What we actually learned from the Sunday Times: the rules of spying never change

No, don’t email me! Don’t you read the news? Shutterstock spy

The Sunday Times has faced a barrage of criticism over its decision to publish a story claiming the UK government has had to relocate spies, fearing that Russia and China had gained information about how they operate from the NSA files leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013.

If true, the story would confirm the worst case scenario feared by British intelligence since Snowden leaked classified files two years ago – the fear of hostile intelligence services gaining access to sensitive information and compromising the safety of intelligence sources.

Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who helped Snowden release the files, has launched a full-scale attack on the newspaper over the story. Greenwald labelled it a “journalistic disgrace” aimed at smearing Snowden and has questioned whether its key claims are true.

In the government’s mind, it is vindication of its long-held argument against the actions of Snowden.

The story aside, though, the very fear that spies could need to be relocated sheds light on an old truth about conducting espionage – a truth made more public through this story than we are accustomed to seeing. Spies are very vulnerable and, once exposed, no effort can be spared to get them out of harm’s way. The risks faced by a spy whose cover has been blown are very real indeed.

We’ve seen that even in the digital age, the rules of the spying game have not changed.

Eyes and ears

The Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6, cultivates and maintains human spies as its primary activity – so relocating spies has long been part of its mandate.

Double agent Oleg Gordievsky. PA/Fiona Hanson

Indeed, one of the most celebrated MI6 spies, Oleg Gordievsky, was whisked away in just such a fashion after being compromised by the Soviet KGB in the 1980s. Having evaded his handlers, Gordievsky was able to meet Secret Intelligence Service agents at the Finnish border, who successfully exfiltrated him to the UK via Norway.

Not all spies are so lucky however. Oleg Penkovsky, another celebrated MI6 source, was instrumental in providing information on Soviet missiles in Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis. Penkovsky’s efforts to provide this information led to his eventual exposure and resulted in his execution by firing squad.

The job of the spy has not changed, even in our digitised, cyber-enabled world. Their role remains utterly essential in providing context to the tsunami of information that is now intercepted by bulk data collection. No other source can add context and understanding like the human source. Often it may be the human source that adds the final piece to a baffling jigsaw upon which our security rests.

Who we spy on has also not fundamentally changed. This is because, in an ideal world, your intelligence service will have spies watching your allies as closely as your enemies. While the German government has recently dropped its investigation into claims that Angela Merkel’s mobile phone was tapped by the NSA, the fact that one had to be launched at all illustrates how this dynamic persists even today.

But the majority of efforts will, of course, focus on getting spies inside your enemy’s camp. And the specific reference to Russia and China in the Sunday Times story reveals that the UK is most worried about its ability to maintain the intelligence advantage over these two countries in particular.

With China challenging the global order, especially in the South China Sea, and Russia tearing up the rulebook that has governed post-Cold War European peace, it is only natural that British intelligence will do everything it can to protect its sources around the world.

Fact and fiction

The plausibility of the UK government’s argument in this case rests on trust. Do we trust it to believe that British security has been put at risk? It should be remembered that these professionals are involved in a very dangerous game. Despite this, a very critical question must be raised: why now?

Why only now has the UK publicly announced that its spies needed to be relocated? Any critical view would argue that this should have been done two years ago, once it was known that information from the Snowden files had been released. Without knowing more it is only possible to speculate on the exact motivations for this latest development.

Two things remain most interesting though, regardless of whether the story is true. First is that British intelligence is publicly announcing the move in order to try to win the argument against Snowden and Greenwald. Second is that no matter where the story comes from, it serves to illustrate the timeless nature of the risks that await those who work as spies.