SpyCast 5.31.22
Ep 541 | 5.31.22

“My Life Looking at Spies & the Media” – with Paul Lashmar


Andrew Hammond: Hi, and welcome to "SpyCast." I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, historian and curator here at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "SpyCast's" sole purpose is to educate our listeners about the past, present and future of intelligence and espionage. Every week, through engaging conversations, we explore some aspect of a vast ecosystem that looms beneath the surface of everyday life. We talk to spies, operators, mole hunters, defectors, analysts and authors to explore the stories and secrets, tradecraft and technology of the secret world. We are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax and enjoy the show.

Andrew Hammond: Before I introduce the episode, I just want to ask that if you enjoy the show, that you leave a review on Apple Podcasts. Ratings really count for a lot these days, and even a single sentence would help. So onto the episode. 

Andrew Hammond: This week's guest is investigative reporter and current head of the Department of Journalism at City, University of London, Paul Lashmar. Paul has spent almost his entire working life looking at the links between spies, intelligence and the media. Seemed like a great idea for a "SpyCast." I hope you agree. He has worked across the media landscape as a producer for the BBC, as a broadcast journalist for "World In Action," a British investigative current affairs show that won many awards and brought down government ministers, and as an investigative journalist for The Observer newspaper, where he co-wrote the original story of the Spycatcher allegations that was injuncted by the British government. He won reporter of the year in the 1986 U.K. Press Awards. He is the author of "Spy Flights Of The Cold War," "Britain's Secret Propaganda War," and most recently "Spies, Spin And The Fourth Estate." In this episode, we discuss Paul's life and career spent looking at spies in the media, the similarities and differences between investigative reporters and spies, intelligence overseers as either ostriches, cheerleaders, lemon suckers or guardians, intelligence agencies and media organizations in a democracy and the Zinoviev Letter, Watergate and Spycatcher. I hope you enjoy the episode. And remember those Apple reviews. 

Andrew Hammond: So I think that there's so much that we can dig our teeth into. And I thought that an interesting way to begin would be if I just briefly read out a passage from your book, and then we use that as a launch point into a discussion. The quote is, "Over the years, I spent an inordinate amount of time talking to intelligence sources in dingy pubs where the limited natural light served to highlight how smoky the room was. On other occasions, I would be in the oak-paneled clubs of Whitehall. Sometimes, it was a question of meeting the more discreet sources at a busy rail station. If there was any question that we had to protect the individual as a source, we devised strategies to make sure neither they nor we were being followed." So the question I have is, for many of our listeners who are not involved in this business, that just sounds like being a case officer. So let's just walk through some of those similarities and some of the differences. 

Paul Lashmar: Well, yes. Well, the smoky rooms - that particularly - the one that comes to flash into mind when I talk about dingy rooms and smoke and all of that in particular - there were - particularly when you visited IRA - you went to meet members of the IRA - because you would do that from time to time if you were doing the Northern Ireland beat. And for those who have done it, you - they will know that, in the parts of Belfast where the IRA had its particularly strong support, they preferred to use bars. And those bars had a sort of airlock. So there would be a door - very secure door. Everything was grilled - grilled and protected because they were big targets, those kind of bars. And they would - you would knock on the door, and some very burly, worryingly fierce person would open it. And they would let you into the first bit to ascertain what you were - who you - make sure they knew who you were, that you - they might search you or whatever. And then, only then would they allow you into the actual bar itself. And these bars - it was very hard to tell whether it was night or day. And you would be pointed in the direction of somebody who was clearly in the know. I've done lots of different things as a journalist, but some things make you nervous. And that was one of them because you're completely in an area you're not necessarily welcomed and you're seeking to talk to someone who, if you annoy, has rather got you in the palm of their hand. So it was what I would call a cardiac-stimulating experience. 

Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) Can you pull out some of the other similarities between both professions? I'm thinking, just off the top of my head, the ability to write - so a good case officer needs to be able to accurately and straightforwardly convey a report. They need to be able to network so that they can try to recruit people. They need to be plugged in. They need to be good at observing or staying silent sometimes. So it seems to me that there's definitely a degree - a high degree of crossover. So just pull out some of the similarities for me, please, Paul. 

Paul Lashmar: Yeah. Well, there are similarities and there are some distinct differences, but we perhaps could come to that later. I mean, the ability to write clearly, which is something you have to be able to do as a journalist - I mean, I teach journalism students. And one of the ways that we make the point about being a journalism student is if, at the end of your course or a period of time, the last thing you want to do in the world is be a journalist, you've got a really useful, transferable skill because everything you ever do, you need to be able to write well. If you can write well and convey complex thought simply, that's an asset in just about everything. And particularly in intelligence because, as with journalism, in the sense that you're trying to deduce things - so you have to make it very clear what you know and what you don't know and why you're analyzing them the way you are. And that's pretty subtle stuff and it's not - you have - you know, you can only say so much. You've got to know where to draw the line. And to convey that in a report that a politician might want to read to update them or brief them, I think, is a real skill, as with doing good journalism. 

Andrew Hammond: Let's go on to some of the differences. So what are some of the major differences, as you see them? 

Paul Lashmar: Well, the ultimate difference is the job of a journalist is to publish and get it out there, and the job of the intelligence officer is usually to produce a report, but that's for a very narrow group of people to brief. I have to say, in a sense, since I wrote that a couple years ago, things have sort of slightly moved along because if you look at the whole thing that's going on with open source and crowdsourcing - I think you saw with Bellingcat, who I'm a big admirer of - but I think it's this new way of looking at intelligence. But I think what we've also seen in Ukraine is a state that's able to use its people. 

