Malcom Gladwell on Spies

Good quote:

Translation: the proper function of spies is to remind those who rely on spies that the kinds of thing found out by spies can't be trusted.

Nice article on the British Operation Mincemeat in World War II.

Posted on May 4, 2010 at 6:45 AM • 27 Comments

Comments

BF SkinnerMay 4, 2010 7:05 AM

Because, like Richard Clarke says, you can't always tell the truth in non-fiction; novels sometimes tells the truer story.

I suggest David Ignatius Body of Lies. A new take on Mincemeat.

mcbMay 4, 2010 7:39 AM

I suppose working for an agency whose specialty is inducing others to commit treason might require a person to cultivate a curious mix of paranoia and optimism.

alreadyonthelistMay 4, 2010 8:45 AM

Great review, looking forward to reading McIntyre's work. Rational analysis isn't as entertaining as spycraft, but I sure wish the folks in charge of domestic terror observations in the US would consider analysis and independent audits.
Too many of these games are playing out on US soil against innocent US citizens.

reinkefjMay 4, 2010 8:56 AM

When I saw the movie as a kid, I was driven to read the book. Scrounging around the library, I read a lot of "stuff" about it. Then, later, I read some more "stuff" that said there was some dispute about who the body was. Was it from the hidden British military disaster in the North?

One things for sure, there's more to the story than is in this article. And, then folks wonder why "security types" never trust anone, anything, or certainly any legend told by an authority.

And, anything from the gooferment? Please, you're killing me. I'm laughing so hard I'm going to wet myself. What will be presented next? An honest politician!

Basil DonMay 4, 2010 9:09 AM

reinkefj's reference to the movie is to the 1950's book and movie of this subject:

The Man Who Never Was:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...

My understanding too of the body was that it was donated by the family on the strict understanding that his identity never be revealed.

Alex GMay 4, 2010 10:06 AM

I'm reading David Ignatius Body of Lies right now. If you can get past the awkward sex scenes the take on Mincemeat is well written.

qwertyuiopMay 4, 2010 10:42 AM

Just don't get too taken with the book "The Man Who Never Was" by Ewen Montagu which was my own introduction to this story. As I have read more around the whole subject of Allied deception in WW2 I've found that most knowledgeable sources think that Montagu exaggerated his part in the undertaking.

DanielMay 4, 2010 11:28 AM

I think the better money quote is one about not opening the briefcase. I think that when it came to the Iraq War, for example, Bush was definitely in the camp of "My mind is made up don't confuse me with the facts." I don't think there was *any* fact a spy could have come up with that would have changed Bush's mind. It wasn't an open mind. Just like I don't think there was any fact that would have changed Hitler's mind. Discovering the briefcase might have made him more confident in his decision to defend Greece but I doubt it changed the decision.

I think the better lesson is that it's quite easy to overestimate the significance of information elucidated from spying in the decision making process of political figures. If it fits the agenda of the political decision maker it will be used as support and if it doesn't it will just be ignored. The truth or accuracy of the information has nothing to do with how it's used.

David ThornleyMay 4, 2010 12:23 PM

@Daniel: According to a book I once read about the sinking of two British battleships in Alexandria by six Italian frogmen, Mussolini refused to believe that they were sunk (the Brits had managed to get them to settle on the harbor bottom on an even keel, with the weather decks above water), and refused to allow the Italian battleships more freedom of action.

HJohnMay 4, 2010 12:34 PM

@Daniel at May 4, 2010 11:28 AM

I wish that surprised me. Comparing Bush to Hitler is nothing short of ridiculous. Same goes for anyone who compares Clinton or Obama or Blair to Stalin or Mussolini or Hitler, so this isn't a partisan point. The closest person to a Hitler we've seen in recent history was a dictator with a mustache and a victim count of 7 digits by the name of Saddam.

Ugh. Frustrating.

In any case, information obtained from spies is by nature flawed. You're getting information through that is intended to be camoflauged and secret through deception. Those with the information are not too forthcoming about specific details and you can't really ask them for clarification. If it were any other way, you wouldn't need spies.

bobMay 4, 2010 1:16 PM

I have read several places that Wilhelm Canaris (head of Nazi counterintel) was also anti-Hitler to the degree that he intentionally screwed up. Or maybe thats postwar CYA.

Maybe the German "obey the rules" psyche just doesnt lend itself to spying. OTOH they seemed to do pretty well with "attack, march in and occupy"; they should have just stuck to that.

Maybe the explanation is simply that Hitler was an ass who surrounded himself with politically-minded "ja" men instead of people who could tell him his baby was ugly when necessary.

WillMay 4, 2010 1:38 PM

Duff Cooper's "Operation Heartbreak" is the original source, but it was censored by the government and Ewan's account was commissioned to weaken the escaping gossip

(Source: R.V. Jones "Most Secret War", well worth everybody reading)

TomMay 4, 2010 6:35 PM

Is it any wonder that the Brits call spy craft, "The Great Game"?

Andy StephensonMay 4, 2010 11:42 PM

What a truely superb use of three simple words to describle the background against which 'Op. Mincemeat' was played. A "wilderness of mirrors.”

Russell CokerMay 5, 2010 7:02 AM

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin's_Law

HJohn: Please read about Godwin's Law.

It's a Godwin violation to compare someone to Hitler in an unjust or unreasonable manner. Saying that someone is as bad as Hitler is wrong unless you can justify it with historical facts.

