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Former MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove has criticised spy author John Le Carré for his ‘nihilistic’ and ‘corrosive’ view of British intelligence, even though Le Carré submitted all of his early novels to MI6 for them to review prior to publication.  This appears to be the latest round of intelligence doublespeak where spies flit between comparing themselves to their fictional counterparts for the sake of favourable PR, and denying that fictional portrayals are anything close to the reality of intelligence work.

Dearlove told attendees of the Cliveden Literary Festival:

We’ve all enjoyed enormously reading the Smiley books… and he does capture some of the essence of what it was like in the Cold War.

However, he is so corrosive in his view of MI6 that most professional SIS [Secret Intelligence Service] officers are pretty angry with him.

Intelligence organisations are based on trust between colleagues. That’s how they operate

He writes in the tradition of the counterintelligence nihilists.

He was only in the service for three years, and something must have happened to him while he was there to breed this cynicism.

I rather resent the fact that he is trading on his knowledge and his reputation, and yet the feeling I get is that he intensely dislikes the service and what it represents.

However, what Dearlove is either ignorant of or is wilfully ignoring is that Le Carré sent copies of his novels to British intelligence for them to vet.  This lasted up until Perfect Spy (1986) so the vetting process includes virtually all of his most famous and widely-read works.

There are two profound ironies to Dearlove’s statements.  The first is that it was Dearlove’s trip to Washington that produced the infamous Downing Street memo saying that intelligence on Iraq’s WMD programs was being ‘fixed around the policy’ of invasion.  That Dearlove and MI6 knew this and not only failed to inform the public but actually went along with the Blair government’s desire for an illegal war shows that Le Carré’s supposed cynicism is well-founded.

The other irony is that this is an old game in intelligence circles – to use spy fiction both as a means of promoting the intelligence agencies and normalising their use of deceit, mass surveillance, torture, assassination and so on, while at the same time distancing themselves from such fictional portrayals and pretending they are totally unrealistic.  Orwellian doublespeak, to be sure, but an effective way to keep the public guessing about what the fuck MI6 actually spend their time doing.

For example, the current head of MI6 Alex Younger described James Bond as ‘both a blessing and a curse’, saying the books and films ‘created a powerful brand for MI6’ he continued ‘were Bond to apply to join MI6 now he would have to change his ways’.

Of course, what Younger is neglecting to mention is that both the Bond books and the films were sent to the Foreign Office (who run MI6) for them to vet and approve before they were published and released, just like Le Carré’s.


NSA report ‘SIGINT in the Novels of John le Carré’