Espionage in a Furry World
Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence for Anthropomorphic People
Written by Dave Bryant from notes compiled by Baron Engel
Spies and spying are at least as old as civilization. Knowing what ones enemies, and even ones allies, are up to is fundamental to planning ones own actions effectively. Like most other human activities, it began very simply, but has evolved over the millennia into a complex, sophisticated field every bit as important and fiercely competitive as military operations.
It may have begun as an outgrowth of reconnaissance—sending selected troops ahead of the main body to scout out the land and to discover whether enemy formations lay hidden, waiting in ambush. As societies and nations evolved, early techniques matured and new methods emerged. Suborning people in foreign courts, sending spies in disguise, and intercepting messages all became important, and even ancient kingdoms practiced some surprisingly elaborate and well-considered schemes. Cryptography, for instance, dates back at least as far as ancient Greece and may be much older.
Still, while the gathering of intelligence became quite advanced, the use and aims of that intelligence still tended to be straightforward. Not until the Renaissance and the growth of mercantilism did it routinely branch out from strictly military or first-order political affairs into more subtle economic or indirect political ramifications. Niccolo Macchiavelli outlined some of these new concepts in his famous work The Prince.
Rulers and their advisors began to understand that useful information lay hidden in unexpected depths and that even the most abstruse data could yield powerful insights into foreign doings. The first rudimentary efforts at analysis unearthed some of these hidden gems, and espionage, like so many other fields of human endeavor, moved gradually from an art to a science.
At the same time, the realization dawned that denying other nations similar understanding of ones own nations affairs was equally important. Counter-intelligence methods developed in tandem with improvements in spying, beginning with the elementary practice of closing the borders. Even at the beginning of the early modern world in the seventeenth century, though, many intricate and even deceptively simple concepts taken for granted today had not yet been developed. One example is the idea of secret orders, opened by a military commander only at a carefully chosen moment and possibly acccompanied by false, deceptive orders to mislead enemy spies.
The unprecendented scope of the Napoleonic Wars, and the accompanying international maneuvering, inspired still more development, and a new, faster tempo remained even after those wars died away. The Industrial Revolution and the twentieth century accelerated it still further. Even so, espionage remained largely an ad hoc activity; there were few high-level government agencies devoted exclusively to the gathering, processing, and dissemination of intelligence.
The first glimmerings of the modern espionage apparatus appeared, along with so many other elements of the contemporary world, in the Great War. Several of the European powers established formal offices to oversee espionage activities. Clumsy and unpracticed as they sometimes were, they still represented a fundamental change.
The Second World War put the polish on existing institutions and forced nations without them, such as the United States, to develop their own. What emerged from it into the grim, desperate atmosphere of the Cold War was a shadowy underworld not only of officers (spies), informants, handlers, and analysts, but of high-flying aircraft and later satellites carrying ever more capable cameras, tiny and ever shrinking electronic cameras and listening devices, and the organizational and communications capabilities to make use of the resulting stream of raw data and refined information.
The shadow world
Today intelligence, in the sense of espionage and counter-espionage, is a household word—the stuff of literary and cinematic thrillers, whether action-packed and fantastical or suspenseful and carefully researched, and of news articles and editorial essays. Even the man on the street understands its importance, even if he is not privy to all the issues and factors that affect it.
The world of intelligence is a murky one on nearly every level. The sheer volume of information to be gathered is staggering; the old simile like taking a drink from a firehose comes to mind. Plucking the significant items from that flood is difficult, the more so when one may not even be aware what is significant and what isnt. Another metaphor is that intelligence work is looking for a needle in a haystack, without knowing what a needle looks like, how many are in the haystack, or even if any are in the haystack. Not only that, but there are people doing their level best to prevent any needles from being found.
That murkiness also contributes to a corrosive thanklessness. When things go right, nobody notices, for obvious reasons. As a poster in an aerospace companys employee cafeteria put it, The first breach of security is knowing there is a secret. Merely knowing that a given piece of information is known can endanger whole spy networks: The only way they could know that would be if . . .
Criticism of the inevitable errors and oversights, especially spectacular ones, is understandable and even necessary, but often unfair, particularly if the critics have the benefit of hindsight. Yet since espionage by its nature takes place in a secretive world of shadows, the critics, especially among the public and the press, almost inevitably do not have complete information with which to make informed judgments. The criticisms may even be right—but theres no way to be certain they are.
