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Spies illustration
Illustration by Jack Desrocher

Secrets and Spies

History 537 investigates the role of the secret agent

By Jake Chapline

See also:
Spies in Literature

Even on a showery April morning, there isn't a single trenchcoat-clad figure among the 70-odd students filing into the History 537 lecture at Horton Social Science Center. No one is wearing a fedora with a floppy brim, either. There are some ominous umbrellas in evidence, but if any are capable of firing poison darts, their owners discreetly avoid discharging them during the lecture. So there is no way to know for sure whether anyone attending this Espionage in History class is in fact a spy.

Professor Douglas Wheeler estimates that some 1,800 students have taken this course since he began teaching it in 1969. A few have gone on to careers in intelligence, he says, but most are simply liberal arts majors picking up elective credits in a course that is consistently entertaining as well as enlightening.

History 537 is an introduction to the history and politics of intelligence activities around the world. The course focuses on two themes: how and why intelligence organizations developed in all of the major nation-states, and how and why they all adopted virtually identical intelligence-gathering methods. Wheeler explores these themes through a series of case studies, from the story of Alfred Redl, a high-ranking Austrian officer who sold vital secrets to the Russians in the years before World War I, to the current investigation of alleged Chinese espionage at the Los Alamos nuclear-weapons research facility.

"Spying is older than war," Wheeler says, but permanent, centrally funded intelligence services are a modern invention, beginning in Europe in the tense years before World War I. Today there are probably 2 million people working for government intelligence organizations around the world. That does not include agents working for regional or local governments or those involved in industrial espionage -- probably the fastest growing segment of intelligence work. "The Fortune 500 companies alone have more than a thousand units involved in security and information-gathering. The most advanced intelligence technology today is usually found in the private sector before it is adopted by government agencies," Wheeler observes.

The United States government has 13 main intelligence organizations, including the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency and the military intelligence services. The national budget for these agencies totals about $28 billion a year, Wheeler estimates, cautioning that the figure is far from certain because intelligence expenses are not always labeled as such in the federal budget. In any case, he says, the amount spent on espionage today is just about the same as it was when the Cold War was going on.

Most people who work for intelligence organizations are not actually spies, Wheeler points out. Nine out of 10 have relatively ordinary jobs -- researchers, analysts, lawyers, accountants, computer technicians and clerical assistants, for instance. But it is the image of the secret agent, seen as either a villain or a hero, that has fascinated the public for more than a century.

Wheeler's interest in espionage dates back to the early 1960s, when he spent two years as an Army intelligence officer at Fort Holabird in Maryland. He had nothing to do with covert activities, he is quick to point out. His primary task was to develop orientation courses for military personnel who were traveling to posts in Africa and Asia. But his final assignment in the military was to write a history of Army intelligence, and he's been a student of espionage ever since.

This is just a sideline for Wheeler, however. His primary field is Portuguese studies. He is the author of five books about Portugal (he is currently working on three more) and the editor of the semiannual Portuguese Studies Review, the journal of the International Conference Group on Portugal. He holds the only professorship in North America dedicated to Portuguese history -- the Prince Henry the Navigator Professorship of Portuguese History and the Discoveries -- and he has been decorated by the Portuguese government for his work in educating the world about the country's culture.

Wheeler, who began teaching his course on the history of espionage in 1969, says he has a lot more information to work with now. Little reliable information about espionage had been published before the 1970s. Now a number of good books are available and, thanks in large part to the Freedom of Information Act, more original documents are coming into the public domain. In fact, Wheeler has been instrumental in starting an espionage research collection at the Dimond Library, including his own large collection of books on the subject.

Wheeler draws heavily on popular fiction as well as historical sources for his class, assigning novels like Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana and John LeCarré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold . "The best books of Greene and LeCarré are a godsend," he says. "They portray contrasting periods of the Cold War, and they explore some of the larger questions about the human side of intelligence work and the motivation of secret agents in different situations."

It is often difficult to know exactly what role espionage played in a particular historical event or how significant that role really was, Wheeler says, "because the evidence in our field is so subject to obfuscation, falsification, destruction, deception and loss." Still, he adds, it is important for students to recognize that espionage influences both history and politics. Decisions made by political leaders around the world tomorrow will be based in part on what they hear from their intelligence agencies today.

And that raises a question that Wheeler likes to pose to his students as they near the end of the course. Can espionage, which has historically been used as a tool of war, be turned to the service of peace? Could intelligence work actually promote intelligent relations among nations? The answer is still classified. ~

Want to learn more? See Spies in Literature

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