My new BBC Radio Scotland documentary ‘Spying in the 21st Century: How Safe Are You?’ was broadcast recently. You can catch up with it here. It got really good reviews and was even a Radio 4 ‘Pick of the Week’ referred to as ‘sit up and listen’ broadcasting!
It was a fascinating and sometimes tricky project. I worked on it, off and on, for weeks and months. All credit to Jeff Zycinski and his team at BBC Radio Scotland for backing me.
It’s a topic I have had a long-standing journalistic and academic interest in. I have had contact with modern spies going back many years, both in Europe and the USA, so I know something of their world and culture. Being afforded the opportunity to look at the current state of play in the UK and Scotland was a real gift for me. Moreover, the recent political climate has allowed me an unusual glimpse into this normally secret world.
The Scottish Government’s White Paper on Independence, for example, had very little in the way of detail and substance on the topic of Intelligence and Counter Intelligence. A paltry budget of £260m had been allocated in the event of Scotland having voted for independence. This would, according to most experts, have been barely enough to purchase the computer software for the new country’s intelligence PCs. The view from Holyrood and the view from the Thames, were at odds with each other. Within that murky gap lay material that normal never saw the light of day. That rather foggy and contentious territory was where I called home during this project.
Of course, a newly independent Scotland could have gone its own way and decided to follow foreign (mostly Scandinavian) models and simply allowed its cops to run the intelligence show domestically and quietly dropped any foreign intelligence gathering ambitions. Whether that would have happened or indeed still might happen is anyone’s guess.
Getting spies to talk is never easy. By their nature they are loyal and the Official Secrets Act is a formidable document. I was therefore grateful to those who did speak both on the record and off the record. I, more than most, appreciate the risks they took.
One point I didn’t really have the chance to develop was the fact that the world of spying has become so technology-driven, that the really cutting edge practices in 2015 now involve…. humans. Decades ago spies dealt with each other and gathered intelligence secrets on a human scale. By that I mean they met in bars, safe houses, and swapped secrets in ‘dead drop’ locations like parks and railway stations. It was all very Le Carre. Then, as technology developed it became more and more complex. Suddenly everyone had to be a technology expert. The geeks invaded the operation and pretty much ran the show. Files were shared, laptops were hacked and material was encrypted. Now, in a post-Edward Snowden era, where everyone assumes the NSA has hacked everyone else to hell and back, the trend – I was reliably informed – has tilted back to human level intelligence gathering again. So the old tradecraft tricks are being dusted off and employed. Therefore, I was told, there’s a fair chance tonight on some remote Scottish beach, a spy is making his/her way to shore on a small vessel after being dispatched by a larger ship offshore. Once on the windswept beach they’ll meet their handler and make their way inland. Neither will have a mobile phone nor Garmin or other GPS in their second-hand car which they drive inland. Nothing will be written down. They will be 100% off-grid. Old-fashioned is the new hi-tech.
Welcome to a Brave New World.
I hope you enjoy the programme and get something from it. Most people think they know about spies but in reality they know very little beyond the usual stuff in popular culture. Our spies are far from perfect. But they are (mostly) accountable and often very brave and honourable too.
That’s more than can be said for most countries.