Saying that one head of government was mislead by intelligence in a similar way to another head of government is reasonable, even if one of those HoG's happens to be Hitler.

Now if Al Quaeda was to allow a corpse to wash up on the US coast with some supposedly secret documents and if Obama believed them then a comparison to Nazi germany would be appropriate. It's not a partisan issue, it's an issue of logic.

Now it just happens that Bush was grossly mislead by intelligence in a significant public way that exceeds anything else that has happened since WW2. If anyone can find a better example of a modern HoG who was pwned by false intelligence then I'd like to hear of it.

HJohnMay 5, 2010 8:46 AM

@Russell Coker at May 5, 2010 7:02 AM

I'm familiar with Godwin, and I think the comment I responded to violated it. Too often comparisons to Hitler go unchallenged. I'll leave it at that, since this can easily get off topic.

spaceman spiffMay 5, 2010 11:29 AM

A perfect example of a too-complex operation that defied the odds and worked to perfection! Truly, a wonderful story! Thanks... :-)

EHMay 5, 2010 12:08 PM

Godwin's Law only speaks to the probability of the comparison being made, not as a limit. It has nothing to do with the quality of the conversation once that happens, or whether the comparison is inapt. "Godwin violation?" No such thing.

Fazal MajidMay 5, 2010 1:10 PM

An even more important psyops operation of WWII was Operation Fortitude, designed to deceive Hitler into thinking the Allied landings on D-Day would occur in the Pas-de-Calais rather than Normany.

AA AaronsenMay 5, 2010 5:41 PM

DOS ATTACK AGAINST HOMELAND SECURITY THEATER

The Denial of Security [DOS] Attack on the computed Implied Threat Level has reportedly risen sharply recently in the Homeland Security wartime Theater of Operations, as was revealed today.

"When we first started traveler questioning and checking, through TSA, a certain level of positive or suspicious answers, resulting in seizures of contraband and detaining for questioning, or the placing of names on the no-fly list, gave the Department of Homeland Security a certain continuing functional level, a baseline terror barometer on which we within the Department could rely to set our budgets for threat levels, with increasing confidence."

"That has all changed. That confidence is being threatened by data registering on our Organized Conspiracy Indicator Index. It seems more and more seemingly innocent and ordinary people may be participating in an invisible yet covert compliance conspiracy."

"The prevalence of this seemingly innocent compliance triggers our behavioral change alerts to the possible masking of their true conspiratorial behavior, thereby actually revealing it."
"This appears, then, to be a coordinated and concerted Denial of Threat Level attack, which implies a vast coordinated conspiracy, possibly against continued security operations at present levels of activity. Large numbers, perhaps the majority of the travelling public, are now being both tracked and implicated."

"We are very concerned, " said an un-named, possibly DHS, source, refusing to be interviewed. "We don't want to contribute any more to this lessening of the perception of the Threat. Our Security is our business. We are sensitive to this, and well trained. We must warn the travelling public that all false compliance can be termed as illegal combatant behavior, resulting in a warrantless detention until all acts of terror cease."

JonMay 5, 2010 10:58 PM

Another book on the subject is "The Double-Cross System", by J.C. Masterman, Avon, 1972.

It's more about feeding known spies false information, but includes details of the Mincemeat operation. It claims the German spy operation (at least in Britain) was entirely useless and probably actively counterproductive to Germany, as every spy (that they knew of, anyhow) was under British intelligence "control", only able to send back to Germany what the British wanted them to.

Again, should you trust what your spies tell you?

MalvolioMay 6, 2010 1:58 AM

> Is it any wonder that the Brits call spy craft, "The Great Game"?

"The Great Game (Russian: Большая игра, Bol'sháya igrá) is a term used for the strategic rivalry and conflict between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia."
-- Wikipedia

Peter E RetepMay 6, 2010 3:03 AM

Gentlemen don't read each other's mail.
Open agreements openly arrived at.
Peace in our time.
Molotov/Ribbentrop.
Vidkun Quisling
Battle of Midway
Need I go on?

ConfusedMay 7, 2010 4:21 PM

@Peter E Retep

>Gentlemen don't read each other's mail.
>Open agreements openly arrived at.
>Peace in our time.
>Molotov/Ribbentrop.
>Vidkun Quisling
>Battle of Midway
>Need I go on?

Could you explain what you meant by this strange cocktail?

Russell CokerMay 8, 2010 6:35 PM

When there is a season of bad weather a farmer may harvest less grain than they planted as seed.

Sometimes when you invest money in the stock market you end up losing some.

There are lots of things which when done badly or with bad luck can end up giving a worse result than not trying. This doesn't mean that it's not worth trying, but merely that you should try and do things well - and try to recognise when it's a good season to refrain from planting or a good time to invest in government bonds instead of the stock market.

Yes spying can theoretically give worse results than not doing so. How much impact spies have on stubborn world leaders is something that we could debate at length - there is probably some research in cognitive psychology on similar matters that someone could dig up with some effort.

But I think it's obvious that when spying is done well it can give some really good results.

So the discussion shouldn't be about whether we should have spies, but how to get competent spies and organisations that analyse the intelligence properly. I suggest that a start would be analysis of intelligence via the Delphi method.

CraigMay 11, 2010 8:21 AM

"I’m trying to fool you. You realize that I’m trying to fool you, and I—realizing that—try to fool you into thinking that I don’t realize that you have realized that I am trying to fool you" :-)

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