sandbaggers: SB: Burnside's professional efficacy

SB: Burnside's professional efficacy

Micky DuPree (
Sat, 13 Aug 1994 10:26:27 +100 (BST)

I think it's pretty clear that we are meant to think pretty highly of
Burnside's professional judgment, at least at the beginning. I think
the first two episodes are meant to lull the audience into a state where
they trust his professional decisions. In "First Principles," Burnside
correctly turned the Kola Peninsula operation down. When forced to take
it on anyway, he correctly ordered the reconnaissance flight that would
get the information the SB would need if they were to stand half a
chance, even though the Norwegians were pressuring for a single flight-
and-drop. The SB were better briefed that the CIA team. And in the
end, Burnside stood on the higher moral ground when he objected to SIS
being used as a tool to further the political ends of the current
government in power rather than its expressed purpose of intelligence
gathering and analysis, and safeguarding British interests abroad.
Burnside's tactical appraisal of the situation seemed to be above

(From a real-world standpoint, I have some quibbles with the way things
worked out in the first episode. If the CIA had satellite pictures good
enough to spot a downed aircraft, then I don't see how they could have
missed spotting an entire Russian military installation sitting on their
proposed escape route. But since I don't see any advantage to the
Americans of getting themselves and the Norwegian scientists caught, I
think we're meant to take it as a given that they somehow couldn't spot
the installation.)

Anyway, back to Burnside, note that in "A Proper Function of
Government," he called all the shots for watching the potential defector
perfectly. He was correct when he said that the communique concerning
Hopkins going AWOL should have been brought to his attention sooner. He
was correct when he said that they shouldn't have notified the Foreign
Office and the Prime Minister of their surveillance until they were more
certain of Hopkins' motives, because if he hadn't actually been spirited
away to Moscow the first time he went walkabout, it would be that much
harder to get permission to bring him home the next time: a prediction
that turned out to be dead right. It was Burnside who correctly
intuited which Soviet agent's modis operandi they were dealing with.
(He had many of these brilliant flashes, such as what the terrorist was
going to do at the end of ep.4 and what the Arab prince's true
motivations were in ep.5.) All down the line in ep.2 it was Burnside
who kept making the correct tactical decisions whereas it was others
(excepting the SB themselves) who were making wrong judgments, with the
possible exception of Burnside sending both SB, which we all suspect
he was deliberately doing simply to leave himself clear to perform the
assassination of the African dictator Lutara. And as for the
assassination itself, you may not agree that assassination is ever
justified, but the point I want to make within the context of the SB
world is that everyone in SIS agreed that the assassination was a good
and practical solution to said dictator's threat to British lives and
commercial interests, and it was Burnside who spearheaded the proposal.
The only one who didn't concur was the Prime Minister, who ostensibly
objected on moral grounds but was shown up as a hypocrite and a political
weasel at the end. So even if you think Burnside's judgment was faulty
with respect to the assassination plan, there was absolutely no one
around whose professional judgment on the matter was better.

Obviously this campaign to show Burnside in at least a pragmatic good
light wasn't effective with everybody, otherwise Gayle wouldn't have
objected, but I do think that was Mackintosh's plan. Then, having
lulled (most of) the viewers into believing that Burnside knew his job,
Mackintosh hit us with "Is Your Journey Really Necessary?" the first
real moral shocker for viewers raised on a steady diet of American
television. And was the point of ordering Landy shot by his own side to
convince the audience that it was the right thing to do? I don't really
want to venture a guess about whether Mackintosh agreed with the
morality of that decision, but I think that the point he was trying to
make didn't have anything to do with the morality of the act at all, but
was instead that good and dedicated agents should be given more
resources so they wouldn't have to be put in that position in the first
place. I think what Mackintosh wanted us to come away with from that
incident was the scene afterwards in Greenley's office in which Burnside
explained that he had been running an illegal operation in the USSR on
behalf of the CIA because he desperately needed the favors the CIA would
be trading in return, favors that he wouldn't need if the government could
see its way clear to give him the funding and the resources he needed.

I don't think history has borne out the assumption that SIS needed more
funding to keep the great bear of Eurocommunism at bay, so from a real-
world perspective, I have to disagree with this whole rationale. But I
think that's a point Mackintosh brought up over and over again
throughout the series: if SIS in general, and dedicated agents like
Burnside and the SB in particular, were to receive the support and
backing he thought they needed and deserved, agents like Burnside would
actually be more reliable, accountable, and efficacious because they
could do the job they were dedicated to do that much better. Burnside
wouldn't have gone on to hound Denson's girlfriend (a move that I think
was both morally and pragmatically wrong) if he had been allowed to
staff more than three SB at a time, because then he wouldn't have seen
himself as facing a stretch with only one SB in the wake of Landy's
death and Denson's departure. Mackintosh was an apologist for Burnside
in particular and SIS in general, since he made out that every time
Burnside failed tactically or had to make a no-win decision, it was lack
of outside support that drove him to it. Mackintosh also assumed that
SIS would only spend money wisely. It was one of the unquestioned
assumptions of the entire series' premise. I can't offhand remember a
single expenditure that was portrayed as being unwise or unnecessary,
with the sole exception of Caine's deliberately provocative stay at the
Hilton in "Enough of Ghosts." Given a reasonably large organization
with both infighting and extra-service rivalry going on, I find that
hard to believe.