Saturday, 23 January 2016

Stoneburgh Spy Campus . . . B.A.R. . . . ‘Please Burn After Reading’ Rubs Out Accountability of Command. (Part 6.)

Earlier this week, passing through the parklands of Stoneburgh in the bright winter sunlight, under a cloudless sky, I was reminded of a former denizen of our garrison town  –  our celebrated double agent, Irina P. – striding along the selfsame path in her military double-breasted coat (cadet-issue, a special indulgence!). She, too, in those early years of our acquaintance, was truly enamoured of our historic military academy . . . as I recorded in my memoir, Red Coffee* . . . 
[Irina] could scarcely believe her good fortune. The six historic cannon evenly spaced along the South Terrace, the great Park, the ornamental Lake, the Piranesian vaulted library, all conspired to create a classically golden atmosphere of privilege and distinction in which she basked. The day was warm; the month was March; Shirt Sleeve Order was five weeks away. She sat at the lakeside and wrote an airmail to her sister.  Irina described Stoneburgh as a ‘time capsule’. In her own country Time and Change raced like the clouds reflected on the water. She could not conceal her yearning to ‘remain always in ancestral gardens, seated on soft grass, without thinking’. 
     So you can imagine I was brooding on the duplicities of our tradecraft and on its pervasion of even the most humdrum routines of domestic life, including the demands of my daily jog, when I spotted Professor Hans-Jürgen Weisse lounging on a bench in the sunniest corner of the colonnade. (Prof. Weisse, as I have mentioned in my earlier despatches, was formerly an agent for the German Federal Intelligence Service, and is now Stoneburgh’s senior lecturer on politico-criminalistics, a respected authority on Soviet counter-espionage and subversion.)

‘Please Burn After Reading.’

Prof. Weisse put down his newspaper as I approached and pointed to a headline with his unlit briar pipe:

Speaking of the implications of preserving secrecy, as to the UK Government’s plans in the event of Britons voting Britain exit from the European Union, the former Senior Government Economist in the British Civil Service said today: ‘The Civil Service will have to do much preparatory work on trade and migration, so I think there’ll be a lot of highly classified work retained mentally. How much civil servants write down is a different question – that is one of the potential drawbacks of the world of Freedom of Information we live in – so, actually, if the Chancellor does not want anything written down [to avoid disclosure of plans to campaigners and journalists] then that is the way it will be.’   
     ‘Memory-men at Whitehall!’ His laugh was harsh. ‘Evidently one of the Mandarins has heeded my faculty Induction Lecture for the New Intake Group! Rule Number 9. It is extremely unwise to leave a paper trail if you intend to outpace the hostiles.’
     Sunlight glared on his spectacles so I could not see his eyes.
     He playfully wagged his finger to include me in the ranks of his favoured antagonists.
     ‘You more than most are familiar with the platitudinous exculpation of our spymasters: “Should you choose to accept this mission and you are captured or killed, the Government and the Service will disavow any knowledge of your actions.” 
     ‘You mean the St Catherine’s House Switcheroo?’
     (I should explain that the St Catherine’s House Record Office, near Aldwych in central London, was at one time the primary source of intelligence agents’ false identities; our agents themselves had, as a ghoulish test of initiative, the task of locating a death certificate of a child whose birthdate and forename was closest to their own. Armed with the dead child’s birth certificate and shared forename, the agent was then able to assume a new mask and build a complete ‘back-story’, including intimate knowledge of the locale where the child had lived and died.  It was by the integrity of this fake identity that the plausibility and confidence of an agent in the field was sustained. In addition, of course, all essential documentation – passport, driving licence, bank account and national insurance card – were issued in the dead child’s name.)
     ‘Agreed,’ I added. ‘No paper trail. No comebacks. Unless the paper trail’s a false one . . . and one that would certainly NOT lead back to our masters.’
     ‘B.A.R. Burn After Reading. All government agencies, including our Intelligence Services, have that ultimate recourse, of course, and there’s always the principal’s washroom for surreptitious briefings, with or without the facility of eidetic recall.’

