For such a meaty topic, history of spy agency reads dry

  • Article by: CURT SCHLEIER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 7, 2010 - 12:51 PM

nearly comprehensive look at the early years of British intelligence.

The Secret History of MI6 by Keith Jeffery

Keith Jeffery, a professor at Queens University in Belfast, has written an exhaustive and exhausting chronicle of England's secret intelligence service.

Jeffery was commissioned by a former head of MI6 -- the equivalent of America's CIA -- to write a complete history of the agency through 1949. However, anyone anticipating a book chockablock with stories of James Bondish derring-do will be largely disappointed. "The Secret History of MI6" is largely desert-dry reading.

Jeffery took a scholarly rather than popular approach to the work -- and by scholarly I mean he somehow managed to squeeze in every last bit of information he found into a weightlifter-sized tome. Additionally, many sentences are long and ponderous.

Moreover, while Jeffery was supposedly granted full access to the archives, the archives were in fact incomplete because "much of the material was routinely destroyed after it was read."

That is not to say the book isn't worthwhile. But it takes effort to get to the nuggets.

The Secret Intelligence Service was formed in 1909, partly because of concerns about Germany. But it was fueled as well by a reaction to "invasion scare" novels that were popular in Britain at the time.

Mansfield Cumming was named the first chief of service (or "C," as the job came to be known). He seems to have spent half his time fighting bureaucratic turf battles, and the other half fighting to retain or increase his budget.

The text picks up steam whenever it becomes anecdotal. There was, for example, an early quest for secret ink. Someone decided that "the best invisible ink is semen," and "all were anxious to obtain" it.

At another time, an agent infiltrated occupied Holland from the sea in full evening dress covered by a specially designed rubber suit to keep him dry. While these incidents are fun, the real strength of the book is the lessons it imparts. The turf battles Cumming fought are likely fought here in the United States as well. And not just interagency turf wars; as glamorous as it may sound, the bottom line is that intelligence agencies ultimately are bureaucracies.

French intelligence officers purposely inflated their estimates of German strength and capabilities because they were "annoyed that their [more accurate] message was not striking home." And Jeffery reports incidents where, "even when good intelligence was acquired, it was not always believed" or it was simply misplaced on interagency shuffling.

We've had notable intelligence failures in the United States lately, and intelligence warnings have been ignored. "The Secret History of MI6," while ostensibly limited to Britain's intelligence community, is an important cautionary tale that has implications worldwide. It's not an easy read, but then value doesn't always come easily.

Curt Schleier is a book reviewer in New Jersey.

  • THE SECRET HISTORY OF MI6: 1909-1949

    By: Keith Jeffery.

    Publisher: The Penguin Press, 810 pages, $39.95.

    Review: Sometimes tough slogging, this massive tome also carries great anecdotes and important lessons.

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