Christopher Andrew




book review


Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community

IN THIS extensive and scholarly study – 500 pages with barely a mention of cloaks or daggers – Christopher Andrew, a noted Cambridge historian, traces the development of the British Secret Service from its earliest origins (during the Restoration there was a Secret Service fund ostensibly to finance British propaganda abroad, although more often used for political bribery at home; and in the late 17th century some of the fund was appropriated to 'relieve distress' among former mistresses of Charles II) up to the modern Intelligence Service and its roots in the spy scares rife in the run up to World War One.

These entirely fake rumours were fuelled largely by the shilling shocker novels of the time and were strong enough to lead to one of the most farcical episodes in British legal history. An article in The Imperialist newspaper 'revealed' the existence of a Black Book compiled from reports by German agents and containing "instructions for the propagation of evils which all decent men thought had perished in Sodom and Lesbos". It went on to list 47,000 "British sexual perverts" who were being blackmailed by German Intelligence.

The first head of M16 was Mansfield Cumming. Immortalised by donating his initial 'C' to denote this exalted rank, this engaging fellow kept a photo atop his desk showing himself in German military attire (the address of the theatrical supplier being, to this day, an Official Secret) and was delighted when visitors failed to spot the likeness.

He was first to recruit "men of the professor type". Previously it seemed agents were appointed through soldierly deeds or some social connection. The first batch of brainboys became a codebreaking cell housed in Whitehall's Room 40. All except one 'Billy' Knox who preferred to lubricate his thought flow by soaking in the warm suds available in Room 53, the bathroom. Herein he was attended by a secretary whom he later married (given the social etiquette of the time, I suppose he had no choice).

Room 40 achieved great success in breaking German Navy coded communications. Unfortunately the use of this intelligence was sometimes botched appallingly.

Following WW1, attention switched to the Russian Revolution and there were some ludicrous attempts by M16 to influence the outcome of the civil war between the White and Red armies. As the Bolsheviks assumed complete control, intelligence eyes became focused on the "red menace" at home (not until Mosley's Blackshirts got lively in the '30s did special branch or M15 pay more than passing attention to possible right-wing subversion).

The fact that such investigations concentrated on the 'traditional' hotbeds of disquiet such as the labour movement meant that other sources of Soviet recruitment (ie. the intelligentsia) were unwatched. Hence the chance for Philby, Burgess, Maclean & co to come unsuspected comintern agents in the mid-1930s.

When Britain entered World War Two and Churchill became head of the coalition Government, the British Secret Service was at a low ebb. Churchill, however, took an unprecedentedly close interest in its affairs and established the forerunner to GCHQ at Bletchley Park to intercept German signals intelligence. This set-up, code named Ultra, led to the breaking of the German Enigma code and was the Intelligence Services' most spectacular triumph, generally believed to have shortened the war by several years.

But such joys were shortlived. Just prior to the Suez debacle of 1956, the Secret Service were operating with a modicum of outside control (although apparently with the blessing of PM Anthony Eden) and hatching "madcap schemes" to engineer a coup in Syria and possibly even the assassination of President Nasser.

Throughout the book, Andrew chips away at the widely held notion that complete secrecy and nil parliamentary accountability foster an efficient and effective Intelligence service. He builds the case for greater accountability which he sees as necessary if the ' foul-ups of the past are not to be repeated in the future'

This study is not only unique (other historians said it couldn't be done) but timely.


mick sinclair

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