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What Malcolm Gladwell Gets Wrong About Spying

Amy Sussman/Getty Images Entertainment

In an essay in this week's issue of The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell takes a survey of the espionage world. Specifically, Gladwell, in a review of Ben Macintyre's new book about Kim Philby and the Cambridge spies, uses their story to make a provocative argument. Philby and his comrades managed to infiltrate British intelligence and pass secrets to the Soviet Union. Gladwell claims two things: first, that Philby et al. did only minor damage to Western interests. And second, that they did less damage than the pointless, paranoid hunt for double-agents that followed their unmasking.

One of the themes of Gladwell's piece, and apparently of Macintyre's book, is that Brits like Philby were considered sound for reasons having to do with class and background, and were thus above suspicion. Or, as Gladwell phrases it:

The Philby-era model erred on the side of trust. I was asked about him, and I said I knew his people. The “cost” of the high-trust model was Burgess, Maclean, and Philby. To put it another way, the Philbyian secret service was prone to false-negative errors. Its mistake was to label as loyal people who were actually traitors. [his italics]

Gladwell then mentions several of the inane theories about (and searches for) double-agents that followed Philby's decision to flee for Moscow. Gladwell focuses on Peter Wright, an MI5 officer and the author of the notorious book Spycatcher, and James Angleton, the deranged, paranoid head of C.I.A. counterintelligence during a good chunk of the Cold War. Both men became consumed with weeding out traitors, regardless of whether there were any to be found. One particularly absurd theory was that the Soviets poisoned the head of the Labour Party in order to ensure that Harold Wilson took over the Party and the government in 1964; according to this theory, Wilson, while prime minister, was a Soviet agent, as was one of his biggest supporters, who happened to be a clothing magnate. As Gladwell phrases this mindset, in contrast to the previous one:

The [Peter] Wright model erred on the side of suspicion. The manufacture of raincoats is a well-known cover for Soviet intelligence operations. But that model also has a cost. If you start a security system with the aim of catching the likes of Burgess, Maclean, and Philby, you have a tendency to make false-positive errors: you label as suspicious people and events that are actually perfectly normal. [his italics]

In short, you have the possibility of false negatives and the possibility of false positives. (Here might be the time to say that there is a rather obvious solution: don't be overly trusting of people merely because of their background and don't engage in witch hunts!) Gladwell weighs the two models as follows:

Books about spies and traitors—and the congressional hearings that follow the exposure of traitors—generally assume that false-negative errors are much worse than false-positive errors. The disclosure of national-security secrets is so damaging that its prevention is worth almost any price. The Philby case, however, leaves a very different impression. On one side of the ledger, we have a senior counterintelligence official recklessly accusing the democratically elected leader of his own country of treason. On the other side, we have a series of false-negative errors that, in the end, don’t seem to add up to much.

Gladwell then tells the story of Erich Vermeheren, a German, anti-Nazi, Catholic dissident. Philby turned over information about him and his allies to Soviet authorities at the end of the war; a huge number of Vermeheren's co-thinkers were killed. Of this despicable action, Gladwell writes: "Morally, Philby’s betrayal of this secret was despicable. Strategically, it was of little consequence. When the Communists in East Germany eventually came to power, after all, they scarcely needed outside help in rounding up dissidents." Well, okay. But in that case we might as well just turn over Chinese dissidents to their government. It's not like the Chinese Communist Party needs "outside help in rounding up dissidents," so what's the big deal? Moreover, the McCarthy-ish paranoia that characterizes the model which Gladwell scorns didn't cause much—if any—"strategic" damage either.

The larger problem is that Gladwell wants to see the kooky witch hunts and paranoid theories as a response to Philby and his allies. Let's take that as a given, and assume those hunts wouldn't have occurred otherwise. In that case, we have all the more reason to condemn Philby. If you were living in a Western democracy and scorned the conservative establishment of your country and believed in the Communist cause, then you should probably have been aware that giving secrets to the Soviets was going to lead to reactionary tendencies back home! Philby helped ensure the domestic atmosphere that he claimed to despise.

The larger theme of Gladwell's piece is that intelligence operations and giant spy agencies don't accomplish as much as we would like. (A previous Macintyre book, Operation Mincemeat, was the subject of a very good Gladwell essay that made this point even more explicitly.) There were some major intelligence victories in the Second World War, but this argument has real merit. Philby may have been fighting on the wrong side of the spy battle between the West and the Soviet Union, but the right side spent so many of these years engaged in futile and immoral covert actions that the damage he did was certainly less than it could have been. (And certainly less than it would have been if the Soviets had stayed allied with Nazi Germany.)

And yet, Macintyre himself recently stated his shock and disgust with the "sheer extent of the bloodshed Philby unleashed by betraying Operation Valuable, the inaptly named mission to insert insurgents into communist Albania: hundreds were killed, and many entire families were wiped out." Gladwell mentions the Albania operation, and refers to it as the British Bay of Pigs because it was so poorly planned. Fair enough—but that hardly absolves Philby. Intelligence agencies might conceivably be more trouble than they are worth; in part that is because people like Kim Philby can cause a huge amount of damage.