Ways and means
The military, one of the most important beneficiaries of espionage, traditionally felt great ambivalence toward it. On the one hand, no modern force can get along without it. On the other, uniformed soldiers, sailors, and airmen often view spies with disdain or even contempt, even friendly ones. They are seen as skulkers that do not fight openly and honorably for their countries. Spies, especially in wartime, may be shot on sight in many nations, and if they are in the uniforms of the countries on which they are spying, their fates may be still worse if they are found out.
As modern technology and organizational techniques bring many traditionally separate tasks and professions closer together, this attitude is moderating somewhat. Predictably, though, those advances bring with them new perils. Perhaps the greatest of these is the tension between human and technological sources.
Human intelligence, or humint, is the old-fashioned world of spies and informants. Even today, a well-placed pair of observant eyes or ears backed by a considering brain may still be the best way of getting good information. Electronic intelligence, elint, and signal intelligence, sigint, can be thought of as the modern extensions of intercepting couriers and messages. Wiretaps, listening devices, remote cameras, surveillance aircraft or satellites, and state-of-the-art supercomputers cast a wider net, expanding geometrically the raw input through which analysts wade.
But how much emphasis should be placed on each of the various elements? The former can be effective and selective, but requires slow, patient, and unglamorous preperatory work. It may require a long enough chain of communication that the information it provides may not be completely up to date when it is received. The latter is fast, glitzy, and able to generate tremendous volume, but is unselective and incomplete, especially when circumstances make it difficult or impossible to evesdrop electronically.
Tying all of it together are the analysts, who (at least in theory) turn mountains of data into polished, comprehensible reports on which action may be taken. They too, however, like their humint colleagues, perform a job that hardly evokes visions of cloak-and-dagger thrills.
There is a strong tendency in the industrialized world, and particularly in the United States, to be mesmerized by the shiny gadgets of elint and sigint, to the detriment of traditional but boring humint and analysis. The old Soviet Union and its satellites, unable to match the Wests technical wizardry, relied more heavily on humint, though even the USSR enjoyed some clever and innovative successes, mostly with concealed bugs.
Set a spy to catch a spy
Preventing someone else from gathering intelligence is just as important as gathering ones own intelligence. In the wizard war of elint and sigint, this is accomplished mostly through jamming, deceptive transmissions, and similar hocus-pocus. In humint, often the only effective method is grinding, painstaking detective work, whether domestic investigations or foreign counter-spying.
The former is not difficult, comparatively speaking. It simply extends the arms race into a new arena as very clever and well-trained scientists and engineers continually search for new and better ways of breaking the oppositions codes and techniques. The laws of physics, after all, are free for anyone to discover and exploit.
The latter is much, much harder. Do spies exist? If so, where and who are they? It isnt enough simply to check through people in sensitive positions, because good analysis can pull astonishingly complete pictures from enough data gathered around the periphery. The crushing burden imposed by this task is why authoritarian régimes rely so heavily on secret police with broad powers and a cavalier attitude toward errors—and why free nations so often handle it with indifferent or even poor results.
Much of what is called spy fiction actually falls into this category: counter-espionage. James Bond, who may be todays best-known character of the genré, is not so much a spy as he is a troubleshooter . . . which, of course, is why it is so important that he have a license to kill.
Motive, method, and opportunity
The classic police investigators triad is useful in the intelligence world as well, and for many of the same reasons. So far this brief has glanced at method and opportunity. But what of motive? Why do people spy?
The simplest answer, of course, is to keep an eye on potential threats and to anticipate actions inimical to ones interests. This, however, leads to further questions. What kinds of threats? What kinds of actions? For that matter, how can an eye be kept on them?
Keep an eye on the court—yours or someone elses. This is perhaps the oldest of reasons for spying. If the king is to make good decisions, he has to know not only whats going on in foreign lands but what may be happening behind closed doors in his own palace. The principle applies regardless of the form a nations government takes.
Keep an eye on the faithful. For good or ill, religion has been one of the greatest influences in human history. Ferreting out heretics, infidels, and pagans has been nearly as important as keeping an eye on the courts. Indeed, in many times and places throughout human history there has been little distinction between the two.
Keep an eye on threats to the status quo. Rabble-rousers, revolutionaries, and rebels of all kinds are the most common sort of domestic threat, and the more totalitarian the régime, the bigger this problem is. There are others, though, and even the most open society has its share of troubles, especially in fiction. Aside from the all-too-real terrorists and evil corporations, there are secret societies real or imagined, mad scientists, master villains, or even aliens from outer space.
