Open to Inspection

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the age of surveillance.

By Lewis H. Lapham

Sir Frances Walsingham, attributed to John de Critz the Elder, c. 1585. National Portrait Gallery, London / © Stefano Baldini / Bridgeman Images.

Even if the spy, Allen Dulles, should arrive in heaven through somebody’s absentmindedness, he would begin to blow up the clouds, mine the stars, and slaughter the angels.
—Ilya Ehrenburg


I cannot think that espionage can be recommended as a technique for building an impressive civilization. It’s a lout’s game.
—Rebecca West

By now it goes without saying or objection in most quarters of a once freedom-loving and democratic society that our lives, liberties, and pursuits of happiness are closely monitored by a paranoid surveillance apparatus possessed of the fond hopes and great expectations embedded in the fifteenth-century Spanish Inquisition. Our local fire departments don’t grant permits for burnings at the stake, but our federal intelligence agencies (seventeen at last count, staffed by more than 100,000 inquisitors petty and grand) make no secret of their missionary zeal.

Four months after the fall of the World Trade Center and President George W. Bush’s preaching of holy crusade against all the world’s evil, the Pentagon established an Information Awareness Office, adopting as an emblem for its letterhead and baseball cap the all-seeing eye of God. Under orders to secure the American future against the blasphemy of terrorist attack, the IAO’s director, Rear Admiral John Poindexter, presented plans for programming its hydra-headed computer screens and databanks to spot incoming slings and arrows of outrageous fortune well in advance of their ETA overhead the Washington Monument or Plymouth Rock—to conduct “truth maintenance” and deploy “market-based techniques for avoiding surprises”; to defeat and classify every once and future hound from hell on a near or far horizon; no envelope or email left unopened, no phone untapped, no suspicious beard or suitcase descending unnoticed from cruise ship or Toyota.

Thirteen years further along the roads to perdition, the dream of a risk-free future under the digital umbrellas of protective fantasy is the stuff of which our wars and movies now are made, the thousand natural shocks to which the flesh is heir, projected day and night on the hundred million screens that text and shred our collective consciousness, herd our public and private lives—the latter no longer distinguishable from the former—into the shelters of heavy law enforcement and harmless speech.

This issue of Lapham’s Quarterly looks for the when and why did the lout’s game of espionage become the saving grace that makes cowards of us all. I’m familiar with at least some of the story because I’m old enough to remember the provincial and easygoing American republic of the 1940s—wisecracking, open-hearted, not so scared of the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. I also can remember the days when people weren’t afraid of cigarette smoke and saturated fats, when it was possible to apply for a job without submitting a blood or urine test, when civil liberty was a constitutional right and not a political favor, the White House unprotected by concrete revetments, and it was possible to walk the streets of New York without making a series of cameo appearances on surveillance camera.

Espionage in the ancient world was for the most part reconnaissance of a declared or foreign enemy in the field. The ancient Chinese military sage Sun Tzu recommends the use of spies in the fifth century bc to “ascertain the enemy’s situation and condition” because they know things beforehand that “cannot be obtained from ghosts or spirits.” He doesn’t regard spies as “masters of victory,” but if deployed in all five of their applications (“local, inside, double, dead, and live”), they construct “a divine net” that is the “ruler’s treasure.”

Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

—Benjamin Franklin, 1735

So they served the Greeks in their war against the Trojans, the Periclean Greeks against the Persians. The rulers of ancient India employed spies to watch not only thieves and desperadoes on the roads outside the city but also, inside the city, strangers “who spend drinking houses without having a known source of income.” The instruction is specific in the Arthashastra, a teaching on governance circa 150 BC that suggests the disguising of clandestine agents as blind lunatics and deaf idiots as well as minstrels, jugglers, and fortune tellers.

The searching out of metaphysical threats to the safety of the soul is the work of the papal Inquisition established by the medieval Catholic Church “to root up from the midst of Christian people the weed of heretical wickedness.” Ad extirpanda, the mission statement released by Pope Innocent IV in 1252, consecrates torture as an effective gardening tool, affixes the Vatican’s seal of approval to the techniques recently in use by the U.S. military rooting up the weed of Islamic terrorism.