Memory-Men Bumped Off.

Prof. Weisse laid his cane aside and, after some deft preliminaries, lit his pipe.
     ‘But what of Cicero,’ he mused, ‘and his memory-man?’ Weisse – our most senior expert in the art of cryptanalysis – sent out an unreadable smoke signal as he spoke. ‘Cicero retained a nomenclator.’
     ‘A what?
     ‘A Mnemonist. A Remembrancer or Prompter. A mnemonically gifted aide-de-camp. A nomenclator was often an astute polyglottic slave. Cicero’s man was charged to keep a roll call in his head of Cicero’s supporters together with a tally of all his master’s enemies. During his consulate, when Cicero declared martial law and upheld it by imposing the death penalty on conspirators against the Republic, I have no doubt that in the course of all those labyrinthine machinations his nomenclator was the repository of many of Cicero’s stratagems, an advantage that the Freedom of Information Act no longer permits our public officials here in Londinium, private email accounts notwithstanding!’ 
     ‘A human databank that walks and remains sober? An obvious security risk.
     ‘Too true. To be a nomenclator in Roman times could be dicey. Wasn’t it Claudius who threw his memory-man to the lions. Maybe the poor fellow knew too much.’
      ‘Yes, a memory-man bumped off with a head full of ciphers,’ I ventured. ‘Surely that was the climax of Hitchcock’s The Thirty-Nine Steps?’
       ‘There you are then.’ Prof. Weisse rose and stretched and favoured me with a grin, a rare concession.

Here lie the bones
of Aristarchus, freedman,
Roman sepulchral inscription, 1st century AD.

‘The Art of Covering Your Tracks.’

Stoneburgh’s Senior Lecturer in Politico-Criminalistics fell into step beside me as we walked to the Refectory for morning coffee.
     ‘You know, after Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington reviewed a number of our passing out parades here on this very quad; apart from attending our Commissioning Dinners.’
     Prof. Weisse knocked out his pipe on the wheel of a gun carriage.
     ‘Now he knew the Art of Covering Your Tracks. A cunning devil whose actions we could all learn by.’
      The keen eyes of Weisse were alert to judge my response. 
      ‘Funnily enough, I was told this tale by the Chelsea Hospital Commandant. And he’s straight as an arrow himself.  The way he told it, the duke’s battle plan was to rarely give orders verbally. If an order had to be conveyed to one of his commanders holding a distant terrain, he was obliged to write them down and entrust them to an ADC to deliver them for him on a charger.  But listen to this. The duke’s strategy to preserve the infallibility of his command as a tactician was absurdly simple.  His orders were not written on paper – no, far too fragile in such conditions – nor were his commands written with quill and ink obviously in the field. Far too precarious under fire.’
     Weisse cleared the dottle from his pipe with a ballpoint pen and replaced them in the breast pocket of his Norfolk jacket.
     ‘No. On the battlefield, Wellington carried a sheaf of specially-treated ass and goat skins.  About the size of cloakroom tickets. He could write on these with pencil and once the orders were read, the skins could be wiped clean, preparatory to writing a new set of orders. How devilishly simple! By this method he neatly sidestepped the accountability of command! The clever fellow was never caught out in error . . . ’
     ‘. . .  Because he never left a paper trail!’ I completed with amused complicity.  I had never before seen the professor with such a pronounced Machiavellian disposition.
      ‘We should take a leaf from his book!’ the Professor Weisse concluded with a flourish of his cane. ‘The Cabinet Office should bring back vellum!’
      ‘Or publish and be damned,I murmured.

We ought to have more of the Cavalry between the two
high roads.  That is to say three Brigades at least besides
the Brigades in observation on the Right . . .   

* Sister Morphine (2008) see below . . . 


Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. 
see Eisner’s Sister Morphine (2008)

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