Two weeks ago, Elizabeth Lapin, an English professor in New Jersey, was hoping for economic advice from her neighbour, Cynthia Murphy, who claimed to work in the financial industry. Fortunately for Ms. Lapin's stock portfolio, the plan was pre-empted when Ms. Murphy, her husband and nine other seemingly ordinary, middle-class Americans were arrested as Russian agents. On Thursday, 10 pleaded guilty to conspiracy.
"For someone who grew up during the Cold War, this feels very strange," Ms. Lapin told The New York Times. "It's suddenly my childhood breathing down my neck four doors away."
Ms. Lapin isn't the only one puzzled. In a world where we've grown used to worrying about al-Qaeda and global warming, casino capitalism and unstoppable oil spills, the sudden return of Russian spies to the front page seems bafflingly retro. Echoing the resurgence of Cold War paranoia are statements from the head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service that foreign agents such as Ms. Murphy, sent on long-term missions to infiltrate Canadian public life, are secretly in our midst.
Spies certainly make for thrilling reading: secret identities, cover stories, drop-off boxes, coded messages, double and triple agents. But at the risk of being a killjoy, I want to point out that amid all the real troubles of the world, spies are a minor nuisance. Few human activities are more futile than the great powers' game of espionage.
Paradoxically, if spies are of limited use in fighting enemies, they do have a major role to play in controlling allies.
"In the history of nations, the influence of spying has been generally exaggerated," the great diplomatic historian John Lukacs argued in his 1993 book, The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern Age . "It is true that the secret services of states have played exciting underhand roles throughout modern history. But their clandestine activities were seldom formative or decisive … [just]the gathering of precious fragments of information that may or may not confirm but that does not formulate already existing diplomatic and strategic policies."
The current batch of suburban spies didn't seem to find a single jot of useful secret information in more than a decade of eavesdropping and skulduggery. As The New York Times reports, "The assignments … were to collect routine political gossip and policy talk that might have been more efficiently gathered by surfing the Web.
"And none of the 11 people accused in the case face charges of espionage, because in all those years they were never caught sending classified information back to Moscow, American officials said."
One major reason why spies are ineffective is that they tend to collect so much information that it is impossible for analysts to find the valuable nugget of important knowledge in a mountain of trivia. After almost every major intelligence failure - the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Air India bombing, 9/11 - it turns out that crucial information gathered by spies about the coming catastrophe got lost in the endless bureaucratic shuffle of data collection.
Even when spies do gather genuinely valuable information, they often can't act on it. One of the greatest successes in the history of spycraft was the interception of secret German radio messages during the Second World War by British code-breakers, the famous Ultra secrets. Unquestionably Ultra material did help the war effort, but its importance has often been greatly exaggerated by historians who forget that the main force that defeated Nazi Germany was the Red Army, not MI-6.
Also, in 1974, Captain F.W. Winterbotham, who helped British commanders make use of Ultra secrets, stated that the British government had foreknowledge of the Luftwaffe's bombing of Coventry but didn't act on it in order to preserve the secret of Britain's code-breaking success.
His assertions have been much disputed, but they do point to a genuine and recurring problem in espionage. If you have an enemy's secrets, you often have to act as if you don't have those secrets so the enemy doesn't know what you know. In effect, spying becomes a game of infinite regress where you're always trying to guess what the other side is guessing about what you are guessing.
No wonder many major spies, such as James Jesus Angleton, head of counterintelligence for the Central Intelligence Agency during the early decades of the Cold War, have gone nearly insane - Mr. Angleton ended up thinking that virtually everyone around him, including Henry Kissinger, was a potential KGB mole.
If spies are so ineffective, why does the CIA still have a secret budget rumoured to be in the tens of billions? Why are former KGB agents, notably Vladimir Putin, still a major force in Russian policy?
Paradoxically, if spies are of limited use in fighting enemies, they do have a major role to play in controlling allies. The KGB was as much an internal agency as an external one, and spent much of its energy keeping the populations of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in line.
The same is true of the CIA, many of whose most fateful operations have taken place in countries that were ostensibly U.S. allies, notably building a durable anti-communist coalition in countries such as France and Italy after the Second World War, supporting the coup in South Vietnam in 1963, and conducting mind-control experiments in Montreal in the 1950s and 1960s.
Many of the CIA's activities weren't aimed at the Warsaw Pact but rather at nonaligned powers, such as Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran and Salvador Allende in Chile, among others.
If you are inclined to worry about spies, then perhaps think less about your enemies and more about your so-called friends.
Special to The Globe and MailReport Typo/Error