A PHANTOM SPEAKS
What Would Le Carré’s Master Spy Think of Trump and Russia?
John le Carre's most lethal mole-hunter unpacks the plot of Putin's attack on America - and the roles of Flynn, Nunes and the Steele dossier.
Where is George Smiley when we need him?
Smiley is a literary invention that took on a life too real and too large to be contained between the covers of a novel. He appears in nine of John le Carre’s novels, but he only really emerged, fully drawn, in 1974 in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
He was the antithesis of the spy as hero and super stud—cuckolded in private life, surrounded by treachery in his profession as a British spy master, aware that both sides in the Cold War had become morally compromised. In Britain, where the security services had been so successfully penetrated by a series of upper-class traitors serving as Soviet moles that the whole outfit seemed rotten, Smiley seemed alarmingly real, one of the few able to survive from a national disgrace with his honor intact.
Le Carre had been a British spook himself, and it was through his vocabulary that many of us first learned the terms of tradecraft – the making of false identities (legends), the drop boxes, the safe houses, the cut-outs, the honey traps.
But when the Berlin Wall came down late in 1989 it was lamented that le Carre’s chosen theater, the contest in Europe between Western intelligence and the Soviet KGB, was closing down, leaving Smiley (and le Carre) without work in a new golden age of amity.
Well, that didn’t last long. But nobody could have predicted that the first year of an American presidency would provide us with such rich (and, let it be said, richly nostalgic) material for revisiting the spy game as Smiley played it with consummate skill.
In fact, Le Carre, in an interview last year with the New York Times, said that he believes Vladimir Putin’s Russia is “no different to the mentality that drove the most exotic conspiracies during the Cold War.” He also told Terry Gross, in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air that Trump had fallen victim to what the KGB calls kompromat: “I think it’s perfectly possible that Trump was taken into what I call a honey trap – that he had ladies found for him, and he misbehaved in Russia.”
Since le Carre said that, Robert Mueller’s investigation has scooped up into its ever-tightening net such a rich cast of one of those “exotic conspiracies” that, as a long and devout fan of George Smiley I have decided to imagine, with all due apologies to David Cornwell, aka John le Carre, a conversation with the old master to review things as they are now.
What strikes you most about the Russian affair?
I always found that too little weight was given to things that were in plain sight. Perhaps that is because we in the business are inclined to discount the obvious in favor of the deceptions that justify our existence.
How does that apply in this case?
There are two events in particular. The first was seeing General Flynn seated at a table a few places away from Putin. The Russians would not have been casual in that arrangement. They would have identified Flynn, given his military background, at the very least, as someone who would give them a window into American military thinking that was not available through normal diplomatic activity. Of course, once Flynn revealed his enthusiasm for Trump, they would have seen him as far more valuable as a conduit.
What are you implying?
With respect, I do not speculate.
And the second event?
Well, it’s really an extension of the first. After Trump fires Comey he invites the Russian ambassador and his chief, the foreign minister, into the Oval Office – apparently without realizing how odd and irregular this might seem. Then he explains to them that Comey, in his words, was a “nut job” and that getting rid of him will remove his Russian problem. I would note that the video of that encounter was filmed by and released by the Russians.
Isn’t there a danger of reading too much into that. Wasn’t it just a sign of how Trump has no idea of the protocols?
Possibly, though I would not take that view. If you study the tape you will see that there is a kind of mutual congratulation in the body language. The Russians would have been very happy to see the departure of Comey.
Why do you say that?
Well, this brings me to other behavior that was very open and in plain sight. From my own experience, admittedly some time ago, it was clear that one institution that the Soviet intelligence establishment greatly respected, and feared, was the FBI and its counter-intelligence capabilities. It was very hard for the Soviets to carry out effective espionage in the United States – they had one or two successes, but on the whole the product was not of high quality. It was a constant frustration for Moscow Center.
So you see that it remains very important for Moscow Center to do anything it can to undermine or weaken the FBI’s counter-intelligence capacity. I fear that they have found that very easy.
What do you mean?
I have followed the activities of the Republican congressman from California, Mr. Nunes. I was surprised, quite frankly, that the logic of his attacks on the FBI was not challenged. First, it was based on the idea that the process used to carry out surveillance on suspects had been abused.
You mean FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act?
Precisely. I have always felt that your American system for approving surveillance was rather too stringent, not too lax. In Britain we have learned not to be too squeamish about such things. I would rather see a little excess than any lapses that can have fatal consequences. Be that as it may…if you will forgive me…but by impugning the FBI in this manner Mr. Nunes was apparently attempting to weaken an essential safeguard of your national security, and one that the Russians would most like to damage.
Do you think deliberately?
What difference does that make? It worked. If it was deliberate it was, I would suggest, close to treason. If not, the more likely case, it was quite imbecilic.
The White House and the Republicans have consistently attacked Christopher Steele, the author of the dossier on Trump that has some salacious passages about Trump and suggests that there are reasons to suspect that Trump is subject to blackmail by the Russians. Steele was an agent for MI6, your people. How do you rate him?
