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Spies and counter-spies

The origin of this unique publication is the 1990s Waldegrave open government initiative, encouraging departments to reveal more.

7 October 2009

12:00 AM

7 October 2009

12:00 AM

The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 Christopher Andrew

Allen Lane, pp.1032, 30

The origin of this unique publication is the 1990s Waldegrave open government initiative, encouraging departments to reveal more. MI5 began sending its early papers to the National Archive and in 2003 commissioned an outsider to write its history, guaranteeing almost unfettered access to its files. It retained right of veto over the book’s content, but the judgments were to be the writer’s own.

The lucky man — unsurprisingly, given his record as an intelligence historian — was Chris Andrew, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Cambridge. The result, squeezed into one fat volume, is definitive and fascinating. Definitive because, after decades of ill-informed or partial accounts, this book fully defines and describes its subject; no future writer can ignore it. Fascinating because of the fluent clarity of Andrew’s narrative, his eye for colourful individual detail and the sheer interest of his subjects, whether reporting on Hitler in the 1930s, the Double- Cross System of the second world war, Zionist terrorism, the atom spies, the Cambridge spies, the so-called Wilson Plot or the 1988 shooting of the IRA bombers in Gibraltar. Much, Andrew says, was excluded on grounds of sensitivity after vigorous debate — possibly even more for lack of space — but what is here will delight the specialist and general reader alike.

The Secret Service Bureau was established in October 1909 in response to the German naval build-up and alarms about spying. It had two sections, one for home-based counter-espionage and the other for overseas espionage, which later split to become MI5 and MI6. The two heads were a 36-year-old Army captain, Vernon Kell, an accomplished linguist with a cosmopolitan background and Anglo-Polish parentage, and the 50-year-old Mansfield Cumming, a monoglot retired naval officer with an enthusiasm for torpedo defences. The linguist was given MI5, the monoglot MI6.

MI5 comprised 17 staff (including Kell) at the start of the first world war, during which it expanded hugely, employing — unlike most of Whitehall — a high proportion of female graduates. It had a good war, either catching all the German spies in Britain or ensuring that their successors achieved nothing. The story of these early years is widely known but Andrew makes a significant contribution in demonstrating that, although the service (like the rest of government and the nation) had an exaggerated notion of German espionage, it did not exaggerate when it later claimed to have rounded up every effective German agent in August 1914 (at a rate of more than one arrest for each staff member).

In 1919 they celebrated victory with an irreverent and apparently saucy ‘Hush-Hush’ Revue, before returning to earth with a two-thirds budget cut and threats of merger. With Churchill’s help they survived, to find the 1920s dominated by fear of subversion and the growing Soviet espionage threat. Unearthing Russian penetration of the police Special Branch strengthened MI5’s position and broadened its remit in time for the problems of the 1930s, but there was no increase in numbers.


That decade brought further worries about dockyard sabotage, industrial and military subversion and a deeper appreciation of the Soviet threat — though not deep enough, it transpired. They caught some Russian spies but Kell was wrong to claim in 1939 that Soviet activity in England was now ‘non-existent’. It was just then that Philby and the rest of the Cambridge Five were burrowing beneath the skin of a Whitehall reluctant to acknowledge any need for protective security. History could have been different, but an accident of timing denied MI5 the chance of catching Arnold Deutsch, recruiter of the Five. However, with only 26 officers and the most rudimentary vetting for government posts, they were never going to get on top of the problem.

They did, however, get the big picture right, accurately assessing the threat from British Fascists and Hitler. While the drift of government (including MI6) was towards appeasement, they studied Mein Kampf, penetrated the German embassy and took the pulse of the beast: ‘No reliance can be placed on any treaty which has been signed . . . any obligation . . . is liable to be repudiated without warning’, Kell warned his masters in 1936. ‘It is emphatically not a case of irresponsible utterances which have been discarded by a statesman on obtaining power.’

The story of MI5’s second world war is well known: a small staff completely overwhelmed, removal to Wormwood Scrubs (shared with prisoners), then to Blenheim Palace (shared with the Duke), a botched internment strategy, Churchill’s sacking of Kell (the longest- serving head of any 20th- century department), then the rapid recruitment of talented out- siders, which facilitated the Double-Cross System. Aided by the breaking of Enigma, this brought every German agent in Britain under the control of MI5. The uncooperative were imprisoned or shot. MI5 also ensured there was not a single significant act of sabotage in the UK (a near miss, a bomb concealed in onions, was defused by Victor Rothschild.) You couldn’t ask any more of a wartime security service.

Andrew’s account of the Cold War, from the early days of the atom and Cambridge spies to the fall of the Berlin Wall, is clear and authoritative and should lay to rest a host of myths and conspiracy theories. There never was a plot is bring down the Wilson government, and Roger Hollis, a former director general (DG), was emphatically not a spy. Wilson continues to make news because there was a file on him, concealed under the name Norman John Worthington and opened not because he was under investigation but because of his Communist contacts. The plots were either in Wilson’s fevered imagination or that of Peter Wright, whose published fantasies arguably did more damage to MI5 than any traitor.

Operation FOOT, which booted out 105 Russian intelligence officers in 1971, is given rightful prominence, not only as the largest diplomatic expulsion in the world but as the precursor of the visa refusal system which did much to hamper the KGB in later decades. Arthur Scargill will be interested to read about MI5’s role and reporting during the miners’ strike (the one less comprehensive, the other more accurate than he might have thought), while trades unionists might be distressed to read that one of their icons, Jack Jones, was regarded by the KGB as their agent.

Andrew draws on meetings between DGs and prime ministers to show how MI5’s relations with government waxed and waned, often according to personality — Attlee, surprisingly, saw his DG more frequently than any other prime minister. Two themes stand out: unlike many intelligence services, this one has never been afraid to tell truth to power — Kell had no qualms about telling Chamberlain that Hitler thought him an ‘arsehole’; and, in the delicate area of counter-subversion, the integrity with which successive DGs maintained political neutrality, refusing to compromise their definition of what constituted a threat to national security.

There is much else: MI5’s contribution to the transition from Empire to Commonwealth, Operation AIRLINES, the frustration of an IRA plot to destroy London’s electricity supply, the case of Michael Bettaney, the MI5 officer who tried to spy for the KGB, the role of women, attitudes to Jews, training, humour and ethos. Operational detail thins as we approach modern times but there is enough for Andrew to chart the service’s transition from a primarily counter-espionage to counter-terrorist organisation (the latter now claims two-thirds of the budget, the former 3.5 per cent). That process began when MI5 was at last permitted to take on the IRA in 1992.

It was slow to
wake up to the threat from Islamist (as opposed to state-sponsored) international terrorism, opening a file on Osama bin Laden two years after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, but once it did, its wheels ground very small, and still do. The record is good, Andrew concludes, but the future will demand every one of the 4,100 staff it hopes to have by 2011.

As for those staff, it’s cheering to read that, in the words of one officer, ‘the percentage of bastards is extremely low,’ and to find that opinion surveys consistently reflect high morale and motivation (main complaints are about Whitehall management culture and jargon). The irreverent revue tradition continues, a recent one featuring ‘The War on Terry (WOT)’.

This book is essential reading for anyone with even the slightest interest in intelligence in the modern period. Andrew’s conclusion that MI5 is an effective and trustworthy defender of the realm is reassuring, but, as those he quotes point out, a security service needs to be lucky all the time, the terrorist only once. We are warned.

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


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