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Trafalgar through the eyes of a modern day spy

By Warren Reed - posted Friday, 1 November 2019

This article is based on a triangulation; at the top is the term EQ, or emotional intelligence, which is a far more complex concept than those two simple letters suggest. At another point in the triangle is the question of how a spy operating overseas manages a "stable of agents", the agents being the traitors. Using that as a prism, I'll then look at Horatio Nelson and his remarkable achievements up to the Battle of Trafalgar.

Human intelligence gathering and a spy's life overseas are all about human psychology, the human condition and of course, EQ. When a spy is posted overseas, usually for a three- or four-year stint, the two most common scenarios he or she grapples with are either opening up a totally new operation in that country or joining an existing one that has been under way for some years. The latter is the standard case, and the incoming spy will replace an intelligence officer who has completed their posting. Over a period of a week or two, the outgoing officer will hand over their stable of agents to their successor. The incoming officer will have read up on their files before arriving but will be meeting those agents for the first time. The handover is a delicate affair, with the aim being to effectively transfer the trust that the agents have in their outgoing case officer to the incoming officer.

This is nothing like a retiring business partner handing over his or her clients. Despite commercial confidentiality, that is a pretty open process. Some of the clients may even be known to each other. Not with a stable of agents; they will never be known to each other, nor should they ever suspect that you're running a significant number of other traitors just like them. You have to encourage each agent to regard you as a close confidant and mentor. Your security depends in part on knowing almost everything they're doing.


Because of the act of treachery in which these agents are engaged, nearly all of them, by instinct, are nervous nellies. They need to be reassured that their identity is safe and that the incoming officer is aware of any exigencies that may apply to their case. As a psychological backdrop to all this is the fact that their treachery – selling their country's most closely guarded secrets – is the antithesis of everything their case officer stands for: most spies could never betray their country under any circumstance. A typical stable will be comprised of three or four top agents, who are not just gatherers of quality top secret material, but who operate securely at a high level of government or in some other arena. There are usually another three or four who are approaching that level of effectiveness and maybe another five to ten who have recently been identified as potential agents and are in the early stages of cultivation.

Most of a spy's work – briefing and debriefing agents – is done at night-time, with most daytime hours devoted to cover work and writing up and dispatching the previous night's reporting.

Once the stable is securely in the hands of the newly arrived spy, his or her challenge isn't to rest on the stable's existing laurels, simply maintaining current levels of production. The test for the spy is to explore how each agent's remit can be carefully expanded to acquire new forms of secret intelligence. In the duration of any spy's posting, agents may fall under a bus, retire, or be promoted away from their access to the secrets that the spy's government at home wants. Top agents are encouraged, if retirement is looming, to groom someone else who can take their place. The stable, therefore, is never static; it's in a constant state of evolution.

To explore new fields of production a spy can't depend alone on the combined brain power of the two human beings involved. Through joint brain-storming, deduction and lateral-thinking the spy must aspire to take the relationship beyond the mere power of two to at least four or five. It can be a tedious process, but never boring. It's exciting to embark on that journey with one's top agents and with some of the others. Only then can a spy confidently hand over a vibrant stable to his or her successor.

The best example of this practice at work, and it was one of history's monumental successes, was the Allied code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park north of London during WWII. Some years after my own MI6 training, a retired and legendary MI6 officer considerately took me to Bletchley Park and explained what had been achieved there. "Literally days after war broke out in 1939," he said, "we had a small team of mathematicians, crossword designers, chess champions and the like assembled here. After a few weeks of working together, the initial team of say twenty went well beyond the power of their number and hit 40 or 50 without much trouble. They started to create what would be the largest human brain – or computer – in recorded human history." Indeed the modern computer, thanks especially to the wizardry of Alan Turing and others, grew out of the Bletchley team's achievements.

In its peak years during WWII, the number of code-breakers and other staff soared to around 10,000, of whom a massive 75 per cent were women. They moved exponentially so far beyond their numerical head-count that overall they might have achieved the power of 100,000 or more. The figures became irrelevant; their stunning achievements were what mattered.


I would now like to turn to Horatio Nelson and through this Bletchley prism examine his outstanding accomplishments in a slightly different way than usual.

If you ask anyone with an interest in history how they would describe Nelson in just a few words, the most common response is "brilliant naval tactician, a born leader, and a man with loads of charm and charisma". That's true, though I would tend to dispute "charm" and "charisma" as being rather simplistic.

In a nutshell, what Nelson achieved came from the fact that whenever he took command of a ship – which he first did at the remarkably young age of 20 – he turned it into a floating Bletchley Park. It's more or less as straightforward as that.

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This is an edited version of the Trafalgar Day Address given by Warren Reed in Sydney on Tuesday, October 22, 2019 to a joint event organised by the Australasian Pioneers' Club and the Royal Automobile Club of Australia, which was also attended by members of The Naval Officers Club of Australia and the Women's Pioneer Society of Australasia.

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About the Author

Warren Reed was an Australia-Japan Business Cooperation Committee scholar in the Law Faculty of Tokyo University in the 1970s. He later spent ten years in intelligence and was also chief operating officer of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia. He served in Asia, the Middle East and India.

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