Terra Incognita: Intelligence services and the ‘other’

When an organization in society is above reproach, above civilian critique or investigation, then that in itself represents a problem.

gatekeepers 521 (photo credit: courtesy pr)
gatekeepers 521
(photo credit: courtesy pr)
In a recent courtroom testimony in Jerusalem regarding a suit by terror victims against the Palestinian Authority, the former head of the Military Intelligence Research and Assessment Division made a startling statement. Yossi Kupperwasser, now a deputy security minister, accused the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) of having blinders about the Palestinians.
“What happened to the Shin Bet officials is that they fell in love with the Palestinians with whom they were in contact,” he said. To what degree Shin Bet officials “understand” and even sympathize with the Palestinians they are charged with arresting and interrogating is not clear, and will likely never be known, but these allegations bring to mind similar stories from history.
Al Sieber, the famous 19th-century Indian fighter from Arizona territory, was reputed to have been asked why he hated the Apache so much. “Why do you like them so?” was his reply. However, he also told a confidant, “Had I been born an Apache I would have rode with Geronimo.”
Sieber was not the only man sent to suppress the “hostile” Native-Americans who had a begrudging respect for them. George Custer, before he was hacked to death in battle with the Sioux in 1876, called them “the best light cavalry in the world,” and fathered a child with a native woman. George Crook participated in almost every important campaign to crush Indian tribes in the 1870s and 1880s, and came away a major supporter of the Indians in their request for fulfillment of treaty promises by the US government.
The stories of Sieber, Custer and Crook are not unique. All the revelations that came out of Dror Moreh’s Oscar nominated documentary The Gatekeepers, to the effect that the Shin Bet directors came to sympathize with the Palestinians demands, have now been laid bare by Yossi Kupperwasser. But it fits a pattern that is not necessarily uncommon in real life and has been a frequent motif and plot device in Western film and literature.
Intelligence work is carried out in the shadows.
This is especially true of work that requires infiltrating the ranks of the enemy and being intimately involved in his operations and capabilities. The true intelligence officer lives and breathes the “other.”
Depending on his position he or she will learn the language and culture of the enemy.
He may interact with the enemy more than he interacts with his own people. In long hours of interrogations he may come to know his prisoner more than he knows his own family.
He also comes to see the enemy as helpless, especially if he is dealing with prisoners, because he is on the “winning” end of the carrot and the stick. In this context he not only sees the enemy as weak but he feels he understands the enemy better than the enemy may understand himself, and he thinks that his own society is ignorant as to the intentions of the other.
Consider the Cold War. During this period many of the depictions of intelligence work never showed the agencies of the West and the Soviets to truly be hate-driven adversaries.
In the brilliant book Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre. The central hero, George Smiley, doesn’t particularly dislike the Communists. He is obsessed with defeating the soviet spy chief, Karla. There is little animosity between the two men when they meet in a New Delhi prison. In real life, numerous high-profile figures in British intelligence, the so-called Cambridge Five, defected to the Soviets during the Cold War, believing wholeheartedly that the Communist model was superior.
Shakespeare captured the dilemma in his excellent play Coriolanus, which is based on a true story. In this epic tragedy, a Roman general is spurned by his people and called a traitor.
In revenge he seeks out his old enemy, Aufidius, of the Volscian nation that is at war with Rome. Aufidius embraces Coriolanus as an honored enemy, and together they lay siege to Rome.
The romance of the interrogator coming to sympathize with his interrogee has found its way into modern dramas as well. In the Ralph Fiennes film Land of the Blind a soldier assigned to guard a high-value political prisoner comes to admire the prisoner. He sneaks the prisoner into the presidential palace where the man is able to assassinate the leaders of the country. The prisoner subsequently becomes a brutal dictator and throws his guard-collaborator into prison. In the epic film Cloud Atlas, the human “fabricant” Sonmi-451 joins a rebellion, only to be captured and interrogated before execution.
However just before she is led off to die, it becomes clear that her interrogator has come to believe in her cause.
The myth, however, of the intelligence service or commander coming to “love” his enemy is not borne out by the large majority of historical examples. For instance the leaders of the Inquisition don’t seem to have had much sympathy for their victims. Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, had no sympathy for the Catholic spies and rebels he executed and tortured. Adolph Eichmann, despite learning Hebrew, had no qualms murdering millions.
So what to make of the assertion that the Shin Bet “fell in love with the Palestinians”? First of all, unlike in the case of the Cold War, there is no way that anyone in Israel can “defect” to truly join the Palestinians. In the type of religio-ethnic conflict that exists here, there can be no moving from one polity to the other. Thus a situation such as the one Alcibiades found himself in, defecting from the Athenian side to join the Spartans at Syracuse in the Peloponnesian War, isn’t possible. Sparta and Athens were both Greek.
EXPERTISE ABOUT the enemy, as intelligence work inevitably requires, results in knowledge that leads to nuance. Just because people come to “understand” those that are considered the enemy doesn’t mean that they necessarily lose sight of their job.
That being said, no one should seriously think that intelligence services make better policy than civilian elected leaders.
Those strongmen who relied on their intelligence services too heavily for policy-making, such as the Shah in Iran and Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, found them utterly lacking.
Intelligence services that lost sight of their mandate and seek to control state policy become engrained bureaucratic self-perpetuating machines, as the Pretorians were in Rome and the Jannisaries in Ottoman Istanbul.
What Israel should learn from Kupperwasser’s allegations and Gatekeepers is the need to keep a healthy rein on the Shin Bet and enforce clear civilian control over it.
Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Drori scolded Kupperwasser for daring to critique the Agency, claiming, “you are speaking of Shin Bet officials, whose whole existence since the age of 21 is based on serving Israel.”
When an organization in society is above reproach, above civilian critique or investigation, then that in itself represents a problem.
A balance can be struck. The message that John Le Carre sought to convey clearly in Tinker, Tailor was just that: a security service is fallible. After all, George Smiley has been forcibly retired in the book, when he is brought back to save the service from itself.
Ultimately responsibility in the Le Carre novel rests with civil servants; “the minister” and “Oliver Lacon, of the Cabinet office,” not the generals and not the spooks.