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About That Beluga Whale Spy...
Intelligence historian Calder Walton says Moscow Center is just up to its old tricks
Calder Walton is one of the world’s leading scholars of intelligence and national security. An historian at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, he received a doctorate in history from Trinity College, Cambridge, where he also helped to write an authorized hundred-year history of MI5, Britain’s principal counterespionage agency.
Not only that, Walton, a Brit, is general editor of the three-volume Cambridge History of Espionage and Intelligence. But this week he came on the SpyTalk podcast to discuss his new book, Spies: The Epic Intelligence War between East and West. It’s chock full of interesting revelations and tidbits.
The skills and reputation of British intelligence, for example, he says, have been burnished beyond recognition by slavish journalists, historians and filmmakers.
“Despite their famed reputations, Britain's intelligence services were spying blind at the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939,” he writes. (The United States did not even have an agency dedicated to foreign intelligence-gathering and sabotage until June 1942, when the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, was set up.)
“MI5 and MI6 did not even know the name of Germany's foreign intelligence service, the Abwehr, let alone run any significant operations against it,” Walton added. And of course British intelligence was penetrated by pro-Moscow spies who would go on to play major roles in the postwar struggle between the Soviets and the West.
But oh, that Beluga spy discovered swimming recently in Scandinavian waters?
“It’s difficult to know where fact finishes and fiction begins,” he told me. “I'm afraid that I am more inclined to say that this perhaps is a Russian disinformation plot, to get us all talking and thinking about this and wondering what other animals have the Russians managed to ensnare into their nefarious plots.”
There’s nothing new in spy services employing animals anyway, he adds. Long ago, pigeons were used to carry messages. The CIA tried to train cats. (Imagine!) The U.S. Navy has trained seals and porpoises for underwater missions. So “it's not impossible that the Russian government is using this whale to swim close to sensitive areas—cables and so on,” Walton said. “But as I say, I also think that it has the hallmarks, perhaps, of a Russian plot to get us all talking about this and worried about how masterful and powerful the Russian government is.” At the same time, the U.S. secret services have had notable success intercepting Kremlin phone calls and message traffic since the advent of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
We discussed these and other nuggets in Walton’s history of the century-long silent war between the spies of East and West in our 40-minute talk. I hope you’ll give it a listen, on Apple, Amazon or wherever you get your podcasts.
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