Sunday 29 September 2013

Whistle Blowers: John Le Carré’s A Delicate Truth

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large 28 September 2013

“What the gods and all reasonable human beings fought in vain wasn’t stupidity at all. It was sheer, wanton, bloody indifference to anybody’s interests but their own.”

—Toby Bell in A Delicate Truth

After publishing two murder mysteries under a pseudonym, John Le Carré wrote his acknowledged masterpiece, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), set during the height of the Cold War only a few months after the Wall was erected, in which he constructed a bleak landscape of the shifting sands of counter-espionage in the secret intelligence world. What was so startling at the time was his challenge to the pasteboard heroes and villains exemplified in the James Bond highly romanticized espionage thrillers by Ian Fleming: that its agents did not stoop to amoral duplicity but promoted democratic values. In The Spy, loyalty was something transient while betrayal became more deeply entrenched. Even though preventing the spread of communism and the acquisition of its secrets were worthy goals, the murky double-dealings of British security increasingly resembled those of their Soviet enemy. Unsparing in its cynicism, the spymaster, Control, explains to the dispirited protagonist Alec Leamas: “We do disagreeable things, but we are defensive….We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and elsewhere can sleep safely in their beds at night….Of course, we occasionally do very wicked things.” The worst treachery in The Spy comes, not from the enemy, but from the British side. Leamas is sent, he believes, on an under-cover mission to avenge the death of his agents and to eliminate his East German counterpart, who is responsible for those deaths. But in fact Leamas is the unwitting tool of Control, who shows little more regard for human lives than the KGB in executing his machinations to recruit a ruthlessly efficient, anti-Semitic, ex-Nazi killer as a double agent. In the introduction to the fifth anniversary release of The Spy, Le Carré, aka David Cornwell, remembers with revulsion these unsavoury characters: “former Nazis with attractive qualifications weren't just tolerated by the Allies; they were positively mollycoddled for their anti-communist credentials.” In the end, the Circus (le Carré’s nickname for MI6) betrays Leamas and Liz, his lover, an idealistic member of the British Communist Party, who is also brutally and pitilessly used by both sides. Yet given the repressive nature of the Communist system, Le Carré seems to accept the view that collateral damage of the innocent was permitted so that British people can “sleep safely in their beds at night,” a worldview that is repeated more ruefully in the subsequent George Smiley espionage novels.
From the film The Spy Who Came into the Cold

Even as the Cold War was winding down with the 1989 publication of The Russia House set in the Gorbachev era of glasnost, it was clear that le Carré had lost patience with both the amoral “gray men” in the security service on both sides who poison human decency and their idea that dubious means could be used in defence of a justifiable end. Even retired spy George Smiley questions this conundrum in The Secret Pilgrim (1990), his final appearance in a le Carré novel. Smiley ruminates: “We scarcely paused [during the Cold War] to ask ourselves how much we could defend our society by these means and remain a society worth defending.” This dilemma acquired greater urgency for le Carré during the War on Terror and the Iraq war when his political commitments entered into his art. Dismissed by some critics for writing screeds, mistakenly in my view, there is admittedly a tension between his art and his polemics but for most part he has kept it under control. Consider A Most Wanted Man (2008) that was inspired by the injustice inflicted upon Murat Kurnaz, a twenty-year-old Turkish resident of Germany. Kurnaz was caught up in the post-9/11 events, detained, tortured, and incarcerated in Guantánamo for five years, despite the early recognition that he was wholly innocent. As harrowing as his ordeal was, chronicled in Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo (2008), le Carré is too gifted an artist to merely fictionalize his story, but do not expect the moral ambiguities of Smiley’s world.

A Most Wanted Man is a sophisticated portrayal of how privileged Western characters, which include an idealistic lawyer, a banker with skeletons in his family closet, and the post 9/11 espionage community, respond to the threat of terrorism. An emaciated young half-Russian, half Chechen, Issa Karpov, shows up in Hamburg as a refugee psychologically damaged after being imprisoned and tortured in Russian and Turkish jails. Whether he is a militant, a refugee or even a Muslim, the reader is not certain. Le Carré’s treatment of the German secret service officer, Gunther Bachmann, is his most compelling creation. He is a gruff, maverick willing to use Issa as bait to catch a “moderate” imam who is suspected of channelling funds to militants abroad. Although desperate to prevent another 9/11, Madrid commuter train or London tube disaster, he does believe in justice. For that reason, he clashes with his arch-conservative superior who is willing to accommodate three American “Cousins,” who appear late in the novel. Their priority is to arrest Karpov without delay as an Islamic sympathizer and they do not particularly care about how they do it. Le Carré’s disdain for the “Old West” mentality of George Bush’s war on terror, that includes extraordinary rendition, is explicitly spelled out in the coarse dialogue between Bachmann and his American counterpart.

