The power of secrets
Hammurabi's headquarters was a hive of activity around 1800 B.C., but one palace department saw most of the action. It was the king's intelligence agency, where captured tablets offered glimpses of the goings-on among neighboring tribes and far-flung military foes. Ancient analysts sorted through tips from market gossips, wandering entertainers, and chatty refugees. Even the queen filed reports. It was here in the heart of Mesopotamia that the most ancient of civilizations created the first classified document. "This is a secret tablet," an official had etched. It was a death warrant, perhaps for a palace mole. "If there is a ditch in the countryside or in the city," it reads, "make this man disappear."
Spying is a pursuit as old as civilization and a craft long practiced by the most skilled and treacherous of strategists. In the wake of 9/11 and amid looming showdowns with Iraq and North Korea, intelligence gathering is at the center of a debate over the rights of the individual and the needs of national security. And it is an issue that grows ever more urgent as the Department of Homeland Security prepares to open its doors this month in the largest reorganization of American government since Harry Truman signed the National Security Act half a century ago.
These are, of course, considerations that never much concerned the ancients. Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, masters of the spying game both, advised leaders to use espionage liberally. "Though fraud in other activities be detestable," Machiavelli wrote, "in the management of war it is laudable and glorious." The skills of tradecraft are praised by less likely sources as well. The Kama Sutra touts the virtues of secret writing; indeed, seduction and spying have long gone hand in hand. While Casanova is widely remembered as a flirt, he was also an intelligence asset in the service of King Louis XV.
Whorehouse, safe house. The Bible registers few qualms about espionage and chronicles the mingling of the two oldest professions in the book of Joshua. Rahab was a working woman with a small establishment in the red-light district of Jericho. Joshua sent spies to scope out the land, and she hid them. Thus, her brothel became perhaps the first safe house of record.
Spying was so prevalent in ancient Rome that the Greeks assumed that pretty much any time the Romans sent a diplomat to their soil, he was suspect. That might explain why the Greeks used the word for spies--kataskopoi--interchangeably with the word for diplomats, notes Col. Rose Mary Sheldon, an expert in ancient espionage at Virginia Military Institute. In hot pursuit of secrets, noble families spent a great deal of their time surreptitiously surveilling their fellow citizens. "Each senatorial family had its own private intelligence network," explains Sheldon. "No one group would have sanctioned the creation of a single intelligence organization that might fall into the hands of a rival faction."
But it would be state agencies like communist East Germany's secret police, the Stasi, that would take citizen-to-citizen spying to a high art. When West German government agents broke into the Stasi headquarters in East Berlin following the fall of the Berlin Wall, they discovered row upon row of curiously filled glass jars: They contained scraps of fabric that had been collected by citizen spies. It was part of a bizarre scheme in which a Stasi informer would invite a friend to dinner, wait until he went to the restroom, and pat down the guest's chair with pretreated cloth. He would then seal it in a jar and hand it over to the Stasi. That way, if the dinner guest ever tried to defect, the Stasi would have his scent on record to share with tracking hounds. With 95,000 agents and 100,000 citizen informers, the Stasi is estimated to have kept tabs on roughly one third of East Germany's population.