Truth and spies

Intrigued by juicy gossip about a friend? Then try thinking like a spy, says one of Britain’s most senior ex-intelligence officers

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James Bond is better known for his brawn than his brains. “And his bedroom manners,” adds David Omand, of the world’s most famous secret agent and action man. “But I’m not sure there’s much evidence he ever brought back a single piece of intelligence. And any M16 officer who went round the world introducing himself by his real name in cocktail bars wouldn’t last very long.”

Omand knows better than most how real-life spies behave. He is a former director of GCHQ, the UK’s intelligence gathering centre, and as Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator briefed prime ministers from Margaret Thatcher to
Tony Blair. It was Omand’s job to burst into Thatcher’s office at Westminster on the afternoon of 31 March 1982 and show her a file of intelligence reports pointing to the imminent invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina.

He also knows how agents get it wrong. Omand was one of the advisers around Tony Blair responsible for the decision to mount the American and UK-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 in the belief that Saddam Hussain had a stockpile of biological and chemical weapons, known collectively as weapons of mass destruction or WMDs.

He didn’t.

“The WMD errors resulted from the capacity of the mind for self-deception and magical thinking.”

Now an academic, Omand has been looking back on his career in intelligence in order to analyse how spies think. That’s the title he gives to a newly published book in which the Iraq War emerges as a low point for the spying profession because, he admits, they got the thinking all wrong. The belief that Iraq had WMDs was an example of what psychologists call confirmation bias, he says. That is, the intelligence communities on both sides of the Atlantic were so convinced Saddam possessed WMDs they ignored evidence that he was bluffing.

“The errors resulted from the great capacity of the mind for self-deception and magical thinking, believing we are seeing what deep down we want to see,” says Omand. “Once suspicion has taken hold, it breeds yet more suspicion”.

He contrasts the Iraq failure with a notable success for UK agents – the bringing of peace to Northern Ireland*. Omand says that after more than 20 years of the Troubles, both Thatcher and her successor as prime minister John Major authorised secret contact with the Provisional IRA to feel their way to the process that led to the Good Friday Agreement. He asks: “Would they have done that if they hadn’t had high level intelligence from inside the IRA that, actually, the IRA themselves had concluded they couldn’t win and were looking for a way out?”

Which is what happened and, says Omand, if you have that kind of inside information it is very powerful. “Sadly,” he adds, “as we saw with Iraq, sometimes it goes wrong.”

The UK started off with an emotional colouration against Saddam, Omand says, but the same thing happens in our personal lives. “If rumours reach us that a friend has behaved badly, your instinct is probably to discount them. But if you hear a rumour that some political figure you don’t like has done something bad, your instinct is to shrug and say: ‘Yeah, absolutely typical, I believe that.’”

Omand offers an example of how all of us – including intelligence analysts – reach the wrong conclusions through relying on emotions rather than fact. “You’re on a late train from Heathrow into London. You choose an empty carriage but a burly man comes in, sits down behind you and starts shouting. What’s your first instinct? It’s to estimate the distance to the carriage door, because this is very abusive language you’re hearing. Then you turn round and see a little earpiece, and you realise this is a very tired and cross man speaking on his phone, berating a driver who didn’t pick him up. And immediately your whole world flips over.”

Trying to decipher the truth in any situation is not always so easy, Omand admits. In particular, the exploitation of confirmation bias on social media is one of the many things that troubles him about the internet. He gives as an example the Trump election campaign back in 2016 where, he says, a story came out on social media and people started thinking it might be true, then wished it were true, and finally assumed that it was true.

“You’re not conscious you’re doing it,” he says, speaking before the result of the current US presidential election was known. “The more something gets repeated, the more you tend to treat it as if was true. It’s the only explanation I can come up with for perfectly ordinary people believing some of the extraordinary stories about Trump’s [former] opponent Hilary Clinton, such as the Pizzagate affair in which people came to believe she and an associate were involved with a satanic paedophile ring, meeting in the basement of a pizza parlour, said to be revealed by coded messages in hacked emails. It was believed to the point where some guy with a gun actually went to the pizza parlour to try and rescue the children. Of course, there were no children to rescue, not even a basement.”

The problem is, says Omand, we can’t censor our way out of disinformation on social media. “We are completely dependent socially and economically on the internet. So how do we manage the risk? Well, one thing we can do is start in schools to educate kids in critical thinking. It’s not hard. So they become much more sceptical, and they want to check things out rather than swallowing the latest line that gets pushed at them.”

These days intelligence officers have to think about how they can counter threats that didn’t exist in what Omand calls “the old days”. By that he means 20 years ago, when political campaigns were mainly fought by party political broadcasts on TV and street posters everybody could see. Now, though, through the internet it’s possible to tell one story to one lot of voters and and a different story to others.

Much of the disinformation threat comes from Russia, he says. “The Americans keep warning, keep uncovering, and it gets more sophisticated as well. They uncovered some of things [Russia] was doing in the 2016 presidential election. We don’t know what happened in the Scottish referendum, if anything. We don’t know what happened in the EU referendum, if anything, because our government doesn’t seem to want to know, so we haven’t had the sort of really intensive investigation the Americans have had by going through all the data from the internet companies and discovering all these fake websites and bots that have been amplifying tweets and so on.”

Omand has structured his book as a series of lessons on thinking like a spy, based on his experience of 50 years in the intelligence trade. But even with all the sophisticated technology now at the disposal of spies, he believes they can also learn from the wisdom of Buddhism.

He writes that Buddhists believe there are three poisons – anger, attachment and ignorance – that cripple the mind. Anger can distort perceptions of what’s true and what’s false, while attachment to old ideas blinds us to threatening developments. “But it is ignorance that is the most damaging mental poison. The purpose of intelligence analysis is to reduce such ignorance, thereby improving our capacity to make sensible decisions and better choices in our everyday lives.”

But by writing a book detailing how spies think, isn’t it letting our enemies know the thought processes we use?

“Well, I suspect they worked it out for themselves. In once sense I wouldn’t mind if they did, because the one thing you don’t want in this rather dangerous chaotic world is miscalculations. I don’t want President Putin miscalculating what the risks really are of interfering in Georgia or Estonia or wherever else it might be, and if he follows this kind of rational, critical reasoning he would come to the conclusion that some of this stuff is dangerous and it might come back and bite him, and so it’s better not start.”

*Read our interview with former Irish president Mary McAleese and the Irish peace process in the Features section of How Spies Think by David Omand is published by Viking in hardback, ebook and audio book

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