There is No Fate But What We Make: On spies

Saturday, December 03, 2005

On spies

"My name is Bond, James Bond !"
Lines immortalized by the Hollywood Icon. Yet, the reality is that a spy as flamboyant as Bond will not survive in real life. Real life spies are the exact opposite of what Bond is in the movies.
My father worked as a "spy" during the early 70s in East Pakistan (what became Bangladesh after the 1971 war). The word "spy" conjures up an image of a dashing guy who is brave, intelligent, takes extreme risks and gets very valuable information for his side. All of this is false. Exactly the opposite is true.
Real life spies are trained to lie low, not to attract any attention by doing anything spectacular and not show any heroics. They gather very routine and mundane information.
Military works with the assumption that any spy caught will spill the beans. Movies and novels create an image of heroes who will endure any amount of torture and pain but not reveal the secrets, but in real life, people are human beings and beyond a point, all human endurance breaches. That's why the spy system works under the maxim "Don't get caught". Any capture of spies is taken as equivalent to compromise of secrets. The whole system is geared around two guidelines:
(a) Don't let spies get caught
(b) Don't let spies know more than they need to know

James Bond would fail the test on both these counts.

Here's how real life spy system works. Send people who can easily blend in. People who show no tendency to be flamboyant. People who can lie low. These traits are determined by psychological profiling. Probably my father's most suitable trait was that he could speak Bengali with the eastern accent (since our ancestors were migrants from East Bengal). To be able to speak with the local accent, the style of smoking the bidi, the style of sitting on a cot and, of course, eating habits, it is based on such mundane matters that a spy is selected.

Contrary to popular misconception, the job of a typical spy is not to get war plans or military intelligence. These are way too well guarded. It is likely that the enemy side will leak out things to create confusion. And it is possible that the spy himself may be compromised and may be sending deliberately misleading information. No country takes a bet on these. The job of a typical spy is to send very routine information, like
- what's the morale of local population
- how many soldiers are patrolling
- what's the frequency
- what vehicle is used for patrolling
- ethnicity of the soldiers
None of this information is ultra secret. Any civilian who is present in the towns and villages can gather this information. No heroics required. It is in the military headquarters of the army who sends the spies, that real intelligence resides. All the information sent by field spies are collated and studied together. Patterns are established. Data Mining may be a recent computer technology. But military intelligence personnel were aware of techniques to extract valuable information from a mass of mundane information. Just to give an example, based on the number of soldiers sent for patrolling, you could infer whether the garrison is a brigade or a division. An attack on a brigade is a different ball game as compared to taking on a whole division. The fact that the exclusively Punjabi soldiers were being sent for patrolling, Indian army could infer that the Bengali soldiers of the Pakistani army were no longer trusted. This would make it easier to march in to those areas where Bengali troops were deployed. Areas inundated with water were also easier targets as the local Mukti Bahini boys would find much easier to navigate through the water logged fields as compared to much bigger built Punjabi soldiers of the Pakistani army. This tactical information that Punjabi soldiers were rendered immobile in waterlogged areas was also a result of mundane spying that studied the rate of movement of soldiers - something that could be inferred from a series of simple data points being sent from a large number of spies.

The intelligence derived from the exoteric facts sent by the large number of spies distributed over all the areas of East Pakistan, was a crucial determinant of the final outcome of the war. But individually, the spies achieved little and did nothing spectacular. Not the kind of stuff that would make a movie, anyway.

I am starting to see a pattern here - mainstream media highlights what is actually unimportant and is silent on what is really effective - perhaps because they don't sell as much. But this would be grossly unfair to those who actually bring in the results. Consider these:
1) There is so much hype around MBAs. Specially, those who get dollar salaries abroad. But the reality is that bigger impact is made by "regular" MBAs and those who don't even have an MBA! (Bill Gates, Walmart, Ambani etc)
2) There is so much hype around each gyrations of the SENSEX. But real wealth is made by owning the right assets in the right proportion over the long term.
3) There is hype around sophisticated Weaponry. The reality is that the most lives in a war are lost due to not keeping the head down!
4) There is so much hype about sophisticated medicines and gene research. Most number of people can avoid diseases and death by the simple of act of washing hands before eating and boiling water before drinking. Water borne diseases is the No. 1 killer of the world.

As in the case of spies, what the media portrays is far away from reality. This is one reason why I have stopped watching TV long back. Next in line, is the newspaper perhaps.


At Saturday, December 03, 2005 1:11:00 AM, Blogger Ajay said...

hey u have given Gr8 info man........... what i was thinking was wrong about the spy.... yeah its realy a gr8 blogg.... reading such a nice 1 after a very long time... hope u continue the same...

At Thursday, December 08, 2005 10:07:00 PM, Blogger maikhanaah said...

very nice -


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