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Ask the author: Tania Szabó answers our questions about the world of espionage


The world of espionage is shrouded in mystery, secrecy and lies. Author Tania Szabó breaks down the truth behind espionage and how things have changed in the industry over the years.

What is espionage?

Espionage (from the French word ‘espion’ meaning ‘spy’) can be defined as cloak and dagger activities, spying or covert operations with the aim of obtaining confidential or secret information not normally available publicly and usually, but not always, without due permission from the relevant state, government, military force or organisation; and frequently planting misinformation. This can be done by human sources (agents) or by technical means such as hacking into computer systems and employing surveillance devices.

To quote the MI5 website: “The methods used by intelligence officers and agents vary widely, and are often limited only by their ingenuity… intelligence services typically seek to establish networks of agents whom they can use over a sustained period of time, so they may obtain a reliable flow of information.” This means that the agents may well live undercover for many years at home and abroad, and often in dangerous circumstances. A cool brain, a cool disposition and a pragmatic imagination are essential.

How long has it existed and why does it exist?

Espionage has existed since people have lived in diverse social groups. It exists to defend one’s own territory and to gain advantage over other territories. We can site ancient Chinese writings, the old testament, ancient Egypt, Indian strategists, the French (as with the Dreyfus Affair) the Spanish, the British, the rest of the English-speaking peoples and so it goes on.

Is it a good thing or bad?

It is good when it benefits your own territory and bad when it harms your own territory. Equally, it depends on the motives of the instigators of espionage or intelligence gathering and the means used to acquire or plant information or weaponry as to whether it is beneficial or detrimental.

Who does it?

Those who become agents are as diverse as the information to be acquired or disinformation to plant. Mata Hari, Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby, Robert Bruce Lockhart, Odette Sansom Hallowes, Francis Suttill, Violette Szabó and so many more before and since the Second World War who remain anonymous for the time being

What are the good or bad consequences?

The good and the bad consequences are many and varied. Some consequences favourable to a country or enterprise are the covert acquisition of technological advances and political policies in the making. On the other hand, misinformation may be received that endangers progress or lives or the ruling regime, democratic or otherwise

What are the advantages and drawbacks?

The advantages, and the drawbacks, again are as many and varied as there are laws and policies. An example would be time and money saved through covert acquisition or destruction however the very real possibility of harm to agents caught in the field and unprotected by their governments plus being ‘persuaded’ to reveal their knowledge to hostile groups.

And today?

The most recent event is that MI5, through its director, Andrew Parker, has for the first time in its 107-year history decided to be interviewed by the Guardian newspaper. Seemingly an extraordinary move as, after all, the Guardian is clearly to the left of centre politicly; however, if you consider a little, it is truly a great way of reaching a wide audience generally against all forms of warfare and secrecy. Andrew Parker states that an ‘increasingly aggressive’ Russia is a growing threat to the UK.

He notes that “Russia poses an increasing threat to the stability of the UK and is using all the sophisticated tools at its disposal to achieve its aims”. After the Ukraine on the western border of Russian, it does not take a massive decision for Putin, on behalf of Russia, to invade the eastern borders of the Baltic States of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia having already used propaganda and misinformation through covert and overt agents to agitate in the east of those countries. Additionally, there is the tiny Russian enclave south of Latvia and north of Poland where the old Prussian town of Königsberg, now Kaliningrad, exists. It is an important port for the Russians on the Baltic Sea and, no doubt, a hive of clandestine activity.

As we tend to focus on Islamic extremism and covert action from various countries around the world, we might well be caught off guard without high-grade intelligence gathering while we simply consider Russia has only intruded upon and influenced Syria and Ukraine. Nevertheless, the very fact that Andrew Parker can come out so strongly and publicly demonstrates that our own covert intelligence agents of both MI5 and MI6 at home and abroad along with cyber-techie agents are doing their job in alerting us to the possible dangers, not only from Russia, to our fragile liberties.

By Tania Szabo 

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