The Modern Rules of Espionage

Our catalog has a couple of smart, modern spy thrillers by former top-level French intelligence officer and award-winning thriller writer Bernard Besson. His team of freelance operatives must unravel the consequences of global warming on the geopolitical landscape and discover the intricacy of high-frequency online trading. They struggle to maintain their independence where the loyalties of official agencies are not so clear and corruption and political machinations are everywhere.

I’m fascinated with this world of espionage and recently took a moment to review my conversations with Bernard to come up with a list of some modern rules of espionage.

  • Ninety-five percent of an intelligence officer’s assignments consist of gathering information and verifying it. Computers and software, along with general knowledge and conversational skills are more useful in this area than guns.
  • In today’s world, technology allows everyone to intercept everyone else’s communications. Official intelligence circles are only part of the problem. The greatest threat comes from the uncontrolled private espionage.
  • Intelligence professionals must do more than intercept communications and messages. They have to analyze and understand the conversations they hear and the images they see.
  • Information is not a spy’s only target. Another real strategic objective is to understand the other’s intentions and way of thinking. In June 1944, Hitler had a large reserve of SS Panzers in Belgium. The Allies knew this, but was Hitler’s intention to send them to Normandy? If he had done it right away, he would have held off the Allies. Fortunately, he did not and lost the battle. The Allies did not need to chase cars through the streets of Berlin to find out this kind of information. A spy needs to be in the trust of well-informed people.
  • Classic techniques are still useful, such as using knowledge of the other’s methods to your own advantage. French national security agents have been using it at least as far back as the Hundred Years’ war that pit France against England in the fourteenth and fifteenth century.
  • Gadgets and technology can come in handy, but since the times of Julius Caesar, King Louis XIV and Alexander the Great, spies have worked with their minds. The human brain has no equal as far as software goes, because of its capacity for emotion and its power of conviction. Spies are trying to guess the opponent’s strategy, confidence, personality, and beliefs.
  • A good intelligence service is one that asks the right questions. Information itself is not hard to come by. What is difficult is knowing what you actually are looking for.
  • A good spy is discreet, polite, attentive and has real common sense. He or she has to listen to the silence, what is not said, and notice the hesitations. A good spy is armed with patience and good general knowledge.
  • Today, keeping things top secret is less important than being quick to think and to gather information. 

Thanks, Bernard, for these insights. 

Recommended reading

Ben Macintyre wrote a fantastic book about the real-world spycraft, which I highly recommend: Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory.

In our world of rapid climate change, The Greenland Breach gives you an entirely different perspective on how we are all being impacted. The blood splattered on the ice sheets of Greenland belongs to shadow fighters, mercenaries fighting battles we don’t learn about on the evening news.

What about technological disruption? In The Rare Earth Exchange, you get a heart-pounding story that could have been ripped from the headlines. What happens when a grain of sand throws off the well-oiled international finance machine?

Translator Sophie Weiner Goes Train-hopping in Paris

Sophie Weiner, translator

Sophie Weiner has translated a number of books for Le French Book. The latest is The Rare Earth Exchange by Bernard Besson, another action-packed spy thriller, this time  in a world of high-frequency trading where manipulation and corruption reign. The main characters live in Montparnasse in Paris. Here Sophie recalls her memories of that neighborhood.

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   Crêperie Port-Manech on the Rue du Montparnasse

Crêperie Port-Manech on the Rue du Montparnasse

Daguerre Village, a neighborhood located in the Parisian district of Montparnasse, is the home base for our crime-solving trio in both The Greenland Breach and the upcoming The Rare Earth Exchange (both by Bernard Besson). Montparnasse has special significance for me because much like the Bretons who settled there during the turn of the twentieth century (bringing their traditional crêpe-making talents along with them), it was via Montparnasse that I arrived in Paris for the very first time in the fall of 2006. I was spending my junior year abroad in Tours, a city whose TGV railway’s terminus ends at the Montparnasse train station because of its southwestern proximity to the capital. Other major lines feed into either one of Paris’ six remaining stations: Gare d'Austerlitz, Gare de Bercy, Gare de l'Est, Gare de Lyon, Gare du Nord, and Gare Saint-Lazare. As soon as I had a free weekend unfettered by schoolwork or program-organized excursions, I dashed to the Gare de Tours (designed by the same architect that would build Paris’ famous train station-turned-museum, the Musée d’Orsay) and took the easy hour-long train ride to Paris, where I was welcomed by the giant Lion of Belfort statue guarding the Place Denfert-Rochereau.

