September 27th 2008

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Malcolm Turnbull topples Brendan Nelson

EDITORIAL: Defence: new situations demand new policies

GLOBAL WAR ON TERRORISM: Landmark terrorist trials in Melbourne and London

FINANCIAL AFFAIRS: Why Wall Street imploded

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: Australia facing external economic pressures

SCIENCE: Global-warming - myth, threat or opportunity?

REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH: Breaking the truce on abortion

STRAWS IN THE WIND: The undeserving poor / The bolt from the blue / Sarah Palin / Ladder-kickers / Peter Costello

UNITED STATES: Sarah Palin appointment leaves Left apoplectic

ASIA: Rocky road ahead for Malaysia

HUMAN-TRAFFICKING: Vietnamese slave-labourers in Malaysia

COLD WAR: The spy who teetered on the edge

EDUCATION: Co-educational secondary schooling's drawbacks

SCHOOLS: Queensland school bans cartwheels

Water resources (letter)

Hearing the arguments (letter)

Palin for president? (letter)

Bio-fuels (letter)

BOOKS: 10 BOOKS THAT SCREWED UP THE WORLD: And 5 Others That Didn't Help, by Benjamin Wiker

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The spy who teetered on the edge

by Warren Reed

News Weekly, September 27, 2008
British ex-spy and author John Le Carré recently admitted that he was tempted to defect to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. An Australian ex-spy and author officer Warren Reed comments.

For anyone interested in intelligence - especially for those who are, or have been, personally involved in the craft - British writer John Le Carré's recent admission that he was tempted to defect to the Soviet Union during the Cold War comes as a shock.

Le Carré made his name writing Cold War espionage thrillers such as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), A Perfect Spy (1986) and The Russia House (1989).

Some of Le Carré's fans might have speculated that he had all along been one of his own characters - a perfect spy.

But for most Le Carré aficionados, his credibility is rooted in two things.

One is the obvious fact that, among spy-writers, he is that rare bird who has actually practised the craft and hence knows that world from the inside. His direct experience allows him to depict realistically the moral conflicts and contradictions that a spy deals with every day.


The other grows out of the first. He himself as the writer is morally elevated to a privileged place, sitting above the stories he concocts in order to divulge to the readers the stark realities of the world he is luring them into. It is that perception of the writer having a fixed point of reference that gives his or her books their legitimacy.

For someone like Le Carré - let's call him by his real name of David Cornwell now that he's blown his cover - to reveal an inner weakness that almost turned him into a traitor is more like a perfect oxymoron. It's as good as Cornwell saying to us, "Ha, ha! I fooled you. You all thought I stood for something, and you assumed that that was what enabled me, even entitled me, to range far and wide, shaping characters from one end of the moral spectrum to the other.

"But no. You were wrong. There's never been any 'real me'. I've only ever been a will-o-the-wisp, constructed at my own convenience, whether as spy or writer, from bits and pieces of the human condition."

A reader of Cornwell's books can rightfully feel betrayed on this front.

But there's much more to Cornwell's admission than that, and it has nothing to do with literature.

Cornwell has told us that, while he wasn't tempted ideologically to cross the line, "when you spy intensively and you get closer and closer to the border... it seems such a small step to jump... and, you know, find out the rest".

Here's the nub. What Cornwell is admitting to is that, on an intellectual or philosophical whim, he was willing to betray not only his own professed principles, but also the UK Secret Intelligence Service - MI6 - in which he served as well as his country.

He would have betrayed his MI6 colleagues, both past and present, as well as the broader Western intelligence system to which he belonged. And, by extension - especially if his betrayal had become publicly known - he would have visited a horrible fate upon most if not all of the agents he had recruited and run during his time as a spy.

The agents themselves, of course, are traitors who have access to secrets that a spy's home government badly wants. And it's on that government's behalf that a spy inveigles an agent into committing the one act - treachery - that he himself could never contemplate.

A person who could do that would truly stand for nothing. And that is what Le Carré's admission boils down to.

Cornwell's own cover in MI6 was blown by Kim Philby, one of Britain's most notorious traitors. Paradoxically, in 1987, Cornwell was given the opportunity to dine with Philby (presumably in Moscow), but he passed it up. "I just couldn't do it," he said. "He was responsible for sending countless British agents to their deaths, to be killed - 40 or more in Albania."


This is heart-rending stuff. But before we praise Cornwell for these lofty sentiments, we should remember that he himself once seriously contemplated following Philby's path of treachery.

- Warren Reed was an intelligence officer with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) for 10 years. He was trained by MI6 in London and served in Asia and the Middle East. He has also published a novel dealing with treachery in the intelligence world, Code Cicada (Sydney: HarperCollins, 2004).

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