Monday, July 5, 2010

Playing by the Old Rules

One of the major points I tried to make yesterday in commenting on the use of Twitter in our State Department is that social software is changing the rules of the "great game" of diplomacy. This then raised the question of what will happen to the "old rules." The more commentary I encounter on the current case of the apprehension of eleven Russians presumed to be moles, the more I realize that this whole episode amounts to a collision between new rules and old. In this framework observations, like the one on NPR this morning, to the effect that these spies cannot be that good (because the good ones never get caught) miss the point. Moles like these may be a product of "old school" thinking, just as Vladimir Putin has the resume of someone who became a master in that old school; and, in the interest of keeping a balance, it is important to recognize that former President George W. Bush was just as "old school" when he directed the Central Intelligence Agency to apply more resources to agent activities and less to the work of analysts. I am not suggesting that agents (including moles) have been rendered irrelevant by the abundance of information on the Internet (a point that too many commentators make too glibly); but the rules that guide what agents actually do are changing. Boris and Natasha (as in the nemeses of Rocky and Bullwinkle) were comic because they never "got" the rules; and that is why so many commentators are now waxing nostalgic over their favorite Boris and Natasha routines. This time around, however, Natasha looks like Anna Chapman; and in her column this morning for The Social on CNET News, Caroline McCarthy observed that Chapman "had been a prolific Facebook and LinkedIn user."

On the other hand not all the rules change. While everyone (including, alas, McCarthy) wants to look at Boris and Natasha, we have forgotten, in our cultural amnesia of history, to look at Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross. All of the "Cambridge five" succeeded as double agents because they conformed so well to the norms of British society (they were, after all, products of Cambridge) that their could be no question of their loyalties. Alan Bennett got it best in An Englishman Abroad with the line that went something like "Burgess can't possibly be a spy; he and I share the same tailor." Double agency is all about maintaining two different identities. That rule will remain in place no matter what rules guide what double agents do (or determine whether or not they are necessary). However, while this high-level rule has not changed, the lower-level rules through which identity is defined have changed considerably since the days of the Cambridge spies. Identity through Facebook has confined identity of one's tailor (not to mention having a tailor) to the ash-heap of history. Also, another more important rule has not changed, which is the point behind that NPR observation: Just because you have caught eleven individuals who have not mastered the new rules, it is still possible (if not likely) that just as many "better players" are currently in your midst!

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