Paul Lashmar: In the past, journalists were quite secretive because you've got a story. You don't want to share it with your rivals. But intelligence officers are obviously very secretive, and therefore they - the tendency was always to keep everything in, never let anything out. But I think there's a learning process now which says that Bellingcat uses resources that MI6, the - even the CIA can't get, which is everybody out there - that's out there that's interested. So in a sense, things have changed. And I have to recognize there's a dynamic going on there. But for most of the history of intelligence and journalism, the job of a journalist is to get it out there and put it in the public print in a way that is in the public interest, whereas the intelligence agent is there to inform the politicians and their senior cohort. 

Andrew Hammond: I suppose one of the major differences and tensions would be, I imagine, since you're a journalist, you're going to have to spend your whole career with a byline. You know, your name is only going to be known to a few people. You're not going to be recognized and validated in the public domain for your work. That's also an interesting and major difference. 

Paul Lashmar: It does have an interesting knock on, though, because what you find as a journalist, if you have an interest in the history of intelligence, is even spies, after many years of working completely in secret, they come to a point in their life where they think, all that stuff I did, it can't do - for people know that it can't do any damage. And therefore they like to talk about it because, like, everybody likes a bit of recognition usually. There's very few people who don't want recognition for - if they've done some extraordinary things in their life. So as a journalist, you get to meet these people who might be in their 70s or 80s even who are finally prepared to talk to you about things they did many years before. 

Andrew Hammond: Tell us a little bit more about the links that you found when you were a young reporter. So you mention in the book that in the 1980s, you were aware that some of your colleagues had worked for the intelligence services, the security services once upon a time. So I wonder if you could dig into that but also just give us an overview of that period in time. 

Paul Lashmar: I am of the generation that was born after the Second World War. So I grew up in an environment that was very - still in the thrall of the Second World War. So an awful lot of my seniors, when I went into journalism, had been in the Second World War. And some had - and because they were journalists and they had a tendency to have been in intelligence, for instance. When I arrived at The Observer, which was 1978, and I would go down to the bar as we did in those days, there were many conversations, even within The Observer - a liberal newspaper - about who'd worked for intelligence and whether they still were. And, you know, it was a point of amusement and discussion. 

Paul Lashmar: Let me be clear, as I personally - you know, we can have a jolly conversation about intelligence and journalists, but my personal view is that the two should never, you know, cross the line. Intelligence should stay in intelligence, and journalists should stay in journalists. Second World War, you could say, provided exceptions. In a state of war, you've got a different situation. But I do believe that when you get into periods of peace, the - any blurring of those distinctions are problematic because you end up with conflicts of interest, quite frankly. But when I started to look at this, there was discussion about who was in intelligence offices in The Observer. And it was well known that the previous editor - because I was in the period of someone called Donald Trelford, but he had only recently been in the job. And before that was David Astor, who was a very famous character in his day. Astor had been the Special Operations Executive, and he'd gone to The Observer as an editor having had a fairly distinguished wartime record. But, for instance, the literary editor at that time was someone called Terry Kilmartin, who had also been in the SOE and was reputed to have saved David Astor's life at some point. So there was a sort of glamour about it, and some who had been intelligence came across. Others, like Mark Franklin, who had been reporters, had told others that they'd actually had periods in MI6. Mark Franklin, for instance, who is now deceased but was a well-regarded Soviet and East Europe correspondent, he had gone into MI6 but didn't like it and decided it was all too much of a boy's game for him. So he became a journalist. Now - and I detail that. 

Andrew Hammond: You speak about the intelligence elites in your book. So just map out those - what those intelligence elites are and how they intersect with, say, journalistic elites or with the journalistic, quote-unquote, "establishment." 

Paul Lashmar: Right. Well, the elites are largely either politicians - perhaps the foreign secretary, home secretary - who have direct responsibility for internal or external security and intelligence. Then you've got all the very senior people in intelligence - the heads of MI6 or the heads of MI5, GCHQ less so because they're very reticent generally. But, again, that's all changed over time. And when I first started out, it was all informal. So there were journalists who seemed to have intelligence agency links where they could get stories from, and this was usually done through those elites, which when I - I gave you a slight suggestion of one when I was talking about the fact that they'd been in the Second World War together. And therefore, some people had stayed in intelligence. Some of them had gone back to - back into civvy street, as they called it - into Fleet Street, actually, in this case. They'd gone into newspapers or TV. And some have become politicians, and these were networks. So these form. So you could call on a chap. 

Paul Lashmar: So when I - when you mentioned the early days of clubs - of course, that's how it would work is that, if you had a connection or called on a connection - it may be a senior diplomat who worked undercover or whatever it be - if they were going to meet you, they would meet you in a - in an upmarket club in the center of London. As you might imagine, it's leather Chesterfields, gentlemen walking around, getting your gin and tonic for you. It was all of that. In those days, it was all informal. In more recent years, I think, in the U.K., it's become more open - not entirely open. But, for instance, it's not who you knew in the war, it's who's been recommended and put in those kind of connections. And there are now, in most newspapers, somebody who is usually appointed by the editor who maintains those connections, which are sensible in many - they're - it's a sensible arrangement. 

