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by John Helmer, Moscow 

Elephants are the truly self-knowing creatures of our world.

We know this because when they are about to die, they go somewhere no one else can find. It’s the elephantine way of saying they aren’t convinced they are leaving anything behind that’s worth remembering, so in their last act of will, they escape the speculators.   

Not so writers, especially the big-money ones. Thus, when John Le Carré (aka David Cornwell) died over the weekend, we know that it happened in Truro, Cornwall; in a hospital; and that the cause of death was pneumonia, but not the Covid-19 type.  He was 89 years old.  

His commission agent issued a statement claiming he should be remembered for having “define[d] the Cold War era with the help of his character, George Smiley, and through his complex plots and beautiful prose, beamed a harsh light at the injustices of our world.” In marketing circles this is known as talking your book. The agent attached two hyperboles – one approximately true, one absolutely false. “He has sold more than sixty million copies of his work worldwide. His like will never be seen again.”

The Murdoch Times also tried hyperbole: “[Le Carré] created a new school of fiction, not so much spy stories as anti-spy stories, convoluted tales of disillusionment and betrayal.” The Financial Times cut the pedestal down by several notches. “[He] elevat[ed] the spy novel to a higher literary form that reached well beyond the flimsy, hard-boiled, action-packed capers often common to the genre.” If you think about that for an instant, it’s no reach at all. It’s a description of the FT’s reporting on Russia.     

The Guardian momentarily suspended its Russia-hating obsession to record the career and personal betrayals Cornwell performed against fellow Englishmen when he was employed as an agent, first of MI5 and then of MI6. Evidently, there was much worse he did to them, but the newspaper’s obituarist added: “the precise details of his work have never been spoken of.” This comes close to the truth about the Le Carré books – from them we learn next to nothing about the other side, only how discreditable our side is.

“Always George’s problem,” le Carré wrote in his last tale of his best-known MI6 officer, George Smiley, “seeing both sides of everything.” About the Russians, not so — not Smiley,  certainly not Le Carré.  

It was clear last year that he had ceased to have his wits about him when he wrote the following to be pasted on the front cover of a book MI6 had dictated about the Skripal affair  to a BBC correspondent called Mark Urban. “A scrupulous piece of reporting,” Le Carré wrote —  “necessary, timely and very sobering”. Later, when the evidence was pointed out to Le Carré that he had been quite wrong, and was asked to set his own record straight, he arranged the following pretence with his agent. She wrote: “Mr Cornwell is away writing currently and has asked that we decline all requests for him at this time.”

Now that Le Carré is away permanently, it is time to remember his predecessor, Eric Ambler (lead image, left and right). He died also aged 89; that was in London in 1998. At the time it was said he had “raised the thriller to the level of literature. He brought intellectual substance to the genre at a time when it often suffered from shortages of surprise, maturity, verisimilitude and literary skill.”

On his way out, Ambler said: “Thrillers are respectable now. Back in the beginning, people weren’t quite that sure about them. But ‘they really say more about the way people think and governments behave than many of the conventional novels. A hundred years from now, if they last, these books may offer some clues to what was going on in our world.”

With elephantine flair he titled his autobiography “Here Lies Eric Ambler”. There Ambler tells of creating “Soviet agents who were on the side of angels”, and the “only Communist Party speaker who ever carried conviction with me”. Ambler amused himself, and also the reader, when eating eggs on toast in a café on the Edgware Road with the Communist and a professional burglar. According to Ambler, the latter told the former: “I suppose you could say that I redistribute wealth”.

In the real world Cornwell would have reported to his superiors on them both; in his fiction Le Carré would have affected guilt.   Ambler judged both to be laughable, the latter more so.

Here lies Le Carré

But Ambler is in a truer place, so let’s re-visit it.

Long before David Cornwell  retreaded an insignificant career gathering facts at M15 and MI6 into lucrative fiction about espionage, Eric Ambler created the genre from an insignificant career telling lies at an advertising agency. In the Le Carré business model, characters of several nationalities close to ourselves lie,  double-cross, and moralize their heads off, but no one gets to keep the big money,  except for Le Carré.

In his most artful work, The Intercom Conspiracy,   Ambler told the story of two NATO-country officers devising the business of publishing secrets for the purpose of making a fortune from getting paid to stop.  Ambler’s breakthrough was to realize the warfighting agencies of Washington, Brussels, London, and Moscow will pay bigger money for silence than for lies.

When it comes to today’s info-war against Russia,  Ambler’s business model ought to be more profitable than Le Carré’s.  So why is all the American, NATO, university and foundation money being spent on see-through fabrications and B-grade liars?  Answer – in war, truth has no operational value unless it’s secret; and no asset valuation until the war’s over and the truth-tellers have won. If you lose the war, the truth has no market value. You are too poor to pay for it.

