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CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: Who needs the KGB now that our phones are spying on us all day?

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A Cold War Of Spies

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Putin vs The West: At War

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Every young lad with a newspaper round dreamed of this happening to him. On a June day in 1953, 14-year-old Jimmy Bozart found a sliver of KGB microfilm hidden inside a handful of change from a customer.

The boy was delivering the Brooklyn Eagle in a New York suburb when he dropped a coin and saw it split open. His first thought was that this must be a conjuror’s prop: two halves of a five cent piece, or nickel, slotted together with a hole inside. A hole was concealed in the face, next to President Thomas Jefferson’s nose, so the coin could be prised open with a pin.

The story was reconstructed on A Cold War Of Spies (PBS), in a flickering collage of archive news film and footage featuring actors in gabardine raincoats. Jimmy handed his find to police, who passed it to the FBI — and four years later a Soviet defector named Reino Hayhanen claimed it.

Hayhanen explained how Moscow‘s sleeper agents in the States received their instructions on microfilm concealed in everyday objects. No schoolboy could hope to have such an adventure today. That’s not just because wearing trilbies and chainsmoking, both apparently mandatory for 1950s agents, are now frowned upon.

It isn’t even because newsprint and microfilm have been replaced by encrypted files sent via Whats-App — though all of us have access now to layers of secrecy that the post-war KGB and CIA could not imagine.

The story of Jimmy Bozart reconstructed on A Cold War Of Spies (PBS), in a flickering collage of archive news film and footage featuring actors in gabardine raincoats

The story of Jimmy Bozart reconstructed on A Cold War Of Spies (PBS), in a flickering collage of archive news film and footage featuring actors in gabardine raincoats

What has changed is the need for spies. Sleepers, or agents embedded in ordinary society, were crucial until recently. Hayhanen betrayed one of the most notorious, an artist calling himself Rudolf Abel, whose studio in Brooklyn was crammed with more gadgets than James Bond’s car — everything from cameras to shortwave radios concealed within ordinary objects such as shaving brushes.

Abel sent a steady stream of information about normal American life: what people talked about, what they thought of their government, the prejudices they betrayed in private…things that can’t always be gleaned from official media such as television.

But now, thanks to social media, all that private information is given away freely. Foreign powers can spy on us through our apps. In some instances, they even develop the apps, and the smartphones we use to run the software.

In other words, the sleeper agent can be with us every hour of the day, even in bed.

A Cold War Of Spies, the first of a four-part series, delivered a brisk debriefing on the history of espionage in the atomic age. But the underlying message from this era of paranoia and ‘red scares’ was that we are far more vulnerable today.

Much of the espionage following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, if you believe the self-satisfied diplomats recounting their version of events in the fascinating but frustrating second part of Putin vs The West: At War (BBC2), was centred on grain.

Much of the espionage following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, if you believe the diplomats recounting their version of events in Putin vs The West: At War (BBC2), was centred on grain

Much of the espionage following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, if you believe the diplomats recounting their version of events in Putin vs The West: At War (BBC2), was centred on grain

Few politicians admitted the extent to which Western military aid was offered or withheld. Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron were happy to be on camera, amid much drama, as they placed a call to Ukraine’s leader, Volodymyr Zelensky. But the footage was cut short after the first ‘hello’.

The exception, naturally, was Boris Johnson, who described a discussion with the Chinese premier: ‘I say to Xi Jinping, ‘Look, do you really want to be shackled to this global pariah as your proxy in the European theatre?’

Xi met the question, he added, with ‘a dead bat’. This cricketing term set him chuckling about how apt it was. Chinese negotiators, Boris reckoned, have ‘more dead bats than a Wuhan cave’.

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