There is history in the way Tolstoy imagined it, as a great, slow-moving weather system in which even tsars and generals are just leaves before the storm. And there is history the way Hollywood imagines it, as a single story line in which the right move by the tsar or the wrong move by the general changes everything.Which tempts us to treat espionage operations as especially significant historical events. Who knows what enemy operations they might have prevented?
Most of us, deep down, are probably Hollywood people. We like to invent “what if” scenarios—what if x had never happened, what if y had happened instead?—because we like to believe that individual decisions make a difference: that, if not for x, or if only there had been y, history might have been plunged forever down a completely different path. Since we are agents, we have an interest in the efficacy of agency.
Stories of intelligence operations, of espionage and covert warfare, sabotage and assassination plots have a lot of “what if” fascination about them. There is always the hope that one ingenious plan, one stolen document, or one successful assassination might change the course of history.
I’ve been digging into George Washington’s espionage efforts during the siege of Boston, and, sad to say, they really don’t seem to have made that much difference in the course of the campaign. They obviously caused a lot of drama for the individuals involved, but from a distance those folks look like leaves whirling around in the wind but not traveling very far.