Spycraft becomes statecraft during the religious wars that afflicted Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the lines of physical and metaphysical investigation strenuously intertwined by
Sir Francis Walsingham
, the Elizabethan progenitor of England’s Secret Intelligence Service, who was tasked with objectives both spiritual and temporal: defense of the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic Counter-Reformation, holding of the body of Queen Elizabeth harmless against assassination by papist agents. A devout Puritan and shrewd diplomat, Walsingham ensnared Mary, Queen of Scots, for a plot of treason that warranted her beheading, subjected prisoners to renditions on the rack and interrogations that stretched their awareness of God along lines drawn and quartered by Martin Luther and John Calvin. He purportedly numbered among his agents the playwright Christopher Marlowe, possibly also his son-in-law, the poet Sir Philip Sidney. Within the networks of his informants it was said that “he waited upon men’s souls with his eye, discerning their secret hearts through their transparent faces.”

So did
, who was Walsingham’s contemporary. The plays wait upon the assumed and masked identities behind which move the palace intrigue that was the pith and moment of Elizabethan politics, the world known to Walsingham at the court of the virgin queen doubling for the one in which Iago plays his game against Othello and Desdemona, and who therefore cannot wear his heart upon his sleeve because “I am not what I am.”

America’s variant of a police state emerges from the Espionage Act of 1917, carried into law to accommodate President Woodrow Wilson’s wish to cleanse the world of its impurities. The self-glorifying son of a Presbyterian minister captivated at an early age by delusions of spiritual grandeur, Wilson engineered America’s late entry into World War I in order that he might play the part of savior statesman.

Wilson never doubted it was America’s duty to save the world, and during his eight years as instrument of divine will in office as president of the United States, he sent American troops to Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico “to teach the South American republics to elect good men.” In the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, Wilson dispatched troops briefly to Russia to defend its people against the communism proscribed by Robert Lansing, Wilson’s secretary of state, as “the most hideous and monstrous thing that the human mind has ever conceived,” refuge of “the criminal, the depraved, and the mentally unfit.”

The Fourteen Points of good behavior that Wilson brought to the Paris Peace Conference pledged America to consequences foreseen by John Quincy Adams, who spoke as secretary of state in 1821 against sending the U.S. Navy to dismantle Spain’s colonial empire in Colombia and Venezuela. America, he said, “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Were the country to embark on such a foolish adventure,

she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. She might become the dictatress of the world; she would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.

So it has come to pass. America, the dictatress of the world, no longer the ruler of her own spirit, which passes out of the hands of its people and society into the safekeeping of the state.

The Hermit and Sleeping Angelica, by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1628. © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna / Bridgeman Images.

The Hermit and Sleeping Angelica, by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1628. © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna / Bridgeman Images.

The transfer of power was set in zealously administrative motion by
J. Edgar Hoover
, a young Justice Department operative eager to destroy monsters wherever found—in body and mind, on land, at sea, in or on the air. Wilson, in his war message to Congress in 1917, said there were “millions of men and women of German birth and native sympathy who live among us,” and “if there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with with a firm hand of stern repression.” Wilson’s admonition was Hoover’s command. On January 2, 1920, as deputy to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, Hoover organized the largest mass arrest in American history, rounding up an estimated 10,000 disloyalists— immigrants of all nations, citizens of German descent, subversive liberals, and suspected anarchists as well as communists. The Red replaced the Hun as the barbarian at the gate and in the closets, and by that same year Hoover had dossiers on 60,000 people suspected of illicit dealings with Karl Marx.

During his long and relentless term as director of the FBI (from 1924 until his death in 1972) Hoover remained convinced that communism was not a political idea but a malignant and evil way of life, akin to a disease. Often and easily enraged, fanatical in his paranoid imaginings, Hoover for fifty years harried the always larger legions of his fear and prejudice (liberals, Negroes, homosexuals, Jews, hippies) with illegal arrests and detentions, break-ins, burglaries, beatings, murders, wiretaps, blackmail, suborned evidence and testimony, coerced confessions. The bureau in the 1960s opened operations against the civil rights and antiwar movements and assembled a list of more than 26,000 individuals to be summarily detained in the event of a “national emergency.” By his admirers Hoover was seen as a visionary genius, by his detractors as a “goddamn sewer,” by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis as an armed and dangerous enemy of the American people and Constitution.

