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The little-known spy agency that trumps the CIA

🚜 Starmer the farmer | 🦩 Gertrude | 🇫🇷 Cornouaille

Long reads shortened

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible (1996): should have just asked the INR

The little-known spy agency that trumps the CIA

“Every American knows what the CIA is,” says Dylan Matthews in Vox. But maybe only one in a thousand has heard of the INR – the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, an “in-house intelligence agency” for American diplomats. Yet far more than the CIA or other agencies, the INR gets the big stuff right. As early as 1961, INR analysts were correctly warning that South Vietnam’s battle against the North and the Viet Cong insurgency was “failing”. In 2002, when the rest of the US intelligence world was convinced Saddam Hussein was trying to build nuclear weapons, the INR thought the supposed evidence was nonsense. “It was right.” And in 2022, it bucked the consensus view by predicting that Ukraine “would put up a spirited fight” against the imminent Russian invasion. Right again.

The INR is tiny, with fewer than 500 employees – for comparison, a 2013 leak put the CIA’s headcount at 21,575. It has “no spies abroad, no satellites in the sky, no bugs on any laptops”; its budget is only about 0.1% of overall US intelligence spending. So what explains its success? One factor is specialism. The CIA tends to favour generalists: employees are given a new country or region to monitor every two or three years. At the INR, “the average analyst has been on their topic for over 14 years”, and many are recruited straight from academia. The CIA’s reports also pass through many hands before they reach their intended reader; the INR’s findings are generally written by just one person, emphasising “individuality rather than groupthink”. All this makes it “the Cassandra of American intelligence”.


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Heroes and villains

Gertrude, a flamingo in Norfolk who has just laid her first egg at the age of 70. The aged avian is part of a flamboyance of more than 65 flamingos at Pensthorpe nature reserve near Fakenham. Her own egg won’t hatch, managing director Ben Marshall tells the BBC, but “Gertrude is very protective of the young in the flock and will make a great aunt and babysitter”.

Pope Francis, who offered a rare papal apology this week for using a homophobic slur. During a private discussion with bishops about admitting gay men into the priesthood, the 87-year-old said some seminaries already had too much “frociaggine” – an Italian word that roughly translates as “faggotness”.

Ed Davey, for kicking off the Liberal Democrats’ election campaign with a couple of almost parodically clownish photo stunts: repeatedly falling off a paddleboard into Lake Windemere, and cycling headlong down a steep street in Wales. For the other parties, says Marina Hyde in The Guardian, being in an election with the Lib Dems is “like being in Hamlet with a drunk Teletubby playing one of the minor roles”. They have no interest in serious performance, and all they want is for the audience to say: “OMG where are they now? How ker-razy are they being now?”


THE HOLIDAY HOME This seven-bedroom properrt is set among 14 acres of rewilded open countryside in the Cotswolds. The former Dutch barn was remodelled in 2020 into a striking living space that unfolds over two storeys, with a sleek, modern aesthetic contrasting with the rolling hills visible through the large windows throughout. Features include a double-height open-plan living room and home cinema, while planning permission has been granted for five glamping pods on the surrounding land. Banbury station is a 30-minute drive, with trains to London in 50 minutes. £1.7m

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Election watch

Finnbarr Webster/Getty

Keir Starmer’s bucolic childhood

If Keir Starmer wins in July, says Alice Thomson in The Times, he will become “the prime minister with the most rural heritage of the past few decades”. His great grandfather Gustavus was a gamekeeper on a Surrey estate. “On rainy shoot days, sodden guests would eat at the family’s thatched cottage.” When launching his campaign, the Kentish Town barrister recalled his first job picking up stones for local farmers and “sharing a football pitch with the cows”. And whereas his Labour predecessors “dreaded any holidays in bucolic England”, Starmer has written for Country Life about “scrambling up the crags of the Langdale Pikes” in the Lake District with his kids, and growing up among the “rolling pastures” and “beautiful chalk hills” of the North Downs.

