Over the years, “spy fiction” has alternatingly depicted its protagonist as being charming (007), vivacious (Modesty Blaise), cunning (George Smiley), a fearsome warrior (Jason Bourne), but above all erudite and possessing incredible intellect.
However, Adam Curtis suggests that this aura is a fabrication, devised by the spies themselves and fueled by the media.
Curtis’ illustrates how, in several well documented incidents, the British counterintelligence agency, MI5, was incompetent, paranoid and verging on insane.
MI5 did have some successes against the Nazis in World War Two, but the Soviets were much more effective, possibly helped by the fact that they were Britain's allies against Hitler. MI5’s main job was to uncover enemy spies, but not only were they unable to find many.
Worse, they were told in 1945 that one of their own was a double agent.
Sir Anthony Blunt was high up in MI5 and had been working in Buckingham Palace when he admitted to being a traitor. MI5 was so embarrassed they kept it quiet and gave him immunity.
He even carried on working for the Queen as an art expert.
By the 1970s and 80s MI5 was paranoid- uncovering secret plots and traitors that probably didn't exist. They hunted for the “Fifth Man” in the Cambridge Five and one faction even decided that their own boss Sir Roger Hollis must be the traitor.
These MI5 agents spent the next few months using a friendly journalist from (you guessed it) the Daily Mail to tell their story and 'expose' Sir Roger as a Russian agent.
Accusations abounded in the decades to come, fuelled by journalists who fell in love with the idea of an international conspiracy and a dark world full of hidden treachery. The fact that all the journalists had been conned, only became apparent much later.
The paranoia was bad but the incompetence was worse: MI5 missed the real traitors like Michael Bettany. MI5 had thoroughly vetted Bettany and even promoted him, despite his own claims that he was a communist.
It was only when Bettany's behavior became increasingly erratic that MI5 set out to investigate him. Even then they missed the fact that he was stashing top secret documents in his own home.
Bettany was only caught after he tried to pass the secret documents to a Russian agent; the agent unsure of what to do, gave them back to MI5 and told them where he’d gotten them from.
The KGB became concerned about their mole Geoffrey Prime’s pedophilic tendencies and decided to out him to their counterparts. Instead of meeting Prime secretly, the KGB agents took him openly to a restaurant watched by Western Intelligence. No one noticed them, or Prime.
It was finally Prime’s wife who turned him in.
In fact, it's possible that MI5 has not caught a real spy, except by luck, since World War Two.
Which, if you think about it, is a pretty serious allegation against an organization whosepurpose is to catch enemy spies.
- ZopimContent Strategist, 2013 - present
- Amica LawPractice Trainee, 2010 - 2011
- Android PoliceContributor, 2010 - 2012
- Make Tech EasierContributor, 2009 - 2011
- The DigitSocial Media Editor, 2011 - 2013
- Warwick IT ServicesStudent Computing Advisor, 2006 - 2009
- Shook Lin & BokIntern, 2007
I am an opinionated tech and digital media blogger. As a doe-eyed twenty-something I started my first blog TechComet to comment on all things technology. Since then I have written for Android Police, Make Tech Easier, and numerous other blogs. In the real world, I work as a Content Strategist for Zopim.
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- University of WarwickLaw, 2006 - 2009
- Mahindra United World College of IndiaIB, 2004 - 2006