Andrew Hammond: I was just thinking about Philby when you were talking there because, obviously, MI6 and then he was doing journalistic work during the Spanish Civil War and then in Beirut, but just before he defected and... 

Paul Lashmar: And worked for The Observer in Beirut, of course. 

Andrew Hammond: Working for The Observer. 

Paul Lashmar: Yeah. Yep. 

Andrew Hammond: And he was a very - his entry into MI6 was because he was a clubbable sort of chap. He was one of us. 

Paul Lashmar: Yeah, exactly, and Guy Burgess of Burgess and Maclean. Burgess was working for intelligence. I mean, it was - he was - in any modern sense, Burgess was completely unemployable. I mean, he was a drunk. He was offensive. He was very intelligent. But absolutely, could you imagine, in the modern-day society, having someone like Burgess turning up after lunch with a bottle of whiskey in him or whatever? It's just - it's extraordinary. But he survived because he was very well-connected. I mean, he knew all the right people. He'd been to Cambridge with all the right people. And therefore, he - it was a fact that, in those days, the establishment was very protective of its own, even if they were slightly deviant in their behavior. 

Andrew Hammond: I was wondering, like, during the course of your career, as well, John Simpson, the well-known BBC journalist - he talks about - I guess you could call it a little bit of footsie with MI5, with the intelligence agencies. And I know that you were an accredited reporter for your news organization with the security services. So I just wondered if you could tell us a little bit more about that experience. But also, before you became the accredited reporter, did you ever have a little bit of footsie or someone stroking (laughter) - trying to get you inside? 

Paul Lashmar: I know exactly what you're speaking of. And particularly with the BBC, we're in a position, for very obvious reasons, to play footsie because they were the main broadcaster and they'd be very close to intelligence. This, again, would be forged during the war period. And indeed, we just spoke about Burgess. Burgess worked for the BBC as a producer for quite a long while. But in my case, I may have been born near the Second World War, but I'm very much a child of the '60s and '70s. So my journalism was very much inspired by Watergate. I was very concerned - I became very skeptical about how the state had expanded, was working without accountability in so many different - and particularly intelligence. So I began to focus on intelligence. And, of course, the whole Watergate led to all the questions about CIA excesses and that had - that blew back into British intelligence, where it's quite clear that they - you know, it was quite clear, even to me in those days, that there wasn't enough accountability in place. And accountability has always been at the center of - the actual central plank of everything I have tried to do. So I spent quite a lot of time investigating intelligence for quite a lot of years. I started as a student and then went on to do it for the - that's how I got my first job on The Observer. And funnily enough, a good journalist, as a good intelligence officer, tends to be obsessive. And the story that I - got me into journalism, which was the British intelligence Cold War propaganda operations, is absolutely back on the agenda now because of the huge releases in the public record office in London. We - I have seen documents in the last year that I have found quite - well, much - like, it was much bigger, much more serious and, in some cases very, very dubious. For obsessiveness, 46 years pursuing the same story - I think that's not bad, is it? I have done a few other things along the way. So I've built up a lot of knowledge by talking to people. And I worked on the basis of - I spoke to people largely who weren't within who were dropping the word to a chap, you know? Like, well, if we give it to this person, they will put it out as we want it type intelligence-journalism link. I was usually working for someone who'd - was working with intelligence or had been some kind of contact who was saying, what's happened here shouldn't have happened, and it needs to be known to the public that these - that they've exceeded their powers and behaved badly in some way. 

Paul Lashmar: So that's where I picked up a lot of my knowledge and understanding. And after many years of doing that, I was on The Independent. And at that point, they wanted to start to build these formal - they're formal links, but they weren't public links. So you didn't - the agreement was - at the start of the '90s, as part of John Major, the then-PM - prime minister of the U.K., they had had so many scandals, they wanted to be seen to be more open and transparent. So he started and put pressure on the intelligence agencies to be more open. And part of that was to have these sort of links between journalists and the actual formal side of the less so GCHQ. But - so you would have someone to talk to. And that just all kicked in for me a little in advance of 2001 and that period thereafter where I was effectively a national security reporter, as they would describe it in America. And that was really useful because one was able to have sensible conversations on the basis that you would say - if there had been bombing or some terrorist act, you could contact someone that you knew was in a position to know what was going on. And you began to build up a relationship of trust where you'd say, OK, what's the situation with this? And they'd say, we think this is - for instance, this is being funded by a group of North African emigres who are supporting terrorism by check fraud or whatever it is. And you'd get good color that would help you tell your story. But it's all based on trust because one is - has to remain skeptical as a journalist, always. And if your contact within MI5 or MI6 actually tells you something that proves to be wrong and they mislead you, then that would blow. So it wasn't in their interest. So we built up reliable and quite sensible conversations over that period. And I personally think it was beneficial because, when you talk to people - real people who are doing the job and they show they are intelligent, thoughtful, and they understand things like transparency and why it's important, you can be much more willing to trust them. And I think that's one of the reasons why government goes awfully wrong when it puts in professional PRs between journalists and any organization - the ability to talk to someone who does it. And they are compelling in the sense that they are demonstrating to you in their conversation that they are professional, thoughtful people. You can trust them much more easily. So that was the advantage of accreditation. It wasn't perfect because it wasn't - you - we couldn't - for instance, we couldn't say MI6 told me last night. You had to say sources in Whitehall. And I remember an editor actually changing one of mine to something a bit too close to the knuckle - a bit too close to someone in MI6 last night said, so I had to get the editor to write an apology that we'd done that because that breached the agreement. So I said it was a move in the right step, and I'm not sure it's developed a huge amount since then, but I know it's extensive. Most news organizations in the U.K. of any substance have a link person now. 

