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At sixes and fives

Inside British Intelligence: 100 Years of MI5 and MI6, by Gordon Thomas

13 May 2009

12:00 AM

13 May 2009

12:00 AM

Inside British Intelligence: 100 Years of MI5 and MI6 Gordon Thomas

JR Books, pp.430, 20

A passage in that most insidiously influential of histories, 1066 And All That, tries to explain who the Scots, Irish and Picts really were:

The Scots (originally Irish, but by now Scotch) were at this time inhabiting Ireland, having driven the Irish (Picts) out of Scotland; while the Picts (originally Scots) were now Irish (living in brackets) and vice versa.

Gordon Thomas’s account of MI5 and MI6 could lead to similar confusion. He correctly says they were founded in 1909 with Vernon Kell heading MI5, responsible for counter-espionage, and Mansfield Cumming MI6, responsible for espionage. Subsequently he says they both ‘emerged’ two years later out of the 1911 Official Secrets Act, when Churchill appointed the ‘wheezing and coughing’ Kell. Thomas criticises Kell for failing to deal with Irish nationalism (although that was not his responsibility) and claims he employed ‘Blinker’ Hall, who as Director of Naval Intelligence was very much senior to Kell and was the man who generally tasked Cumming. Later, Sir Dick White, who headed MI5, and subsequently MI6, is described as reorganising Kell’s MI6 (sic) and Stella Rimington, the first woman to head MI5, as having climbed the career ladder in Century House (headquarters of MI6). Sir Christopher Curwen, listed as chief of MI6, also pops up as head of MI5, while his contemporary Patrick Walker, who really did head MI5, is apparently in charge in Century House. Sir Anthony Duff, an outstanding head of MI5,

had a direct way of looking, a reminder of his days peering through a periscope when he had been one of the youngest submarine commanders in World War II

— but it didn’t help much because he even misread his map and allegedly spent his first week shaking hands with every occupant of every office in MI6.

Perhaps what appears to be a long list of trivial errors is really a subtle way of revealing the last great secret of the British intelligence community: that there never was an MI6 until it emerged fully formed in Vauxhall Cross, its current HQ, in the mid-1990s. Or perhaps MI5 was all along a cover for MI6, which wasn’t supposed to exist in peacetime? Whatever the truth of these deep matters, we can rest assured our security is in good hands: the 9/11 attacks, Thomas says, ‘triggered an alarm bell in MI5’.


What is it about the Intelligence world that prompts people to write with such certainty about what they know they do not know? Presumably sales, the romance of secrecy and the pleasure of spilling the beans (or saying you have) lead so many to add their penn’orth to the mythology of Intelligence. Almost any book purporting to tell the inside story of British Intelligence — or French, Israeli, Russian or American — is not what it says on the tin. Even the memoirs of disaffected employees such as Peter Wright, inventor of MI5’s non-existent Wilson Plot, tend to be inflated by fantasy and skewed by self-justification.

Thomas’s sources are his extensive bibliography, 44 named contacts and an undisclosed number of un-named. Only nine of the 44 are British, of whom three are disgruntled former staff of MI5 or MI6. The result is an amalgam of published material, news stories and Washington- or Tel Aviv-derived gossip of varying quality, all unsourced.

He writes as for a drama documentary, beginning:

On a morning in mid-March 2007, a dark blue car with a Scotland Yard Special Branch driver at the wheel made its way through the west suburbs of London . . .

Its passenger was Sir John Scarlett, the current chief of MI6 (not director-general, as stated, which would put him in MI5 and us back with 1066). We are told which suit, shirt and tie he was wearing (I wonder if he knows that himself?) but not where he is going. To work, presumably, though he remains suspended in his car for many pages while we are given a whistle-stop introduction to 9/11, Iraq and All That. Thomas likes putting his subjects into cars; service heads and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are frequently introduced in them, and usually left there.

The pity is, it could have been so different. There are shelves of authentic material on or from MI5 and MI6 in the National Archive at Kew, much of it unread. MI5 regularly releases its historic files and the entire surviving SOE archive is available, as are court transcripts, the reports of official inquiries and authorised published accounts from both sides of the Atlantic. Significant events in the histories of MI5 and MI6 are thus ignored or barely touched on here. The Venlo incident, for example, in which two SIS officers were captured at the start of the second world war and which shaped how subsequent German peace initiatives were perceived. Or the Penkovsky case and its role in the Cuban missile crisis, or MI5’s ground-breaking persuasion of the Heath government to expel 105 Russian intelligence officers and so begin the worldwide visa refusal system, or MI6’s work with the Poles and French on breaking Enigma, or the failures of intelligence work in post- revolutionary Russia, or the achievement of the Belgian La Dame Blanche network in the first world war, or the roles of both services in helping ensure that the British left most of their empire with some form (however precarious) of democracy.

Instead, we get unattributed ‘insider’ accounts of recent events, pages on Washington and the CIA, privileged insights into the minds of leaders (Thomas writes mainly about leaders), surprising knowledge of private conversations and a profusion of unfounded allegations and suggestions — ‘Nine months later he [Maurice Oldfield, chief of MI6] was dead — the cause was officially given as a heart attack …’

Future historians will have a sounder, if less sensational, base to work from following the publication in October of this year of Christopher Andrews’s authorised history of MI5 and next year of Keith Jeffreys’s authorised history of MI6 to 1949. Those histories will be file-based, not — like this carelessly thrown-together attempt to pre-empt them — file-free. Anyone seriously interested would do better to wait.

Alan Judd’s authorised biography of Mansfield Cumming, the founder of MI6, is published by HarperCollins as The Quest for C.


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