Reflections on Modern-day Counterintelligence and Le Carré's"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"

By Nicki Ghazarian

The plot of Le Carré's novel presents a counterintelligence model that is still relevant in today's intelligence community. 

The plot of Le Carré's novel presents a counterintelligence model that is still relevant in today's intelligence community. 

While the intelligence community and the practice of counterintelligence (CI) have existed on a global scale for years, they are constantly evolving, developing, and improving. However, the majority of the population must solely rely on literature, cinema, journalism, and the occasional claim to success made by intelligence agencies, in order to learn more about the system, its methods, and its motivations. The British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) 1979 rendition of former British intelligence officer John Le Carré’s novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy effectively illustrates the realities of the global intelligence community during the Cold War era. CIA officer John Ehrman argues Le Carré provides “valuable insights into CI tradecraft, the politics of CI work, and the bureaucratic workings of services” (18)[1]. To elaborate on his point, it is necessary to discuss the elements of CI practice and tradecraft - as they appear in the television series - and the extent to which the plotline and depiction of intelligence is relevant to today, as well as conduct a comparative analysis of identified major themes in the series, course material, and novel.

The counterintelligence model differs from the intelligence cycle in that it primarily focuses on “catching spies”, and exploiting this information to defeat one’s foreign enemies. The CI model consists of five major processes that define its general practice and tradecraft: identification, penetration, exploitation, interdiction, and claim to success. The BBC series adequately touches on almost all of these methods, but does not delve deeply into the details of the processes as much of CI practice is concealed by secrecy.  However, to later illustrate how the series, and Le Carré’s work, is still relevant in today’s intelligence community, it is necessary to further discuss how the show depicts these practices.

First, the audience learns how Control, the head of the British “Circus” (British Secret Intelligence Service, SIS), discovers the presence of a Soviet mole within their agency. Although it is not revealed until the latter half of the series, Bill Haydon explains that Control began to notice the repeated pattern of failed missions occurring at the last minute and eventually narrowed down the suspects to high-ranking officers Toby Esterhase, Percy Alleline, Roy Bland, and Bill Haydon. Additionally, SIS agent Ricki Tarr returns to Britain after going rogue abroad only to reveal vital information that proves Control’s theory, one originally deemed conspiracy. This eventually leads intelligence officer Peter Guillam to recruit George Smiley out of “forced retirement” and assemble a team to identify the Soviet mole. Smiley’s system of stealing information, conducting interviews with former spies, and holding covert meetings accurately depicts general practices and tradecraft of CI today. According to Ehrman, “counterintelligence is the study of organization and behavior of the intelligence services of foreign states and entities, and the application of the resulting knowledge” (6)[2], all of which is reflected in Smiley’s campaign to identify and exploit the mole.

Additionally, the series illustrates the CI model from the adversary’s side. Neither in the series nor the novel do we learn the details of Bill Haydon, the Soviet mole’s, recruitment process with the Moscow Center and its leader Karla. In the novel, Le Carré explains “He [Haydon] declined to discuss any part of his recruitment nor of his lifelong relationship with Karla” (505)[3], and during the series Haydon is killed prior to any further deliberations with Smiley. However, Haydon does explain that his decision to join the East was both aesthetic as was it moral, for he believed the West to be a rapidly declining region, and Britain specifically to be a weak nation unable to affect global change in any way. One can argue this self-identification process aligns with the first step in the CI model, in which Haydon believes his moral, political, and ideological values associate more closely with those of the Soviet Union.

Second, Smiley learns how the mole has been able to penetrate the Circus for years without intervention. Through continuous collecting and analyzing of data, and discussion with former British officers Ricki Tarr and Jim Prideaux, Smiley learns the four originally suspected men comprised a committee conducting “Operation Witchcraft”, an act of deception employed by the Moscow Center and continuously propagated with “lead information.” Paul Redmond explains “so-called ‘lead information’ is helpful in starting and pursuing an espionage investigation” (542),[4] as illustrated through the Soviets’ success during this Operation in the series. This complex plot illustrates two major aspects of CI tradecraft: penetration and disinformation. The Soviet scheme, in which these four agents were instructed to provide British intelligence in exchange for crucial Soviet information, allowed the single mole to remain hidden within the superior chambers of SIS for years – constantly sending vital British documents to the Soviets without suspicion. The act of penetration has allowed the mole to provide information from within, while the constant flow of disinformation distracts member agents from reality.

Furthermore, from the perspective of the adversary, through both the series and the novel the audience is left to assume Karla recruited Haydon and instructed him to penetrate the British Circus. He achieved high-ranking status, as well as formed close relationships with superior colleagues including Jim Prideaux and George Smiley. He regularly collected information from within the agency and delivered the data to the head of the Moscow Center.