Andrew Hammond: So for that position, your editor basically had saw that you were obsessed by this issue and had had a lot of experience in working, and then one reporter gets assigned this possession. And does that mean other people can't go to the intelligence agencies, or are you just - you're the person on point, but other people can still work with them as long as they CC you in or whatever? Like, how does it work? 

Paul Lashmar: Well, it works differently in different news organizations. For instance, the BBC have probably a number of people in that position because it's a big organization. And you get people like Gordon Corera or Frank Gardner. And I'd say the BBC gets exceptional access, which can be really irritating. I can think of - I think it was Gordon Corera did a piece not long ago where he was allowed into the room - the sort of supercomputer in the center of GCHQ and allowed to see it. No other journalist has ever been in that position. And you think that's probably pushing it a bit because that's making it very exclusive for one news organization. The Independent was a relatively small news organization, and so I was the main point person on The Independent on Sunday. But over on The Independent, Kim Sengupta, for instance, had very good contacts, but he had had them prior. I mean, Kim Sengupta is, if anybody's interested in foreign correspondence, is one of the sort of longstanding and best of the British. So he had - and he's - he goes into war zones still. I think he's been in Ukraine recently. He has very good intelligence contacts. And so you might - it's - there's still a bit of personal contact there in how these things develop. But I was, for a period - a point - I use point. But I would also then go to my own sources, developed over years, and say, look, I've just been told this. What do you think? And then you make a judgment. 

Andrew Hammond: Tell me how way off of the mark this is, but was it a little bit like when you become a White House press correspondent, where it's very prestigious and you get great access and stuff, but for some people it's seen as being a bit, OK, you hear the kind of corporate PR kind of take on things, but you're not really getting to the truth? I don't know, was part of that investigative journalistic bloodhound looking for information? Like, I feel like I'm just being condescended to a little bit, someone's just telling me the spun version of things rather than getting to the truth? 

Paul Lashmar: Right. OK. I mean, there's some nuance in here. The first thing is that there are journalists who are accredited that I think clearly do everything they possibly can not to offend their contacts. And I'm not - I wouldn't say one now because I don't think it's an appropriate venue. But I could think of journalists who I see write stuff, and I think what they're doing here is they're avoiding cutting their information source off, and they're going too far. For me, it was a - it was slightly unusual because I'm an investigative journalist by background. So I am the - I - my life is the antithesis of being a lobby journalist. I mean, lobby journalists in Parliament hate investigative journalists because we clog around in our size 13 boots all over the - and upset all their contacts. And that applies in intelligence, as well. I've never, ever wanted to be a parliamentary lobby correspondent because you're just endlessly in the position to potentially compromise by, how do you keep well-informed while, at the same time, not annoying your contacts? It's - and compromise is inevitable in that. So it was of interest to me, I have to say. 

Andrew Hammond: And I may be misremembering this or misquoting it, but it reminds me of a saying that I think I heard Chapman Pincher write about. So Chapman Pincher, for our listeners, was a famous British investigative journalist. And he spoke about - you would just turn into a urinal for the establishment. 

Paul Lashmar: It wasn't him who said it. It was someone describing him. Said... 

Andrew Hammond: Oh, is that right? OK. 

Paul Lashmar: Yes. And it's such a good quote. I used it for the - for a paper I wrote as an academic. Essentially, Chapman Pincher - there's a very good book - there's a very good academic book on the intelligence, which has an interview with him where he describes himself really as the first investigative journalist who really solidly concentrated on intelligence-related stories. So he did lots of stories around - and broke a lot of stories. I'm slightly behind his generation, and I thought he was too establishment. And I thought - I now admire him more than I did 40 years ago. But I still think he made a lot of interesting compromises. He kept his contacts within the establishment and didn't ever expose them. But in return, they would give him information. And if my memory serves me, it was possibly the famous historian - left-wing historian Edward Thompson, I think, said - described Pincher as the urinal that others leak into. And it's exactly that point. It was exactly that point - would show it was that he would keep his coterie of establishment figures who were settling scores in Whitehall for their own power politics. So he would get leaks from one politician or intelligence, which was designed to cause problems for another one. And that was the notion of the urinal. 

Andrew Hammond: I find that part of this whole ecosystem really, really interesting - the way - using these connections to - yeah, to try to influence the machine, so to speak. If you can pull a lever here by releasing information or saying this department's going to do this, then you can try to put your thumb on the scale of the institutional game, so to speak. Does that make sense? 

Paul Lashmar: It does. It reminds me of something that a very good criminologist once said to me. When you think about police and intelligence, put aside the fact that they do these glamorous and interesting things, and think of them as bureaucracies because bureaucracies work in certain ways. It doesn't matter whether they're intelligence or it doesn't matter whether they're the Department of Health or Department of Education. People are jockeying, and all bureaucracies want to expand. And this - Dick Hobbs is the - Professor Dick Hobbs - who I have very high regard, criminologist - said - this is a notion he describes as domain expansion, that every bureaucracy is seeking to expand. So it has to take out other places. It has to absorb more money, more resources, to build itself up. And so that's quite a useful thing. 

