Rodric Braithwaite

Knowing your enemy

Christopher Andrew raises this and other fascinating questions. But The Secret World is a weighty chronicle rather than a critical history

Espionage, Christopher Andrew reminds us, is the second oldest profession. The two converged when Moses’s successor Joshua sent a couple of agents to spy out ancient Jericho. There they were sheltered by the madam of the local brothel. All three are heroes in Israel today.

Generals and politicians have always needed secret information to track and outmanoeuvre their foreign and domestic enemies. So they place spies, suborn traitors, eavesdrop, decipher other people’s messages, subvert their governments, assassinate their servants and sabotage their property. The technology has changed massively over the centuries; the aims and the basic methods have not.

During the 20th century, thanks partly to the works of talented British novelists, ‘secret intelligence’ acquired a mystique among the public. Intelligence agencies found that flattering, even useful. But they still had to keep their operations secret. The British government went further. Until the late 1980s it maintained the absurd fiction that it had no secret service at all.

Christopher Andrew is one of our most distinguished and prolific intelligence historians. He believes that the historical role of intelligence is still insufficiently understood: the professionals make mistakes because they forget the achievements of their predecessors; historians fail to pay sufficient attention to the influence of intelligence on events. The Secret World is an ambitious under-taking, intended to restore what Andrew calls ‘the lost history of global intelligence’ and to demonstrate ‘the continued relevance of long-term experience to intelligence operations in the 21st century’.

He starts with the ancient Israelites, the Indians and the Chinese, to whom he attributes formidable intelligence skills, despite the skimpy evidence. By contrast, he believes, the Greeks and Romans foolishly relied on oracles rather than intelligence. Here he is too hard. The historian Thucydides criticises his friend Nicias for losing his army and his life because he was ‘too much inclined to divination and the like’.

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