He knows about shutting gates, but more importantly last month he launched a strategy to tackle “soaring countryside crime” and take on “fly-tipping, sheep worrying and the theft of farming equipment”. Contrast that with Tony Blair, who fled abroad to avoid the acrid pyres of cows during foot-and-mouth, or Gordon Brown – the grandson of a farmer – who showed zero interest in agriculture. Recent Tory leaders have been no better: yes, Theresa May ran through a wheat field and Liz Truss was linked to a lettuce, but Boris Johnson and David Cameron went out of their way to ditch any “tweedy” association. Yet the countryside vote could be crucial at the election – nearly 10 million people live in rural areas. For generations, the “red cords and green wellies” crowd has voted blue. But after 13 years of rural neglect, “gamekeeper-turned-poacher Starmer is about to steal their votes”.


Boesky in a helicopter over Manhattan in 1986. Yves Gellie/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

The Wall Street titan who inspired Gordon Gekko

Ivan Boesky, who died last month aged 87, was the ultimate “brash financier”, says Leslie Wayne in The New York Times. A central figure of the 1980s insider trading scandals, he came to symbolise Wall Street greed to such an extent that he inspired the character of Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s movie Wall Street. The famous “greed is good” speech is based on a real talk Boesky gave to a group of business school students in California. “Greed is all right, by the way,” he told them. “I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.” He was greeted with rousing applause.

Boesky claimed to sleep only two or three hours a night, rising at 4.30am to work out before taking a limo to his New York office, where he “stood command” over an array of video terminals, news wires, stock tickers, 160 telephone lines and a set of screens that let him see and hear his employees at all times. He preferred to stand all day rather than sit, and he “barely ate”, drinking “vast amounts of coffee” instead. At the top of his game Boesky had a net worth of $280m – equivalent to about $818m today – and lived in a sprawling estate adorned with a Renoir and carpets embossed with his monogram. But it all came crashing down when he was found to have been couriering suitcases stuffed with $100 bills to associates at banks and law firms in exchange for insider information. He was fined a whopping $100m and served 18 months in prison. “He later admitted to violating prison rules by paying fellow inmates to do his laundry.”

The great escape

Pont-Aven: the Cornouaille equivalent of St Ives

Sick of Cornwall? Try Cornouaille

I am Cornish, says Sean Thomas in The Spectator. I am so Cornish, in fact, that my Cornish sister lives three miles from where our Cornish ancestors lived in the 13th century, and my Cornish mum makes Cornish recipes so obscurely Cornish that most of the Cornish have never heard of them. But these days, I basically dodge the place altogether, such are the crowds all through the spring, summer, much of the autumn, Christmas and “any weekend at any time, ever”. So instead, I recently took myself off to Cornwall’s French equivalent: a green and coastal chunk of Brittany called Cornouaille, so named for the jolly good reason that it was settled by Cornishmen in the fifth century.

In “delicate, pretty, arty” Pont-Aven, the Cornouaille equivalent of St Ives, you can see the studio where Paul Gauguin painted famous portraits. In gritty Breton-Gallic Douarnenez, an old sardine fishing port with an old sardine fishing factory, you can see old sardine fishermen eating sardines in old sardine wharves turned into sardine restaurants. “Try the sardines.” And instead of Truro, the equivalent county town is Quimper, full of Tudor-gabled streets and handsome riverside boulevards. “It is probably lovelier than any single town in the Americas.”

🍏🤷 Keen to try Brittany’s revered crêpes and ciders, I visited one of the famous crêperies that line Quimper’s exquisite, 16th-century Butter Square. When I asked the waiter whether they sold cider as well as crêpes, he said they did, but only one. “Only one kind of cider?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied, offering a magnificent Gallic shrug. “It is the best.”



“Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes.”
Jim Carrey

That’s it. You’re done.