In The Intercom Conspiracy a newsletter is issued weekly by an American with a retired general’s star; he’s a cross between Philip Breedlove, the current [2015] NATO commander,  and Anne Applebaum, wife of a no longer current Polish politician:  vain, unfunny, balmy. After eating too much dinner, the general drops dead.  His publication is then bought by two serving NATO officers, colonels from the intelligence branches of their armies. One is too subtle to be Dutch; the other too short to be Swedish.  They are neither as eccentric as Englishmen, nor as obedient as Germans.  To be precise, they are cool risk and profit calculators like the Geneva resident, Ambler himself.  

For a copy: http://www.amazon.co.uk/y

Code-named SESAME, the disclosures, which the two plotters feed to the Intercom newsletter, start with test results for a new NATO fighter aircraft revealing it fails to make design speed and is unstable at subsonic speed. Then follow bulletins on storage problems for Soviet rocket fuel; specifications for US military procurement of weapons silos; the workings of a Soviet-made field seismograph for detecting underground atomic tests; the name of the KGB rezident in Oslo, Norway; and the innards of a British torpedo.

Several journalists get into the act.  A false-front reporter is from the CIA. The KGB pretends to be a couple of French academics. The British, German, and French services are slow on the uptake, and must play catch-up throughout. The more they all pressure the newsletter writer, an ill-paid, heavy drinking Canadian, the higher the price goes for the shares of the name-plate company which owns the publication, and supplies the SESAME secrets.  It doesn’t take long for the “nasty suspicion” to dawn in the mind of the Canadian that his publication is a test run for the “introduction of modern sales methods in the world’s second oldest profession”. To keep doing what he’s told, and quench his qualms, he’s offered a bonus by the proprietors.  

A slap in the face, a disorientation drug, and concussion from a car colliding with a lamp post  near Cornavin railway station in Geneva comprise the only violence —  until the very end.  Sex is ruled out because the KGB sends a lady who is “a Junoesque welterweight with greying black hair, a muddy complexion and the smouldering eyes of a martinet.”  

The only pretence of morality is displayed by the Swiss counter-intelligence corps. According to Ambler, they are impelled by “the suspected violation on Swiss territory of a Swiss law designed to protect Swiss neutrality.” Swiss neutrality – now that’s a quaint anachronism, isn’t it? Click for answer.

Ambler (right) was writing in 1969. Apart from his own investigation of investigative journalism in the plot, the other practicioner  disappears from Geneva airport at the start of the tale. At the end,  his disappearance is tracked across the Swiss border behind the airport at Ferney-Voltaire, France. His fate was to have been killed quickly, without pain, and his corpse dropped into the concrete mould of a construction site, never to be found again. He has no character, so his fate isn’t lamentable. Ambler puts it down to incautious greed for saleable information, if not exactly for truth.

Now that Europe is at war, does action follow fiction? Are there deal-making lessons to be learned from Ambler’s tale of the knowing colonels? Who now shall benefit from the sale of the truth?

The parts of the Intercom newsletter, and its owner, Interform Foundation, and behind it Intercom Publishing Enterprises A.G.,  are today played by hundreds of media publications, foundations, think-tanks, and corporations, including government organs and the parasite, er parastate entities known as universities. For this cast of characters, start here.   

For them the war against Russia – psywar, info-war, hybrid war, sanctions war, economic war – started with a sequence of five big events in 2014 — the Maidan sniper killings of February 18 to 20;   the overthrow of Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich on February 21; the secession of Crimea from Ukraine and accession to Russia in March; the start of armed operations in the Donbass in April; and the shooting-down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in July.  The truth about the causes of each of these events – proximate and ultimate – is much investigated, much reported, much debated.  

Notwithstanding, there has been no disclosure of authentic classified intelligence on these cases from any of the government agencies directly engaged in what took place. Not in official reports to parliaments, nor in leaks by officials into the public domain, nor in publications in the press.  Not one whistleblower among the several thousands employed has communicated with the dozens of centres of investigative journalism whose mission – so they claim – is to gather and analyse the evidence otherwise missing from the public record.  For an example of how incomplete and unbelievable the official investigation of the MH17 crash is proving to be, read this.  

Nor have the watchdog organizations associated with Wikileaks, Julian Assange (below, left) , and Edward Snowden (right) reported a single fact or circumstance to explain the pervasive silence. They cannot  break it either.

How then is it possible for Europe to march into war over an 18-month period, and for so little truth to be recognized about what has happened – never mind how much disagreement there is on all sides about how to interpret the facts?

The answer from The Intercom Conspiracy is simple. The purchase price for keeping the secrets of the war against Russia must be a multiple of the hundreds of millions of dollars being budgeted for waging the info-war on all sides, including the Russian side. But the payoff can’t be enough to ensure the silence of all those engaged in this war. Are they brainwashed? Afraid? Are they patriots? Are they comfortable at their posts, homes, holidays?

Ambler is much too dead to say. We might as well be.

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