Paul Lashmar: There are certain processes as - I think, as a journalist - that may well apply to intelligence - where you should try to look at things differently. And one of the things I really emphasize, besides domain expansion, is try to think about silences. What don't you hear? And this could be, quite simply, why is someone telling me this but not something else? But, for instance, the journalist who really broke the great financial scandal around derivatives and all that was covering an area of capital markets that no one knew anything about. And this was Gillian Tett, and she was an anthropologist. So she realized that she didn't know or couldn't hear anything about this - where clearly huge amounts of money. I think it's a really important lesson for anybody is - that if you're a journalist is, OK, you're - everybody is lots of noise. It's all coming at you all the time. This is - you're being told this, you're being told that. Sometimes just sit back and think, what is it I'm not hearing? Why don't I know about this? Why is this person silent about this thing? And you would think that they might have something to say. It's a useful tradecraft thing. And it's something I try to explain to young journalists when they start out. Always think about the silence. I think it's - silence is highly underrated. 

Andrew Hammond: And how do you - how did you, personally, walk that line, Paul? So in some of the research for this interview, I heard you describe yourself originally when you started out in the '70s as I just want to be pals with everybody. I just want a pat on the back. I just want everybody to stay friends and I'm happy to do what they want. But then in the other extreme, if you just come out like an attack dog from the get-go, you're pretty soon going to find yourself - like, no one's going to want to speak to you because you're just - I don't know. How do you find that middle ground where you're, like, want to keep access so I can report on this, but I also want to dig into substantive issues and do some of the things you say in the book, which is provide some level of accountability and oversight that goes beyond what happens in formal sites of politics? 

Paul Lashmar: The first thing I would start off by saying is because I come out of the Watergate generation, there is always an assumption that I'm anti-intelligence, that I'm - somehow want to undermine intelligence. I don't. I want a people's intelligence. I want an intelligence that works to protect a democratic state. I mean, that's the point. I mean, good - you want a good functioning intelligence infrastructure because there are a lot of evil forces out there, as we are discovering at this moment with Putin. And I think all the - wherever there is - the fact is that intelligence is protected by secrecy, and abuses take place. And in the period I was growing up, it was all - it was still wrapped in the secrecy of the Second World War, much less these people should be left alone. 

Paul Lashmar: But quite consistently, when you look into it, that - those generation, particularly the ones who stayed on after the Second World War, it all got out of hand. They - I mean, I was involved with the Spycatcher case, which - in the '80s - and he made a lot of allegations about what had gone wrong 'cause he was piqued about his pension, and that he decided to talk. So he gave away a lot of information about what had gone wrong. He believed that the head of MI5 back then had been a Soviet spy, which we still don't know - less likely than perhaps it looks now. But the thing - what I learned most from Peter Wright was how inefficient MI5 was at that period because they were at each other's throats all the time. They were jockeying for power. They weren't efficient. They weren't accountable. And that didn't seem to produce - they missed an awful lot of things and they did not do a good job. Their behavior in the colonies was absolutely appalling. So I saw my work as very much trying to create an environment where intelligence agents acted in a professional and ethical way. And that has proved to be more difficult than you might think. And in the book, I talk about some of the things that happened in Northern Ireland and how people in intelligence - because they were in a war situation - thought that they were above the law. Now, once you dispense with the rule of law, it's quite hard to bring it back. 

Paul Lashmar: So I've always been - you know, my underlying thing - the central plank is accountability. Is - are intelligence agencies accountable? Are they doing their job? Are they protecting the state? And in too many cases, they haven't been. I would say a lot has changed. A lot has changed. But at the same time a lot has changed, one always has to bear in mind, all my experience tells me that if you don't have effective accountability, it will go wrong and repeat the mistakes of the past. And the problem now is with - it's much harder for a journalist to be able to reveal wrongdoing in intelligence agencies because the technology - you know, with technology and surveillance, it's much harder to avoid giving away your sources or - and therefore, it's - and it's hard to get sources now. So it's much harder for a journalist to work. 

Andrew Hammond: And I want to come back to "Spycatcher" because I find that such a fascinating book and such a fascinating affair. But before we - I think I'd like to do a deeper dive into the book, but I'm just thinking out loud as well. In terms of accountability, MI6 didn't officially exist until 1994 - right? So when you come in, it's a very different playing field compared to what it is now. So you've - you must have seen so much change and transition over those 46 years from MI6 chiefs giving speeches and all these other kinds of things that are going on. But when you came in, it was still that very - yeah, it was much more nebulous, wasn't it? 

Paul Lashmar: The famous American intelligence studies academic - I'm trying to think of his name. Loch, Loch... 

Andrew Hammond: Loch Johnson. 

Paul Lashmar: ...Loch Johnson. And he came out and decided - this thing of describing intelligence oversight people as either as ostriches, cheerleaders, lemon suckers and guardians. And he absolutely nails it with that - the idea that, you know, some people don't want to see what's going on in intelligence. Others just think it's so exciting. That's the big problem. So many politicians think it's so exciting to be hanging out with intelligence people and being in the inside. It's glamorous. They've just - they're now officially members of the James Bond fan club and they go native. Lemon suckers can't quite make their mind up. I like the idea of a lemon sucker. And, of course, guardians are the ones that actually do the job properly and actually go and check things out. And so I think there's still a long way to go with that. 

