When I was 16, I told my uncle Oliver that I wanted to be a spy. He looked at me with kindly concern. “Not sure you’re cut out for it really,” he said. “It’s rather private work, and they tend to look for people who are, well, discreet. And able to look after themselves.”
Oliver was right: I was not obviously cut out for, ahem, “government service”. But he was. Oliver was a former soldier who spoke fluent Arabic and travelled round the Middle East before working for a time for GCHQ in Cheltenham and at various dingy Government buildings in London. That was what spies did in the Cold War. They kept an eye on people.
Fast-forward to the modern era, to the world of digital communications. A world of metadata. Or fake news. Of Edward Snowden and Wikileaks. A world in which Russia, which my uncle and his pals kept in check, is able to seize territory in Europe and employ people to muddy online waters. A world in which spy agencies and the President of the United States are at war: a direct, loud, aggressive open war.
A world, in other words, in which intelligence gathering is in quite a mess. And if one man above all others knows the size and shape and smell of that mess, it is John Brennan. There have been some wonderful Dimbleby Lectures down the ages, and some very august speakers. But never in its history has there been such a perfect matching of man and moment.
John Brennan has worked for three US administrations, rising to be Barack Obama’s CIA director in 2013, and one of his closest and most trusted aides. Brennan is the man who organised the targeted killing of terrorists using drones – a highly controversial policy that has led to the deaths of thousands of people, at least four of them US citizens. He is no softy.
But John Brennan is Donald Trump’s least favourite spy. And Donald Trump is John Brennan’s least favourite president. This is a Dimbleby Lecture with an edge. To a fastidious career spy like Brennan, the coming of Donald Trump feels like a moment of genuine madness. And Brennan has not been even the remotest bit diplomatic in his treatment of the new commander-in-chief.
When Trump went to the CIA headquarters just after his inauguration, standing in front of the memorial wall for CIA officers who have died in the line of duty to give a rambling address about his own intelliegence and the size of the crowd that had watched him become President, Brennan did not hold back. His spokesman said Brennan was “deeply saddened and angered at Donald Trump’s despicable display of self-aggrandisement”.
In turn, Trump accused Brennan of leaking a dossier allegedly containing evidence of The Donald engaging in weird sex in Russian hotel rooms.
As they say in the lower-class spy movies: it’s personal.
But it’s also more than that. In a world where we live online, what should the rules be about the rights of the intelligence agencies to monitor us? What should the duties be of the tech companies that we share our personal information with? Should any communications be genuinely impervious to hacking?
And if we accept that there is a need for some kind of intelligence gathering, then who is to monitor the monitors? And then there is fake news, and the damage done deliberately by lying governments and lying politicians. What should the role be of the intelligence agencies in countering online propaganda? The online world is not some separate place where battles can be fought far from our daily lives. There are real consequences to fake news.
The world of intelligence and counterintelligence is still murky, but it is not distant any more: we are all of us living in a spy story. Propaganda and misinformation – what used to be called subversion – is available on every smartphone.
The President of the USA himself tells people things on Twitter that are sometimes simply not true. Vladimir Putin’s agents do the same. So does so-called Islamic State. And the CIA is hardly above criticism. As Donald Trump has pointed out: who came up with the dodgy dossiers that led to the Iraq War?
Yes, the looking-glass world is our world now. Brennan, not long retired, is coming back for one last mission: to tell us how to cope.
The Richard Dimbleby Lecture is on Tuesday 4th April at 10:45pm on BBC1