For sooner will men hold fire in their mouths than keep a secret.

—Petronius, 60

Justice Brandeis could have as easily brought the same charges against the eminent American statesman who organized the Central Intelligence Agency to fight the Cold War with the Russians. President Harry Truman established the agency under the National Security Act of 1947, and for the next six years the government spent a great deal of money on bureaucratic organization and reorganization of the agency, separating its covert military operations from its clerical intelligence gathering, acquiring thousands of volunteers in all of the applications named by Sun Tzu—uniformed military officers, artists and poets, Ivy League academics and Wall Street stockbrokers, State Department diplomats, German agents released on waivers by the Gestapo. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his first inaugural address in January 1953, vouched for troop movements in the vicinity of Armageddon—“forces of good and evil are massed and armed, and opposed as rarely before in history. Freedom is pitted against slavery, lightness against the dark”—but he was concerned about the readiness of the CIA to combat the forces of darkness.

For clear definition of the agency’s mission, President Eisenhower turned to Air Force General Jimmy Doolittle, friend and companion-in-arms, who had flown the heroic mission over Tokyo in 1942. Doolittle in 1954 provided Ike with his top-secret report:

It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever costs. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. If the United States is to survive, longstanding American concepts of “fair play” must be reconsidered. We must develop effective espionage and counterespionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage, and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated means than those used against us. It may become necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand, and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy.

Doolittle went on to describe the agency as “ballooned out into a vast and sprawling organization” housing unskilled, undisciplined, and incompetent “dead virtually all levels,” overly fond of covert operations “beyond its capacity to perform.”

The sorry state of affairs showcased the temperament of Allen Dulles, appointed director of the CIA by Eisenhower early in 1953. Dulles was the man from whom it can be fairly said the agency acquired the character of the lawless, incompetent, and deluded enterprise that is with us still, as lost in its cloud of unknowing overhead the Syrian desert in 2015 as it was asleep under the tents of its weatherproof fantasy in the rainforests in South Vietnam in 1968.

At the age of sixty in 1953 Allen Dulles (State Department intelligence officer in World War I, active in the Office of Strategic Services in World War II) was five years younger than his brother, John Foster, whom Eisenhower that same year appointed secretary of state. Both brothers regarded force, not liberty, as the fundamental maxim of American policy. They had been taught by the severe Presbyterian minister who was their father that Christians are weapons in the hands of God, executors of his providential will; they saw the word made flesh in the person of Woodrow Wilson, whom they accompanied to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 as bright young Princeton graduates helping out with the platitudes and the maps.

John Foster was puritanical and direct; Allen, like Iago, was not who he pretended to be. In his own mind a hero modeled on his reading of Ian Fleming novels, he cultivated a surface of sophisticated charm, affable and gregarious, good with the ladies and small sailboats on Long Island Sound. He smoked a pipe, dressed in tweed, told witty stories about his days in the OSS subverting the Nazi occupation of Europe.

Behind the mask of easy upper-class insouciance, Allen was a devout proponent of the fundamentally repugnant philosophy noted by Doolittle and presumably deployed by the Soviet enemy. Often moved to predatory fury well beyond “hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct,” Allen during his eight years in charge of the CIA directed the elimination of regimes he identified as communist in Iran, Guatemala, and the Congo. The identifications were forgeries in visibly paranoid ink. Leaders of the regimes in question were socialist and nationalist, their objective to escape the bonds of European colonial empire. But Dulles didn’t let facts get in the way of his hatreds. On the strength of his lying risk assessments Eisenhower authorized the CIA to assassinate Patrice Lumumba in the Congo and Fidel Castro in Cuba, to begin covert military operations in South Vietnam.

Dulles’ enthusiasm for subversion, sabotage, and destruction was boundless. So was the unskilled, undisciplined incompetence of an agency that sixty years later still hasn’t discovered that the Statue of Liberty cannot be made to stand on the pedestals of criminal violence. The record is in equal parts short-term comic farce and long-form geopolitical tragedy.

