We use words to tell each other what we mean. Words illuminate reality. But sometimes, and it seems increasingly so in these troubled times, words can be used to conceal truth.
This is why “The Dictionary of Espionage” is so timely and will appeal to the average citizen who is made vaguely uneasy when he is told that his government is engaged in “surgical strikes” against our enemies, which on occasion, unfortunately, result in “collateral damage” - that is, the U.S. government set out to kill someone but ended up killing someone else.
In this accessibly written book, Washington author Joseph C. Goulden illuminates and defines much of the standard jargon of the intelligence community with refreshing asides about many of spying’s urban legends - many of which may or may not be true. Informed by remarkable access to the intelligence community, the book, first issued in 1986, has been significantly updated and contains a foreword by Peter Earnest, the founding executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington and a former CIA operations officer.
Both Mr. Earnest and Mr. Goulden make an important point in their introductions to the dictionary. Not so long ago, intelligence gatherers of nations lived in a hermetically sealed world. For example, until fairly recently, it was a felony for a British newspaper to disclose the name of the person known as C - the pseudonym for the head of the United Kingdom’s MI-6 foreign intelligence service - or the director of MI-5, its counterintelligence arm.
In 1953, when Ian Fleming had his James Bond character first report to M, the fictional spy chief, he was sailing very close to prosecution even with that alphabetical fudge. And one does not have to be all that old to recall when Washingtonians drove past the sign for the “Virginia Bureau of Public Roads” in McLean, which masked the entrance to the CIA campus.
Nowadays of course, the retired head of MI-5 is a dishy blond London media celebrity named Stella Rimington who writes spy thrillers of her own. In our own country, the once-secret language that spies used with one another to keep outsiders at bay has crept into everyday parlance. Sometimes, inevitably, the original usage Mr. Goulden gives us has morphed into quite another thing in layman’s terms.
For example, marketing experts refer to “hard targets” to mean consumers most likely to buy a specific product being promoted. It was first used in the 1970s when Richard Helms was the CIA director to emphasize the need to focus more of the agency’s efforts on intelligence collection against the superclosed societies of the USSR and red China.
“Numbers crunchers,” who are now found in every accounting department, was first used to describe the huge computers that the National Security Agency (NSA) uses to decrypt the electronic signals it snatches from the sky. On Wall Street, when a corporate raider makes a takeover bid, the assets he wants to strip away are known as the “family jewels.” The euphemism first became common back in 1975, however, when the Church Committee of the U.S. Senate demanded, and got, an accounting from then Director William Colby of the CIA’s family jewels, a listing of the legally questionable activities it had undertaken over the years.
In addition to functioning as a dictionary, this book also gives the reader a useful grounding in the history of intelligence services generally, with the most interesting being Mr. Goulden’s descriptions of the evolution of Russia’s ever-changing alphabet soup of spy services and their actions against the West in general and the United States in particular.
It is no exaggeration that spy services reflect the culture of the nations they serve. While all spy agencies essentially do the same job, the services of all the great powers are organized differently, each corresponding to the society it serves. The greater the democracy, the more transparent the security services - and vice versa.
With great authority, the author devotes a whole section of the book to the evolution of the Komitet Gosudarstvennoe Bezopasnosti, known as the KGB, and its successor, the FSB. The KGB was, in its day, “the biggest spy machine for the gathering of secret information which the world has ever seen.” When one realizes that the Soviet military establishment had its own spy service - known as the GRU - one has to wonder if Russians in those days had time to do anything else.
Knowing Russia’s current leader, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, is a veteran of both KGB and FSB, one comes away from this book’s examination of those agencies wondering just how far away we are from the Cold War days of old.
There is plenty to smile about, too, in this intentionally serious book about a serious topic. Mr. Goulden has larded into the text what he calls “Safe House Interludes,” which are bits of whimsy, factoids and trivia about spies and the craft itself. My favorite anecdote concerns the World War I spy Mata Hari. But I won’t spoil it for you.
James Srodes is the author of “Allen W. Dulles, Master of Spies” (Regnery, 2000).