By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
“I want to put a thesis to you…. A notion about what’s going on. May I? There’s no risk to listening, is there?” “Maybe.” –John LeCarré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Fans of espionage fiction will at once recognize the title as a play on John LeCarré’s wonderful novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (also a film and a television mini-series). GoodReads summarizes the storyline of Tinker Tailor, although not characters or plot twists, and with no spoilers:
A modern classic in which John le Carré expertly creates a total vision of a secret world, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy begins George Smiley’s chess match of wills and wits with Karla, his Soviet counterpart.
It is now beyond a doubt that a , implanted decades ago by Moscow Centre, has burrowed his way into the highest echelons of British Intelligence. His treachery has already some of its most vital operations and its best networks. It is clear that the is one of its own kind. But which one? George Smiley is assigned to identify him. And once identified, the traitor must be destroyed.
I’ve helpfully underlined the concepts to keep in mind for this post: mole, blown, double agent. (“Moscow Centre” is obviously the KGB, though identifying Karla with Putin would be a stretch.) Tinker Tailor is also a novel of imperial decline, as described in The Atlantic, and so doubly applicable to the present day:
Intricate, creepingly paced, almost violently understated, and set in an England sunk to Eastern Bloc levels of shabbiness and rainy suspicion, the 1979 BBC dramatization of John le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is neither heartwarming nor especially reassuring about men and women…. Somewhere in MI6, somewhere near the very top, there is a traitor—a mole, in the argot of le Carré’s spyworld. He’s been there for years, decades even; the damage is profound; the damage is already done; and only by going backwards, into the files, into the circuits of memory, only by reversing appearances and turning suppositions inside out, can le Carré’s anti- or un-hero, George Smiley, find his way to the truth…. Under the veneer of one country, another country altogether.
(LeCarré is especially good at set pieces, most especially interrogations, one of which produces the central reveal: The identity of the mole.) I’m not going to go through the LeCarré’s plot looking for parallels to the current day. Rather, in this brief jeu d’esprit, I will use LeCarré’s concepts as a lens through which to look at a contemporary event.
The contemporary event I have in mind is the current iteration of RussiaGate, involving the FBI “raid” at Mar-a-Lago. Speculating freely: RussiaGate 2.0 is designed to keep Trump from running for President in 2024, instead of crippling him after he won the office, as in RussiaGate 1.0. (Of course, either version of RussiaGate could only exist if hegemonic factions of the intelligence community, the press, and the Democrat Party were all (a) networked into the secret world, and (b) completely corrupt, including intellectually corrupt. But that doesn’t seem like such an unreasonable assumption, now does it?)
With that, I’ll summarize the current version — the “storyline,” one might say — of RussiaGate 2.0, and remark on a few of the weak points. (Naturally, there will be many more plot twists and reveals; we’ve only just begun!) After that, I’ll look at that storyline through the lens of Tinker Tailor which, as lenses will do, will flip the image — “reversing appearances and turning suppositions inside out” — and perhaps what you see.
Some “arithmetic” on RussiaGate 2.0, salient points that I will number for convenience. (I’m leaving out the wilder parts, like torture apologist and perjurer Michael Hayden’s call for Trump to be executed.)
#1: From the New York Times, “Captured, Killed or Compromised: C.I.A. Admits to Losing Dozens of Informants“:
The message, in an unusual top secret cable, said that the C.I.A.’s counterintelligence mission center had looked at dozens of cases in the last several years involving foreign informants who had been killed, arrested or most likely compromised. Although brief, the cable laid out the specific number of agents executed by rival intelligence agencies — a closely held detail that counterintelligence officials typically do not share in such cables.
In recent years, adversarial intelligence services in countries such as Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan have been hunting down the C.I.A.’s sources and in some cases turning them into double agents…. [I]mproving intelligence collection on adversarial powers, both great and small, is once again a centerpiece of the C.I.A.’s agenda, particularly as policymakers demand more insight into China and Russia.
While the memo identified specific numbers of informants that were arrested or killed, it said the number turned against the United States was not fully known. Sometimes, informants who are discovered by adversarial intelligence services are not arrested, but instead are turned into double agents who feed disinformation to the C.I.A., which can have devastating effects on intelligence collection and analysis.
#2: From the Telegraph: “Donald Trump had ‘incredibly sensitive’ material from active spies in his basement”
US secrets that may have come from human spies in the field were discovered in the basement at Mar-a-Lago.
The disclosure came as a court released a redacted version of the 32-page FBI affidavit which led to a raid on Donald Trump’s Florida home on Aug 8.