The game at the beginning looked to be easy and fun. The agency played with sending an émigré army to capture the lost kingdom of Albania, but once parachuted into the Balkan darkness the advance scouts were never seen or heard from again because the CIA’s head of secret ops was unwittingly coordinating the event with a Soviet double agent providing the KGB with the map coordinates of the intended drop zones. To discredit Sukarno as president of Indonesia in the mid-1950s, the CIA planned to incite popular envy and resentment of his sexual prowess, shooting a propaganda film entitled Happy Days showing Sukarno (played by a Mexican actor wearing a mask) in bed with a Soviet agent (played by a California actress wearing a wig). To assassinate Fidel Castro the agency drew up plans to present him with an exploding cigar and poisoned scuba gear. The bungled invasion of the Bay of Pigs in 1961 assumed a crowd of joyful Cuban peasants rising from the sugar cane and marching gloriously to Havana.The cadre of Cuban exiles was landed at the wrong tide on the wrong boats, soon to be confronted by Castro at the head of a column of tanks. In what came to be known as the Iran-Contra affair (running guns to the mullahs in Iran in return for money to fund a thuggish junta in Nicaragua) the “enterprise” deposited $10 million in the wrong Swiss bank account, hired drunken aircraft mechanics in El Salvador, and dropped munitions into the wrong jungles in Nicaragua.

Hogarth Brought Before the Governor of Calais as a Spy, by William Powell Frith, 1851. Bridgeman Images.

The geopolitical consequences of the CIA’s covert derring-do have for the most part proved to be both dismal and unexpected.The overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh’s elected government in Iran in 1953 installed the vicious and corrupt tyranny of the Shah of Shahs, which in 1979 led to an Islamist revolution and the regime that now stands as America’s most formidable enemy in the Middle East. By encouraging the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon in 1963, the U.S. allied itself with a policy of realpolitik no less cynical than the one which it was seeking to correct. Accepting the CIA’s analysis and methodology, four American presidents defined the expedition to Southeast Asia as a prolonged covert action and systematically lied to the American people about the reason for our presence in a country with which we never declared ourselves at war. As a result our effort to rid Indochina of communism, Vietnam became a unified communist state. As a result of our effort to teach the world the lessons of democracy, we sent 58,000 American soldiers to death under a false flag and taught a generation of American citizens to think of their own government as an oriental despot.

The CIA’s failures as an intelligence-gathering operation during the second half of the century billed as America’s own have borne out Doolittle’s early warning of “dead wood at virtually all levels.” The agency evidently didn’t foresee the Soviet explosion of an atomic bomb in 1949, the invasion of South Korea in 1950, the popular uprisings in Eastern Europe in the 1950s, the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, the Vietcong Tet Offensive in 1968, the Arab-Israeli war in 1973, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the explosion of an atomic bomb by India in 1998, the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003.


Reports of the CIA’s blunders tend to show up on the record well after the fact. I’ve been reading them with interest over the past fifty years, but they don’t come as a surprise. Long ago and in another country, America in 1957, I sought enlistment in the CIA and sat for an interview with a credentials committee ordained by God and country and Allen Dulles. From that day forward I’ve never doubted the agency’s talent for making a mess of almost any operation, overt or covert, beyond its capacity to perform.

In 1957 I was recently returned from a year at Cambridge University in England, where I had come to know several students who in October 1956 went to Budapest to join the uprising against the regime holding Hungary hostage to communist domination. Two of the young men died in the street fighting, and I didn’t need to be told by General Eisenhower that the communist hordes were at the gate of Western civilization. In my last year at Yale I had been tipped to the agency by an English professor (Shakespeare scholar, Tyrolean hat, former OSS), who passed on a phone number to call if I was prepared to take a shot at the dark. At the age of twenty-two I was willing to leave at once, preferably at night, with trench coat and code name, on the next train to Berlin.

In Washington the written, physical, and psychological examinations occupied the better part of a week before I was summoned to an interview with five operatives in their late twenties, all of them graduates of Yale and not unlike President George W. Bush in appearance and manner. The interview took place in a Quonset hut near the Lincoln Memorial. The design of the building imparted an air of urgent military purpose, as did the muted, offhand bravado of the young men asking the questions. Very pleased with themselves, they exchanged knowing nods to “that damned thing in Laos,” allowed me to understand that we were talking life and death, whether I had the right stuff to play for the varsity team in the big game against the Russians.