Paul Lashmar: When I first went to the States in 1981 - all that - I was still fairly new to journalism but had enough experience to know whenever you rang up anybody to find out anything difficult in Whitehall or in government, they always worked on the principle that they wouldn't tell you anything unless it was in their interest to tell - it was in their interest. And then I went to the States, and I found out that you could ring people up. You could ring people up in all sorts of power. You wanted to speak to a congressman, you could ring the phone and you get - can I speak to a congressman such? Who's speaking? From the - yeah, it's Paul Lashmar from The Observer. Yeah, OK. Can you hold on? And this congressman would talk to you and tell you pretty interesting things. So I learned very quickly that, in America, the basic position is that - in those days, certainly, was to tell you something unless there was a good reason not to tell you. And I just found the culture so deeply different. 

Paul Lashmar: And, of course, it's - the book is a development of my thesis. And I rather took the title from something that another intelligence academic, Richard Aldrich, said, which - he describes Britain as the empire of secrecy because it's so ingrained that we try to keep everything secret. And that nails it. So I've always seen it with battle with the empire of secrecy. It's to get reasonable accountability, not tell it everything. Some things - all journalists recognize there are some things you shouldn't talk about. And I'm one of those who would defend The Guardian, for instance, about the way they went around Snowden because they released very little of the material. And they never, ever released anything that could've impacted on an operational matter or given away serious operational activity. So there is a lot of responsibility. But I can't answer for all journalists. But one would hope that journalists in serious news organizations who are dealing with this area have the combination of legal, ethical and common sense to make sure that their judgments are correct. 

Paul Lashmar: And you don't do this on your own, of course. If I - on occasion, your editor will say, no, well, I think - interesting story, but I don't think we should go that far with it. I think that may be unhelpful. You're in a situation where other people will actually - you're in a team, and the team thinks deeply about the implications of anything you do on a responsible and sensible news organization. 

Andrew Hammond: And I want to get a sense of the contours of your book now, Paul. So it's quite interesting how you start out, and then we come up through World War I and World War II and the interwar period, which is quite interesting. And then, obviously, the Cold War and the post-Cold War period. I find that quite interesting to map that onto the evolution of British intelligence and British intelligence agencies. So just give us a sense of the narrative arc of the book. What kind of ground are you covering, and where do you come out on the other side? 

Paul Lashmar: Well, it was quite a strange book to write because I'm trying to do a number of different things within it. I'm looking at the relationship - and it's not a straightforward relationship. So I'm trying to look at the relationships - the different types of relationships between journalists and intelligence. And the - for instance, that may be direct contact. It can be journalists acting as intelligence officers. It could be intelligence officers using journalism - journalists as a cover. It can be how propagandists use journalists to get their material out. It's all those different things. So I was trying to map that out and I think, really, for the first time, to try and look at it with my - given that I've got a sort of academic background, trying to put it into some kind of structure as to the relationship between journalists and intelligence agencies. So to do that, you've really got to explain the - how - there's a chunk of the book which tells the history of intelligence in the U.K. really mostly since the first formal - 1909, when MI6 and MI5 were set up. 

Paul Lashmar: But I'm looking at it from a particular point of how much influenced journalists. What would - because journalists turn up all the time in intelligence. And the point I make in the book is that the - probably the reason there is an - there was an MI5 in 1909 was that the Daily Mail ran this series about the Hun are going to invade Britain. And the Mail - the Daily Mail did one of its classic operations to cause fear in the populace, and the politicians then have to respond. So they think, what do we do? Well, we better - perhaps we ought to up our game and have a Secret Service bureau. So even at the beginning, you've got a journalist who's - who is proposing this and gets his book serialized. Largely, it was fiction, although it was presented as fact. And so from the very beginning, you've got journalists, and they're all along the way - and the interplay between them. So I've tried to tell that narrative. 

Paul Lashmar: I then also try to kick in - because I wasn't born in - I wasn't working in 1909. I started in '79. So I'm trying to say - I say, well, I, as a journalist, did all, you know, the stuff that you did from that on - those years on. So I'm trying to be reflexive, as well, and say, what did I do? How well did I do it? How could it have been done better? What changed? What were the stories I'm looking at? What's my personal insight? So I tried to bring those narratives together. And that inevitably - in each of those arcs, you've got - what was that MI5 doing? How did it do it well? How did it do it badly? What can we learn from it? What are the interesting stories? Ultimately, I'm a journalist. I'm interested in stories. I mean, in the wide broader academic context, but I'm really driven by interesting stories that encapsulate particular - so if you're going to tell an accountability - explain an accountability problem, the best way to do it is through a story and say, look. This is where it goes awfully wrong, or here it's actually worked really well. And so that's sort of the way I try to approach it, to keep - and it was quite hard - I say hard to read and - to write. I hope it's not hard to read. But one of the ways I did it was I realized there were little story-ettes with it. And anybody who's seen the book will know that there's little inter - sort of interjections of a few pages, and they're slightly shaded, which are a little story that's there to explain something that happened at that point that encapsulates what the issues were. And I hope that approach, which is a bit unusual, works because it's not the usual chapter, chapter, chapter. It's a chapter, then in - may be two inserts into it to illuminate it. I'll be interested to know whether you found that worked. Did you find that worked? 

Andrew Hammond: I found that it did work. And one of my favorite books, actually, is "Europe: A History" by Norman Davies, and he does something similar because he gives you a chapter which is chronological, but then there's these inserts where, for two pages, he takes a deep dive into a theme or a personality that's important or something like that. So I actually find that change of registers, like, quite helpful. 