Montparnasse Revisited

Four years later, I was back in Paris, this time to earn my master’s degree. Once again, I found myself in the fourteenth arrondissement as my program had suggested we seek housing in the American residence at the Cité Universitaire. I jumped at the proposition since after reading A Moveable Feast I was eager to discover Hemmingway’s old stomping grounds and the residence was only an RER train stop away from Montparnasse. In the end, I often opted for the twenty-minute walk whenever venturing to that neighborhood as the regional express rail was not the most pleasant public transport experience—especially at rush hour. During these outings, I visited the graves of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Serge Gainsbourg, and Charles Baudelaire inside the Cimetière du Montparnasse, I went to cafés frequented by the expat novelist and his “Lost Generation” friends, I took in panoramic views of the entire city atop the Tour Montparnasse, I saw films at any one of the district’s many movie theaters followed by savory and sweet crêpe dinners on the Rue du Montparnasse. Not only did images such as these swim in my mind as I worked on the scenes in The Rare Earth Exchange set in Daguerre Village, but I learned of new spots to discover on my next trip across the Atlantic.

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   Serge Gainsbourg’s tomb in the Cimetière du Montparnasse

Serge Gainsbourg’s tomb in the Cimetière du Montparnasse

What is spooking today's spooks?

Bernard Besson, a former top-level French intelligence officer and the award-winning author of The Greenland Breach, shares some thoughts about spying in today's world. This list first appeared on Strand Magazine's blog. Click here to see the original article: The Top Ten Things Today's Spies Worry About. 

  1. The “democratization” of spying. Intrusive technology used to eavesdrop, film, and track people and connected objects are for sale everywhere. Anybody can become a spy and set up surveillance at a very low cost. My neighbor, or my competitor, can do what the CIA, the MI6, or the French DGSE can do.
  2. Multispecialization. To stay on top of intelligence gathering today, spies need to be specialists in sound, images, big data, social engineering, shadowing, ghost surveillance, profiling, rare languages, and so much more. Selective knowledge is no longer enough.
  3. Stress. Levels of stress in the intelligence community have never been higher. Everyone wants to know if they are being fooled, followed, or listened to. Companies and agencies that employ spies are more and more demanding and know more than they did before. Corporations want to know about their competitors; consumer groups want to know about their car engines; athletes want to know if their opponents are doping.
  4. Robots. Big data has made robotization, or automation, a necessity. Algorithms are becoming the spies of the twenty-first century, while bipedal spies are being laid off. There are even machines to spy on other machines spying. Let’s hope the robots understand what is going on.
  5. Transparency. As citizens and consumers demand more transparency, governments and intelligence agencies face pressure to make data available to everyone. There are no more secrets. Nearly everything is public.
  6. Decision making. Power in the hands of a few causes anxiety. Political and economic decision-makers no longer know where the world is going. They no longer have time to read the massive amounts of information available and the contradictory interpretations of that information. They are looking for “hidden intentions” lurking in big data, and the experts contradict each other. Here, spies play a role akin to that of an ancient priest, or diviner, helping to make sense of the information. The role is therapeutic.
  7. The thirst for truth. As the general public becomes better and better informed, it no longer pardons the powers-that-be when the latter don’t know when a bomb is going to go off, if corrupt officials had certified the ship that sank, or if crooks manage the bank. Prior to disaster, forecasts are generally optimistic, but it is always the unforeseen that occurs. The unforeseen, which causes terror in business leaders and politicians, is the bread and butter of spies.
  8. The meaninglessness of information. In and of itself, information means nothing. It is the reader who can tell us something. Facing the competition from robots, spies survive because they are human and have personal experience. These qualities make it possible to perceive what is not said. The twenty-first-century spy is the one who hears the silences, who sees what is absent, who perceives the underlying signals, and who uncovers lies that are wrapped in truths.
  9. What we don’t know. Secrets are not found in information or in big data, but in what we don’t know, when we transform that into a question. Efficient spies do not look for information: they look for the answer to a question. The more skillfully crafted the question, the more strategic or decisive the response. A good spy can spend nine hours figuring out what he’s looking for, and an hour finding it.
  10. Collective intelligence. Today’s spy is someone who can lead a community of analysts and watchers.

Explore numbers 8 and 9 in The Greenland BreachAnd later this year, Bernard will bring us The Rare Earth Exchange for another look at number 4.