SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
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SIMON: MI6, the British secret service, may be one of the world's valuable brand names. In a new book, Gordon Corera, a security correspondent for the BBC, tells about a young MI6 man on a mission who makes his way into some remote village in Africa where the chief of a tribe greets him with a wide smile and says: Hello, Mr. Bond. As a former head of MI6 tells Gordon Corera I doubt if he would have received such a warm welcome if he'd been from the Belgian secret service. MI6 is the subject of much legend, novels, movies and myths. Some of the world's best-known writers, notably Ian Fleming, Graham Greene and John le Carre have not only written about the British secret service but were intelligence officers. Gordon Corera tells the story of what may be the storied secret service, from its defining period in the Cold War through to these times of terrorism and cyber rivalry. His book is "The Art of Betrayal: Life and Death in the British Secret Service." And Gordon Corera joins us now from the BBC in London. Thanks very much for being with us.
GORDON CORERA: It's a pleasure.
SIMON: The way you described it, MI6 has always been balanced between 007, the glamorous spies of daring-do from Ian Fleming's pen and now the movies, and then George Smiley, John le Carre's more mundane, bureaucratic spy craft. How's that played out?
CORERA: Well, that's right. I think it's one of the most interesting ways of looking at the history of the MI6 in the last 50, 60 years; is on the one end of the spectrum, you've got James Bond, this slightly fantastical character, gung-ho above all - all the talk about the license to kill - who exists in a very simple world where you know the good guys and the bad guys. It's black and white in some ways.
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DONALD PLEASENCE: (as Ernst Stavro Blofeld) James Bond, allow me to introduce myself. I am Ernst Stavro Blofeld. They told me you were assassinated in Hong Kong.
SEAN CONNERY: (as James Bond) Yes, this is my second life.
CORERA: And then on the other hand, you have George Smiley, John le Carre's creation, who's much more a character of grays, ambiguity and subtlety.
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GARY OLDMAN: (as George Smiley) Some of us, Gerald tells him, are worried sick about the state the Circus has got into. I mean, look at our operational losses. Agents, networks...he's careful not to suggest there's a traitor inside the Circus. But he emphasizes that slovenliness at the top is leading to failure all around.
CORERA: James Bond is all about doing things. George Smiley is all about understanding things. Now, in a successful secret service those two things work together and in a kind of created tension. But one of the things I think you can look at the British secret service in its history at MI6 - and you can see how at times one or the other is predominated - has had more influence, and sometimes with disastrous results. So, early on in the Cold War, it was pretty Bond-like and there were some pretty aggressive operations in places like Albania. But they went pretty disastrously wrong.
SIMON: Let me ask you, you know, intelligence officers often complain that we hear about the failures and, of course, rarely their successes. So, let me ask you about the recruitment of a KGB colonel, Oleg Penkovsky. This seems to have been a notable success.
CORERA: I wanted to try and, as far as possible, not just talk about the failures and the betrayals but also reflect some of the successes. And I think, I mean, there's two Russian intelligence officers who were turned and basically became agents for MI6 and, in one case, MI6 and the CIA. So, one of them was Oleg Penkovsky, who was a Russian military intelligence officer in the early Cold War, who MI6 and the CIA jointly run. And he provides vital intelligence. And it's very interesting because it's one of those cases where you can point to the way in which intelligence made a difference to policy. His intelligence made it right up to the Oval Office, to President Kennedy, helped shape some of his decision-makings and helped him stand firm against Khrushchev at various points because of what he was getting from Penkovsky.
Later in the Cold War, MI6 recruit another colonel, this time in the KGB, Oleg Gordievsky, who becomes enormously important and plays a key role really in the latter period of the Cold War in shaping policy for the Thatcher and the Reagan administrations.
SIMON: Given that your beat is a world that is supposed to be kept secret, how do you get people to talk to you, and moreover, how can you trust what they tell you?
CORERA: I've been covering this beat now for about a decade and it's been a very interesting period because it's been the post-9/11 period, in which I think intelligence agencies have been thrust into the public domain; sometimes for reasons they don't like; when their intelligence is used to justify the war in Iraq, for instance, and then turns out to be wrong. And suddenly with terrorism, intelligence is much more in the public eye than it used to be. It's not like the Cold War, where this stuff could all take place in the shadows and all be clouded in national security and secrecy. So, you know, I think there's been a shift in which they've been forced to engage much more. And it's a good question about how do you know what you're being told. And I think you have to be on your guard. I mean, but that's the same for any type of journalism.
SIMON: Is there something about the life of the spy that can create great novelists?
CORERA: I think it's interesting how many novelists - you know, you can go back to Somerset Maugham, who worked in MI6, Graham Greene, Fleming, le Carre, all of them had intelligence backgrounds. Now, you know, of course it's partly because they had access to great material, but it's also, I think, one of the things about human intelligence, is it's about what Graham Greene called the human factor. Spying is about people; it's about getting inside people's minds and motivations, understanding why they might betray their country or the people around them. And that is intrinsically interesting, I think, and applicable to novels, because novels are often, you know, the modern novel is very much about, you know, getting inside people's minds and understanding their motivations. So, I think there is kind of an overlap, you know, not just in the excitement of the subject matter but something about the human factor and the human motivations of spying which does lend itself to people being able to try and portray that in novels and make it interesting.
SIMON: Gordon Corera of the BBC. His new book, "The Art of Betrayal: Life and Death in the British Secret Service." Thanks so much for being with us.
CORERA: Thank you.