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April 23, 2007

Brendan Simms tries his hand at being a secret agent: The Science of Spying at the Science Museum

Posted by Brendan Simms

The Science of Spying
Science Museum, London
10th February - 2nd September 2007
Daily 10am - 6pm

Brendan Simms - Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge - has fun at The Science of Spying exhibition.

The Science of Spying special exhibition at the Science Museum is aimed at children, but appeals to the child in the adult as well. The exhibition handbook tells us:

Gone are the days, when you went to the "right sort" of university and waited for a "nod and wink".
Today one can apply directly to the intelligence services. Perhaps this is just as well, for the old system, which gave us Le Carre's George Smiley, also nurtured a Bill Haydon, and of course his real-life counterparts of Blunt, Burgess and Maclean, to name only some of those we actually know of.

The exhibition engages the visitor by "doing". We are first put through our paces in training: learning to crack codes; to sift through rubbish to gain information about the target's DNA, travel plans and contacts, and to affect a convincing disguise - it is the cover story, rather than the prop itself which is vital, apparently. Some of the exercises were a little obscure, particularly the safe-cracking, but others were so engrossing that one found oneself trying them over and over again.

The one which captivated me most was the trial "handover" to a friendly agent. You begin by choosing your disguise (better a hat than a balloon, for example), which is easy enough, but you are then quickly thrust into a time-pressured survey of likely enemy survelliance operations, which sharpens the eye. The actual handover is genuinely exciting, with enemy agents on every side. I repeatedly failed this test, until I realised the obvious, which was that instead of dodging furiously once I had been detected - and thus drawing attention to myself - the trick was to behave entirely naturally. Once "training" has been completed, the "mission" itself begins, which is to infiltrate the offices of the sinister "Osteck Corporation" and crack their code.

All of this is portrayed sympathetically. There is no doubt on whose side the exhibition is on - and whose side the visitor should be on - and rightly so. The final page of the handbook helpfully lists the websites of The UK Security Service (MI5), the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ); and their American counterparts, the Federal Bureau of investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the National Security Agency (NSA). The array of edible pens, invisible ink, mini-tape-recorders and DVDs strategically placed at the exit to the exhibition are also predicated on a positive view of the intelligence world.

That said, the approach of the exhibition is not uncritical, and the visitor is encouraged to think about the implications and ethics of mass surveillance. The handbook asks us:

Did you know? Residents of Shoreditch, East London, are able to subscribe to watch live CCTV camera feeds from locations in their area on their own TV.
I didn't know, and I am not sure whether this is a good thing. It also mentions protests in New York against the ubiquitous presence of surveillance cameras, and the fact that there are more than 4 million such devices in the UK, making us "the most watched of any country in the world". But perhaps the most startling way in which this phenomenon is brought home to us is the interactive exhibit which allows the visitor to select which CCTV surveillance clips to pursue, in order to detect intruders. How many visitors chose, as I did, to take a closer look at the mildly titillating scene in the lavatory, which turned out to be quite innocent, ignoring a more serious infraction of security on another camera?

Disappointingly, there were no historical exhibits of actual objects used by intelligence agencies in the past, which would have added some depth, context and tradition to the exhibition. It would also have been useful to have had some examples of past operations - or "missions" in the Americanese of the exhibitors - perhaps with some interviews with survivors. Another criticism would be that the emphasis throughout was very much on the field agents, whose work can be more excitingly exhibited. It tended to ignore the analysts, which interpret the "product" collected by the field agents and often tell them what to look for in the first place. For example, there might have been an exhibit to show how the same information can be used to draw very different conclusions, although that might have been a little close to the bone.

Moreover, the vast majority of the material related to the more glamorous human intelligence, or "humint", even though the vast majority of what the security services now use comes from signals intelligence, or "sigint". As for the human side, the exhibition was - perforce, given that it was oriented towards children - rather sanitized. Hardly any guns, no weapons training, no brutal interrogations, and no sign of anything like "wetjobs", "termination with extreme prejudice", assassination, in short.

Finally, there was a sense that the exhibition dodged a central issue: who and what was the principal target of the intelligence services today? The "mission" itself was against a corporation, and hardly distinguishable from an act of industrial espionage. So far as I am aware, the words terror, terrorist, or terrorism did not feature once in either exhibition or handbook, or at least not very prominently. One left with the feeling that although the skills to be learned by the young visitors would help train recruits for MI6 to deal with the nation's more conventional enemies abroad - and there are still plenty of those - those heading for MI5 might need something else. They will have to learn to infiltrate the breeding grounds of terrorism at home, radical mosques and community centres, and to identify those moles that an enterprising terrorist Karla will plant in our own agencies. Perhaps a future exhibitions of The Science of Spying will take these aspects into consideration?

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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