The New Spymasters: Inside the Modern World of Espionage from the Cold War to Global Terror

By Stephen Grey, St Martin’s Press, 368 pages, $28

What’s the point of spies? In an increasingly technological age, government agencies can read text messages, intercept e-mails and listen to phone calls at the click of a mouse. Satellite imagery and CCTV are pervasive. Carry a mobile phone and you are effectively carrying a beacon that the boffins at the British Government Communications Headquarters can track.

With a little know-how, a laptop can be bugged, hacked, even turned into an explosive device. With such competition, what can an old-fashioned intelligence officer possibly bring to the party? In the good old days, a spy spent months — often years — recruiting and then running an agent. Phones were tapped, apartments bugged and correspondence opened, but spying was fundamentally about human interaction. Cold War warriors knew that they needed somebody on the inside — a disgruntled diplomat, an impoverished cleaning lady — who could tell them what the enemy was thinking.

This was the world of Kim Philby and Oleg Penkovsky, of chalk marks on walls and dead drops on Hampstead Heath. For almost 50 years, British and American intelligence officers went toe-to-toe with their counterparts at the Lubyanka, suppressing the threat from communist Russia by recruiting agents inside the Soviet system.

Those days are long gone. As Stephen Grey explains in his exceptional new book about spying, the unique political circumstances of the post-9/11 world, combined with rapid developments in weapons and telecommunications technology, have permanently shifted the espionage paradigm.

Once, a CIA officer living in, say, Berlin could have popped over the Wall to tap up a member of the Stasi then be back home in time for supper. An MI5 officer stationed in Northern Ireland could walk into a pub in Derry and have a quiet drink with a source in the IRA. At the risk of sounding glib, it’s tricky to do that with the Taliban unless you speak fluent Pashto and can blend in with the locals.

As Grey points out, the Kremlin had telephone directories that were prized by Western intelligence agencies. IRA members sat on army councils and walked the streets of Belfast. Individuals could be assessed, targeted and lined up for recruitment. Not so the members of Al Qaida that has no meaningful structure nor hierarchy and few discernible political objectives.

As former Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) chief Sir Richard Dearlove put it, terrorists are like “a flock of birds coming together and dispersing, apparently spontaneously”. How to penetrate such an organisation? Is there even much point? A member of a terrorist cell in Bradford, say, is hardly likely to know what his brothers in Manchester or Mumbai are planning. Besides, at any moment a potential MI5 source might leave the country to wage jihad or — worse — blow himself up on the No 11 bus.

The CIA effectively gave up on human intelligence (or Humint) in the wake of 9/11, relying increasingly on blanket electronic surveillance — of phone calls and e-mails, conversations in chat rooms, of banking records and travel plans. And what did they do with all this? They made increasing use of drones.

“Barack Obama might have opposed torture, waterboarding and renditions,” Grey writes, “but he did not object to what was in effect an assassination programme.” The CIA continued to recruit informers in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, running some as traditional agents. Others were simply supplied with electronic homing beacons to toss into the gardens of suspected high-ranking militants. Hellfire missiles did the rest.

Grey, a British journalist with enviable access to Langley, Vauxhall Cross and beyond, is hard on the CIA. The Americans were always playing catch-up in Iraq and Afghanistan and made myriad mistakes, not least in 2009 when five CIA personnel and four others were blown up by a suicide bomber who inveigled his way into Camp Chapman by masquerading as a source for Al Qaida.

Langley was far too reliant on technology (or Sigint, Signals Intelligence), preferring to amass vast amounts of data on suspected terrorists with few credible human sources to corroborate it. As Grey observes: “All this scientific espionage was bewitching. Cool gadgets and smart techniques inspired awe and a confidence that was comparable to religious zeal.”

Even when presented with a bona fide terrorist, the CIA failed to act. In December 2009, a 23-year-old Nigerian, Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to blow himself up on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. A month earlier, his father had warned the US Embassy in Abuja that his son was mixing with extremists.

Abdulmutallab was placed on a CIA watch list, but was nevertheless allowed to board a flight bound for the US. What was missing from the American approach, in the author’s view, was good, old-fashioned Humint. “Human spies can be terribly frail and unreliable, but without any element of understanding and verification through human intelligence, and without basic common sense, terrible errors are bound to follow.”

Grey pushes this repeatedly and persuasively. Electronic surveillance is all very well, but it is agents on the inside who are the lifeblood of counter-terrorism. Without pedigree intelligence officers recruiting and running them, the world is far less secure. He includes a chapter on Rafid Ahmad Alwan, or “Curveball”, the notorious Iraqi source for German intelligence (BND) whose fabricated reports on Saddam Hussain’s mobile weapons laboratories did so much to propel the West into the war in Iraq.

“Curveball” dealt exclusively with “Dr Peter”, a biologist in the BND with limited experience of agent-running. Peter fell for Alwan’s lies, as, of course, did the British. Grey has spoken to several sources in MI6 who were involved in the “dodgy dossier” affair, and it would be fair to say that the unpopular Dearlove, “C” at the time, does not emerge from this account unscathed.

There is not a great deal of new material in “The New Spymasters”, but Grey knows his subject. By speaking to a vast number of intelligence personnel, he has produced what amounts to a blueprint for productive, sophisticated espionage. Human beings, not algorithms, are the key, he says, in a conclusion that will be music to the ears of the old-school spooks at MI6. “Farewell, George Smiley,” says the blurb on the back cover. Don’t count on it.

–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2015

Charles Cumming’s most recent spy thriller is “A Colder War”.