Spying — the world’s second-oldest profession

Spying — the world’s second-oldest profession
Media monitoring? (Image: iStock)

Intelligence services should demand that their officers possess integrity about their objectives, about what they learn, about whom and why, and what they do with this information. Yet this is often precisely where politics and personalities intersect.

The Glienicke Bridge epitomises the Cold War’s game of spies. Spanning the Havel River, it connects Berlin’s Wannsee district with Potsdam. The bridge, closed after the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, became the site of the exchange of captured spies, most notably the Soviet agent Rudolf Abel (real name William Fisher) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pilot Gary Powers in February 1962, who had been shot down on 1 May 1960 in his U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union.

spying glienicke bridge

Berlin’s Bridge of Spies, Glienicke Bridge. (Photo: Greg Mills)

If Glienicke was soon parodied as the “Bridge of Spies”, Berlin was, too, as the “City of Spies” during the Cold War. This involved not only agents operating between the West and East bloc, but also the East German Stasi — officially Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, or Ministry of State Security responsible for foreign espionage, but mostly domestic political surveillance. 

spying cold war

The Glienicke Bridge became the site of Cold War spy exchanges. (Photo: Greg Mills)

Housed in a bleak complex of concrete on 103 Ruschestrasse off Frankfurter Allee in Berlin-Lichtenberg, Stasi officers saw themselves as an elite group of “first-class comrades” serving “the dictatorship of the proletariat”.

They referred to each other as “Chekists” after the secret police established by the Bolsheviks in 1917, notorious for their brutality, even by Russian revolutionary standards. Responsible for the internal suppression of dissent, the VChK (or  All-Russian Extraordinary Commission) ran the Gulag penal system and put down riots and mutinies. In the just five years of its existence until its replacement by the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) and, ultimately, the KGB (Committee for State Security) in the Soviet system, the Cheka were responsible for perhaps as many as 500,000 deaths.

By 1988 the Stasi had established a vast network of more than 90,000 agents and at least 189,000 “unofficial collaborators” (though the total of “information providers”, or Auskunftspersonen, is estimated to be over two million) to keep tabs and files on the German Democratic Republic’s (DDR) citizens. East Germans expected their mail to be steamed open and conversations to be bugged. Certain social groups, from punks to churches, received special attention.

spying glienicke bridge

The Glienicke Bridge’s Cold War divide. (Photo: Greg Mills)

Two months after the fall of the Wall, demonstrators invaded the Stasi building to prevent the destruction of an estimated one billion pages of files. The Stasi had assembled “F16” card files on 5.4 million people, which were supplemented by the “F22” explaining why they took an interest. Some 20,000 Personal Surveillance Operations (OPK) were being processed by the end of 1989. Most of these were preserved and are now publicly available.

The Stasi didn’t just infiltrate and monitor, as the prison at Berlin-Hohenschönhausen with its 103 cells and 230 interrogation rooms, now a memorial, shows. More than 72,000 were jailed for trying simply to leave the republic, of an estimated 250,000 political prisoners over the four decades of the German Democratic Republic (or DDR).

Over time, Stasi procedures turned away from the use of explicit terror, however, to more indirect forms of intimidation, surveillance and control. It perfected a technique known as Zersetzung (literally, “decomposition”), of continual psychological harassment, aimed at damaging the reputations and relationships of their subjects, causing them to lose the will to continue with their activities, a prototype of fake news.

But it had a harder dimension. Bugging, mysterious phone calls, wire-tapping, sabotage of cars, openly filming the subject, break-ins, provocation, and smear campaigns were among the methods employed, all of which could be plausibly denied, today as then.

The Russians had a word for this: Kompromat — literally compromising information about a subject that could be used for damaging publicity or even blackmail. It might be factual, or it might be forged. It has frequently involved the intersection of the world’s oldest and second-oldest professions.

As the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same. 

Cold War spying

Cold War spying centred on the gathering of intelligence from three sources: human contacts (people), signals interception (conversations) and imagery surveillance (pictures).  

To acquire this information, early in the Cold War, Western intelligence operatives tunnelled under East Berlin to tap into government phone lines. In 1957, a listening station was constructed on top of Teufelsberg, a man-made mountain. Its vast aerial array allowed the monitoring of Warsaw Pact wireless traffic. 

Berlin, which had been known as an Agentsumpf (literally, “agent swamp”) even before the war, came into its own in the febrile Cold War environment. Agents were recruited, turned and betrayed, the profession never in danger of oversentimentality. 

