It’s The Wire (illegals v. law enforcers), The Sopranos (aspirational lifestyles and typical middle-class problems among people living dangerous secret lives) and V (aliens among us) rolled into one. Lost? They do seem to have been. Like Nigerian email fraudsters, whose sensational Moll Flanders-like tales of inheritances and warped morality suggest their talented authors would make more money bashing out African soap opera scripts than they ever would ripping off naive northerners, the easiest way for the Russian taxpayer to get back the money wasted on this loony espionage venture would be to deport the spymasters responsible to Los Angeles with a contract for a 50 per cent cut of whatever the going Screenwriters Guild rate is these days.