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The human factor

17 September 2011

12:00 AM

17 September 2011

12:00 AM

The Art of Betrayal: Life and Death in the British Secret Service Gordon Corera

Weidenfeld, pp.472, 20

Accounts of the secret world usually fall into one of two camps, the authoritative or the popular.  The authoritative — such as Christopher Andrew’s history of MI5 and Keith Jeffery’s of MI6 — are officially sanctioned, based on the file record and reliable. They are incomplete because, inevitably, there are episodes the authors are not (yet) permitted to publish, and Jeffery’s ends anyway in 1949. The popular accounts, which invariably claim to be complete and uncensored — and never are — tend to be drawn partly from the National Archive, partly from anonymous retired officials and partly from other popular accounts, some by disaffected former employees. Truths, half-truths, speculations and ‘revelations’ are jumbled together and belted out to the tuneful grinding of axes.

This account by the BBC’s Gordon Corera, dealing mainly with MI6 from the start of the Cold War to the present, falls into the popular camp. But popular with a difference — it’s authoritative-popular, characterised by the integrity we have come to expect from Corera’s journalism, by his conscientious attribution of sources, by his authorised access to senior figures and by his own clear judgment. Although Cold War-focused and far from comprehensive, it is the best post-1949 account of British intelligence I have read.

It begins with post-second world war Vienna, dramatised by Graham Greene’s Third Man script and the region where the young national serviceman John le Carré cut his intelligence teeth. This soon leads us to Kim Philby, the spy who betrayed so many of MI6’s early Cold War fumblings (they do read like that) and never repented of the blood on his hands.

Corera quotes Philby’s and Greene’s accounts of their subsequent friendship, which certainly existed, though I’m not sure it’s the whole story.  Each had different motives for promoting it and Greene, certainly, was not averse to rewriting history. The one time I discussed it with him he said he had disliked Philby when working for him in MI6 during the war and that it was only when he discovered what Philby had done that he came to respect him. It tells us something of the difference between Greene and his admirer, le Carré, that while Greene made the most of his chance to be in contact with Philby in Moscow, le Carré refused to meet him.

After the early disasters came the successes of the later Cold War (many of which, Corera acknowledges, remain unknown), due largely to the professional rigour, incisive intelligence and steely determination of one man, Harold Shergold. Regarded within MI6 with a rare combination of awe and affection, Shergy is the reclusive hero of this book, a man whose influence was as profound as it was beneficial. While running Penkovsky, one of the great Cold War spies, he also persuaded another damaging spy, George Blake, to confess all during a le Carré-esqe weekend of walks and talks in Sussex. Shergy died a nonagenarian and, spy to his fingertips, is said to have insisted on no funeral, no memorial service.

There’s a heroine, too: Daphne Park.  Daphne became a far more public and colourful figure than her admired Shergy — head of an Oxford college, a peeress, a governor of the BBC — but she was equally formidable. One of the few former MI6 staff licensed to speak, she was interviewed at length by Corera and he makes good use of her throughout his book as a kind of moral and professional touchstone, a reminder of what things sometimes were like, and more often should have been. She served in the wartime SOE, qualified as a Russian linguist by writing a short story instead of the required essays, was eyes and ears for the Americans in Hanoi, got away with smuggling people across borders because she looked — as she said herself — ‘like a cheerful, fat missionary’, and deployed itching powder intended to repel burglars against an unpopular Foreign Office colleague.

Corera is good on the pernicious effects on both sides of the Atlantic of the James Angleton-inspired molehunts that led to such baseless claims as that Roger Hollis, head of MI5, was a spy, or that the USSR/China split was a charade. As with all conspiracy theories, this nasty little nexus of nonsense — perpetuated by Peter Wright, the renegade MI5 retiree, and still pedalled by Chapman Pincher, the journalist — removed itself from normal evidential conventions by redefining every objection as part of the conspiracy.

Of course, it wasn’t all Cold War, as Corera acknowledges, pointing out that that great struggle took up half or less of the MI6 effort. He has interest in the rest but little room for it, whatever it may have been — Rhodesia, confrontation in Malaysia, the Falklands, China, South Africa, counter-proliferation, Ireland, economic or what-ever. But his judgments are generally sensible, doubtless aided by his privileged interviews of former heads and deputy heads of service. Crucially, he appreciates that spying occurs within the context of political and bureaucratic requirements and restraints.

His account of the Iraq/WMD debacle is critical, balanced and informed, and the comparison he makes between the Saddam-is-deceiving-us mindset and the old Angletonian we’re-all-penetrated mindset is telling. The bar for intelligence suggesting Saddam had no weapons was so much higher than that for any evidence of their existence that no source, no matter how truthful, would have been believed. He also usefully identifies the dangers of a desire to please arising from institutional insecurity.

Topically, too, he provides a plausible summary of MI6’s dealings with Gaddafi’s Libya.  The reason for these was nuclear disarmament, not rendition, and they began with a meeting with Gaddafi’s son, Saif, in a Mayfair hotel. Like anything politically sensitive that MI6 does, these dealings were cleared with government; they culminated with the handover of the entire Libyan nuclear acquisition programme. A triumph of backdoor diplomacy, it was this relationship that provided the context for whatever it was that followed — which also, presumably, would have had government sanction.      

In the absence of an official account of the post-1949 MI6, this is as good as it gets, or is likely to be. And it’s a good read.

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