U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel listen during the G7 Summit working dinner in BrusselsThis week, Germany expelled the CIA’s top spy in Berlin. It was called an “extraordinary escalation” in the espionage confrontation between two close allies, which began with last summer’s revelation that the NSA was spying on its European allies (No!). Thank you very much Ed Snowden, whose cache of stolen NSA documents may possibly outlast the staying power of the Energizer Bunny®.

Shock. Anger. Breach of trust. All of this and more was felt by the German public last year. A formal investigation was launched, and now the expulsion, apparently for political reasons surrounding lingering public outrage in Germany at the United States.

What shocked me when the original story broke last year, and no doubt it shocked you too, was the disingenuous outrage of the European leaders themselves. Friends and allies spying on each other? That’s a surprise? To those in the corridors of power? Come on. They’ve read their John LeCarré.

The scene is the paneled library of Sarratt, LeCarré’s fictional school for British spies, who this evening, in candlelight, are being regaled by true stories from the guest of honor, the inimitable George Smiley, once Britain’s top spy, now retired. It’s the end of the Cold War. The students are graduating, and the usually secretive Smiley is being an exception his own rule, revealing instructive incidents from his legendary career – mind you, in a room where no recorders are running, no notes are being taken, and no official reference afterward my be made to what was said.

It’s now after dinner. Smiley’s introductory remarks about the globe and its spies are going down with the port, and now the questions are coming – about interrogations, about loyalties, about colonialism, about running joes, about espionage …. Then a challenge from Clare, seemingly about journalists but really a hint that spying may be a dying profession now that the Cold War has ended. Why bother with spying at all? she asks Smiley. Nine times out of ten a good journalist can tell us quite as much as the spies can.

True, says Smiley, “very often they’re sharing the same sources anyway. So why not scrap the spies and subsidize the newspapers? It’s a point that should be answered in these changeable times. Why not? It’s perfectly true that most of our work is either useless, or duplicated by overt sources. The trouble is, the spies aren’t there to enlighten the public, but governments. And governments, like everyone else, trust what they pay for, and are suspicious of what they don’t.”

Then quickly to the deeper issue. “Spying is eternal,” Smiley continues. “If governments could do without it, they never would. They adore it. If the day ever comes when there are no enemies left in the world, governments will invent them, so don’t worry. Besides – who says we only spy on enemies? You’re chosen profession is perfectly secure, I can assure you.”

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Sarratt story from John LeCarré’s The Secret Pilgrim

Image from Reuters