Prepared for nothing less, I had spent the days prior to the interview reading about Lenin’s train and Stalin’s prisons, the width of the Fulda Gap, the depth of the Black Sea. None of the study was called for. Instead of being asked about the treaties of Brest-Litovsk or the October Revolution, I was asked three questions bearing on my social qualifications for admission into what the young men at the far end of the table clearly regarded as the best fraternity on the campus of the free world:

1. When standing on the thirteenth tee at the National Golf Links in Southampton, which club does one take from the bag?
2. On final approach under sail into Hay Harbor on Fishers Island, what is the direction (at dusk in late August) of the prevailing wind?
3. Does Muffy Hamilton wear a slip?

The first and second questions I answered correctly, but Muffy Hamilton I knew only at a distance. In the middle 1950s she was a glamorous figure on the Ivy League weekend circuit, very beautiful and very rich, much admired for the indiscriminate fervor of her sexual enthusiasms. At the Fence Club in New Haven I had handed her a glass of brandy and milk (known to be her preferred drink by college football captains in five states) but about the mysteries of her underwear my sources were unreliable, my information limited to rumors of Belgian lace.

Secrets define us, they mark us, they set us apart from all the others. The secrets which we preserve provide a key to who we are, deep down.

—Nuruddin Farah, 1998

The three questions, however, put an end to my interest in the CIA. The smug complacence of my examiners was as smooth as their matching silk handkerchiefs and ties. When I excused myself from the interview (apologizing for having misread the job description and wasted everybody’s quality time) I remember being frightened by the presence of so much self-glorifying certainty and primogeniture crowded into so small a room. Here were people like Woodrow Wilson before them, after them Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who knew more about what was good for the world than the world—poor, lost, unhappy, un-American world—had managed to learn on its own. Even at the age of twenty-two I was old enough to recognize the attitude as not well positioned for intelligence gathering. It was better suited to the projection of monsters on the screens of deluded fantasy than to their destruction in a forest or a swamp.

People accustomed to knowing they know everything worth knowing resent having to turn away from the mirror. The resentment framed the Bush administration’s response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Although there had been many warnings of terrorist attacks somewhere on the horizon, the signals had been lost in the maze of a national security apparatus “ballooned out into a vast and sprawling” clutter of undisciplined incompetence many orders of magnitude beyond the one reconnoitered by General Doolittle in 1954. Not knowing who, why, or wherefrom the airplanes overhead the Hudson and Potomac rivers, the Bush administration declared war on an unknown enemy and an abstract noun, set to work forging the shields of invincible paranoia, bringing up to combat strength the levels of fear and trembling within the American body politic. In time for Halloween, Congress passed the Patriot Act, claiming the government’s right to arrest without charge American citizens marked as enemy combatants; the Department of Homeland Security produced its color-coded alerts, hands in the air, off with shoes and belts when passing go at the airport. The Justice Department in May 2002 named as its “first and overriding priority” the defense of the American people against terrorist intrusion and distributed a fact sheet shifting the FBI’s mission from “prosecution to prevention.” The supplementary power points testified to brave, bold, and expensive shuffling of bureaucratic paper (refocusing task forces, expanding alert systems, recruiting professional criminals as informants). Still, the bureau’s director, Robert Mueller III, was careful to establish plausible deniability. As compensation for its past and future failures the bureau asked to be rewarded with more money, more police power, more flow charts—not to annihilate the threat of incoming grief but to strengthen the fear of looming apocalypse. Mueller gave a speech the week before the fact sheet was released to say “there will be another terrorist attack. We will not be able to stop it.”

Capture of André 1780, lithograph by Currier & Ives, c. 1845. © The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY.

