ieliecz was scarecrow Slav with a top hat who’d coax spy stories from Vermouth while leaning against the hot granite of our blazing Washington fireplace. He belonged to the silverware adults, the ones I rarely saw. But Bieliecz had a penchant for my blue pajamas and their jazz-trumpet elephants. I was displayed for his inspection. “Ingenious!” he’d howl. It wasn’t clear whether Bieliecz preferred the pajamas or the trumpets.
He wasn’t the only agent by the fireplace. Near him were Tompkins, Downes, Ullman, Munson and Hutchinson. All but Bieliecz had worked in the OSS or with my father at OWI, or both. Another man, Houseman, was a no-show. He’d left Broadway for spying when the war started but had since gone to producing plays.
To me, Bieliecz was a comic magician who made Balkan consonants jump through hoops for my amusement. My father told me Bieliecz had worked for the Croats and then for Tito. He’d once passed information about Albanian Muslims to MI5 through the Indian government. This was before defecting to the United States while in Colombo.
While were ignorant of most geography, my elephants still had a romantic hankering for places called Zagreb and Split, for trains rushing north through darkness with Venice to the west and Ljubljana further north. Spies didn’t carry guns, Bieliecz told me. They listened.
“To know about the Croats, you listen to them. You listen to the Serb and the Croat and Bosnian. You go to their cities. You make friends; you encourage people to speak of themselves. This is what a spy does: he makes friends. He is a detective.”
He’d once entertained a Pakistani diplomat in Belgrade who asked him about his background. “I was second-secretary in Madrid,” Bieliecz said he told the Pakistani.
“And just how much did you learn?” the knowing Pakistani grinned.
Old spies spoke in a code I cracked only gradually. Second-secretary was a known espionage cover.
Downes, fluent in French, Italian, Spanish and Russian, had worked in Italy and Egypt during the war. His cover was as an agent for an American firm that charged with widening parts of the Suez Canal.
Of his recruitment, he told this story: “I went to London, whereupon this chap takes me out in a car, and he’s going on and on about the most inane things, which leaves me wondering what this spying business is all about. Then, suddenly, he says to me, ‘Tell me, young man, how many telephone poles have we passed in the last quarter hour?'”
Watching the men (and women) and listening to their stories — until, that is, my elephants were delivered to their winter quilt — I counted four nationalities, 50 countries visited, 14 languages spoken, five religions. Doing this, I fell asleep.
Bieliecz was the dashing king of kings: A Muslim-turned-Christian allegedly from a noble family who had traveled to 100 lands (including Manchuria), he spoke English, French, Arabic, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Czech and Ruthenian, which I named the official language of spies (it’s in fact closer to Lithuanian). Moreover, Bieliecz was charming.
But what most impressed me about these fireplace spies, gregarious or introverted, was the easy way they communicated their intelligence. They were discrete, understated, curious and careful. Their inside man intelligence-gathering was unconnected to the bludgeoning, bribe-informed intelligence that continues causing the 21st century United States no end of woe — it’s now called “intel,” a cheap truncating that suits the status quo.
Intelligence has long depended on extensive cultural infiltration — “Be subtle! be subtle!,” admonished Sun Tzu in “The Art of War. “Use your spies for every kind of business.” Now it’s body over mind, loudly. No one wants to count telephone poles let alone penetrate rival languages and lifestyles by living in or roaming second or third world countries for years on end. Penetration is better served by police operating scanners at airports that have come to resemble Cold War border crossings restyled as iPhones.
Persuasion’s shortcomings can frustrate even smart presidents. The United States, Barack Obama said recently, must find ways to “communicate clearly to Muslims around the world that al-Qaeda offers nothing except a bankrupt vision of misery and death.”
But how? Distracted by immediacy’s temptations, post-Cold War diplomacy discarded infiltration as too expensive and tedious. No Soviets, no need.
The National Clandestine Service, the CIA’s most sophisticated deep-spy agency, lacks credibility. Subterfuge is victimized by elephants with trumpets. As a former agent rued in The New York Times, “subjective judgments” are second-guessed and disparaged.
No wonder propaganda has turned crass and the internationalist premises once used to burrow under an enemy’s thick skin have thinned out. Count telephone polls abroad and you might learn when someone was looking at your own, or lying when they said they weren’t. But to do that you needed trusting bosses who worked to ensure you felt at home abroad.
The failure to connect dots and communicate clearly isn’t a shortcoming of “actionable” intelligence so much as a preference for the domestic blame game in lieu of the more subtle enterprise of accruing hunches and parrying them into what Sun Tzu called “intuitive sagacity.” Know thy enemy. Befriend the doorkeepers to get to the king.
What John Le Carré once saw in Osama bin Laden — “…his barely containable male vanity, his appetite for self-drama and his closet passion for the limelight…” — now defines the political approach to espionage. Cymbals putting whispers out of reach.