David Carr has a good piece in the NYTimes today about the public’s lack of interest in the U.S. government’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) to assassinate people. You should read it. Drone warfare came up in my podcast interview with Ron Rosenbaum, and will again in next week’s interview with Fred Kaplan. (ADDENDUM: Check out this New Yorker piece by Teju Cole on drone strikes and Obama’s literary habits.)
During the snowstorm this past Friday/Saturday, I watched all 6 hours of the BBC miniseries of John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which was remarkably good. It’s left me a bit averse to watching the 2011 remake, although it has a good cast.
Yesterday, I took an old issue of The Paris Review off my shelf, to read the Art of Fiction interview with Mr. Le Carre conducted by George Plimpton in 1997. Here’s a passage that jumped out at me:
INTERVIEWER: But is espionage not different since the end of the cold war? Do you still keep in touch with spies?
JOHN LE CARRE: I have a few people, Americans mainly, some Israelis. The Brits don’t talk to me. It’s necessary to understand what real intelligence work is. It will never cease. It’s absolutely essential that we have it. At its best, it is simply the left arm of healthy governmental curiosity. It brings to a strong government what it needs to know. It’s the collection of information, a journalistic job, if you will, but done in secret. All the rest of it — intervention, destabilization, assassination, all that junk — is in my view not only anticonstitutional but unproductive and silly. You can never foresee the consequences. But it’s a good job as long as intelligence services collect sensible information and report it to their governments, and as long as that intelligence is properly used, thought about and evaluated.
Then you come to the question of targets of intelligence: what are the proper targets of the CIA? That’s a policy problem. For me, they are much more widespread than you would suppose. I think they should be extended to the ecology, to the pollution of rivers and those things. There is, for example, one plant in northern Russia that disseminates more pollution than the whole of Scandinavia. One plant alone. I think things of that sort as so life-threatening that they should be included in the CIA’s brief. And counterterrorism: you cannot make a case for not spying on terrorist organizations. You’ve got to spy the hell out of them.
But countersubversion — that’s a really murky target. That is when a government defines what political thoughts are poisonous to the nation, and I find that a terribly dangerous area. And then of course the maverick weapons — they’ve been left all over the place, partly by us. I mean, where are the Stingers we gave to the Afghans? Also, if you meddle in people’s affairs, you then have to live with the consequences. Look at Afghanistan. We recruited the Muslim extremist movement to assist us in the fight against Russia, and we let loose a demon. Intervention is a very dangerous game, and it always has consequences, and they are almost always embarrassing.
—Paris Review, The Art of Fiction Interview CXLIX (issue 143, summer 1997)
The line from the last episode of the miniseries keeps swimming up in my head: “I still believe the secret services are the only real expression of a nation’s character.” Apparently, in the book, it reads, “The secret services were the only real measure of a nation’s political health, the only real expression of its subconscious.”
We have so much we fail to learn.