Pyotr Popov, a major in Soviet military intelligence stationed in Vienna, worked for the West out of a need to fund his lifestyle. Having passed on information for six lucrative years, he was betrayed by the British/Soviet double agent George Blake, and then reportedly fed alive into a Moscow furnace strapped to a stretcher in front of an audience of his contemporaries. Blake got off more lightly — a testament to comparative Soviet and Western judicial norms. Betrayed in 1961 by a Polish defector and summoned from Lebanon, he was sentenced to 42 years in prison. With the help of radical sympathisers, Blake escaped from London’s Wormwood Scrubs prison and fled to the Soviet Union where he died aged 98 in 2020.

As technical abilities have changed with digitisation, so have techniques and the balance of sources altered, even if the intentions remain the same. Whereas spies may in the past have sought dead-drops (and brush- or hand-offs) to leave messages, today this can be done electronically, including through a SRAC, a short-range agent communication device, which allows an agent to transmit large encrypted electronic documents and messages wirelessly to and from a hidden or buried receiver, employing short-burst transmissions.

Modern battlegrounds

The internet is one of the modern battlegrounds. Spies routinely harness social media, including some dating platforms. Human impulses remain the same, whatever the means of communication. This requires more attention to hide digital footprints, in part by reverting to tradecraft of a pre-digital sort. Just as commercial and state agents want to cultivate “big data”, spies are looking for ways to skirt advanced algorithms.

Moreover, the digital age cannot substitute human intelligence. While imagery can provide evidence from which assessments can be made, understanding motives and personalities remains a personal undertaking, one which cannot be replaced by satellites and transmitters. 

One can, for example, assume that intelligence is a critical factor in understanding Russian movements, and control of the battlespace — air, sea and land. Russia’s attempts at such integration have been chaotic in comparison to Western-aided Ukrainian efforts.

But herein lies another constant: never expect perfect intelligence results, now, as in the past and probably in the future. For instance, Western intelligence agencies broadly underestimated how long the Ukrainian military would be able to fend off Russian forces just as they overestimated how long Afghan fighters would hold out against the Taliban.

Such fallibility stresses the importance of a diversity of sources: for example, the intelligence community tends to make assessments based on collections of data. Defence assessments generally focus on what they know best, which is knowledge about militaries and technology. Diplomats and analytical staff, among others, tend to make assessments based on people, and judgments about their will and fighting spirit.

The latter is perhaps the aspect that most get wrong most often, perhaps more so now as Sigint (signals intelligence) eclipses Humint (human intelligence), and with interpersonal skills arguably at a premium in an era where devices are the preferred method of communication and collaboration.  

Patience, diligence and context

While Open Source Intelligence (Osint) and Sigint offer many answers, Humint is not only scarce but valuable, demanding patience, diligence and context. 

Sometimes 10 human sources are required, as one former intelligence officer has noted, to provide one piece of the puzzle, rather than one “super source”. Every piece of Humint needs to be interpreted, contextualised and assessed. If you contaminate intel with dogma and ideology, you might as well stop collecting and assessing as you have effectively already decided what the answers are: Iraq and the possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction is one example; South Africa’s obsession with “apartheid thinking” as a reason for the dismissal of opinions is another. Yet, sometimes the opinion of a human source, rather than the hard intel, is invaluable, for instance, concerning the state of mind of President Vladimir Putin, rather than exactly what he said.

The consequences of getting this wrong (wrong people, operating in silos, lack of diversity of people, means and sources) can bite you, as the US found out on 9-11. Preventing such a moment should be key, always, in the minds of those operating in this domain.

spying pilsudski square

Poland’s Pilsudski Square — the site of a World War 2 cryptology reminder. (Photo: Greg Mills)

Warsaw’s Piłsudski Square houses the surviving part of the Saxon Palace destroyed in World War 2, along with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. To one side of the square is a plaque commemorating the work of three Polish mathematicians — Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henry Zygalski — in “first breaking the Enigma code”, thus greatly assisting the Bletchley Park cryptologists and contributing to the Allied victory. 

The placement of this memorial is a good metaphor for the intelligence service per se: routinely unglamorous with tedious tasks occasionally interspersed by moments of fear, terror and importance.

It’s a role and vocation that demands its officers possess integrity about their objectives, about what they learn, about whom and why, and what they do with this information. Yet this is often precisely where politics and personalities intersect. It’s where intelligence tends to become hyper-politicised, skewing its purpose away from national towards party interests, and sometimes even in the direction of personal financial rewards.

Only look at South Africa’s State Security Agency for a masterclass on how to wrongly focus intelligence assets, less as a national agency than an Agentsumpf of factional ambition and old scores. It’s high time to drain that particular swamp. DM

Dr Mills has been researching in Berlin and Warsaw. 


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • virginia crawford says:

    The implication that the oldest profession is prostitution, is so historically sloppy and misogynistic. The oldest art work, Lionman, is 40 000 years old. There is far more evidence to suggest that traders, farmers and assassins were the original “professions”. To suggest that prostitution is an innate part of society is very problematic for too many reasons to list here. I expect better from DM.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.