‘Secret Wars: One Hundred Years of British Intelligence Inside MI5 and MI6’ by Gordon Thomas

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The experience of empire seems to leave a people with at least a taste, if not a particular talent, for conspiracy. Certainly, that’s true of the Russians for whom the one place at which the history of czarism and Bolshevism most clearly conjoins is in a lasting predilection for plots and plotting. It’s true as well for the British, who transmuted the gifted amateurism of Kipling’s “great game” into the modern world’s first recognizable professional intelligence agencies.

It’s not for nothing that Bill Haydon -- the Kim Philby-like English double agent in John le Carré’s classic “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” -- informs his interrogator and betrayed friend, George Smiley, that he’d “always regarded the secret services as the only true expression of a nation’s character.”

In fact, as Gordon Thomas points out in his rollicking, readable new history of Britain’s famous spy organizations -- “Secret Wars: One Hundred Years of British Intelligence Inside MI5 and MI6” -- when the future head of OSS, William Donovan, sought to convince President Franklin D. Roosevelt that America required equivalent services, he argued, “These are organizations that helped rule an empire.”


MI6 is Britain’s external spy service -- like our CIA -- and reports to the foreign secretary, the British equivalent of our secretary of State. MI5 is responsible for internal security -- rather like our FBI, but without its power to make arrests -- and is responsible to the home secretary, roughly our attorney general. Both will mark their 100th anniversaries this August. A longtime reporter and commentator on intelligence affairs, Thomas is the author of more than 40 nonfiction books and novels, along with a clutch of screenplays.

Revealing tales

It takes nothing away from this new book to describe it as a popular history, though the quality of the storytelling is such that even many specialists are likely to find new nuggets of insight. Thomas takes a novelist’s approach: We’re told where on Savile Row the head of MI6 has his suits tailored and that he wears a Travellers Club tie, sits at a desk once used by Adm. Lord Horatio Nelson and writes his most important communications with a Parker pen filled with green ink from a Victorian desk well. (He also has a desk console that links him instantly to the prime minister, the heads of the Central Intelligence Agency and Israel’s Mossad.)

Thomas builds one fast-paced anecdote upon another, often yielding surprising insights, such as the fact that Allen Dulles, who ran the OSS’ European operations for Donovan out of a base in Switzerland, was, unlike his overwhelmingly Anglophilic Ivy League colleagues in the early CIA, profoundly anti-English. He’d acquired an antipathy for imperialism and the English class system while working as a schoolteacher in India before beginning his celebrated career as a Wall Street lawyer. (He also was carefully monitored and manipulated by Philby during those early days with OSS.)

The author’s anecdotal account of Philby’s ultimate unmasking by Dulles and other CIA officials is quite good, as is his rendering of the class system’s role in the failure of MI6 and MI5 to uncover not only their deep penetration by the Soviets’ KGB but also by atomic spies -- Klaus Fuchs, Alan Nunn and Bruno Pontecorvo -- all of whom were vetted into the Manhattan Project by British intelligence. Thomas is equally strong on American double agents, particularly Aldrich H. Ames, who betrayed for money rather than ideology and, ultimately, did even more damage than Philby, virtually closing down U.S. human intelligence in the Eastern Bloc.

For all its narrative vigor, one of the strengths of “Secret Wars” is the clarity of its attribution. Anecdotes are studded not only with novelistic details but also with direct quotations. Thomas provides a lengthy list of his on-the-record sources, who include several former CIA and Mossad directors; the legendary chief of East Germany’s Stasi, Marcus Wolff; and the one-time consulting psychiatrist to MI5 and MI6.


While the author’s eye and ear for the nuances of British society and politics are keen, he sometimes fumbles with American details. Whatever Jimmy Carter’s presidential peculiarities, emulating John F. Kennedy’s accent and hairstyle was not among them. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith did not idolize Gen. George S. Patton. In fact, while Smith served as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s chief of staff during World War II, he and Patton came to loathe each other.

Thomas is particularly good at picking anecdotes that demonstrate the cooperative power of the democracies’ intelligence agencies -- when they chose to employ them. For example, the Provisional IRA’s increasing links to the Eastern Bloc during the 1970s and, through the KGB, to international terrorists like George Habash and his Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, were developed in Belfast by the Mossad’s director of operations, Rafi Eitan. The first advice to the British government that it could contain, but never defeat, violent Irish nationalism in Ulster -- a critical insight that was the first step on London’s journey to the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the province -- was delivered by an MI6 agent on the ground. Key information on Pakistan’s renegade nuclear proliferation racket came early from MI6 and Mossad.

About Bin Laden . . .

Looking ahead to the ongoing struggle with jihadi terrorists -- whom Thomas and his sources, more than many American analysts, seem to believe are much more crucially linked to Osama bin Laden’s continued physical well-being -- the author misses a point that’s well worth making. The West and its democratic allies, relying in larger part on their intelligence agencies, already have waged two successful campaigns against international terrorism: containment and pacification of the IRA and the defeat and destruction of the terrorist international the KGB attempted to construct in the 1970s out of groups like the PLF, the German Red Army faction, Italy’s Red Brigades and Spain’s ETA. (Only the latter group of Basque separatists limps along in shadow form, though under increasing pressure from Spanish and French authorities.)

Though Thomas believes that Bin Laden presents a uniquely threatening case -- he judges him more personally aberrant than either Hitler or Stalin, which seems rather dubious -- he does think that Islamist radicalism can be defeated through more openness among the democratic intelligence agencies. The larger challenge, he argues, is for Britain’s MI5 and MI6 to fully cooperate with the 25 spy agencies working within the European Union without sacrificing their “special relationship” with America’s CIA and NSA. “If global terrorism is to be defeated,” Thomas writes, “then British, European and U.S. intelligence services must be more open-handed in sharing their secrets with services that would never have featured on their distribution list prior to 9/11.” That will require, he realistically concludes, a concomitant degree of new political transparency. Thomas argues that while the protection of sources “must remain paramount,” we no longer can neglect an insight that comes from -- of all unlikely places -- that most implacable of all CIA Cold Warriors, James Angleton: “Secrecy from public scrutiny leads to often uncheckable and different accounts of the same events, which are often contradictory and distorted.”

There are thousands upon thousands of dead Iraqis, Americans and Britons whose fresh graves are mute testimony to the old spy’s tragic wisdom.