There have been masterfully written entertaining spy novels from Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, John Le Carré, and others. Many works are based on the authors' first-hand experiences working for intelligence agencies, not just their exuberant and fanciful imaginations. However, Ben Macintyre’s well-researched account of the Russian double agent, Oleg Gordievsky, and his American counterpart, Aldrich Ames, provides meticulous details about real spies. Gordievsky is the only known Soviet double agent smuggled out of Russia to Great Britain, and is still alive and in protective custody. Queen Elizabeth II appointed Gordievsky a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George. Aldrich Ames, an American who was head of CIA counterintelligence, was caught spying for the Soviets, and is also alive, but in another type of protective custody--prison. There could not have been two more different men employed as spies by their respective countries. All of this began during the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, and extended well into the 1980s.
Despite the fact that none other than Vladimir Putin has stated, "There is no such thing as a former KGB man," there were contributory factors which changed Gordievsky, a man with a brilliant, curious mind and all the attributes required to make a good and loyal Soviet spy. By contrast, Aldrich Ames was woefully lacking any positive characteristics: he drank too much, had financial debts, and was bitter for not being sufficiently appreciated by his country and by his employer, the CIA. Ames was ripe for the picking to be a traitor to the United States. When Gordievsky made the decision to spy on his own country he knew exactly what he was doing and why. Ames was driven by desperation, lack of focus, and was so inept that he easily could be manipulated. All of this begs the question: who makes a good spy? “Some are motivated by ideology, politics, or patriotism. A surprising number act out of avarice, for the financial rewards can be alluring. Others find themselves drawn into espionage by sex, blackmail, arrogance, revenge, disappointment, or the peculiar oneupmanship and comradeship that secrecy confers. Some are principled and brave. Some are grasping and cowardly.”
Macintyre merges research and insight in presenting a great deal of biographical information about Oleg Gordievsky's life and career, and the culture of Soviet spycraft. There is something even more fascinating and maddening, which are the entanglements in the real world of spycraft, and the people who make it work or not work. The complexity of Soviet and British agencies is overwhelming. There are layers of employees who are not necessarily active spies, but who support and bolster the operations of organizations. In working with Gordievsky Great Britain carefully guarded him as a valuable resource, and this was a way to redeem the reputations of MI5 and MI6, following the not too distant scandal that invovled the Cambridge spies: Philby, Burgess and Maclean. It is a fact that there is competition even among allies in the world of spycraft. Macintyre reveals how intelligence work can be influential in providing the basis for national policies and international negotiations. Even Queen Elizabeth II is presented with a fair amount of important government information in those red boxes that she regularly receives. To the best of anyone's knowledge the Queen may not be directly governing, as did her ancestors, but she may have more knowledge and power than is fully realized. The nature of spying is to get information on an adversary, and to gain an advantage, and for countries it is especially important if you suspect your adversary is spying on you. For pessimists, spying is a necessary evil; for optimists it is something that should not exist at all. As long as a country’s safety is at risk, as are its foundational ideas, then spying is necessary. “James Jesus Angleton, the famously paranoid postwar chief of counterintelligence at the CIA, described the spying game as a 'wilderness of mirrrors'."
We recommend two more new books about real people who were spies: MI5 and me: a coronet among the spooks and Code name : Lise : the true story of World War II's most highly decorated spy.