A.J.P. Taylor on Spying

In the course of some casual research, I came across a venemous review of a number of books about spying by the late A.J.P. Taylor. I’ve been thinking lately about what – if any – difference it makes that spying is no longer a matter of one human being listening in on another. Now, it is the machines that “listen.”

Taylor’s review has an interestingly antique feel. Here is an excerpt:

To anyone tempted to engage in espionage I commend Taylor’s Law (now universally accepted by experts): the Foreign Office knows no secrets. Its rider, too, is noteworthy: the Kremlin is also not richly endowed with them. As for the State Department, it is not even worth postulating a principle. The State Department learns its own secrets only when it reads them in a newspaper.

Still spying goes on, always has, always will. The spies feed on each other. Each side has to make out that its own secrets are of importance so as to justify its chase after secrets on the other side. After all, if spying did not matter, there would be no need for counterespionage, and then what would the FBI do for a living? Espionage is an enormously attractive subject, a field where human ingenuity operates almost fre from contact with reality. It resembles mathematics, an intellectual game where th most remarkable results can be achieved by pure ratiocination

On a more prosaic level, spying is a form of looking through the keyhole. Among the most agreeable of minor pleasures is to observe the other man without his knowing it. Each of us grabs the chance of reading other people’s letters or looking into other people’s windows. Spying bestows on these exercises an aura of justification. But we learn little of serious import. The keyhole does not reveal much of the next room, and in the spy game, the occupants of the room clown for the benefit of the supposedly unobserved observer. In fact the only people really deluded about spying are those who read books on the subject and take them seriously.

Full article here (subscription required): http://www.nybooks.com/articles/10313

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