It is 1916 and an English gentleman is sitting in the shade of a trottoir café in Limassol on the island of Cyprus. Next to him is a Greek Cypriot tailor. They are both drinking coffee and discussing the events of the day. As they are about to part, the English gentleman says, “as soon as you have definite information, ring up 8456 and ask when it will be convenient for Mr Crowder to try on his new suit.” And adds that if he’s not there, he’ll phone back later in order to confirm the meeting.
So you’ve already spotted that something fishy is going on here, haven’t you?
What’s more, this was written by Compton Mackenzie in 1928 – and Mackenzie was (or had been) a member of the security services. Indeed, one of his next books which followed the same theme, “Greek Memories” saw him standing in the dock of the Old Bailey for infringing the Official Secrets Act of 1910. What’s more, he only got away because he was able to make an arrangement with the prosecution that saw him walk free. Greek Memories, first published in 1932 only saw the light of day nearly eighty years later in 2011.
But that’s the security services for you. They try to keep a lid on things that to the ordinary person would seem utterly trivial. But that is the nature of spying: it is trivial, it is boring and at times it is exceptionally dangerous. The modern reader wants the thrills and spills of the active operation, they do not want the tedium of the setup. Yet the security services seem oblivious to this and will suffocate any blatant infringement of their beloved Official Secrets Act. And yes, I am a signatory too. Albeit for a menial task; even so, I am still covered by all that it encompasses.
The real problem for those who conduct surveillance is that they get bored. Not surprising when, like the navigation officer on a destroyer has been doing it for so long and the tradition is to spend the wee hours of the night in the wardroom instead (1). Given the way operatives are recruited today, it’s not surprising that they are usually graduates and therefore are trained in finding the right quotation to underpin their thinking. If it’s how it’s always been done… well, you can guess the rest. They are their own worst enemy.
Surveillance is boring, and there’s nothing that can be done about this. The problem in today’s world is that there aren’t many people who have my patience. (Not that they’d be looking for me, signatory to the Official Secrets Act or not!). Surveillance really does need thinkers though, and thinkers brave enough to take their own stand: because mistakes are going to be made. What if that message really was for the gentleman’s new suit?
But then, any serious agent will have established this kind of alibi long ago: he will have been fitted for suits for years – and running agents is a matter of years, not the six second scene changes that keep a person awake whilst watching an James Bond movie. The reality of spying is very different to that portrayed in action movies, but then, few of us have the endurance to live out an action movie in our lives. Action movies by their very nature are illusory.
The people behind the computer screens are so inured to the boredom that the only thing that will tempt them into the daylight is an action movie… We’re going around in circles! The one thing the surveillance services need is the very thing they’re not getting.
Then, all of a sudden, someone uses the ‘Bomb’ word. So surprised are they that there is nothing else they can do: they pounce (2).
What else can they do in the circumstances? They’re so bored they can’t think and all of a sudden, someone says it!
And all the while there’s an email purporting to come from Moscow that has an auntie writing to her beloved nephew who lives in Paris. For whatever reason, they are both lovers of potted plants. On one morning, an email is received in Paris that mentions petunias. The wheels are set in motion.
I mean, if you are unaware of the ability to send an email from a remote server to another remote server – both of which are connected to computers, one in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the other in Tower Hamlets in London – then you are going to imagine that the emails are being sent from Moscow to Paris. Who in their right mind is going to look for mentions of petunias when nobody yet knows that this is the term the terrorists agreed when they last met on holiday in Italy last March? The surveillance teams aren’t going to link this event to the flight from London and the flight from New York, both destined for Rome – but on different days.
Only in the aftermath of an incident at a music festival in West Germany are the suspicions going to be raised. Only then is a flat on the Upper East Side raided; only the emails aren’t discovered because the computer has been wiped… Would the security service take note of the lack of potted plants on the windowsill? Only then are the routings traced from the computer through its internet provider and three days later, all they have is a wall of porno sites and purchases on Amazon. How are the security services to know that their suspect used a different flat for their communication?
And yes, all the conversations are on the database. They have to be: the security services collect them all. Only for an incident in Germany, who’s going to look for emails between Moscow and Paris? When the ringleaders are sitting in London and New York? Even if they did find out, how many emails are there between these two cities in one day? Even if it’s not that many, there are enough to make it impossible to unearth them (3). Even if they found the right ones, how are they to know that the word ‘petunia’ was the agreed term? Just looking for information isn’t good enough, and it wasn’t good enough a century ago when Compton Mackenzie was busy himself.