A couple of weeks later at a meeting of the NATO allies in Brussels, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld observed that one never knows who the terrorist attackers are or where they might be coming from: “The message is that there are no ‘knowns.’ There are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns...and each year, we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns...There’s another way to phrase that, and that is that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Which was the line of thinking and investigation—paranoid, delusional, clouded in Adams’ “individual avarice, envy, and ambition”—on which the Bush administration in March 2003 mounted its chase of the monster to destroy in Iraq. No evidence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in Babylon (land steeped in Old Testament sin), but then again no reason to doubt their existence in the eye of God or Rear Admiral Poindexter’s Information Awareness Office. The admiral in the summer of 2002 was busy programming a magic mirror in which to see not only the unknown future but also to step up the scrutiny of an American citizenry classified as a prospective enemy, known unknowns maybe harboring evil intentions and therefore targeted by the admiral’s wizard databanks and computer screens, cross-examining medical and bank records, website visits, and credit card transactions, tapping everybody’s phones, opening anybody’s mail. The all-seeing eye of God emblazoned on the IAO’s letterhead and baseball cap was perched atop an Egyptian pyramid and buttressed by the rendition in Latin of the phrase, “Knowledge is power.” The phrase is subject to questioning: What sort of power? Power over whom? To do what?

On the evidence gathered in this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, knowledge positioned as espionage is not only a lout’s game, but also a sucker’s game in which all present at the peepholes—spy and spied upon, informant and counterinformant, whistleblower, courier, cutout, mole—draw a losing card.

Over the past decade, the federal government has devoted $533 billion to the acquisition of what former vice president Al Gore in 2013 described as “the essential apparatus of a police state”—a police state unable to protect the American homeland, people, or idea but striving, criminally and mightily, to preserve and glorify itself. The IAO’s fond hopes and great expectations have been incorporated into the vast complex of federal intelligence missions. More than 3,000 government and private organizations are involved in intelligence activities at 17,000 locations across the U.S., and the CIA’s operations have been folded into those of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The megalith at Bluffdale, Utah, houses the U.S. government’s global-information grid, but a report filed by Dana Priest, an investigative journalist granted access to one of the Pentagon’s classified workstations, suggests that the divine net of conspiracy-minded computers (annually spilling forth 50,000 separate serialized intelligence reports under 1,500 titles) doesn’t know how to connect the dots, cannot make meaning or sense out of a vast, sprawling sound and fury signifying nothing. The systems are too big to do anything else but fail. The NSA loses its files to Edward Snowden; the Office of Personnel Management gives up to Chinese hackers the records of 22 million Americans; a teenager claims to have invaded CIA director John Brennan’s email account. At the higher echelons of unquotable authority in Washington it is said that America has no defense against the cyberwarfare destined to wreak havoc on the country’s energy and communication grids.


Ask why so poor a return on so rich an investment, and the answer shows up in John le Carré’s novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. An old connoisseur of the world’s secrets tells a fellow agent that their best information—acquired at large expense and with heavy loss of life—is probably false. The ancient spy poses his judgment as a question: “Ever bought a fake picture?...The more you pay for it, the less inclined you are to doubt it.” Le Carré understands that covert actions usually take place at the not very important margins of not very important events, and that when extended over a period of more than four days they hide nothing from anybody except the people paying the bills. He elsewhere understands that the “magic formulas and hocus-pocus of the spy world” recommend themselves to “declining powers,” to men and institutions losing their strength and becoming fearful of shadows. “When the king is dying,” he says, “the charlatans rush in.”

If you read somebody’s diary, you get what you deserve.

—David Sedaris, 2004

Knowledge as magic formulas and hocus-pocus is a power of not much use against monsters in a foreign field, but as power for distribution to the folks at home it is the propaganda that makes cowards of us all, classifies democracy as behavior uncivil and unsafe, and changes—not insensibly but deliberately—the fundamental maxims of American policy from liberty to force.A cowed citizenry is the cornerstone of a police state (even an incompetent police state) and the going abroad for monsters to destroy is the making at home of a monstrous sorcerer’s apprentice—rocked in the cradle of the 1917 Espionage Act, swaddled in what the American historian Richard Hofstadter defined as the paranoid style of American politics, nurtured in adolescence by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, ripened in the repugnant psychopathology of the Cold War, developed by the war on terror into a fully adult hysteric.

John Quincy Adams, like Francis Walsingham and William Shakespeare, read the future by discerning men’s “secret hearts through their transparent faces.” So did Reinhold Niebuhr, the great Protestant theologian serving with John Foster Dulles at the end of World War II on the Commission on a Just and Durable Peace. Dulles held to a view of a world divided between forces of good and evil, the threat to America headquartered in the communist menace.

Niebuhr was more clear-sighted and better informed. “If we should perish,” he wrote in 1952, “the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.”

Related Reads