Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Opening the Files on MI6 - a bit

The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949. 
By Keith Jeffery. 
Bloomsbury Inc.810pp.

Reviewed 12 February 2011 

Secret agents have fascinated us since story-telling began. We get excited about the moral ambiguities of Wikileaks and of political propaganda. Practices that are crimes in civil life may be praised as heroic in the competition between nations.

Demand for transparency in domestic politics goes along with acceptance of secret intelligence work in “defence” of common national interests. The paradox is that we are asked to trust in the effectiveness, and appropriateness, of actions undertaken in our names, that employ secrecy and deception, and that are publicly deniable by sponsoring governments.

So an authorized history of a secret organization like MI6 might seem to challenge the professional ethics of a historian, whose access to the archives depends on his agreement not to reveal (potentially juicy) bits of what he has seen. How much is to be believed when you don't know what remains concealed?

Keith Jeffery, a Professor of British History, was given privileged access to the archives of Britain's secret intelligence services - an Aladdin's Cave with filing cabinets.

Jeffery's meticulous 800 pages will help aficionados to sort fact from fiction in the spy memoir genre. He draws on hundreds of published works, as well as the files of MI6, to add anecdote and character sketch to what could have been a rather dry review of this romanticised subject.

In 1909, “tradecraft” was initially of the Sherlock Holmes variety, at best. Off to meet a potential recruit in disguise, Cumming had himself fitted up with a wig and false moustache at a Soho theatrical costume shop, and for good measure had his new appearance photographed so it could be replicated by the next costumier.

Effort and budget were boosted successively by British fears of Imperial Germany, international Communism, the Axis Powers, then Soviet Communism. The organization grew from one man in 1909 to a multi-layered network of thousands of agents and informers across the globe by 1949, when the veil is drawn.

Recruitment carried unavoidable risks. The kind of individuals who would undertake deception and betrayal must include some charlatans and some willing to double-cross - from top-drawer old boy network traitors like Kim Philby down to local informers turning under threat, torture, or for a better financial offer. The many stories of double-cross included here are just a small sample of an alarming rate of attrition among agents.

Another occupational hazard was over-confidence on the part of those who enjoyed the risk-taking aspects of operations. One internal critic of MI6's early World War II sabotage operations in Europe compared it to “arranging an attack on a Panzer Division by an actor mounted on a donkey”.

There were  repeated takeover attempts by the Defence Forces establishment.  MI6 also faced frequent pressure from the Foreign Office to curtail activities that could embarrass the local diplomats .

The history reminds how difficult relations were between Britain and the USA over this period. Bringing down the British Empire was an open objective of many Irish Americans (notably Ambassador Joseph P Kennedy, and several US journalists who actively spied for Germany), of many German Americans, and others who saw Imperial Britain as an economic competitor.

Keith Jeffery avoids too many obvious references to James Bond. Commander Ian Fleming appears as the author of disinformation published to cover the bungled murder of a traitorous agent.

Bond was most likely modelled on a suave Paris-based MI6 agent with a legendary taste for fast cars and faster women, but a name more evocative of tweeds than of tuxedos.

“The name's Dunderdale … Biffy Dunderdale”.

Read the whole review

Richard Thwaites' father was an ASIO officer 1950-1971, but his own experience of the field consists solely of being kept in the dark .