Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Old School still the best school?


I grew up reading the John le Carré novels my father had on his bookshelf - The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Smiley's 
People and many, many more. In fact they're now on my bookshelf.  Years later, I discovered Eric Ambler (the grandfather of the espionage novel) but that's another story.  Le Carré it could be argued illuminated the Cold War espionage tactics and we’ve milked it ever since.  Dead letter drops, the brush pass, chalk marks, phone numbers written on rolled up cigarette papers, match box exchanges at cafes,  Mission Impossible style - self-destructing stuff. Fast forward and we've gotten to satellites, the internet and electronic surveillance and all that has become a page in history. 
Or maybe not. How did Bin Laden hide so long? How do spies perform successful covert operations these days with video surveillance cameras all over and GPS tracking? What's a spy to do?
Do we go back to using typewriters per Vladmir Putin? After all this NSA dustup and with Snowden still in transit in his Moscow terminal -  Monsieur Putin has just authorized his FSO, a part of FSB, which used to be the KGB, to buy 20 East German typewriters and use paper for ‘sensitive’ communication. This was newsworthy. Come on, doesn’t the Kremlin, somewhere in it’s bowels or in the old Lubyanka prison have a few in storage? 
It reminds me of a conversation in Paris with our dear Leighton Gage a few years ago. Leighton and I had done a reading at Shakespeare and Co then went out for dinner at a bistro across from Gare du Nord. Joining us was one of Leighton's family members - and I promised then not to reveal any more about his position/ job and exploits except to say it dealt with international associations + global security - of which he said I could quote him - and this was several years ago after wine and excellent moules frites at the bistro - I NEVER use the internet or email in my work. Not even ever. All communication is person-to-person, or written and then destroyed. We talk and walk in the street/park/on a bridge away from CCTV cameras and where we can’t be bugged in our conversation. It’s simple, not lightning fast like a text, but secure. The safest way is to stay off the grid. I  know if someone doesn’t show we revert to a pre-arranged back up plan and if that’s blown I can follow the link in the chain to see who’s compromised the operation. Simple and effective...if A + B are bye-bye it’s got to be C the rotten apple. The human factor. Humans can betray, lie, cheat, steal, blackmail and reveal secrets during pillow talk but they do anyway on a laptop, non?
During World War I a lot of these techniques were implemented, possibly invented by spies like Mata Hari and they continued in the Second World War. Few people had landlines, there were less cars and the effective sabotage and resistance in France used person to person communication only. Meetings were held in cafes, restos and museums which always had a back exit. Churches - we’ve seen this in old movies - were perfect for a brush pass. One female Resistant told me she used the space behind the confessional to relay papers after her daily attendance at Mass. Clandestine printing presses operated in cellars and basements powered by yes, people peddling bicycles to generate electricity for the press and lighting. Quiet and underground. And very Green, non?
So all these old school spy techniques are coming back in vogue. Staying off the grid. Which is a lot harder these days - can you rent a hotel room, buy a plane ticket, rent a car, w/o a credit card? Hard but it can be done. It’s amazing to think of the high priced property bought in Silicon Valley these days with millions in cash. Do the Silicon Valley types know something we don’t?
 Watch out for all that used carbon paper,Vladmir. 
Cara - Tuesday
PS I'm reading John Le Carré's latest book, A Delicate Balance, highly recommended and he knocks it out of the park imho - one of his characters often refers to old school techniques + uses an old dinosaur tape recording machine...very funny for those of us who appreciate that Monsieur le Carré is making fun of his old school roots.


  1. I loved your comments here. As a mystery writer I agree with so much of what you said. Thelma Straw in Manhattan, NYC

  2. I fear if I had to type my secret messages they would remain so even from their intended reader. I have become a creature of autospellcheck.

  3. Very interesting, Cara! Stan and I did a lot of research for DEADLY HARVEST trying to discover a secure way to send email. Hushmail and the like. Well, a court order will get even that opened up. And that's only the legal options. Yes, the old ways may be the best.

    I look forward to the new Le Carre. I read them all but have got to this one so far.

  4. The old typewriter has become the instrument of the stealth typist. I love it. And I love the pictures. What an elegant machine. I'll have the green one, please.