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Espionage

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The ancient craft of espionage has been described as ‘the second oldest profession’. Historically, those holding power have increased and held on to that power at least partly by the employment of agents loyal to them; a loyalty often inspired by substantial rewards and fear. Spying is mentioned in the Old Testament, there were the cloak-and-dagger machinations of the Ancient Greeks and Romans and in the Middle Ages diplomacy and intelligence were so closely bound together that it was difficult to differentiate ambassadors from secret agents. By Tudor times Queen Elizabeth I’s spymasters had created an elaborate secret service – what else is a monarch to do when others are after the throne? Such networks were key to survival.

Military espionage played a role in all major modern wars, from the English Civil War, American Revolution, and the Napoleonic wars to name but a few. Great strides were made during World War I, when the conditions favoured intelligence activities in neutral countries such as Switzerland, Holland and Belgium and Britain achieved rapid success following the establishment of MI5 and MI6 (then known as the Secret Services Bureau) just a few years earlier.

By World War II intelligence gathering had become a major government undertaking and the means of espionage and spycraft were greatly enhanced by technological developments. Perhaps the most famous of the World War II spy organisations, Special Operations Executive (SOE) was established early in the war. Known as ‘Churchill's Secret Army’, agents of SOE were tasked with gathering intelligence, carrying out acts of sabotage, and building up and supporting local movements such as the French Resistance. Their efforts were supported by other branches of the military and government, such as the SIGINT and cryptography teams of Bletchley Park who provided wireless communications and battled to acquire useful intelligence by breaking the Enigma code.

The Second World War ended with Europe divided between the two superpowers, the democratic, capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union. The weapons of conflict were commonly words of propaganda and threat, but subversion and Soviet espionage were also key concerns, and from the 1970s onwards terrorism emerged as a serious threat to national security. Governments used spies who operated in the shadows to intercept enemy communications and learn about weapons strength, military movements, and potential targets. For this reason, the Cold War period became the era of the double agent, or mole.

Generals and politicians have always needed secret information to track and outmanoeuvre their foreign and domestic enemies. Whilst the spy may be as old as history, spy services are relatively new. It is only very recently in the 20th century that official intelligence organisations were founded, and spying was established as a profession. Since then, spying has started to lose its stigma as a dishonest and disreputable way of making a living and started to become seen as a legitimate way of collecting military intelligence. Nevertheless, thanks in the most part to the works of talented 20th century novelists, espionage retains a mystique among the public. Whether fact or fiction, espionage continues to fascinate and begs the question whether some dark and deplorable deeds may be justified.

From biblical times to the high-tech surveillance operations of the post 9/11-world, the history of espionage is a murky, yet intriguing tale of deceit, subterfuge, sabotage, and seduction. It is a world of clandestine operations, agent provocateurs, snipers, secret codes, and ciphers. Spies, assassins, traitors, double agents… here you will find real-life examples of these operatives embroiled in daring and thrilling escapades across the globe.

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