Espionage in its Public and Private Faces

Posted on May 31, 2012 by


Shore, Cris.  2011. “Espionage, Policy and the Art of Government.” In Policy Worlds: Anthropology and the Analysis of Contemporary Power. Cris Shore, Susan Wright, and Davide Però, eds. Pp. 169-184. New York: Berghahn Books.  Abstracted by Brian J. Delas Armas.

Shore explores the idea of policy as a legal-rational tool of governance, as an instrument for state power, and as a diagnostic itself for analyzing art of government.  Shore attempts to understand how policymakers talk about policies in the public sphere in attempt to control the public debate and forge certain outcomes.  He uses a case study of a scandal that happened in February 2004, in which it was revealed to the public that the British security services were spying on the United Nations (Shore 2011: p 169).  It turns out that they were doing so in efforts to secure a Second Resolution from the United Nations to justify entrance into Iraqi war.

Shore uses personal accounts and newspaper interviews and transcript which he calls a “non-local” ethnography (p. 170).  His aim is to construct an ethnographic narrative, triangulating against other sources with public documents and informant narratives.  He concludes the article saying that Anthropology offers a diagnostic for understanding how modern states operate in practice and the complex ways individuals interact to shape governing.

He makes three points about how policy can be viewed (pp.171-172):

1)  Policy can be used as an instrument that promotes efficiency or achieving rational objectives.  The policy in question will be disguised as neutral, legal and rational.

2)  Policy can legitimate actions.  Policy can outline a course of action, and fixes coursework within a frame of universal-sounding principles, disguising authorship and self-interest.

3)  Policy can also be a diagnostic of power, an instrument to analyze itself.  So he uses his colleague’s and newspaper accounts of what happened in this particular case.  This public discourse makes up the bulk of his analysis.

Shore brings up the case study starting with his colleague (p. 173).  Shore’s colleague had been upset at the British entry into the war in Iraq and “stitched upness” of the reasons for going to war.  As evidence of the “stitched-upness” of the reasons and evidence of threat for going to war, the colleague cited a few events: the resigning of a Deputy Legal Advisor and the fact that only one jurist held the view that Security council resolutions provided a basis for the invasion of Iraq.

Months later, a legal case was mysteriously dropped in which the defendant might raise some doubts about the credibility of proceeding with the war in Iraq (p.174). Ms. Gun, a Mandarin translator leaked to a newspaper a secret that reveal plans to bug members of UN Security council before a vote that would approve the Second Resolution that would authorize going to war in Iraq.   Ministers insisted that the case collapsed because the Crown Prosecution Service could not secure a conviction, even though it had been known to be a straight-forward  “open-and-shut” case.  The official discourse was that they didn’t have a case against her.  However, some analysts suggested that they dropped it because a politically insensitive document related to Iraq would come out.

Former government official Clare Short, who resigned her post in protest of the policy in Iraq, was asked by the BBC to comment and speculate on why the case was dropped (pp. 175-176).   Clare Short said that Britain was going to bully its way to war by pressuring countries through use of intelligence or security services.  Clare short then revealed that the British government was spying as if it were a matter of fact.

The incident sheds light on how states operate in private away from the public discourse.  Spying is not a practice to be acknowledged in the public sphere, namely because it suggests a hint of mistrust or disconnection as to the orderliness of government operations.  Tony Blair could not comment on these spies dismissing comment in the interest of public interest and security.  The United Nations expressed shock that such activities were taking place.  Privately though, the fact that they used spies on the UN was a source of amusement. The UN has been known to be a “magnet” for spies, and had been tapped heavily (pp. 177).  There’s an understanding that everyone spies on everyone, and that having a spy may actually be a source of status.

Attempting to deflect questions of spying, Blair attempted to contain this problem by publicly chastising her (p.178).  He said that what she did was unprecedented; her actions represented a breach of trust between security services and ministers, the 1989 Secrets act, and the Oath of Loyalty to the crown.  Sir Andrew Turnbull issued a directive letter to her to stop giving interviews on the subject.  She responded saying that the Minister Turnbull was simply trying to rush the decision to enter Iraq and that the real breach was in how the Prime Minister’s spokesmen were put in charge of a committee.

Shore had four observations of the case study (pp.180-183):

1)   The art of government is about the liberal rationality of government as well as shaping political agendas and controlling the terms of debate.  Attempting to keep his public face of “unwavering” support pledged on 9/11 to George W. Push while having some type of legal basis to take action, it appears he sent spies to secure a Second Resolution from the UN in the first place.

2)  Commitments appeared to have been made before legality was established.  Some pundits believed that Blair believed his powers of persuasion would be able to get a UN resolution.

3)  The public denials of the existence of spies speaks to a double moral code lived by policy-makers and politicians. For example, spying may have been source of external embarrassment but provide insiders insurance of common sociality.  Politicians have to act surprised.  By refusing to say a lot things out loud or visible, governments protect selves from having to confront them.

4)  Policy can be messy and determined by small networks of people.  The case highlighted tension between Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Office.  Tony Blair’s cabinet of personal closed-knit group of friends made all the big decisions.