Third, according to the CI model, Smiley’s next step would ideally be to exploit the adversary through the newly gathered information – this being the identity of the Soviet mole. In the final episode of the series, we learn that SIS agents have made a deal with the USSR in which they will exchange Haydon for all of their British agents currently in the region. For the British, this meant safeguarding their citizens and the inevitable death of Haydon. However, Jim Prideaux, a close personal friend of Haydon’s and a fellow former agent, killed Haydon before the deal could conclude.

For the Soviets, the Moscow Center was able to exploit the weaknesses of the British intelligence community as well as those of specific individuals, such as George Smiley, for years in order to learn about their adversary and gradually move against them. For instance, although the series does not specifically illustrate the details behind the agency’s weaknesses – presumably due to restraints of secrecy – Haydon’s professional achievements and personable character allowed him to continuously climb the ranks and pass along more vital confidential information. Moreover, at the end of the series, Haydon explains to Smiley that the affair with his wife Ann was strictly strategic and was meant to distract Smiley from Control’s “bad apple” mole theory. Karla and Haydon were able to exploit Smiley’s weakness, his vulnerability regarding his failing marriage, in order to remove him from office and prevent Haydon’s unveiling. In the novel, Karla described Smiley’s shortcoming as “the last illusion of the illusionless man” (512)[5], one that would prevent Smiley from analyzing Haydon with a clear mind.

Fourth, the CI model explains that the interdiction of the internal threat follows the exploitation, although Smiley and the SIS arrested Haydon prior to making a deal with the Soviets. While the series still accurately depicts the individual processes of the CI model, it does not do so in the normative order as suggested by our course material. Nonetheless, Haydon was apprehended and the other three suspects as previously mentioned were permanently removed from their positions at the agency.

Fifth and finally comes the organization’s claim to success, one made in order to appease the public and ensure their taxes and efforts are contributing to a productive and effective cause. Once again, neither the series nor the novel depicts the agency engaging in this typical CI tradecraft. In fact, in the work itself Smiley asks Haydon “to avoid publicity by the way” (512)[6].

With regards to whether the main elements of CI practice and tradecraft depicted in the series are still relevant today, the inherent CI model, motivations for espionage, and the principle of intelligence cooperation are applicable; however major trends such as technological innovation and psychological profiling have altered the CI system since the Cold War era.

In reference to the CI model, the practices of identification, exploitation, and interdiction are still highly prevalent as seen in cases such as Aldrich Ames who was identified and convicted as a Soviet mole in the CIA in 1994. Although his actions were during the Cold War era, his arrest did not take place until nearly the turn of the century, decades after the production of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and years into technological advancements. Although these primary components of the CI model are applicable today, and some may argue will always remain within the foundation of CI practice, intelligence agencies today have expanded the model to cover defensive strategy. Our course material explains that organizations have heightened their defense tactics to include background checks, polygraph interviews, consistent employee monitoring, and personnel and electronic surveillance such as electronic shields. These stricter screening processes in addition to the advanced technological enhancements were not available during the Cold War era and were therefore not depicted in the BBC series – further emphasizing the ease in which a mole can penetrate and exploit an agency.

Regarding motivations for espionage, scholar Katherine Herbig discusses the evolution of individuals’ motivations to spy on domestic territory. She explains “spying for divided loyalties is the motive that demonstrates the most significant change of all motives since 1990, with 57% spying solely as a result of divided loyalties” (ix)[7]. Her time period focuses on the post-Cold War period stretching from 1990 to approximately 2007, illustrating the more contemporary results pertaining to espionage motivations. However, while money was the primary motive prior to 1990, the series highlights the power of ideology, ego, and divided loyalty. Bill Haydon explains his eagerness to be a part of history, to be recognized as an agent to instigated change and prompted national advancement. Once he recognized these might be more easily achieved in the East, his loyalty shifted, demonstrating the series’ relevance to today’s intelligence community.

Former British intelligence officer Michael Herman discusses the practice of intelligence cooperation during the Cold War era. He explains “information exchanges have always been a part of diplomacy” (202)[8] and is repeatedly depicted through coordinated actions between allies. He expands on this subject by describing the benefits of cooperation, including access to better technology and resources, the ability to make use of local geography, and the obtaining of more information. During the Cold War, the Soviet military threat prompted a strategic bilateral alliance between the United Kingdom and the United States, in which the exchange of information and resources could increase their chances of victory. Towards the end of the series, the SIS agents briefly discuss the potential detrimental effects the mole could have on Britain’s relationship with the United States, highlighting the significance of intelligence cooperation. Today, we see cooperation in the form of multilateral institutions and regional organizations such as the European Union in which member state governments now have access to various resources throughout the greater surrounding area.

