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Spycraft

M.I.C.E. – the four main reasons people decide to betray their home countries: Money, Ideology, Compromise, and Ego.

Spycraft is a Netflix documentary about spies and how they do what they do. And what they do often goes far beyond a lot of what you find in fiction.

Spycraft's episodes are organized by themes: poisons – sex – different communications. Because of this, a few of the cases that show up in one episode also show up in others. For example, Anna Chapman, a Russian spy also known as Anna Vasilyevna Kuschenko, appears in both the sex episode but also in the one about communicating with her handler, as it was her weak point.

As I am no expert in this area, I thought most of the information was fascinating. First, I appreciated getting coherent histories of names that I had encountered over the years. This meant details on individual cases, both new and old. There were Rogers’ Rangers, formed by Major Robert Rogers of the British Army in the 1750s during the French and Indian war (a.k.a. the Seven Years War). We learn about Mata Hari, as well as more recent cases, such as Edward Snowden, who betrayed the NSA (which was engaged in some seriously questionable activities), Maria Butina (who made the NRA even worse than it was) and Aldrich Ames, whose betrayal of the United States led to the deaths of many American assets in the Soviet Union.

Second, I used to think that fiction was more inventive than fact, but it turns out, that often it is not so. Most of the James Bond stuff supplied by M exists in one form or another, and in fact has been around for a while. There are tiny devices that can fit anywhere, for recording and surveilling. They even have drones in the forms of hawks, so realistic in appearance that, when flying, they are sometimes joined by real hawks. We don’t know, of course, what the real hawks are thinking. Do they believe the drones are actual hawks, and are keeping the drone-hawks company, or are the real hawks investigating the drone-hawks to find out what they are?

The documentary includes recorded interviews, not just with experts, but with some actual spies. How can you betray your country and your colleagues?

I am sure that Netflix, although it tells us a lot, is not telling us everything. It's quite likely quantum leaps have been made – literally quantum, as that seems to be the next step – with respect to encryption. I also expect that a lot is happening with respect to Artificial Intelligence. Facial recognition is used in many, many countries. And phones, of course, are tracking devices that most of us carry willingly. Finally, if you go to Russia, assume every moment of your life there is being captured and studied.

Bits and pieces

The narrator did not bother to do that one thing narrators should do: pronounce words correctly. Not only are many of the foreign names butchered, but he says nucular instead of nuclear. That's like screeching chalk.

I was curious about the compromising pressure being used on homosexuals. There was an important case in 1980 when Shoemaker, a gay man, expected to leave his position because of his orientation. This was a practical matter, because at that time, if you were gay you could be blackmailed. However, the people at the NSA gave him another option. By having him tell his family, the threat of blackmail was greatly diminished. This is the opposite of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that was in the military for so many years, but it makes much more sense.

Spying is a desperately dangerous business. Many countries, if they learn that you have spied against them, will put a bullet in your brain, or find another way to end you if you have left the country. The USA is usually more humane, but the prison sentences are long.

Some reviewers complain that the orientation of the series is too pro-USA, glossing over American wrongdoings. As an American, I may have not "felt" this the way citizens of other countries might, but I recognize the complaint is fair.

A second season is mentioned over at IMDB, and a title given for the first episode in that season, but it was not available to me and there is no additional information at IMDB.

Particular episode remarks

High-tech Surveillance and an Eye in the Sky. This episode shows what could be done with balloons, with the first planes in WWI, and then with satellites. Now it's the era of drones, which are easier to position and which can be disguised (e.g. hawks).

Deadly Poisons. Many cases are covered, including the polonium that killed Alexander Litvinenko and the nerve agent that sickened the Skripals.

Sexspionage. It took me a while to get into this episode, but that’s because I’m a prude; others may like the episode for the very qualities that put me off. It turns out that sex/love can work on both men and women. East Germany groomed “Romeos” to court and to even (fake) marry lonely female secretaries in West Germany.

Clandestine Collection. Even your lightbulbs can give you away! If I ever go into the spy business, I’m going to learn sign language for my conversations. And have those conversations by candlelight, with the TV on loud to make things more difficult.

Covert Communication. Once a spy collects information, that information has to be handed off somehow. My favorite dead drops were the dead rats: files literally left inside dead rats. These are naturally something most people would avoid, and so metaphorically appropriate.

Special Ops and the Saboteur. This episode covers several famous cases including the capture of Saddam Hussein and the execution of Osama bin Laden.

The Code Breakers. Interestingly, this episode goes back to George Washington and also the famous case of Enigma and Alan Turing.

Recruiting the Perfect Spy. Some do it for money; some because they believe in what they are doing. Some do it because they are compromised, while a few do it because they are narcissistic jerks. The least reliable spy – from the point of view of the recruiter – is the one who is compromised, because if they can somehow get uncompromised, they no longer have any reason to continue.

Overall rating

Apparently I enjoyed Spycraft more than other reviewers, because the series presented information at the right level for me. I could see that those better versed in the subject would be bored. The material was fascinating and frightening, but fortunately I am so inconsequential I don’t have to worry about being spied upon. Three out of four dead rats.

Victoria Grossack loves math, birds, Greek mythology, Jane Austen and great storytelling in many forms.

1 comment:

  1. Victoria, this is an interesting read. It's not a series that I would normally choose to watch, but I just might try it. Good job.

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