LONDON (Reuters) - When it comes to fiction, Britain’s foreign intelligence chief prefers John le Carre’s spy-catcher hero George Smiley over the brash antics of Ian Fleming’s James Bond.
By exploring treachery at the heart of British intelligence in spy novels, le Carre challenged Western assumptions about the Cold War by defining for millions the moral ambiguities of the battle between the Soviet Union and the West.
Alex Younger, the chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, said in a letter to The Economist magazine that he bridled at the moral equivalence of le Carre’s novels but felt that spy services offered a reflection of their countries.
“The Stasi told you all you needed to know about the East German regime. SIS, and our sister services, GCHQ and MI5, tell you a lot about modern Britain,” Younger wrote.
“Despite bridling at the implication of a moral equivalence between us and our opponents that runs through John le Carre’s novels, I’ll take the quiet courage and integrity of George Smiley over the brash antics of 007, any day.”
Unlike the glamour of Fleming’s unquestioning 007, le Carre’s heroes - such as Smiley - were trapped in a wilderness of mirrors inside British intelligence which was reeling from the betrayal of Kim Philby who fled to Moscow in 1963.
In le Carre’s novels, Smiley seeks to track down a Soviet mole at the top of Britain’s secret service and battles with Soviet spy master Karla, ultimate master of the mole who is sleeping with Smiley’s wife.
Smiley made a brief return at the end of le Carre’s most recent novel, “A Legacy of Spies,” though he is outraged at the state of modern Britain when lawyers drudge up one of his Cold War battles.
Younger, a career spy who joined MI6 as the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, said Britain’s intelligence services were not mavericks, though he did allow that they sometimes broke the rules, though not laws.
“We do things in defence of national security that would not be justified in pursuit of private interest,” said Younger, who became chief of MI6 in 2014.
“But only when they are judged by ministers to be necessary and proportionate. We break the rules, certainly; we do not break the law,” he said. “It is creativity, innovation and sheer guile that give us the edge.”
Editing by Stephen Addison