I am uncomfortable with the idea of spies for hire. It used to be that one did one’s service and then retired gracefully, tending a garden, collecting etchings, that sort of thing, although, of course I have been called from retirement by the service. Some skeletons remained. But in principle if you are hired your work will be potentially compromised by the motives of those who hire you and that is, I fear, what has happened to Christopher Steele, whether justified or not. As far as Steele’s work is known I have to say that he seems of exemplary skills. He is very familiar with the Russian culture as it is now shaped by Putin. He did not seem to develop a bias to please his clients.
I would also point out that Steele understands a fundamental operating principle of our trade. There is always a period of quiet, careful observation and incubation of a potential target like Trump. Steele understood the significance of Trump’s appearance at the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. He would recognize the signs of a KGB kompromat operation. I am not in any position to know, of course, what actually occurred. I am simply making the point that to the Russians Trump’s personal traits would have been explicit. It may have seemed a remote possibility then that he would be tenable as a presidential candidate, let alone as a president.
We are as amazed as anyone…but are you saying that they saw a future use for him?
We don’t know. But Steele was quite correct to draw attention to that event in 2013, not, as it were, to sex up the dossier but as a piece of basic tradecraft. After all, I find it rather interesting that Trump remains unable even now to attack Putin personally, while he is quite happy to keep undermining the FBI.
Do you think that Putin is a shrewd judge of our own culture and that he has exploited its moral weaknesses?
That is a leading question. I am really not the right person to assess any moral implications. The Cold War was, in that respect, far simpler in its fealties. One developed a respect for one’s counterparts on the other side, there was a clear ideological divide. There could be a certain kind of nobility in the depth of people’s commitment to ideals.
Even in someone like Kim Philby, the most devastating mole in the history of our service, one felt his utter commitment to communism, no matter how misguided. I cannot look at this current war in that way, there is no moral equivalence. Both sides are corrupted in ways that do seem to involve very high levels of cupidity. In the case of General Flynn, for example, I suspect that falling into the company of people who had become very rich without any obligation of public service could have tempted him to follow suit.
You used the term war. Is this really a war?
Of course it is. What could be more the act of a hostile power than to destabilize democratic institutions and even possibly alter the result of an election?
Are you suggesting collusion?
An unwise choice of word. It allows plausible deniability, which is why Trump can keep chanting, no collusion!, no collusion! It is not a legal term and sets a standard that probably cannot be met by the facts…it is a strongly active term, whereas I think there is another word that much better describes the probable activity and the motives of the people involved in the activity. That word is complicity. It describes a passive collaboration in which parties with common aims are naturally allied. I should have thought that it was self-evident that the basis of complicity exists in the simple fact that Putin and Trump shared a loathing of Mrs. Clinton. Both wished to discredit and defeat her. There was a concordat to achieve that result without ever needing to have an explicit partnership. That is a very evanescent form of conspiracy, and one that is extremely hard to prove.
Do you think that Robert Mueller realizes that?
I would not presume anything about Mr. Mueller. We should all concede that he is now so thoroughly versed in every layer of this affair, that he has such an experienced and expert body of investigators that we will never know how far he can reach until he tells us himself. I was fortunate in that I never had to work in a field where journalists thought they were in full possession of the facts. I’m sorry if that offends you.
Not at all. We try to remain humble. Earlier you mentioned Kim Philby. Do you think there is a mole like Philby somewhere in the White House or in the Trump camp?
By far the most lethal adversary I ever faced was Karla, the genius of Moscow Center whose mole inside British counter-intelligence allowed the Russians to roll up and exterminate our whole network of agents in the east. I do not see anyone of those skills in Moscow Center now. Putin has been overrated as a KGB operative. He never served at Moscow Center. In East Germany he had a mediocre record. While he served in Dresden there was a genius leading the East German security services, Markus Wolf. He single-handedly outwitted us time and time again, he planted a mole, a personal assistant named Gunter Guillaume, in the office of the West German chancellor, Willy Brandt, When that was discovered it eventually brought down Brandt. So you can see, these things can reach to the top.
Putin’s power base was and still is St. Petersburg, and it’s no accident that St. Petersburg is where the Russian troll factory, The Internet Research Agency, is based. Putin doesn’t bother with Moscow Center, he probably feels about them as Trump does about the CIA, the NSA and the FBI, that they cannot be trusted to serve him with total loyalty…or that they know too much about him. The Moscow Center of my day would never have worked through a gangster like Prigozhin, Putin’s so-called “chef.”
You didn’t really answer – is there a mole?
There is far too much noise for a mole to be effective – or even needed. The White House appears to me to be functioning like a circular firing squad. Why would you require a mole? We used to call my old headquarters in London The Circus. The White House is now another kind of circus.
What will be the outcome?
[Long pause.] May I refer you to the odes of Horace, the Roman lyric poet: “The guilty have a head start, and retribution is always slow of foot, but it catches up.”
And with that Smiley slowly dissolves into a mist, an enigma to the last, not as played by Gary Oldman in the film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy but by Alec Guinness in the superb television series, with his impeccable diction and his deceptively myopic gaze from behind thick pebble lenses, baleful, deadly.