Spy novelist Le Carre reveals Cold War killings by UK intel

By Daniel Tencer
Saturday, August 28, 2010 18:46 EDT
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To those who know the history of the Cold War, it may not be much of a surprise. But to hear a former MI5 and MI6 agent admit his agencies carried out Cold War-era assassinations is chilling all the same, especially when that ex-agent is an acclaimed spy novelist.

John Le Carre, author of dozens of cloak-and-dagger thrillers, told the Sunday Telegraph’s Seven magazine that the British intelligence agencies for whom he worked in the 1950s and 1960s — MI5 and MI6 — carried out numerous assassinations in the name of fighting the Cold War.

“Certainly we did some very bad things,” he said. “We did a lot of direct action. Assassinations. Although I was never involved.”

But Le Carre argued that the operations carried out by Western intelligence agencies were a far cry from the “unaccountable” killings by their Soviet Bloc adversaries.

“Even when quite ruthless operations are being contemplated … the process of democratic consultation was still relatively intact and decent humanitarian instincts came into play,” he said. “Totalitarian states killed with impunity and no one was held accountable. That didn’t happen in the West.”

Le Carre’s comments are necessarily vague, as his years as an agent for MI5 and MI6 mean he is prohibited for life from discussing many elements of his first career.

Le Carre, whose real name is David Cornwell, quit MI6 in the early 1960s, after his novel The Spy Who Came In From the Cold became a runaway success. His novels focusing on fictional spy George Smiley were perennial bestsellers during the Cold War era. In the years since the war’s end, Le Carre expanded his topics to issues of social justice and politics. His acclaimed book The Constant Gardener, for example, is a fictional account of unethical practices by pharmaceutical companies in the Third World.


Le Carre has said that he was inspired to write spy thrillers as a counterpoint to the unrealistic adventures of James Bond.

“I’m not sure that Bond is a spy,” he said in a 1966 BBC interview. “I think that it’s a great mistake if one’s talking about espionage literature to include Bond in this category at all … It seems to me he’s more some kind of international gangster with, as it is said, a license to kill … He’s a man entirely out of the political context. It’s of no interest to Bond who, for instance, is president of the United States or of the [Soviet Union].”

“At the root of Bond there was something neo-fascistic and totally materialist,” Le Carre said.

Le Carre has never shied from entering political debate. In 2003, he penned an opinion piece for the Times of London, entitled “The United States has gone mad,” in which he decried the Bush administration’s inexorable push towards a war in Iraq.

“The reaction to 9/11 is beyond anything Osama bin Laden could have hoped for in his nastiest dreams. As in McCarthy times, the freedoms that have made America the envy of the world are being systematically eroded,” Le Carre wrote.

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