Was just this evening reading an FT review of Henry Hemming’s new book M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster. These sentences got me thinking:
He was also, at least during the second world war, one of the most successful spies of his day. His section at MI5 exposed a network of London fascists responsible for passing US secrets to the Germans.
The most famous British spy story from World War II is about Masterman and the Double-Cross method, whereby German spies and their networks were rounded up, and then used first for counter-espionage and then for deception. Apparently, the British learnt after the war that all of the spies sent by the Germans to Britain were either captured, or gave themselves up, or committed suicide.
The quotation sparked the memory of the double-cross method in my mind, which then prompted the question: how could you possibly know that you’d collected up all the spies in the country, both during the war, and after, when you had confirmation from German documents and officials? I doubt you could ever be sure, and being confident of your success is, for a spy, both unwise [because it leads to complacency] and out of character [because spies, by their nature, are suspicious, sometimes to the point of debilitating paranoia].
So, for the spymaster who can never rest, and who knows that the enemy is continually landing agents on your soil, the number of enemy agents are out there is, during wartime, a known unknown which you are forever trying to resolve [although it helps when the other guy’s people give themselves up]. Having rolled up a significant number of networks, should you lapse into complacency, break out the prosecco and re-assign your staff to coast-watching, the problem becomes an unknown unknown.
And should you, the spymaster, happen, yourself, to have been turned by the enemy [money? ideology? compromise? ego?], then the problem becomes that thing simultaneously most rare and most common, an unknown known.
A wilderness of mirrors. No wonder Angleton lost the plot.