Even more than in A Most Wanted Man, the heat of anger animates A Delicate Truth (Penguin, 2013). It is his most political work and he need not restrain himself because of some residual loyalty to the security agencies since they are virtually invisible here. Toby Bell, the hero of A Delicate Truth regards the Iraq war “illegal, immoral and doomed” and Tony Blair as “truthless and emetic” for supporting George Bush’s adventures. That Bell speaks for David Cornwell and perhaps for a larger segment of the British public is clear enough. (Does anyone doubt that when the Labour Party voted against a resolution to grant approval to the British government to participate in the bombing of Syria it was more a repudiation of Blair for taking the country to war in Iraq than about the merits about bombing Syria?) Le Carré tackles Tony Blair's moral swamp with its disinformation, outright dishonesty and abdication of political responsibility. The line between right and wrong, and good and evil has become fuzzy and needs a spine steeled with greater clarity. Official corruption, cover-up and criminal deceit that resides in the heart of Whitehall, a result of the secret blurring of public and private interests, is for him unambiguously wrong. Violence—beatings, kidnapping, assassinations that mirror those of the enemy—again is committed and justified in the name of national security and keeping the public safe. Le Carré is appalled that in the war against terror, any abuse, however egregious, will not be just condoned but dropped down the memory hole and expunged from history.

To reduce its culpability, the British government has outsourced a rogue action to an invisible army of freelance intelligence peddlers and black ops coordinated by an “ever-expanding circle of non-governmental insiders from banking, industry and commerce who were cleared for highly classified information denied to large swathes of Whitehall and Westminster.” In this new shabby environment, a team led by a Welshman, Jeb Owens, a captain in the British special forces, who served his country with distinction—yet is required to resign from the SAS for the duration of the operation to assist “the rabble of American mercenaries,” who, in Owens words, are “in it for the ride and the money.” They work for a Blackwater-style security company with the splendidly ironic name Ethical Outcomes that is bankrolled by an exceedingly wealthy, evangelical Christian, Republican Party Texan with predictably extreme right wing views, known as Miss Maisie. She is a caricature and Le Carré could have dispensed with her walk-on appearance without diminishing the power of his narrative. The brainchild behind this operation is the dodgy “corporate warrior,” Jay Crispin ("your normal, rootless, amoral, plausible, half-educated, nicely spoken frozen adolescent in a bespoke suit") who is busily selling arms, honour and country to the highest bidder; Quinn, a Scottish MP and a “marooned Blairite of the Gordon Brown Era,” is his secret partner in crime.

The novel opens in 2008 with this outfit gung ho about conducting an extraordinary rendition in
Gibraltar, a kidnapping of a high-profile jihadist arms dealer who is arranging a shipment of missile-like weapons to be delivered just off the coast of Gibraltar. A mid-level British diplomat known to us only by his codename, Paul Anderson, has been flushed from obscurity by a thuggish minister of defence, one Fergus Quinn—“You’re not some limp-wristed closet liberal harbouring secret thoughts about terrorists’ right to blow up the fucking world to pieces”—to be the liaison, the British government’s “red telephone,” for Operation Wildlife just in case things go wrong. Anderson believes this ex-filtration is an officially-sanctioned counter-terrorist operation. Although he sees little of the action which is shrouded in darkness and confusion, he’s told the maneuver was a great success for which Paul will later, under his real name, Christopher (Kit) Probyn, be awarded a coveted plum position in the Caribbean and a knighthood. It is a measure of le Carré’s artistry that neither Probyn nor the reader finds out what actually happened that night until later in the novel.

Enter Quinn’s private secretary, Toby Bell, an ambitious yet idealistic and conscientious Foreign Office official who is denied security clearance and is kept out of the loop of his minister’s machinations. He becomes increasingly suspicious of Quinn’s dealings with the mysterious Crispin and surreptitiously records and listens to one of their meetings knowing that it could cost him his job and his freedom even though the tape provides incriminating evidence about Operation Wildlife. A closet rebel within the establishment, he is torn between his duty as a public servant and his conscience. He receives no support from his mentor, who oscillates between cowardliness and fear, and whose only advice to Bell is to destroy whatever evidence he has before it destroys him. Within a short time Bell is ousted from his position and exiled to a full diplomatic term in Beirut. 

