‘You’re surprised that an intelligence service is involved in politics? I thought you were supposed to be an expert. The spooks have always done that, in fact in most countries it’s their basic mission: spying on the opposition, discrediting the government’s critics, misleading the journalists. Remember when the Brits filled the papers with lies about Harold Wilson? And that’s Britain. I can’t even begin to list the people smeared half to death in France and Italy…”
It was my old friend, the late James Jesus Angleton, once upon a long time ago the chief of American counterintelligence. I’d had the ouija board rehabbed, and the connection was excellent. I was commenting — I didn’t think I was surprised, actually — about recent stories clearly aimed at weakening, and maybe even destroying, individuals who didn’t seem to have done anything worthy of criminal prosecution. Like the guy in England who was videotaped engaged in kinky sex with a woman who turned out to be the wife of an intelligence official, and of course the CIA officer who successfully interrogated Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But Angleton just took it as routine, he couldn’t imagine why anyone would even be angry about it. After all… that’s what spooks do, right?
ML: Yes, yes, I know they do it. Everybody knows. That incredible New York Times article, which did everything short of giving out the poor guy’s street address, that had to have come from his colleagues.
JJA: Oh, the one about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s interrogator? Obviously.
ML: But why on earth would they out one of their own? That’s not just politics, is it? It’s more like a contract for a hit job.
JJA: Well, the simple explanation is because of all the furor about torture; things were getting hot — those interrogations were theirs, after all — so they threw a victim to the mob, don’t you think? The way they look at it, they’re protecting the institution…And anyway, the KSM story makes them look good. Most people are happy he was made to talk, after all, even if they condemn the methods used. Of course, there are always layers and layers for these things…
ML: I guess it’s a bad example.
JJA: No, it’s a good example, even though it’s a lot more complicated than what people think of when you say “the CIA is playing politics.” The British case fits your stereotype a lot better, at least at first glance. Max Mosley, scion of the infamous British fascist leader, and the head of the Formula One racing organization, was set up by the London Telegraph newspaper. The paper provided a prostitute with clandestine movie cameras, and she recorded a sadomasochistic session with Mosley, complete with swastikas, whips, and some very tight black leather clothing. The Telegraph had its scoop, Mosley was disgraced, apparently headed for the unemployment lines. And then it turned out that the prostitute in question was married to a British intelligence officer, who then resigned.
ML: And then the story vanished. Poof! A few videos, and that was that. Mosley hasn’t even resigned, has he?
JJA: Nope. On Independence Day, the Times reported that Mosley’s job was secure, at least for more than another year, and that he was suing a London tabloid for invasion of privacy.
ML: So the whole thing was a dud.
JJA: Yes. The only person who lost his job was the husband of the prostitute, even though no one seems to have suggested that it was an intelligence operation.
ML: So why did he have to resign?
JJA: You still don’t get it, do you?
ML: I guess I don’t. What’s “it”?
JJA: It’s right there in front of you, good grief. The real intelligence agencies are the newspapers. The spooks are working for them, not the other way round. The stories aren’t driven by intelligence, the intelligence is produced to support the stories. The American newspapers wanted to remind the public about torture, so the spooks provided chapter and verse. The British papers wanted to tar the upper class with Nazi sympathies, and the spooks gave them the details.
ML: Ah. So Mosley was a media target, not an MI5 target.
JJA: Obviously. What does British intelligence care about some pervert’s carryings-on? The point is the Nazi symbolism, it let the scribblers remind everyone about British fascism, incarnated in the Mosley family and the prostitute’s costume, blah blah blah.
ML: You think that the spooks helped set it up for the press?
JJA: You think that the woman never told her husband about Mosley? Yes, I think the spooks were involved; I don’t see any other reason the officer would resign. That was an admission of culpability.
ML: I still don’t see the linkage. How did the paper know about the sadomaso orgies?
JJA: One will get you five they heard rumors about the orgies, and asked their spook friends (who are always watching that sort of thing) for the details, laying out the sort of story they wanted to write. The spooks, just like CIA in the interrogation story, rather liked the politics of it: upper class bigot pervert from famous fascist family gets beaten and whipped by Nazi whore. And once the journalists were on to the story, there was an institutional interest in limiting the damage. So they told the journalists about the woman. After the story broke, the spooks were worried that Moseley knew too much about the woman. There might be some sort of formal investigation, so they told the journalists about hubby. The journalists then made an offer to the husband if they got cooperation.
ML: They blackmailed him?
JJA: That’s a pretty harsh accusation, and I doubt the conversation ever got to that point. It was in everyone’s interest to work together.
ML: So how come the husband was outed?
JJA: That’s easy; Mosley knew her real identity, he as much as said so early on.
ML: Wow, what a story.
JJA: Yes, it’s worth a wow. But it happens all the time.
ML: But this is a different angle, isn’t it?
JJA: Maybe, but only for those who think in straight lines. You can’t do that in the intelligence business, because it’s very tricky. The best way to understand it is to realize that the media are the only real intelligence organization nowadays. They, and only they, get absolute protection of sources and methods (via the absolutist interpretation of the First Amendment); they, and only they, decide when to pay sources; they, and only they, decide when to declassify information…
ML: And they are the ones who can conduct the most sensitive operations, like the one in Colombia.
JJA: Yes, it’s noteworthy that the FARC was quite happy to deal with what they thought were people from sympathetic NGOs and journalists, isn’t it?
ML: Sure is. They were used to posing for TV cameras. They lined up and smiled.
JJA: And why not? News organizations routinely work out formal relations with terrorist groups, just like the spy organizations once did.
Just when we were getting to one of the most interesting aspects of the matter, the accursed ouija board started to emit static, and I could smell some insulation burning.
JJA: Remember when the Palestinians killed a couple of Israelis who had taken the wrong road a few years ago…all the news organizations promised not to broadcast the footage…
He was fading now.
JJA: Italians…broadcast it…news organization apologized….swore to be good.
And he was gone.
– Michael Ledeen is author, most recently, of The Iranian Time Bomb: The Mullah Zealots’ Quest for Destruction.