I lie for a living

I spy book cover

Spies and counterspies

book review by Fred Lane
Shugar, Antony. I lie for a living: The greatest spies of all time. National Geographic: Washington, D.C. 2006. 189 pp. (US$14.40, paperback)

This book is required reading for all those interested in espionage and national level whistle blowing. It is an enthralling but very brief description of 60-odd spies and their various contributions to the history of spying. Peter Earnest, the Director of the International Spy Museum and ex-case officer of the Central Intelligence Agency, with “some 25 years” in “the company”, wrote the foreword. The book is full of insights into how professional spies regard their craft. It pulls no punches in praising good spy craft of any political persuasion and it shows clearly how stupidity knows no borders.

Logically, the book starts with a description of spymasters such as Sir Francis Walsingham, of Elizabethan times, and Cardinal Richelieu. It shows how these master manipulators gained and passed on information that influenced their cause. In more modern times it looks at the methods used in spy rings set up by George Washington and Allan Dulles. The latter, according to the book, was implicated in the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s leader, Mohammad Mossadeq, when he attempted to nationalise the oil industry, and Jacobo Arbenz, the Guatemalan President, when he threatened the huge American conglomerate, United Fruit, in 1954.


It is interesting to explore the motivation of spies. Some, like Aldrich Ames, appear to have spied simply for the money. Others, like Richard Sorge and Vitaly Yurchenko had higher motives. Then there is the “Oxbridge group”, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and Donald Maclean, who together severely compromised British and American intelligence in the Cold War years for a host of reasons, ranging from communist dedication to maybe just the thrill of it.

Then there was Dimitri Polyakov, the highest-ranking GRU officer ever known to cooperate with the West and to earn the title of “crown jewel of US Intelligence”. After almost 20 years, he was betrayed by two little rats: Aldrich Ames of the CIA and Robert Hanssen of the FBI. Dimitri seemed to spy for his beliefs in that while he ardently loved his country, he did not love its communist leaders. The leaders executed him in 1986, six years after he retired.

Not overlooked are the cryptanalysts, like the brilliant Alan Turing, who led an outstanding Bletchley Park team and invented the first computer on the way to cracking the German Enigma code. Homosexual by nature, but against the law at the time, Turing was charged with “gross indecency and sexual perversion” after he reported a burglary in 1951. He tragically committed suicide in 1954 by eating a cyanide-laced apple.

Feminists will take pride in noting that there were a large number of highly successful female spies, of all political persuasions, and they were just as brave and resourceful as their male counterparts. Some, like Mata Hari and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed for their pains. Others, like Virginia Hall DSC MBE, were highly decorated.

Spy catchers

No modern spy book would be complete without a discussion about counterintelligence and the role of spy catchers. So were more proficient that others. The first of these, William Melville, is conjectured by some to be the model for Ian Fleming’s “M” in the James Bond series. Melville joined the new Special Irish Branch of the London Police Force in 1882 and stayed with it as it mutated into the Special Branch. Others discussed in the book include the obsessive James Jesus Angleton with his perceived “wilderness of mirrors” and long-time FBI head J. Edgar Hoover.

Clearly, the spies mentioned are only a very select few who have contributed to the craft of spying and spy catching. By the very nature of their trade, there are probably thousands of active spies known only to their handlers. There must be very few national secrets of any import not known to the “other side”.