Spooks never kept us safe | Peter Preston

John le Carré doesn’t like it. “I don’t watch Spooks,” he said at his Tinker Tailor cinema launch. “It’s crap.” Too many fast women and fast shoot-outs: too much playing fast and loose with the routines he remembers. But then, in the elusive world of espionage, crap flows commodiously in many shapes and forms. As it does, frankly, through Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Leave Spooks in its BBC Sunday slot, locked in mortal battle with Downton Abbey. Both, put politely, are superior tosh. But Le Carré’s masterwork and masterly movie? It’s great to see the old London back: no speed bumps or CCTV cameras. It’s a downbeat delight for film buffs who love pregnant pauses, inscrutable looks and 127 screen minutes without a joke. Yet the point to grapple with here is rather more serious than blonde agents dying in deep-fat fryers over on BBC1. It is where reality lies.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy the book is a subtle, beautifully written piece of genre fiction that often leaves the constraints of genre behind. TTSS the movie is quality film-making in sparse Scandinavian style. But it’s when the chaps in the Circus start talking about world war three and the machinations of Karla, the supreme KGB manipulator, that the detritus factor starts to kick in. The underlying assumption, in this chess match between upmarket spooks, is that what they were doing mattered, that they were garnering vital intelligence to keep a free world free. But now we know that was just more superior tosh.

My favourite book in the last couple of years is David Hoffman’s Pulitzer prizewinner The Dead Hand, in which a brilliant Washington Post reporter goes back to meet the spooks of yesteryear and discover at first hand what they didn’t know. Which is, chillingly, almost everything.

Here, in the mid-70s, is Paul Nitze, the erstwhile wise man of arms control, telling America that the Soviet Union is pursuing “a nuclear superiority … designed to produce a theoretical war-winning capability”. And there, over in Moscow, is an array of increasingly geriatric Politburo leaders convinced that the United States is planning a first strike that will wipe them out. When Reagan arrives in the Oval Office, their paranoia hits boiling point. Mutually assured incomprehension.

This – more even than in Berlin airlift days – is a knife-edge time. Enter Oleg Gordievsky, a mere number two in the KGB London office, duly explaining to the “dumbfounded” clowns in the Circus that all the deeply rooted US and UK beliefs about a nuclear balance of power “guaranteeing peace” are disastrously off-beam – because the Kremlin doesn’t believe them. It thinks Washington is bent on victory via destruction.

It takes Gorbachev, a wide-eyed Reagan and a fight between hawks and doves to put such madness to rest. But the crucial point Hoffman nails is that America, through the decades of peril, didn’t have any high-ranking moles inside the Kremlin. No friends close to the action; no one able to explain that the “evil empire” had got the wrong end of the stick. And, just as crucially, the KGB sat wanly in the waiting room of US policy. It didn’t have men close to politicians with their fingers on buttons, either. It, too, trundled around endorsing a deluded hand-me-down thesis.

In short, the tinkers and tailors of the cold war may have spent decades attempting to discern what their opposite numbers were doing – but they didn’t have true intelligence to blow away the myths of misunderstanding. They played the wrong game at the wrong level (cue Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction). And lest Hoffman’s awful warning passes unheeded, then remember the man who described it as “a stunning feat of research and narrative” – John le Carré, no less.

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