The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949
by Keith Jeffery
Reviewed: 12 February, 2011
Secret agents have fascinated us since story-telling began. We get excited about the moral ambiguities of Wikileaks and of political propaganda. Practices that are crimes in civil life may be praised as heroic in the competition between nations.
Demand for transparency in domestic politics goes along with acceptance of secret intelligence work in “defence” of common national interests. The paradox is that we are asked to trust in the effectiveness, and appropriateness, of actions undertaken in our names, that employ secrecy and deception, and that are publicly deniable by sponsoring governments.
So an authorized history of a secret organization like MI6 might seem to challenge the professional ethics of a historian, whose access to the archives depends on his agreement not to reveal (potentially juicy) bits of what he has seen. How much is to be believed when you don’t know what remains concealed?
Keith Jeffery, a Professor of British History, was given privileged access to the archives of Britain’s secret intelligence services – an Aladdin’s Cave with filing cabinets.
His access seems to have been more restricted than access given to Russian KGB archives (at least for a period) following glaznost The story ends half a century ago in 1949, the scope is almost exclusively foreign, and the names of MI6 and foreign agents are suppressed unless they have already been made public by other sources.
Jeffery does not compete with the dozens of spicy memoirs published by retired secret agents and operatives over the years, but his meticulous 800 pages will help aficionados to sort fact from fiction in that genre. He draws on hundreds of published works, as well as the files of MI6, to add anecdote and character sketch to what might otherwise have been a stubbornly administrative review of this often romanticised subject.
At the end of the first day of the British Secret Intelligence Service in 1909, its sole member, Sir Mansfield Cumming, sat alone in an office and noted “Nothing to do. Nobody called”. He soon began thinking of things to do to protect Britain’s imperial interests by secret intelligence and intervention. He had virtually no budget – employees were expected to be gentlemen with private incomes that could supplement their tiny salaries, and to cover their own expenses. Cumming for many years lived on the office premises.
“Tradecraft” was initially of the Sherlock Holmes variety, at best. Off to meet a potential recruit in disguise, Cumming had himself fitted up with a wig and false moustache at a Soho theatrical costume shop, and for good measure had his new appearance photographed so it could be replicated by the next costumier.
Effort and budget were boosted successively by British fears of Imperial Germany, international Communism, the Axis Powers, then Soviet Communism. The organization grew from one man in 1909 to a multi-layered network of thousands of agents and informers across the globe by 1949, when the veil is drawn.
Recruitment carried unavoidable risks. The kind of individuals who would undertake deception and betrayal must include some charlatans and some willing to double-cross – from top-drawer old boy network traitors like Kim Philby down to local informers turning under threat, torture, or for a better financial offer. The many stories of double-cross included here are just a small sample of an alarming rate of attrition among agents.
Another occupational hazard was over-confidence on the part of those who enjoyed the risk-taking aspects of operations. Several wartime operations ended in fatal catastrophe due to “high-grade morale but low-grade security”. One internal critic of MI6′s early World War II sabotage operations compared it to “arranging an attack on a Panzer Division by an actor mounted on a donkey”.
There seems to have been no shortage of women, British and foreign, willing to play the femme fatale for whatever combination of motives. Many died and many lived to a cheerful old age.
The service had many spectacular successes obtaining critical information, particularly during the wars in Europe, and mounted many operations of astonishing bravery and ingenuity involving both men and women agents, British and foreign. The Australian pilot, Sydney Cotton, is credited with developing the world’s first effective high-level aerial photography techniques.
The archives expose bureaucratic and political exchanges of an almost constant domestic battle to preserve the separate status of MI6 and its predecessors from repeated takeover attempts by the Defence Forces establishment. Usually the takeovers were deflected by a technique familiar in Canberra – a “structural review” that moved a few chairs around, established a committee or two, but left core interests untouched.
MI6 also faced frequent pressure from the Foreign Office (usually at ambassador level) to curtail activities that, if discovered, could embarrass the local diplomats at their foreign posts. For decades, it was standard practice to post MI6 representatives in embassies under the cover of Passport Control Officer. Eventually this became such common knowledge that it was no cover at all.
The history provides salutary reminders of how difficult relations were between Britain and the USA through all of this period. Bringing down the British Empire was an open objective of many Irish Americans (notably Ambassador Joseph P Kennedy, and several journalists who actively spied for Germany), of many German Americans, and others who simply saw Imperial Britain as an economic competitor. Relations between MI6 and its US counterparts remain fertile ground for factual and fictional studies, even today.
Keith Jeffery avoids the temptation of too many obvious references to James Bond. Bond’s author, Commander Ian Fleming, appears in several MI6 contexts including as the author of published disinformation concerning the bungled murder of a traitorous agent. However, curious readers may find colorful models for several characters of Bond’s fictionalised MI6.
The likeliest inspiration for Bond himself is a suave Russian-speaking, Paris-based senior agent with a legendary taste for fast cars and faster women, but a name more evocative of tweeds than of tuxedos.
“The name’s Dunderdale … Biffy Dunderdale”.
Richard Thwaites’ father was an ASIO officer 1950-1971, but his own experience of the field consists solely of being kept in the dark.