Andrew Hammond: But let's zero in on a few examples. Let's go back to "Spycatcher" because I think Peter Wright - like, just such an interesting character. And the book - to me, the book is like two-fifths history, two-fifths fiction, and I'm not exactly sure what the final fifth is. I feel like it's almost some Shakespeare thrown in there or something because it seems like, in act one, he's this young, smart guy who becomes MI5's first technical intelligence officer. He's trying to bring this almost Victorian mindset on personalities - he's trying to bring them kicking and screaming into the modern age. He's involved in all kinds of innovations and developments and so forth. And then it seems like, halfway through the book when he talks about Philby - how it wasn't fun after Philby defected anymore, and then it seems like he spends a lot of the final part of his career just chasing ghosts. He's - the book's called "Spycatcher," but he's not really catching spies, he's more catching phantasms that are constructed in his own mind or something. So it's almost like you see him, he's on point, he's professional, he's dealing with issues, and then he rises up the food chain and then he starts chasing shadows. And in the end, he's - says that Roger Hollis, the head of MI5, is a Soviet agent. And there's other kinds of claims that have subsequently been debunked or haven't been decided one way or the other. But I find him and that book really, really interesting. But maybe you can speak a little bit more about that - about the role it plays in your book. And also, I know that you were personally involved in this whole affair. So, yeah, just unpack "Spycatcher" and Peter Wright for us. 

Paul Lashmar: Well, in the day, it was very straightforward to me. There was a small group of journalists who - we sort of worked together. Paul Greengrass, who co-wrote the book with - who's now a famous Hollywood director - we sort of worked together because that - we pooled resources in this really difficult area. So we - that's what we were doing. And the allegations he made were pretty damn serious in lots of ways. Quite hard for us to bottom out one way or another. But in a sense, looking back, I just - maybe - this may not be - but what you've got going with him is two things I think that I - retrospectively, I probably would now - if I was the person I was back then, I might think a bit more deeply about - was he's another person who came out of the war. He lived in this closed environment of secrecy. And you have to ask, what does that do to your personality? The other factor combined with that is he had quite a bit of rejection in - within the institution. And he thought - I think he thought he was going to be the head of MI5, and he wasn't. And I think what does it for him is, when he leaves, that they screw up his pension, they don't treat him properly. And this is the sort of - the psychological dimension to someone who works in the secret world. And it's really interesting. One of the things I now know, having seen lots of example, is the impact of rejection on individuals. And rejection can make people security risks. A lot to do with Richard Tomlinson, who wrote the book "The Breach" back in the late '90s - he was an MI6 officer, and he gave a lot of information about stuff that was very interesting to journalists. But the reason he did it was they treated him badly. And rejection is a very, very powerful emotion. 

Paul Lashmar: And I think it - I don't know now, but I suspect that if you had an MI6 officer or MI5 officer and you had a sensible support system in place, you would look these days for impacts of PTSD, burnout, paranoia, all those kinds of mental health issues. In those days, going back to Peter Wright, you would probably just be told, oh, he's drinking again or whatever. Well, that's just the way of it and you'd be told to pull your socks up. Nowadays, we would be much more sensitive. And I think that Wright - his career didn't finish - and this is quite important for a lot of people - his career didn't finish this he intended, and then screwing his pension and then the agreement with - that was - end up with Margaret Thatcher, which wasn't kept to - that's what made him go into the public domain. There were lots of faults in the system, but his psychology could not deal with rejection. And that's what tipped him, I think. And as a journalist, I'm always interested in motive. What I'm really interested in - is the information in the public interest? Is it important? Is it correct? I always like to know motive because you can then see where people are coming from. We knew even then that Peter Wright's motivation was a frustration that he'd been let down by both politicians and MI5, but I think it demonstrates how important creating an emotionally literate environment for people who work in intelligence because that helps eliminate all the - many of the different kinds of accountability problems that we've discussed in the last half an hour. 

Andrew Hammond: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting that you say that because it almost seems to me like, in the book, it's almost like the author of the book has a nervous breakdown halfway through writing it and then the rest of it - the first part is tight and cohesive and then the second part just sort of unravels. And maybe that's reflective of his mental state. And it just goes to show, never mess with someone's pension, right? 

Andrew Hammond: And let's jump cut back a little bit further. One thing that I really wanted to talk with you about was the Zinoviev letter. That is just so fascinating to me. So just for our listeners, the Zinoviev letter - and correct me if I get any of this wrong - 1924. It's printed in the Daily Mail. It's a letter that was said to be from Soviet - a Soviet intelligence officer called Gregory Zinoviev to the Communist Party of Great Britain and it's basically saying, engage in seditious activities. It's published four days before the general election in 1924, and there's some debate about the effect that it had. But it's generally seen to have played a role in that election and then the reforms or lack of reforms in the Labor Party afterwards. So just tell us a little bit more about the Zinoviev letter and how that fits within your - yeah, just within, like, some of the work that you've done. Yeah, what's kind of going on there. 

Paul Lashmar: This sounds a bit like an exam question, this one. OK. 

Andrew Hammond: I can't help it. 

Paul Lashmar: OK. 

Andrew Hammond: Old habits die hard. 

