New film casts spycraft in bleak light

A new film, out this September, paints a bleak picture of Cold War spies who never know what to trust or who to believe. Is information gathered by intelligence agents ever reliable?

After James Bond, George Smiley is perhaps Britain's most famous fictional spy. He is also the opposite of Ian Fleming's strutting hero. Bond is a womanising icon of machismo, alternately shooting and sleeping his way across Caribbean islands and Riviera resorts.

Smiley, on the other hand is plump, bespectacled and middle aged. His adventures, told in a series of novels by John le Carré, play out mostly on the damp streets of London and in cramped offices at MI6 headquarters. The mild-mannered Smiley is more dangerous at a desk than with a gun.

Now Smiley is being brought to life in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which has just finished filming. The film shows a claustrophobic world, full of intrigue and mistrust. A double agent has penetrated the British Secret Service, where shadowy cabals of powerful men decide the destiny of millions.

It is also a world of doubt and disillusionment. Unlike in James Bond, where right and wrong are pleasingly clear-cut, John le Carré's spies are never sure whether their lies and sacrifices are really worth anything at all.

They are right to be worried. The history of spying is full of dramatic failures. The plot of the new film, for example, is based on the story of a real Soviet double agent, Kim Philby, who managed to achieve high rank within MI6 while sending sensitive information to the Russians.

Even when spies get things right, they often are not believed. Philby's value was limited by the fact that Stalin was convinced he was not a double agent but a triple agent, secretly working for the British.

The endless game can become bafflingly complex. CIA counter-intelligence chief James Angleton called it 'a wilderness of mirrors' and was convinced that his agency had been infiltrated by Soviet spies. His subsequent hunt for double agents was so disruptive to the agency that he was later suspected of being a double agent himself.


What lessons can be drawn from such tangles of confusion and paranoia? Today's spy agencies have learnt to be bigger and better than their Cold War predecessors. In the US, nearly one million people have top-secret security clearance, working for 1,271 separate government organisations. The government says these agencies are crucial in defending the world against threats from terrorists and rogue states.

There is another view: information from spies, some argue, will always be untrustworthy because of the way in which it is gathered. Agencies, with their secret agendas and hidden powers, are in fact more dangerous than helpful to a free society. You would be safer, and get a better picture of the world, if you got rid of spying altogether.

You Decide

  1. Would you ever want to be a spy?
  2. How useful are spy agencies? What place should they have within a free society? And what do you think are the threats they guard against?


  1. Imagine that a secret agent is called upon to make a decision: by breaking a promise and sacrificing the life of an operative in the field, a terrorist bombing can be prevented. Keeping the promise and saving the operative means the terrorist bombing may go ahead. What should he or she do? In groups, make the case for each side.
  2. Do some further research into the history of a spy incident. Does it show that spies are useful or useless? Some suggestions are: the Cambridge five; the Enigma code; Operation Mincemeat, and Mata Hari – but feel free to find your own.

Some People Say...

“Spies are heroes who protect us in a dangerous world.”

What do you think?

Q & A

You said spy agencies can be dangerous?
Indeed. Sometimes they launch risky operations which go wrong and make a nation look bad. The CIA was responsible for a humiliating US attempt to invade Cuba in 1961, using Cuban exiles. It achieved nothing and made US-Soviet relations hit a new and dangerous low.
Is that all?
No. Some intelligence agencies take too much power in their own country. Pakistan's ISI almost operates as an independent political force, while, in Russia, positions of power within the state are held by ex-spies.
But spies must be useful sometimes!
Perhaps more than we know. After all, the nature of the job is that, when things go well, ordinary people don't hear about it.

Word Watch

MI6 is the often used slang term for the Secret Intelligence Service or SIS. It is the agency responsible for supplying the British government with foreign intelligence.

Double agent
An agent who pretends to be a spy for one country or organisation, but is in fact a spy for a rival country or organisation.

The Soviet Union was a communist state in existence between 1922 and 1991. It is now 15 different countries: Russia, the Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Its first leader was Lenin who took power after a revolution which overthrew the monarchy.

Efforts by one country or organisation to ensure that a rival cannot gather sensitive information on them.

The irrational and mistaken feeling that others are working against your interests. Famous saying: 'Just because I'm paranoid it doesn't mean they're not out to get me.'

Cold War
The diplomatic and military stand-off between the Soviet Union and the West which kept the world divided until the early 1990s.


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