Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Commentary on the NSA Disaster from British Cinema of the 1960s

Many Americans do not understand the NSA disclosures and fall into a juvenile and narcissistic (1) explanation based on an endless diet of “evil CIA conspiracies to murder the president and destroy friendly freedom loving countries” plot meme of American movies and TV Shows.  The reality is so much less interesting but in ways that, sadly, require a bit of history to appreciate and that has never been an American strong point. 

This problem of "NSA explanation" extends to our allies in the West who for some reason want to know what is going on and do not trust us,  How funny that an American should have to remind Europeans about history, how very ironic.  These same Europeans are always lecturing us about their superior knowledge of history as learned in elite European universities, something us poor Yanks could never hope to understand given our inferior breeding. This history reminder is especially odd in the case of the United Kingdom. Surely we can count on them for understanding?

Well, yes and no. The more informed of us realize that the NSA disclosures involve operations that are shared with and in part originated with the British and various members of their Commonwealth, but even our well-bred friends seem to have slipped a bit and forgotten that one of the unusual aspects of post 1945 intelligence is the cooperation between the US, the UK and their Commonwealth, a cooperation that, to everyone's surprise, survived the last world war and continues to this day. In other words, its not "us vs them" in this case, it is more likely to be some version of “us vs us” when the full story comes out, if it ever does.

But I speculate, and in the great tradition of retroactively finding meaning in works of art and fiction, I have noticed an oddly plausible discusssion for some of what we know about the NSA disaster in a venerable, indeed perhaps penultimate, spy movie from the Cold War, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) as directed by Martin Ritt from a novel by John le Carre, aka David Cornwell, a veteran of British M.I. {5, 6}.

Control discussing intelligence methods with Leamus in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) 

Although the movie does not discuss anything like the NSA disclosures it does contain words of wisdom, I think, for how people in the Intelligence Community see this sort of thing.

The movie is remarkably faithful to the book, and both are confusing as can be which touches on some of the ambiguity and complexity of the real Cold War. It seems to me that one should not have to worry about spoilers in a movie that came out in 1965, especially to readers of this blog, but the fact is that not everyone has seen this fabulous, if depressing, movie. The good news is that one can discuss major elements of the film and not give anything away, you will still be confused unless you read and/or watch this film several times and spend some time thinking about it.

But fortunately, the scene in question is near the very beginning of the film, and gives very little away except perhaps upon reflection in light of other developments. It is the briefing between the protagonist, Leamus, and his boss in British intelligence, whose work name is Control. In this briefing, Leamus has returned from Berlin where he has just seen the collapse and death of one of his networks, and is meeting with his boss to see if he will be retired, or transferred to a non-operational job, or given another assignment in the field.

As we have discussed earlier in this blog, I believe that one of the greatest of all devices in the history of the cinema is the device of The Explanation. In this scene, the head of the British Foreign Intelligence service explains to an agent some of the rationale behind their work.

I have put the scene up at Youtube, until they take it down, education not being seen as a valid excuse for Fair Use no matter what Congress or the FCC may say. I have also provided a transcript below. The italics are mine. You may watch this scene here.

Control: Would you like a drink?
Leamus: No, I'll wait.
Control: You can still do that?
Leamus: (startled at Control's rudeness)
Control: I wondered whether you were tired, burnt out.
Leamus: (silence)
Control: Well this phenomenon we understand here. Its like metal fatigue. We have to
    live without sympathy, don't we. You can't do that forever. One needs to come in,
    in from the cold.
Leamus: I'm an operator, Control. Just an operator.
Control: There is a vacancy in banking section that might suit you.
Leamus: Sorry, I'm an operational man. I'll take my pension, I don't want a desk job.
Control: You don't know whats on the desk.
Leamus: Paper.
Control: I want you to stay out in the cold a little longer. Please do sit down.
Control: Our work as I understand it is based on a single assumption that the West is never
    going to be the aggressor. Thus, we do disagreeable things, but they are defensive.
    Our policies are peaceful but our methods can't afford to be less ruthless than those
    of the opposition. Can they?
Leamus: (silence)
Control: No, I'd say that since the war our methods, our techniques that is, and those
    of the communists have become very much the same. Right. I mean, occasionally,
    we have to do wicked things. Very wicked things indeed. But, uh, you can't be less
    wicked than your enemies simply because your government's policies are benevolent,
    can you?
Leamus: (silence)
Control: What I have in mind for Mundt is a little out of the ordinary. You haven't met
  have you?
Leamus: Mundt? No.
Control: He was here in 59 posing as a member of the East German steel mission.
Leamus: I was in Berlin.
Control: And, uh, how do you feel about him?
Leamus: Feel?
Control: Yes.
Leamus: He's a bastard.
Control: Right.

Those students of the filmmaking arts will notice that this is not a pure Explanation as it also makes good use of those tired narrative cliches of foreshadowing, well-written dialogue and great acting.

This movie also has several great examples of the art of the Explanation beyond the one already cited. Another one can be found herebut trust me, this one is a spoiler if you have not seen the film.

So in conclusion, I would like to suggest that this fictional discussion from the cold war should serve to remind us that our faithful public servants are often aware of the moral ambiguity of some of their work. Also, in judging this situation without solid knowledge let us not forget that, generally speaking, the NSA is on our side.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) on IMDB


1. The great narcissism of the American Public is revealed in the presumption that the NSA has nothing better to do than to gleefully and egregiously spy on them as if the NSA was an infinitely resourced department of the Divine Will that watches over every one of God's, or the IRS's, creatures.  Unlike Santa Claus, he knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you're awake, not.

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