The story is picked up three years later. Bell has returned to the Foreign Office and is haunted by the tape and the lack of support from his mentor. The problem is that no one in the government wants it exposed. The narrative is propelled forward by the accidental meeting between Probyn and a distraught Owens at a farm fair. Probyn learns from the disgraced, emotionally scarred soldier that he (Probyn) was unwittingly manipulated: the operation was an utter fiasco that led to civilian casualties, that the truth about this debacle has never been told and that his rewards were the price for his silence. Their encounter appears natural enough and le Carré’s portrait of Owens and the subsequent passages about him are riveting but when he brings Probyn and Bell together it feels artificially contrived. Apart from the fact that Probyn has uncovered information that Bell was the Private Secretary to a “certain junior minister,” he knows nothing about the diplomat’s state of mind yet he was precisely the right person to contact. Perhaps their meeting was just serendipitous. At any rate, Quinn, Bell and Probyn contemplate becoming whistleblowers, regardless of the professional and personal consequences. But in confronting a state that relies on plausible deniability and the subcontracting of its dirty work, the obstacles are formidable because they are no match for the ruthlessness of those determined to preserve state secrets. In one seminal moment, when Probyn delivers his démarche in front of the Foreign Office with the information he’s gathered about the affair, his testimony is turned on its head by the “amoral lawyers and accountants on the make.” Through the clever—or more precisely smarmy—execution of legal speak, one of the novel’s most moral and ethical characters is regarded as a criminal and threatened with legal action that could destroy him. Paranoia seems officially sanctioned: if someone cannot be bought, the ordinary forces of national security, the army and the police, are willing to go to extreme lengths to ensure that the gang of three’s tale does not become public.  

Edward Snowden
What transpires in A Delicate Truth seems more characteristic of a police state than twenty-first century Britain. Yet Le Carré has captured something in the zeitgeist when whistle blowers are reviled and criminalized. In America the Obama administration’s Department of Justice has prosecuted six whistleblowers under the Espionage Act of 1917 twice the number prosecuted by all previous administrations combined. The New York Times reported this summer on the so-called FISA Court—beyond the reach of Congress and the regular courts —that was established in 1978 to monitor federal phone taps and give legal cover to intelligence agencies which trawl the personal data from millions of Americans at home and abroad. The former CIA and NSA analyst, Edward Snowden made the decision to leak to the media a top-secret order issued in 2013 by the court. It required a subsidiary of the telephone giant Verizon to provide a daily, ongoing feed of all call records—including those for domestic calls—to the NSA. Had he not decamped to Hong Kong on an arc that landed him in authoritarian Russia, Snowden would have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Several public officials and media commentators have excoriated him as a traitor, but to my knowledge nobody has challenged his basic point: that many of the world's leading telecommunications and technology firms are regularly divulging information about their users' activities and communications to law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The decision he made to flee must have been a difficult one. He sacrificed a prosperous career for his principles believing that the American public should be aware of the extent of public surveillance and its threat to privacy. Moreover, he watched the abusive pre-trial treatment of Bradley Manning and the lengthy prison term of thirty-five years he received despite being cleared of the most serious charge of aiding the enemy. Snowden did not want that future.

Whistle blowers often take great risks in Le Carré’s fiction. In the novel that most resembles A
Delicate Truth, The Constant Gardener (2001), Justin Quayle, who had long regarded strongly held convictions as anathema to the life of a diplomat, undergoes a transformative change when he undertakes to find out what happened to his murdered activist wife. In the process, he discovers not only betrayal at the Foreign Office where he works and from people that she trusted at the Kenyan subsidiary of a huge multinational pharmaceutical company that has been improperly tested anti-tubercular drug resulting in the death of patients, but he also discovers resources within himself so that he can reassert the values that guided his late wife’s life. Like Toby Bell, Quayle also faces dangers, in his case from the British Establishment and from the company itself which will do whatever it takes to preserve profits, continue trade and protect reputations to ensure that any inflammatory report does not become public. Both Quayle and Bell are Snowden figures—“[the] most feared creature in our contemporary world: a solitary decider," as le Carré describes Bell in A Delicate Truth

Betrayal is a central motif in le Carré’s oeuvre, even in his most apolitical, autobiographical, A Perfect Spy (1986) in which it takes the form of father-son, generational betrayal. In A Delicate Truth, the British state betrays its citizens by farming out the unsavoury tasks to a private, money-driven, outsourced US security corporation that takes no responsibility for the victims of collateral damage. In doing so, the government erodes democracy. Public servants who attempt to leak the truth to the public face potentially serious risk to their careers, their freedom or their lives. In the larger world, the privatization of war has already happened in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Subcontractors and mercenaries who have executed and tortured detainees, including civilians, have been granted immunity from local prosecution and, unless the case is particularly egregious and receives widespread publicity, they are potentially immune from American laws. Since the privatization of war will likely continue at an increasing pace in the future, is it any wonder that le Carré is angry?

No comments:

Post a Comment