Sunday, July 5, 2009

Diplomacy and Espionage

There has been a lot of buzz this morning around the story of the newly appointed head of MI6 having his "cover blown" by his wife's Facebook site. Even CNET News got on the bandwagon (probably because of the Facebook role), although the bandwagon-rider was Chris Matyszczyk, who is only a member of the CNET Blog Network and whose Technically Incorrect blog must often be taken with several grains of salt. Nevertheless, Matyszczyk is usually good at seeding his posts with relevant and useful hyperlinks. Had he not posted with the attention-grabbing headline "Wife exposes chief spy's personal life on Facebook," I probably would not have read beyond my Google Reader summary; but the post itself made it easier for me to address the source material from Mail Online, the Web site for the Daily Mail and Sunday Mail of London. So here is the basic story in the words of Mail reporter Jason Lewis:

The new head of MI6 has been left exposed by a major personal security breach after his wife published intimate photographs and family details on the Facebook website.

Sir John Sawers is due to take over as chief of the Secret Intelligence Service in November, putting him in charge of all Britain's spying operations abroad.

But his wife's entries on the social networking site have exposed potentially compromising details about where they live and work, who their friends are and where they spend their holidays.

Amazingly, she had put virtually no privacy protection on her account, making it visible to any of the site's 200million users who chose to be in the open-access 'London' network - regardless of where in the world they actually were.

There are fears that the hugely embarrassing blunder may have compromised the safety of Sir John's family and friends.

Lady Shelley Sawers' extraordinary lapse exposed the couple's friendships with senior diplomats and well-known actors, including Moir Leslie, who plays a leading character in The Archers. And it revealed that the intelligence chief's brother-in-law - who holidayed with him last month - is an associate of the controversial Right-wing historian David Irving.

Immediately after The Mail on Sunday alerted the Foreign Office to the astonishing misjudgment, all trace of the material – which could potentially be useful to hostile foreign powers or terrorists - was removed from the internet.

The move suggests that MI6 or the Foreign Office, which is also responsible for the GCHQ electronic eavesdropping centre in Cheltenham, had not vetted what sort of information Sir John and his family were distributing over the internet.

This is the sort of story that hits the road and immediately runs off madly in all directions. However, the direction that tends to interest me the most is the one that goes up the managerial food chain. Apparently, the BBC shared my interest according to the following report on what happened when Foreign Secretary David Miliband was approached for comment:

But Mr Miliband told the BBC's Andrew Marr programme: "Are you leading the news with that?

"The fact that there's a picture that the head of the MI6 goes swimming - wow, that really is exciting.

'No state secret'

"It is not a state secret that he wears Speedo swimming trunks, for goodness sake let's grow up.

"He is an outstanding professional who will do a really good job in an outstanding organisation."

However, there is a bit of context that was given relatively little attention, being buried far below the (metaphorical) fold on the Web pages for both the Mail and the BBC. This is the matter of Sawers' current position, accounted for in the Mail by the usual sensational rhetoric:

Sir John Sawers, currently Britain's Ambassador to the United Nations, where he sits on the highly sensitive Security Council, began his working life in MI6 but has spent the past 20 years building a career as a diplomat rather than a spy.

For me this raises two issues of diplomacy, one historical and one pragmatic. The pragmatic one is that a diplomat is a public figure. A little bit of knowledge about the man under the suit (even in Speedo trunks) could (not necessarily always, though) add a "human touch" when trying to communicate with those reluctant to do so. There is something to be said about laying your cards on the table when those cards are not about how many guns you have in your arsenal. This could have value even in the course of those "highly sensitive" conversations that take place in the Security Council (whose meetings are open to the public).

The historical perspective is a darker one, though. It came to me through an acquaintance I made within the intelligence community. This person happened to observe some scanning I had been doing, and we fell into a conversation about favorite reading matter. One of my candidates was a paper from Past and Present by Lisa Jardine and Anthony Grafton entitled "'Studied for Action': How Gabriel Harvey Read his Livy." This had been written in preparation for a more extended study of reading practices during the Renaissance. Harvey was a leading academic of the late sixteenth century with established credentials from both Cambridge and Oxford; and he served members of the Elizabethan court in a capacity that today we would call "consulting." One of his "clients" was Philip Sidney, who served the Queen as a diplomat on several occasions and would turn to Harvey (and his knowledge of Livy) for "useful background" prior to setting off on his diplomatic missions. The important part of the conversation that took place about this paper was my being reminded that anyone dispatched by Queen Elizabeth I on a "diplomatic mission" was also expected to do "intelligence gathering" while "on site." If the Mail had wanted to sensationalize Sawers' career, a better strategy would have been to play up this "history of confluence" between diplomacy and espionage, rather than dwelling on the sensitivity of Security Council deliberations!

Personally, I am enjoying the coincidence of reading this news this morning after having watched Burn After Reading on HBO last night. This may be the ultimate comedy-of-errors narrative about Homeland Security operations, as well as an analysis of just how arbitrary life can be. There is no consistency over whether the smart prevail over the dumb (or the other way around) or whether virtue triumphs over vice (or, again, the other way around). Thus, the real punch line comes when a CIA officer is being debriefed by his boss about all the confusing events that have unfolded. Being a good boss, he tells the subordinate to treat the whole affair as a learning experience. IMDb selected as a "memorable quote" the exchange that ensues:

CIA Superior: What did we learn, Palmer?
CIA Officer: I don't know, sir.
CIA Superior: I don't fuckin' know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.

Thus, we should be asking both the Sawers family and Miliband if they have learned what not to do again. The most obvious lesson is:

Don't put anything on the Internet unless you want the entire world to see it.

I suspect that many reading this will find that "lesson" an "insight into the obvious" (as we used to say at MIT). The problem is that it is not obvious to large swaths of the population; and those swaths include some very highly-placed people, who can impact the fate of the world! Thus, the real value of this affair is that we have now learned a good cautionary tale to throw back at the next Internet evangelist who is trying to promote a more Wiki-based approach to governance!

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