George Washington’s honesty is legendary. Even as a child, according to storytellers, our first president said “I cannot tell a lie.”
But that story was a lie. Washington was quite capable of telling a whopper — for a good cause, of course. Washington had a team of spies, and together they spread false rumors and leaked misinformation to keep the British confused throughout the war for independence.
The exploits of Washington, and other spies and spy handlers, are the focus of a new reading discussion series at the Brigham City Library.
“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” starts at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 3, in the library at 26 E. Forest St. The first book to be discussed is the title book of the series, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy,” a novel by John le Carré.
“Then we go into a nonfiction one about George Washington, as a spymaster, and there’s one about the Civil War and women spies, and Enigma, which was a British code-breaker group that broke the Nazi code during World War II,” said Sue Hill, director of the Brigham City Library.
Other books in the series cover America’s CIA and the Soviet Union’s KGB.
Branden Little, a Weber State University history professor who leads several of the discussions, is excited about the book “Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It,” by Richard A. Clark.
“Hackers and bloggers and people working on Facebook are all engaged, on both sides of the conflict in Syria, to manipulate information and spy on the activities of others through social media services,” Little said.
And he expects that the use of social media in spying will continue: “We would expect people to create new vulnerabilities without knowing, in terms of being tracked by phone, email accounts and other personal accounts.”
In an unusual move, the library is also including a children’s book on the reading list. — “Harriet the Spy,” by Louise Fitzhugh.
That book was a must-have for Kathryn MacKay, another WSU history professor who leads some of the reading discussions.
“I was bound and determined to include ‘Harriet the Spy,’ mainly because it’s such a fun book, and it’s a classic — something that everybody should know — and I don’t think adults are too sophisticated to not enjoy it,” said MacKay.
Fiction vs. nonfiction
The reading list for the annual discussion series is usually all nonfiction, but this year’s book list is mixed.
“The Brigham City Library series is designed to showcase the world of espionage, in both fact and fiction, through a series of books that illuminate the tradecraft of spies, illuminate their concerns, and illuminate the pitfalls and promises of intelligence work,” said Little.
Little’s specialty is military history. He used to work for the U.S. defense department, and interacted a bit with the intelligence community in that capacity.
“So I have an interest in the history of espionage, especially as it informs decision making for the military, as well as national leadership,” he said.
He hopes participants in the reading discussions come away with a better understanding of the world of spies, and that it’s not usually as portrayed by Hollywood.
“So much of what intelligence, in real life, involves is not glamorous,” he said. “It’s tedious, it is dangerous, and always fraught or filled with the possibility of failure — and there have been spectacular failures by the intelligence community and the policy makers they advise.”
Among those failures, he lists not detecting the invasion of South Korea by North Korea in 1950, and the failure to read the signs that China was amassing troops on the border for an invasion.
Similarly, in 1968, the intelligence community didn’t understand that the Viet Cong was planning the Tet Offensive.
“Nobody predicted it, in spite of the fact that they had troops poised,” he said. “They should have known, but they didn’t.”
Intelligence could also be faulted for not detecting the 9-11 attacks, he said, or for failing to predict that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction.
“Although these are some spectacular failures, so much of the successes are unknown, and usually only the failures come to light,” said Little. “Hopefully, these books we read will inform readers about some of the ways the intelligence community has made contributions to the defense of the nation and national security.”
Even though the failures are better known, people expect their spies to be perfect.
“There are lingering conspiracy theories about Pearl Harbor and what the president of the U.S. knew, and about 9-11 and what the intelligence community knew and didn’t know,” said Little. “I think Americans have a sense that their spies are all-knowing, and they expect them to be all-knowing, and when they discover they aren’t, they’re in a state of disbelief.”
Spies not like us
Why are there so many books and movies about spies?
“We have a fascination, I think, with the whole notion that people can fool us, or that they could get away with some things, and I think we’re intrigued by those characters who do that,” said MacKay.
Hollywood turns these characters into attractive agents with fast cars, using over-the-top gadgets, to create blockbuster films.
It’s not necessary, said MacKay, and can be disappointing after reading about real spies.
“I think some people who are not used to reading this particular genre will be both surprised and delighted to find that the real stories are every bit as exciting as fictional stories,” said MacKay. “That derring-do is evident even in the real life adventures.”