For an organization that's supposed to be "secret," the British Secret Service, MI6, is awfully famous. MI6 agents turned novelists include Ian Fleming, Graham Greene and John LeCarre, and their books — together with the film franchise starring Fleming's James Bond — have made the intelligence organization a global brand.
In a new book, Gordon Corera, security correspondent for the BBC, writes of a young MI6 operative on a mission in a remote village in Africa. The chief of a tribe greets him with a wide smile and says, "Hello, Mr. Bond." As a former head of MI6 tells Corera, "I doubt if he would have received such a warm welcome if he'd been from the Belgian Secret Service."
MI6's reputation may be based on novels, movies and myths, but Corera's book, The Art of Betrayal: The Secret History of MI6, reveals the truth behind the legends. Corera tells the story of MI6 from its defining period in the Cold War through to these times of terrorism and cyber rivalry.
Corera joins NPR's Scott Simon to discuss the changing role of intelligence operations and why spies make great novelists.
On MI6's dual nature
"I think it's one of the most interesting ways of looking at the history of MI6 in the last 50, 60 years. ... On the one hand, one end of the spectrum, you've got James Bond, this slightly fantastical character, gung-ho above all, all the talk about the license to kill, who exists in a very simple world where you know the good guys from the bad guys. ... And then on the other hand, you have George Smiley, John LeCarre's creation, who's much more a character of grays, ambiguity and subtlety.
"James Bond is all about doing things. John Smiley is all about understanding things. Now, in a successful secret service, those two things work together in a kind of creative tension. But one of the things I think you can look at, the British Secret Service in its history at MI6, and you can see how at times one or the other has predominated, has had more influence, and sometimes with disastrous results."
On MI6's successes
"I wanted to try and ... not just talk about the failures and the betrayals but also reflect some of the successes. ... There were two Russian intelligence officers who were turned and who basically became agents for MI6 and, in one case, MI6 and the CIA. So one of them was Oleg Penkovsky, who was a Russian military intelligence officer in the early Cold War. ... It's very interesting, because it's one of those cases where you can point to the way in which intelligence made a difference to policy. His intelligence made it right up to the Oval Office, to President Kennedy, helped shape some of his decision-makings and helped him stand firm against Khrushchev at various points because of what he was getting from Penkovsky."
On the newly public nature of intelligence
"I've been covering this beat now for about a decade and it's been a very interesting period because it's been the post-9/11 period, in which I think intelligence agencies have been thrust into the public domain; sometimes for reasons they don't like, when their intelligence is used to justify the war in Iraq, for instance, and then turns out to be wrong. And suddenly with terrorism, intelligence is much more in the public eye than it used to be. It's not like the Cold War, where this stuff could all take place in the shadows and all be clouded in national security and secrecy; so, I think there's been a shift in which they've been forced to engage much more."
On why spies make great novelists
"I think it's interesting how many novelists, you know, you can go back to Somerset Maugham, who worked in MI6, Graham Greene, Fleming, LeCarre, all of them had intelligence backgrounds. Now of course it's partly because they had access to great material, but it's also, I think, one of the things about human intelligence is it's about what Graham Greene called the human factor. Spying is about people; it's about getting inside people's minds and motivations, understanding why they might betray their country or the people around them, and that is intrinsically interesting, I think, and applicable to novels, because novels are often, you know, the modern novel is very much about getting inside peoples minds and understanding their motivations. So I think there is kind of an overlap, you know, not just in the excitement of the subject matter but something about the human factor and the human motivations of spying which does lend itself to people being able to try and portray that in novels and make it interesting."