Paul Lashmar: Quite. Well, the first thing I'd say is that what it was perceived to do was that it was - it influenced that election. The Labor Party, which is, of course, one of the two major British parties, was in its - still in its relative infancy but had a strong chance of winning that election. And the opinion is that the way the Mail put that out a few days before was deliberate and effective in undermining Labor's position because they were seen to be in with the Moscow, Soviet gold, that - all that kind of thing. So it was - it's always been perceived as to have had a major effect. 

Paul Lashmar: The Daily Mail, which is largely right-wing, mid-market newspaper in the U.K. played a major part in that. It's very controversial, still is to this day, the way that it operates on the occasion. And in this occasion, it - the suspicion was it had been planted with the absolute certain intent of undermining the election. And therefore, lots of people investigated it over the years to see whether that was true. And there is no doubt that the letter - it was always a question of whether it was a forgery or not a forgery. There was also a question of how it got into the hands of the Daily Mail. And it's always been attributed to either MI6 or MI5 in the various variations of the story. And it's - it has been always seen as an example of politicization of intelligence, the idea that the intelligence agencies tend to be right-wing and therefore support right-wing governments and, in this case, deliberately acted to make sure that the Conservative Party got into power. 

Paul Lashmar: So, again, it's a nice mixture of journalists and intelligence operators, newspapers and politics. It's always a good combination of elements for a story. It's been reinvestigated in more recent years by a very senior Foreign Office historian who has concluded, if my memory serves me, that it was certainly handled by MI5, this document, and it was passed on - that it was passed on to the Mail from MI5. There are at least two MI5 people involved and it was - somehow it came through out of the Soviet Union and it was passed on by MI5 and given to the Daily Mail. And I think we can - the view is that it was deliberately timed. Unusually for a conspiracy theory, this one looks like there's a good deal of truth in it. As to whether it actually really did affect the election, that's a very difficult question. It's - in those days, they didn't do the level of polling and analysis of the voting patterns. So whether it was in the mind of the populace when they voted, we don't really know. But the general opinion is that it probably did have an impact. 

Paul Lashmar: It's a bit like Brexit, the whole question of Russian interference in the Brexit. The problem is, we don't have enough empirical data to say that - what percentage of the population changed their attitude as a result of being exposed to social media that was coming from a Russian bot factory. So it's a similar kind of problem. 

Andrew Hammond: I mean, this - to me, this is one of the difficulties for the public because, OK, you're Joe Q Public or Jane Q Public, a letter gets released - in the case of the Zimmermann Telegram, not that long before 1924, it's true. It's - the Germans fess up to it. So that one's true. But then this other one comes out, which seems kind of, you know, mysterious as well. It's a bit weird and it gets published. He - it comes out and, OK, well, this earlier one was true, this one must be true. Or - it just shows you that it can go one way or the other. So how do the public know when it's on the up and up? I mean, they never do - right? - but I'm just putting myself in the position of a member of the public. How would you know whether or not Zinoviev was true or not? I mean, Zimmermann was true, and maybe the next one will be true and maybe the next one won't be true. You just never know whether the head and hand is allowing it to come out and it - because it's true, or whether the head and hand is allowing it to come out because it's not true or - yeah, I don't know. It's quite interesting. The role of the media and journalists in communicating this information is quite an interesting one. 

Paul Lashmar: And then, of course, you also forget, the environment to which this was dropped was incredibly febrile because you're in a period where the Labour Party is - this is the period of the great trade union meeting. This is the establishment at its most repressive. It's two years before the general strike in the U.K., which brought out hundreds and thousands - got millions of people on strike because they were so appalled about the fact after the war that there was a terrible depression coming and people were having trouble making a living. And, you know, and there was - the mood was, of course - what was the big thing here is the Bolshevik Revolution, which had only taken place a few years before, was still in play, where the establishment was absolutely terrified that we would have a Bolshevik Revolution in the U.K. So it was febrile. And so this thing gets dropped into the middle of it and goes off like a bomb, really. 

Andrew Hammond: Yeah, it's really, really fascinating. 

Paul Lashmar: I think if you believe in the rule of law and you believe in accountability, and you think these are two absolutely crucial things for intelligence, then this is still worth pursuing, it's still a live issue. That's what journalists are there for. As a journalist, I've got a very serious underlying motive. I do believe that democracies don't work without investigative journalists. Journalism is absolutely vital. And that sounds pompous, but it's coming from someone who still enjoys - when I get a really good story, I still get a buzz from getting a byline on the front page of a newspaper or credit on a TV. And I think sometimes you do have to put the cat amongst the pigeons. That's the job of the journalist. So I enjoy all of that. 

Paul Lashmar: But I think it's - you've got to be serious. You've got to have a moral compass. And you've got to try and make judgments in and believe in the public interest. I think that's absolutely vital as journalists. You have a responsibility. You have power because you're working for a news organization. It's great fun. Well, 'cause it is, you know, you're not immune from it. But you have to stand back and say, what's my job? What am I doing? How can I do the best I can? And there is one currency in journalism, and that's stories. So you're looking for stories. So you have to work all these things together and make sure that you - what you come up with is in the public interest. 

Andrew Hammond: Well, this has been such an enjoyable discussion, Paul. 

Paul Lashmar: It's very nice to speak to you, Andrew. 

Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Go to our webpage where you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalogue for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter @INTLSpyCast and share your favorite quotes and insights or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback, please email us at spycast@spymuseum.org. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter @spyhistorian. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum. The "SpyCast" team includes Mike Mincey and Memphis Vaughn III. See you for next week's show.