It showed that 14 of the 15 boxes recovered from Mar-a-Lago by the National Archives in January contained classified documents, including some marked “HCS”.
In the affidavit, an FBI Special Agent wrote: “HUMINT Control System, or ‘HCS’, is an SCI [Sensitive Compartmented Information] control system designed to protect intelligence information derived from clandestine human sources, commonly referred to as ‘human intelligence’.
“The HCS control system protects human intelligence-derived information, and information relating to human intelligence activities, capabilities, techniques, processes, and procedures.”
Steve Hall, former CIA chief of Russia operations, said: “That’s basically information from human spies. ‘HCS’ stuff, basically, means there’s information in those boxes in the basement in Mar-a-Lago that pertain to, or potentially came from, human sources, human spies.
#3: From Newsweek, “Russia ‘Absolutely’ Tried to Infiltrate Mar-a-Lago: Former FBI Official“:
Former FBI official Peter Strzok said in an interview Sunday that foreign intelligence services in countries, including Russia, have been “absolutely” interested in gaining access to former President Donald Trump’s Florida property, Mar-a-Lago.
During his interview, Strzok said that “regardless of the knowledge that classified documents were there,” foreign intelligence services are “going to have been trying to gain access” to Mar-a-Lago during and after Trump’s presidential administration.
#4: From Politico, “Intel officials to assess national security fallout from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago documents“:
The U.S. intelligence community will evaluate the potential national security risks stemming from former President Donald Trump’s possession of top-secret documents at his Mar-a-Lago residence, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told top lawmakers.
“The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) are working together to facilitate a classification review of relevant materials, including those recovered during the search,” Haines wrote, adding that the review will be conducted in a way that “does not unduly interfere with DOJ’s ongoing criminal investigation.”
Speaking during a live broadcast on Fox News Sunday, Eric Shawn raised one possibility about what Trump could have done with the classified documents the FBI found during its search of Trump’s Florida residence.
“And more questions are being raised this morning. Did former President Trump try to sell or share the highly classified material to the Russians or to the Saudis or others?” Shawn asked.
“Or were the documents innocently mishandled and stored because he thought he had a legal right to have them?” he added.
#5(b): Some Democrat loyalists agree:
Most Americans think Trump already sold state secrets to our enemies, although a sizable number of Americans think he was planning to but hadn’t done it yet. NO ONE thinks the espionage investigation is a “hoax.” Prison is too lenient for Trump. pic.twitter.com/UyXrLwVHyY
— Howie Klein (@downwithtyranny) August 28, 2022
(Note that we have no particular reason to believe anything whatever about the documents stored at and taken from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence; that’s why a “special master” is under consideration, after it transpired that the FBI may have appropriated documents protected by attorney-client privilege. Note also that the same cast of characters who is RussiaGate 1.0 are running RussiaGate 2.0.)
So, without committing ourselves to the truth of any of the numbered points, we can see a narrative emerging, presumably after Labor Day, when people start paying attention again, but before the House Select Committee returns to work:
• Trump either sold (strong form) or enabled (weak form) documents that would identify one or more of our intelligence agents to Russia (skipping the Saudis, we’re not chaning the narrative mid-stream here), ideally getting somebody killed (or at least putting the in fear of their live.
Since a narrative is what we have, let’s look at it through the lens of Tinker Tailor:
On #1: Here Smiley is putting the “thesis” of the epigraph to one Toby Esterhase, an intelligence operative. He’s describing how a Russian mole (“Gerald”) approached an intelligence community higher-up (“Alleline”). The “Circus” is the key institution of the UK’s intelligence community:
I think you”ll agree that the passage marked “A)” matches the situation descibed in the Times story (“CIA Admits to Losing Dozens of Informants”). You may also agree that it’s curious that the thesis presented in “B”) — “there’s a traitor inside the Circus who’s blowing all the operations” — goes unmentioned by the Times (and, presumably, its sources). Note that any such traitor must precede Trump, and certainly Trump at Mar-a-Lago, because the killings and compromises began before he took office; for example, the “covcom” breach, if breach it was, in China.
As for #3, Russia hardly needed to “infiltrate” Mar-a-Lago if Trump was already selling them documents.
Skipping to #5: I think Trump selling documents makes no sense at all. For one thing, he doesn’t’ need the money (then or now). For another, “never steal what you can’t fence.” Trump is no dummy. He must know that whatever intermediaries he would use to send the documents and accept the money would own him.
