John Le Carre offers stiff warning on intelligence agencies

Recent remarks by fabled spy novelist John le Carre indicate the extent to which he is critical of intelligence agencies.

Fictional spymaster George Smiley is said to have been based on a real-life member of the British Secret Service named John Bingham. In two highly successful BBC TV series Alec Guinness took the role of Smiley.

One of the greatest spy novelists of all time surprised some fans when he took a public swipe at real-life intelligence agencies in a letter published in a UK newspaper.

In a letter published in the UK’s Telegraph, John le Carre warned that intelligence agencies could “become as much of a peril to our democracy as their supposed enemies,” if not subjected to close oversight.

From a novelist whose life work has been built on the secret stories of spy agencies, real or imagined, the remark is significant. His letter reveals the extent to which he is critical of intelligence agencies.

Le Carre's letter was written in response to news of a quarrel between le Carre and the late John Bingham, le Carre’s famous British Secret Service mentor upon whom he based the fictional character George Smiley. According to reports, Bingham “deplored” and was “hurt” by le Carre’s portrayal of the “secret world” of intelligence agencies.

“[Bingham] was not treated as respectfully as he deserved by his protégé, John le Carré, who immortalized him as George Smiley. He was hurt by the portrayal of his secret world in the novels. The author, Bingham once said, 'was my friend, but I deplore and hate everything he has done and said against the intelligence services,'” one Lord Lexden wrote in a letter published in the Telegraph.

In response to Lexden's letter, le Carre affirmed his affection and admiration for Bingham but was unyielding in his strong language about the dark side of intelligence agencies.

“Where Bingham believed that uncritical love of the Secret Services was synonymous with love of country, I came to believe that such love should be examined. And that, without such vigilance, our Secret Services could in certain circumstances become as much of a peril to our democracy as their supposed enemies,” he wrote.

He continued, “John Bingham may indeed have detested this notion. I equally detest the notion that our spies are uniformly immaculate, omniscient and beyond the vulgar criticism of those who not only pay for their existence, but on occasion are taken to war on the strength of concocted intelligence.”

News reports have pointed out the sting of le Carre’s final remarks, which no doubt point to the flawed intelligence which led to the Iraq war.

Here in the US and in the UK, the letters have inspired discussion regarding the portrayal of spies and intelligence agencies in movies and novels.

For his part, le Carre wrote “I had, and shall always have, unqualified admiration for [Bingham’s] intelligence skills and achievements. He was a most honourable, patriotic and gifted man, and we had wonderful times together. And surely there can be few better tributes to a friend and colleague than to create – if only from some of his parts – a fictional character, George Smiley, who has given pleasure and food for thought to an admiring public.”

Le Carre’s novels, and this more recent exchange on the portrayal of spy agencies, we think, provides food for thought for discerning readers to form their own opinions on the value (or lack thereof) of fictional portrayals of government espionage – and the potential dangers of intelligence services.

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