On the Difference Between ‘Technical’ and ‘Tactical’ Spies

Photo of Carlo Franzinetti (Left) and Bruno Pontecorvo (Right): Wikimedia Commons

In a recent piece for the New York Review of BooksFreeman Dyson reviewed Half-Life, a biography of Bruno Pontecorvo, a brilliant nuclear physicist and possible spy. Pontecorvo spent six years working on nuclear reactors in Canada, where he may or may not have passed information on to Soviet contacts. However, according to Dyson—who is himself a world-renowned mathematical physicist— even if Pontecorvo had been a spy, the overall effect of his information wouldn’t have been hugely important. Perhaps some of it might have been useful to Soviet bomb designers, but it wouldn’t have been a game changer. Furthermore, the Soviets already had two technical spies (Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall) relaying information from Los Alamos.

This is where Dyson brings up an interesting distinction: that between technical and tactical spies. As a layperson, I’d always presumed a spy is a spy; however, in Dyson’s view, technical and tactical spies belong in entirely different categories. He sees the latter as being responsible for putting actual lives in danger, whereas the former merely steal useful scientific knowledge:

Technical spies were unimportant because the Soviet Union had plenty of first-rate scientists working in the relevant areas of nuclear physics… If a country has this kind of home-grown technical talent, it does not need technical spies to make progress. If a country does not have this kind of talent, technical spies will not be an effective substitute. In either case, the contribution of technical spies will be marginal. Science is a collective enterprise, and needs a community of active participants to succeed in any large venture.

The public vastly overrates the importance of technical spies such as Klaus Fuchs, because the same word “spy” is used for technical spies and for tactical spies. The archetype of the tactical spy is Judas Iscariot, the secret enemy betraying his master and directly causing his master’s death. For two thousand years, the story of Judas has been linked with the image of a spy in the cultures of Europe. Another tactical spy, not quite as notorious as Judas, was Kim Philby, a British intelligence officer who held high positions in the British diplomatic service. He gave his Soviet contacts lists of names of undercover agents operating in various countries, so that Soviet authorities could quickly eliminate them. He was directly responsible for many disappearances. Tactical spies are rightly condemned by public opinion and by the traditional rules of war. They have immediate effects on the life and death of fellow citizens. They are fair game for any soldier to kill, with or without a legal trial. But technical spies are different. Technical spies are more concerned with things than with people.


Why then does the American public still consider all spies to be demons? Why does the public make no distinction between technical spies like Julius Rosenberg stealing useful knowledge and tactical spies like Kim Philby destroying human lives? Perhaps it is because the American public is misled by the American secrecy system. The secrecy system is a bureaucratic monster that classifies vast quantities of information as secret, making it impossible for the ordinary citizen to see the difference between important and unimportant secrets.

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