Although there were many relevant elements between the Cold War intelligence system depicted in the series and today’s CI community, there are significant differences that make certain practices somewhat obsolete. For instance, our recent guest speaker Professor David Thomas emphasized the effects of today’s technological advancements and updated psychological models. He explained the prevalence of cyber espionage and its exponential increase as a modern threat, as seen through actions of traitors such as Edward Snowden. He also discussed how the general profile of a person willing to commit espionage has changed since the Cold War. They are often more educated, holding various high-level degrees, are more likely to be married, and decide to commit espionage during their careers. In the BBC series, while Haydon was Oxford-educated he was neither married nor did he begin committing treason during his career in SIS. Though we do not know the details of his recruitment process by the Soviets, the novel leads us to believe he began gifting vital information rather early, around 1950, only a few years after he graduated Oxford. In the work, Le Carré states “From about nineteen fifty onwards, if he was to be believed, Haydon had made Karla occasional selected gifts of intelligence. These early efforts were confined to what he hoped would discreetly advance the Russian cause over the American” (505)[9].

Furthermore, Professor Thomas pointed to the educational developments achieved regarding the creation of a universal psychological model that can be applied to potential personnel willing to commit espionage. While there is no set of underlying characteristics predisposing deviance, he says, there are three key types of psychology pertinent to espionage: abnormal, educational, and forensic. These discoveries and research were not available during the Cold War period and could not be adequately depicted in the series.

There were many similarities between the series and the course material regarding the different relevant themes as discussed previously. To recap, the major themes were associated with CI tradecraft, and include the components of the CI model (e.g. identification, penetration, exploitation, interdiction), intelligence cooperation, and motivations for espionage such as divided loyalties and ego. The BBC series heavily supports these major themes, though while lacking in addressing others, as mentioned prior. The Cold War time period in which both the novel and the series take place occurs before many of today’s technological and educational advancements. Our course material, including lectures, the discussed readings, and guest speakers, focuses on the evolution of CI practice, which addresses these themes while also acknowledging contemporary advancements. The Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy series provides strong support for Cold War-era CI tradecraft, specifically the themes highlighted above.

Elements of the CI model are enacted through Smiley’s covert operations group as well as Karla’s Soviet team. The officers carry out processes of identifying potential recruits, and later moles, penetrating enemy intelligence agencies, exploiting weaknesses of the adversary for domestic gain, and intercepting potential future attacks by foreign organizations. With regards to intelligence cooperation, the series briefly illustrates how nations work together to defeat their adversary. The characters address their relationship with the United States, and begin to assess the potential detriment caused by the identification of the internal mole. Moreover, the purpose behind “Operation Witchcraft” is to obtain Soviet intelligence in exchange for US intelligence from the CIA, ideally strengthening their relationship and prompting a future defeat against the USSR. However, it is later revealed that the operation was a hoax, an act of deception instigated by the Soviets to hide their mole and gain British intelligence. But, prior to this knowledge, the operation was designed to encourage intelligence cooperation between allies. While our course material, and Herman’s discussion, delves further into the causes and consequences of intelligence cooperation, the series does touch on the subject.

Lastly, both the series and our course material, even including the guest speaker presentations, discuss motivations for espionage. The series, and the novel itself, only lightly broach the topic when Smiley is conversing with Haydon after his capture. Haydon refuses to fully disclose the details of his recruitment process and relationship with Karla and the Soviets, but he does explain that his loyalty transferred and his desire to be a part of the changing world, on the side of the victor, led to his treason.

Nicki Ghazarian is an assistant online editor for the SIR Journal for International Relations. She is currently a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in International Relations.


[1] Ehrman, John. “Toward a Theory of CI: What are we talking about when we talk about Counterintelligence?” Studies in Intelligence Vol. 53, No. 2, 2009, pp. 5-20.

[2] Ehrman, John. “Toward a Theory of CI: What are we talking about when we talk about Counterintelligence?” Studies in Intelligence Vol. 53, No. 2, 2009, pp. 5-20.

[3] Le Carré, John. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. New Jersey: Penguin Group, 2011. Print.

[4] The Oxford Handbook of National Security Intelligence. Ed. Loch K. Johnson. England, Oxford University Press: 2010. 

[5] Le Carré, John. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. New Jersey: Penguin Group, 2011. Print.

[6] Le Carré, 512.

[7] Herbig, Katherine. “Changes in Espionage by Americans: 1947-2007.” Defense Personnel Security Research Center Mar. 2008: 1-113.

[8] Herman, Michael. Intelligence Power in Peace and War. England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.

[9] Le Carré, John. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. New Jersey: Penguin Group, 2011. Print.


Ehrman, John. “Toward a Theory of CI: What are we talking about when we talk about Counterintelligence?” Studies in Intelligence Vol. 53, No. 2, 2009, pp. 5-20.

Herbig, Katherine. “Changes in Espionage by Americans: 1947-2007.” Defense

Personnel Security Research Center Mar. 2008: 1-113.

Herman, Michael. Intelligence Power in Peace and War. England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.

Le Carré, John. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. New Jersey: Penguin Group, 2011. Print.

The Oxford Handbook of National Security Intelligence. Ed. Loch K. Johnson. England, Oxford University Press: 2010.