Speculating freely, let me put an alternative thesis: Trump kept documents — some of them, at least — that implicated the operatives of RussiaGate 1.0. Now that, as Smiley might put it, is a theory that sits up and works. First, it would enable Trump to take revenge on the “Deep State” factions who attempted to destroy his first presidency. Second, it provides a natural issue to campaign on if and when he runs for his second.
Back to #2: If in fact Trump did squirrel away RussiaGate 1.0 documents, the material was indeed about “active spies”.
Back to #4: If in fact Trump did squirrel away RussiaGate 1.0 documents, you can see why “intel officials” — especially the ones who, as we have seen, ran the operation — would be extremelly anxious to “assess” them, particularly because it’s merely national security at stake, but their own careers.
Continuing to speculate extremely freely: Working on the assumption that Trump stashed away RussiaGate documents, what might those documents reveal? Let’s look at the architecture of the Circus “mole.” Smiley continues to interrogate Toby Esterhase. (“Chicken feed” is plausible but false information. “Gerald,” again, is the mole. Karla, of Moscow Centre, is his handler. Polyakov — this gets complicated — is a Russian double agent, notionally run by the Circus, actually run by Moscow Centre. The Circus
Passage A) describes the dataflow: Polyakov (informant) gives Toby (handler) good intel; Toby gives Polykov “chickenfeed,” given to him by Gerald.
Passage B) describes the trick: Because Gerald is a mole, the chickenfeed he gives Toby to pass on to Polyakov is instead “the crown jewels”; good intel Russia would want. And the good intel that Polyakov gives Toby is in fact chickenfeed.
Now, can we think of an example in RussiaGate 1.0 where chickenFeed might be involved? I think we can. Let’s quote one more time from Tinker Tailor. (“Guillam” is Smiley’s ally; “Alleline” is the head of British intelligence; the one, in other words, who is responsible for allowing the Russian mole to “turn the Circus inside out”).
Alleline’s certainty is curious. Why is he so sure that the information is correct? Because he got it from Polyakov, supposed agent (but actual double agent).
Alleline’s certainty reminds me very much of the episode of the Steele dossier, intel that the official consensus deemed solid, and which turned out to be garbage (for example, the pee tape. To be fair to Strozok et al., the dossier was solid enough to get a FISA warrant to plant a spy in Trump’s camp).
Now, as the Steele dossier story faded from sight, the official consensus agreed that Steele just made everything up. But suppose Steele did not. What if instead of being a work of fiction, the Steele dossier was KGB chickenfeed?
One more absurdly speculative step: If the Steele dossier was KGB chickenfeed, then Steele was fed it someone in the KGB that Steele considered his agent, but was in fact a double agent, controlled by the Kremlin.
So, in this distinctly alternative, definitely far-fetched, and LeCarré-inflected thesis about what’s going on:
1) Trump retained documents at Mar-a-Lago that implicated those who ran RussiaGate 1.0;
2) Those documents would show that the Steele dossier was KGB chickenfeed;
3) KGB chickenfeed can be fed to our intelligence community if “we” think we are running a KGB agent and the intel is good, but that agent is in fact a double-agent, and the intel is bad (just like the architecture described above. Toby, by the way, flips, and becomes a Smiley ally; he’s one of the more charming characters). Therefore–
4) A KGB agent (“Polyakov”) implies a CIA/FBI handler (“Toby”). Is there a “Gerald”? Somebody who’s “blowing all the operations”? As described in #1?
Needless to say, if I were a RussiaGate 1.0 operative, I would be very, very anxious that no document that supported any part of this thesis ever saw the light of day.
Just remember: All these people are as twisty as corkscrews!
 I highly recommend the entire “Karla Trilogy”: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974); The Honourable Schoolboy (1977); Smiley’s People (1979); terrific reading for the coming fall and winter, by the fireside, if you have one. Oh, and the IMDB storyline for the Tinker, Tailor film has a horrific error: One of the plot points takes place not in Budapest, Hungary, but in then Czechslovakia, in Prague and Brno. Tsk.
 I cannot forbear from quoting Webster’s definition of “set piece”: A composition (as in literature, art, or music) executed in a fixed or ideal form often with studied artistry and brilliant effect.” Again, I highly recommend the entire “Karla Trilogy,” which IMNSHO is LeCarré at his finest. His earlier work doesn’t have the same scale or complexity, and the fall of the Soviet Union (1991) removed “Moscow Centre” as an antagonist, not Hamlet without the Prince, but the Lord of the Rings without Sauron.