Keep an eye on the competition. Nations arent the only entities that practice espionage and counter-espionage. Large businesses have pursued it assiduously since mercantilism arose in the Renaissance, and even in earlier times merchants and craftsmen did what they could to learn one anothers secrets or protect their own.
Keep an eye on the books—yours, theirs, and everyone elses. The cash economy that rose with the Renaissance spawned such financial innovations as letters of credit and double-entry bookkeeping. With them came an awareness of the power of money and of the necessity for tracking it.
A tangled web
The covert operative inserted into a hostile country through an elaborate plan using clever gadgetry is far more common in fiction than in reality. In truth, most human intelligence comes from meticulously built networks of informants and from moles.
The former may have been suborned or blackmailed into compliance. They may have no idea they are being pumped for information: But Ive known him for years! How can he be a spy? They may be willing traitors for what they see as good reasons or at least rationalizations.
The latter may be actual spies, performing the cloak-and-dagger work so popular in thrillers. More often, though, they spend years building up perfectly ordinary-seeming identities and do nothing more sinister than gather reports from the aforementioned informants. Much effort goes into matching such handlers to the sorts of people and information they are expected to handle.
Where there is one spy, then, there are usually others. Rolling up a network often requires patience and discretion to prevent other members from fleeing before capture. As with so many other sub rosa activities, security measures are used to prevent detection and to limit the damage if detection occurs anyway. These can include cellular organization, a strict policy against making written records of any kind, and elaborate methods of communicating through seemingly innocuous signals, dead drops, and concealed passes.
The rules of the game
Despite the aforementioned contempt on the part of military personnel and the ruthlessness of many espionage techniques and aims, there is often an elaborate and usually unwritten code of conduct to which many if not most spies adhere. While the tenets of that code may seem strange or romantic on the surface, there generally are pragmatic reasons for them.
This was particularly true during the Cold War. Assassination of spies or members of their families was surprisingly rare; to kill off people without due reason was to invite retaliation. This could all too easily lead to mass murders that, among other things, would be difficult to conceal, thereby endangering intelligence operations.
For all the cold practicality and even ruthlessness of the field, in espionage and counter-espionage, like so many other conflicts between specialized, highly trained opponents, there is a certain honor and respect for ones compatriots and even ones enemies, if they seem worthy of such admiration. There is, of course, contempt for those who dont measure up to the unwritten standards of behavior and professionalism, even those who are, nominally at least, ones allies.
Theory and application
Spying and counter-spying seem to be inextricable parts of any complex, fully-formed humanlike society in contact with others, or even with significant domestic concerns. Any departures from the human template certainly will influence these activities, possibly far beyond the obvious. For the purposes of this brief, the term human will still be used, under the assumption that its meaning in an anthropomorphic world will encompass any intelligent species.
How many species are there? If there is just one, as in the real world throughout recorded history, the differences will tend to be fewer. If there are many, particularly if nations tend to form along species lines, humint may depend even more on subornation of local inhabitants. Disguise may become difficult or impossible.
Do some or all of the people vary widely from human physical norms? Tiny mice make security very difficult indeed, since a set of eyes and ears can make its way into all manner of places larger folk cannot. Setting mice to catch other mice would become imperative. Other peoples may themselves range in size, making architectural security measures challenging. Flyers make aerial reconnaissance and surveillance a possibility even in an ancient or medieval world, and likewise create a demand for other flyers to provide security.
What effects might anthropomorphic details have? Fur, feathers, and scales are tricky surfaces to work with. It is almost impossible to create a seal against them, making breathing apparatus, adhesive masks and make-up, and other such devices devilishly troublesome. Rubbing viscous oils into or onto such surfaces may help, but they would hve to be removed from visible areas before appearing in public. As well, jet-packs and tails dont mix.
Do sensoria vary? Some species might see, hear, or smell better or worse than others. Caution should be used here: people who do not perceive the world in the same way that real-world humans do will tend to develop very alien mind-sets and psychologies.
No short essay like this can do more than scratch the surface of the considerations involved in detailing vivid, believable worlds. The hope is, however, that it will stimulate the readers imagination by asking questions, pointing out possibilities, and leading the reader into asking—and answering—still more questions.
As with any topic the aspiring world-builder must address, nothing beats good research for answering such questions. Even for cultures not based on historical templates, it helps to understand what is possible or likely for a given level of technology or physical environment.
Go to . . .