So its purpose, its objectives, its way of working, its role in government, its support for policymaking, the difference it made - that’s never before been placed in this completely authoritative way into the public domain. That is balanced, then, by the very, very strong need to preserve secrecy.
It was a compromise. You’re trying to ensure that you’re not compromising your secrets, because it is a secret service. On the other hand, you’re trying to be as open as you can be to inform public debate and ensure there’s a proper understanding of what this particular service is like and what it’s about.
TWT: Why the determination to stop at 1949?
JS: The more you move into the current day and the modern era, the more difficult that balance becomes. So you have to make a judgment to stop it somewhere. What I did not want was a book that is published and you have to say, “Well I’m sorry, it’s not the full story because we’ve had to take certain stuff out of it, it’s just too delicate” and so on. And our judgment has been, and I think correctly, that you do that in that period shortly after the end of World War II.
TWT:These archives, will they now be made public to researchers or the public?
JS: No; it’s a closed archive and remains closed. This is a one-off.There are no plans to change that at all. In fact, quite definitely not.
TWT: What are the most surprising elements of the book to you as former director of MI6? Or are there no secrets?
JS: Well, no, of course, it’s important to say, almost inevitably, I didn’t know exactly what was in the archive. And I couldn’t be confident that I wouldn’t be shocked or taken aback by some ghastly story that would come out that would have very difficult consequences. So there was a risk involved, and I took a judgment.
Knowing my service as I do, I thought it pretty unlikely that there was anything in there of which I would be ashamed. It’s not the same thing as a being awkward or a bit embarrassed about something. Obviously, when there are failures - and there are quite a few of them - you feel embarrassed.
But yes, I was quite surprised given the received wisdom about MI6’s performance in the run-up to the second world war and the war itself. I was quite surprised by the degree of achievement that actually was recorded then and how much we were able to do even in the late ‘30s, when we were massively underresourced. Really some quite remarkable, farsighted things were done, or arrangements put in place, which made a big difference to the service’s ability to perform in the war. That was new to me. And I think it will be new to most people who know a little bit about this but haven’t read the details before.
TWT:Are there uncomfortable moments in the book?
JS: Yes, quite a few. But here are two uncomfortable moments that I’ll cite. One was a really pretty bad story in late 1939, when two of our officers were fooled by the SS intelligence unit into believing that they were representatives of a faction in the German army and were interested in doing a deal. This was in the early part of the war. Two officers from our Rotterdam Station allowed themselves to be lured into a cafe on the German-Dutch border, and then they were kidnapped. They were bundled off to Germany and spent the rest of the war in captivity in concentration camps. They both survived, but they were interrogated and gave away a lot of information.
It was understood, but there was a lot of publicity about it at the time. The Germans made a big fuss about it. It was a humiliation to the service. A lot of bad judgments were made. Not just by the service, but by people in government, politicians who allowed it to develop. But also, the officers themselves maybe were victims of personal vanity; that’s what the book suggests.
And of course, the whole Philby story, which is not told in full in the book, but enough to show what a trusted officer [Kim] Philby was. He had access, and he was in a position to do a tremendous amount of damage, which he did.
TWT:Who was Agent Ecclesiastic?