'The Secret History of MI6': A history of Britain's spy agency
Book review: Keith Jeffery's "The Secret History of MI6: 1909-1949" is a long, dry, but worthwhile account of the history of MI6, the agency that is Britain's equivalent of the CIA.
Special to The Seattle Times
'The Secret History of MI6: 1909-1949'
by Keith Jeffery
Penguin Press, 810 pp., $39.95
Keith Jeffery, a professor at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, has written an exhaustive and exhausting chronicle of England's secret intelligence service.
Jeffery was commissioned by a former head of MI6 — the equivalent of America's CIA — to write "a complete history of the agency" through 1949. This marks the first time an "academic from outside the service" was granted access to the archives.
Anyone anticipating a book chockablock with stories of James Bondish derring-do will be largely disappointed. Though Ian Fleming and other novelists make appearances, "The Secret History of MI6" is largely desert-dry reading.
Understandably, Jeffery took a scholarly rather than popular approach, and by scholarly I mean he managed to squeeze in every last bit of information he found into a weight-lifter-size tome. One example: he lists the 1923 budget for virtually every MI6 region in the world individually. Additionally, many of his sentences are long and ponderous, in the way many college professors write. Moreover, while Jeffery was supposedly granted full access to the archives, the archives were incomplete because "much of the material was routinely destroyed after it was read." And, of course, we do not know how much of the material (if any) was redacted or withheld.
That is not to say the book isn't worthwhile. However, it takes effort to get to the important nuggets.
MI6's precursor — the Secret Intelligence Service, or SIS — was formed in 1909, partly because of concern about "the challenge of an aggressive, ambitious, imperial Germany." But it also was fueled by a reaction to "invasion-scare" novels that were popular in Britain at the time.
Mansfield Cumming was named the first chief of service (or "C" as the job came to be known). He seems to have spent half his time fighting bureaucratic turf battles with the War Office and Special Branch (of Scotland Yard) over who does what. It wasn't until 1931, 22 years after it was founded, that Britain's SIS took its present form: with MI6 spying outside the Commonwealth and MI5 having counterintelligence responsibilities internally.
The text picks up steam on those occasions when it becomes anecdotal. There was, for example, the early quest for secret ink. Someone decided that "the best invisible ink is semen," and "all were anxious to obtain" it. One World War II agent infiltrated occupied Holland from the sea in full evening dress covered by a specially designed rubber suit to keep him dry. There he was met by another agent who sprinkled him with Hennessy XO cognac "to strengthen his 'party-goers' image."
While these incidents are fun, the real strength of the book is the lessons to be learned from it. The turf battles Cumming fought are likely fought here in the U.S. And not just interagency turf wars; as glamorous as it may sound, the bottom line is that intelligence agencies ultimately are bureaucracies.
Need proof? Just three days after Britain declared war against the Axis powers, when everyone should have been concentrating on the conflagration, an MI6 functionary tried to send a note hoping to "standardize the size" of certain forms attached to reports. And Jeffery reports incidents where, "even when good intelligence was acquired, it was not always believed" or it was misplaced during interagency shuffling.
We've had notable intelligence failures in the United States lately. CIA Director George Tenet told President George W. Bush that Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction was "a slam dunk."
Intelligence warnings about 9/11 were ignored. An FBI agent in Arizona notified headquarters in July 2001 that several Middle Easterners were taking flying lessons in his area and suggested other flight schools be contacted about an unusual number of Arab students. The agency was still discussing whether to do so two months later.
"The Secret History of MI6" is an important cautionary tale that has implications worldwide. It's not an easy read, but then value doesn't always come easily.