Charlie Stross on spooks: paranoid, fumbling, all-powerful

Charlie Stross, who's written a rather wonderful series of spy novels disguised as fat fantasy novels, has a fabulous riff on the surrealism of spies, who are often incompetent, paranoid nutcases, vested with terrifyingly limitless power.

I've been reading up on spies and their whacky goings-on for a couple of decades; they're all a bit bonkers, in a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction way. In fact, the truth is vastly stranger than anything one can get away with in fiction. From the CIA feeding LSD to an elephant, or MI5 searching for evidence that Prime Minister Harold Wilson was a Soviet mole, Mossad mistaking a Moroccan waiter for a PLO terrorist mastermind (and murdering him), or the DGSE, convinced that Greenpeace were agents of an Anglosphere Conspiracy against le Francaise, sinking the Rainbow Warrior—they're all batshit crazy, so far up their own funhouse-mirror-lined reality tunnel that they can't see daylight. Except the Soviets, of course, who were merely paranoid (for the CIA, DGSE, MI5, Mossad et al really were out to get them). And they believed James Bond movie props were real, and told the Soviet industrial complex to make them some. (Which then didn't work, because James Bond movie gadgets are just film props. But I digress.)

The surrealism of the intelligence community has been snowballing out of control since the end of the Cold War took away their 1914-1990 raison d'etre. Losing the cold war let the brakes off, as they went into full-blown panic mode looking for a new mission—and new techniques in pursuit of that mission. It coincided with Moore's Law and the explosion in computing power we've seen over the past few decades. Then the War On Terror came along; a brilliant excuse for pandering to every paranoid's fantasy and claiming a vastly increased budget, because nothing is more flexible than a war on an abstraction. And these things have a bureaucratic logic of their own…

…So picture me, rubbing my hands in glee and trying to extrapolate just how much worse the security/surveillance state could be, circa 2020, in a time-line where Washington DC was attacked with stolen nukes in 2003 by narcoterrorists from another parallel universe. And I think I've got a pretty good handle on how mad our Spook Century is going to be, until I run across stuff like the NSA bugging Angela Merkel's phone, or GCHQ bugging Belgacom, the main Belgian phone company, to snoop on the European Parliament.

And their code-name for the latter piece of work? "Operation Socialist". See! The Cold War legacy marches on!

Every time I think I've maxed out the satire and rotated the dial all the way up to 11, something from the Snowden leaks surfaces and the spooks make my worst paranoid tin-foil hat ravings and confabulated satire look ploddingly mundane.

Spook Century