Saturday, April 12, 2003

A report in the Daily Telegraph detailing spectacular finds at the Baghdad office of the Iraqi intelligence service raises some fascinating possibilities. The most boring, of course, is that it's complete nonsense, and that "obtained by The Telegraph" means "described to The Telegraph's reporter at the hotel bar by a roaring-drunk American intel clerk making stuff up in order to sound important". If it's not just a liquored-up boast in a bar, though, then something truly astonishing has happened. In particular, somebody credible told a Telegraph reporter that Russian intelligence, according to an Iraqi document, had obtained details of a private meeting between Tony Blair and Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi.

Now, if this fact was really discovered in the last couple of days in an Iraqi document cache and promptly passed on to The Telegraph, then somebody's head should be at the top end of a very sharp stick right about now. The last thing the British or Americans could possibly want, after all, is to warn the Russians' source for this information of his/her/their/its new status as a big, fat, semi-exposed counterintelligence target. Indeed, leaking this tidbit to the press is the functional equivalent of a Russian mole within American or British intelligence contacting his controller in Moscow and warning that another agent's cover has been blown. (And if I weren't certain that there are far safer ways to deliver that warning than via a reporter for The Telegraph, I'd suspect that that was precisely what just happened.)

One might be tempted to believe a more reassuring alternative hypothesis: that the "information" in the document had already been determined to be bogus--that is, that the Russian source was clearly either non-existent or unreliable--and that revealing knowledge of the document had thus been determined to be harmless. But if the source were non-existent, and the report had been fabricated to mislead or merely impress the Iraqis, then the Russians would know that, and would not be fooled by claims that the discovery had been found plausible. And if the source were unreliable--a double agent, say--then the allies would have no reason not to let it keep passing on its "information", its credibility unsullied by newspaper accounts of its activities that strangely failed to lead to exposure.

An alternative reassuring explanation is (slightly) more plausible: suppose you'd uncovered a really juicy intelligence source being used by the Russians to spy on Tony Blair or Silvio Berlusconi. You've already insulated it from valuable information, and you'd like to just roll it up--make an arrest, expel a diplomat, disable a microphone, whatever. But there's one problem: you discovered this source through a source of your own--a mole in the post-KGB, for instance--and revealing that you've discovered the Russians' source "over here" might cast suspicion on your own source "over there". You're in a bind--until you discover this document in the Iraqi intelligence archives that directly implicates the enemy source. Problem solved! You leak the document to The Telegraph, and you now have a credible explanation for "discovering" the Russian source, one that doesn't involve your prized mole.

I wish I could say I thought this the most plausible story. Unfortunately, I suspect that it's far more straightforward--a low-level American intel clerk, suitably lubricated, decides to impress a journalist with some real information, and furthermore to indulge in a bit of gloating, in the company of a Brit, over the Swiss-cheese quality of the latter's Majesty's government's security apparatus. If I'm right, then the aforementioned stick is no doubt being sharpened as we speak.

Then again, I probably just read way too much Le Carre as a kid....

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