On Sunday, two New York Times news alerts came within minutes of each other.
But their juxtaposition suggested that an era, not moments, had passed.
The first one read: "John le Carré, whose exquisitely nuanced, intricately plotted Cold War thrillers elevated the spy novel to high art, has died at 89."
Then, the second: "Russian hackers broke into several federal agencies in one of the most sophisticated and perhaps largest attacks in years, U.S. officials suspect."
The "perhaps" modifier need no longer apply. "The magnitude of this ongoing attack is hard to overstate," Thomas P. Bossert, who was homeland security adviser to President Donald Trump, wrote in a Times commentary on Friday. "At the worst possible time, when the United States is at its most vulnerable — during a presidential transition and a devastating public health crisis — the networks of the federal government and much of corporate America are compromised by a foreign nation," wrote Bossert, who later added: "The access the Russians now enjoy could be used for far more than simply spying."
Spying itself was never simple, to be sure. But lately it's less le Carré's cloak-and-dagger dynamics and more Russia's click-and-digital tactics. Indeed, "instead of humans spying on humans, which is something le Carré looked at, in the future it's going to be machines spying on each other," said Dr. Andrew Hammond, the historian and curator at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
In fact, the future is now, said Hammond, who spent several years assigned to a British Army G2 Intelligence Unit when he was a member of the Royal Air Force. "Human beings are beginning to be less central to the espionage enterprise," Hammond said. "You're going to see technology increasingly take over."
Of course, humans will still program the technology. And it's widely assumed that a hit of such "immense geopolitical significance" had the knowledge if not the approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who is now director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center.
The hack, which harrowingly includes the National Nuclear Security Administration, "indicates the willingness of the Putin government to crush basic norms of behavior in their efforts to embarrass, weaken and diminish what they consider to be competitive if not hostile forces," Herbst said. "Putin is pursuing a foreign policy that is as aggressive as any we've seen since the early 1980s."
Whether it's a rerun of the Brezhnev-era Cold War is an ongoing academic and diplomatic debate. Herbst puts it this way: "We are now in a highly competitive, even confrontational relationship with Moscow, and of course you could use the same phrases to describe the Cold War period."
So the espionage endures. But now it's more likely the work of the Russian intelligence agency-affiliated hacker group " 'Cozy Bear,' " Hammond said, "instead of someone in a back-street cafe in Budapest running someone or [someone] involved in a human-intelligence operation. That's still going to happen, but it's going to be banks of computers somewhere in Russia or the United States trying to get in in an oblique way, lateral ways, trying to get inside using cyber, the digital realm."
The human realm was le Carré's coin of the realm in his complex, compelling novels, particularly through his all-too-human George Smiley — the brilliant, brooding, unfashionable and usually unhappy spy who was the antithesis of the Cold War era's other literary and cinematic spy, James Bond.
That the two great chroniclers of Cold War espionage, le Carré and Ian Fleming, were once intelligence officers is notable to Hammond. "They went down very different paths," he said. Fleming "went down the martini route" (shaken, not stirred) and le Carré "went down the warm, stale beer route."
Another former intelligence officer now leads Russia. And Herbst believes that Putin, as well as his KGB comrades, never bought into the post-Soviet rapprochement with the West. "In the 1990s, it was a largely but not entirely cooperative relationship" between the U.S. and Russia, Herbst said. "But I don't think the Russian intelligence services were ever in that relationship with us; even then they were working against us."
In other words, Putin never became "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" — the title of le Carré's breakthrough 1963 novel that showed shades of the Cold War not in black and white, but gray.
"Le Carré is really great for exploring some of the moral dimensions of the Cold War," Hammond said. "That's one of the great things about classic literature — Greek tragedy, Shakespeare — they help us think about things in ways we're not able to think about by reading a book of history or reading a speech." Or a screen, even if it shows the alacrity of the attack Herbst succinctly said was "a real victory for the hackers and a real problem for us."
Bossert, in his Times commentary, gave it his best shot when he wrote: "The actual and perceived control of so many important networks could easily be used to undermine public and consumer trust in data, written communications and services.
"In the networks that the Russians control, they have the power to destroy or alter data, and impersonate legitimate people. Domestic and geopolitical tensions could escalate quite easily if they use their access for malign influence and misinformation — both hallmarks of Russian behavior."
These hallmarks of Russian behavior are a constant amid the variables of espionage methodology, be it the back-street cafe in Budapest or banks of computers somewhere in Russia.
Interpreting the internet-era of spying will fall to other writers. But it will be hard to match le Carré's incisive, introspective novels.
"Human beings won't be displaced" in this shadowy world, Hammond said. Le Carré "was a great example of that kind of espionage." But "what we're seeing now is technology exponentially changing, and intelligence agencies are trying to keep up with it."
Which means that in this era, Hammond added, "We probably need some new novelist to help us think about the world in which we're living through in this moment."
Better be quite a writer. Because in this moment, in this world we're living through, truth seems stranger — and scarier — than fiction.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.