The Iraq fury still burns, fuelled by unanswered questions

I was fascinated to read the reaction to Nick Cohen’s article expressing his view that after 10 years he still believed the invasion of Iraq was the right thing to do. The heart of Nick’s argument is this: ‘I regret much: the disbanding of the Iraqi army; a de-Ba’athification programme that became a sectarian purge of Iraq’s Sunnis; the torture of Abu Ghraib; and a failure to impose security that allowed murderous sectarian gangs to kill tens of thousands.For all that, I say, I would not restore the Ba’ath if I had the power to rewind history. To do so would be to betray people who wanted something better after

Hasty exit strategy

For years after the rug was pulled from under it, the British Empire — with a quarter of the globe, the largest the world has known — seemed an unfashionable subject for historians. Did they fear political incorrectness, or was it simply that they had to wait for sufficient archival material to emerge? Whichever, there is now some very welcome sprouting in this part of the historical garden, already well-watered by the Cambridge historian Ronald Hyam, and few shoots could be more welcome than Calder Walton’s important contribution. Walton draws on recently released MI5 files to reveal the role of intelligence in the transitions from colony to independent state. Decolonisation

Journalist, novelist, patriot, spy

When I was a new MI5 recruit, working in Leconfield House in 1970, there was a group of middle-aged men who came and went at unusual times of the day, often gathering in the late afternoons, talking loudly and cheerfully. They were the F4 agent runners and I envied them; they seemed to be having a lot more fun than I was. F Branch, the counter subversion branch, was responsible, amongst other things, for monitoring the activities of the Communist Party of Great Britain and in particular for identifying its members, in support of Clement Attlee’s 1948 ‘Purge Procedure’, excluding communists and fascists from work vital to the security of

Not quite cricket

To the French, Albion’s expertise in perfidy will come as no surprise. But centuries of warfare have given them time to learn. With their experience only dating back to 1914, the Germans clearly found it difficult to grasp during the second world war that nowhere is the truth more expertly and instinctively spun than in the land of the gentleman. While a schoolchild soon masters the lie simple, and the lie financial merely requires a degree of brazenness easily developed by proximity to other people’s money, the lie belligerent demands an instinct for dis-simulation that must be bred in the bone of its practitioners to be carried off convincingly.Thus, alongside

The end of the affair?

Of those caught up in the 1963 Profumo affair, the only winner seems to have been that blithe spirit Mandy Rice-Davies. Everyone else lost. Profumo’s family bore the brunt, of course, especially his son David, archetype of the boy sent crying home from school, who wrote a brilliant book about it, Bringing the House Down (2006). Harold Macmillan and the Conservative party were driven from office. Yevgeny Ivanov was recalled to Russia. Stephen Ward was hounded to death. And poor Christine Keeler… In that mesmerising scene in the film Scandal (1989), where Mandy (played by Bridget Fonda) and Christine (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, as she then was) are getting dressed, to the

Who Killed Hammarskjöld? by Susan Williams

When I was a Reuters trainee, long hours were spent in Fleet Street pubs absorbing the folklore of journalism from seasoned veterans. One popular story concerned the hapless correspondent sent to verify that Dag Hammarskjöld, head of the United Nations, had safely landed at Ndola airport in Northern Rhodesia on his way to talks with separatist Congolese leader Moise Tshombe. A plane landed, the police confirmed it was the UN secretary general, the hack duly filed his story. Trouble was, the disembarking white man was someone else. Hammarskjöld was dead, killed as his DC-6 crashed on night-time approach to Ndola. Rival reporters, drinking at a nearby hotel, heard the news

And then there was one . . .

The English fascination with spies is gloriously reflected in our literature, from Kim to A Question of Attribution, and while their Egyptian and Israeli counterparts remain untranslated, and the Americans unreadable, English spy novelists rule. Compromised, divided and alienated, the spy is a model modern hero, and the spy’s world, with its furtive and fetishistic arcana, is an admirable theatre of identity, of English attitudes to sex and class, hypocrisy and betrayal. (The best recent spy novel is John Banville’s The Untouchable, which tells the story of Anthony Blunt more freely than Alan Bennett’s play, nudging the facts into outrageous fiction — casting Graham Greene as the villain, for example.)

Two wars and three Cs

When in 1909 a 50-year-old retired naval officer, Mansfield Cumming, was asked to set up what became today’s Secret Intelligence Service — better known as MI6— the suggestion that there might one day be an official history would have been unthinkable. When in 1909 a 50-year-old retired naval officer, Mansfield Cumming, was asked to set up what became today’s Secret Intelligence Service — better known as MI6— the suggestion that there might one day be an official history would have been unthinkable. Indeed, for the next 85 years, MI6 had no official peacetime existence, let alone any thought of a history. Cumming later remarked that if ever he published an

All eyes and ears

Both of these books aim, in their different ways, to cater for Britain’s long-standing obsession with espionage and other forms of political and military intelligence. Both of these books aim, in their different ways, to cater for Britain’s long-standing obsession with espion- age and other forms of political and military intelligence. But they have virtually nothing else in common. Sinclair McKay’s The Secret Life of Bletchley Park is about daily life at the famous wartime headquarters of the Government Code and Cipher School. There is very little new material to be mined about the work done at Bletchley Park. Its contribution to the course of the second world war has

Gary McKinnon should convert to radical Islam

The European Court of Human Rights is an essential check on executive excess, but today it has perverted justice. It has halted Abu Hamza’s extradition to the US, where he was to be tried for colluding with al Qaeda. Its view was that Hamza would likely be subject to inhumane and degrading incarceration. In other words, the ECHR has decided that the US prison system is not compatible with the standards agreed by signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights. Fine. Except, of course, it has not. There is a pernicious double standard at work here. Gary McKinnon, the aspergers sufferer who hacked into the Pentagon’s computer systems, is

Learning to live with the bomb

The call consisted of three short blows of breath. A minute later, the phone rang again. Once more: three short blows of breath. Mr Cowell, under diplomatic cover, was the MI6 handler for Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, the West’s single most important asset in the Kremlin — and the calls he took were the prearranged code that Penkovsky was to use to tell him that a Soviet nuclear attack on the West was imminent. I’d have shat a brick. Wouldn’t you? But Cowell kept his cool. He didn’t call London and get the counterstrike underway. He didn’t put his head between his knees and wait for oblivion. The sky could have

Reds under the bed

This Russian spy story just gets better and better. First a young, attractive Russian woman called Anna – with a penchant for uploading suggestive pictures of herself onto Facebook — is seized in an FBI swoop for being at the centre of a Russian espionage network. Next, it emerges that the agents from Moscow had outwitted the FBI by going back in time. Aware that electronic messages — via mobile, or online — are are an open book to any decent spook-catcher, they simply learnt from the past and used invisible ink and messages in buried bottles to send information their colleagues in South America. Some of the spies even