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JS: Agent Ecclesiastic comes at the end of the war. That’s a good story. Typically and characteristically, she was passed to us by an ally of the Poles. She was a very attractive young lady. A mistress of a member of the German Abwehr [military intelligence]. She came to work for us. And very quickly we spotted a good way to use her: to pass information back to the Abwehr. And so we got her a job in the [Royal Air Force] office, and that enabled her to be recruited by her lover.

TWT:How did she prove she truly was on England’s side?

JS: There is the story from the book with a photograph, which is on the back cover - we do believe it was a unique photo [of her] in action taking clandestine photographs [of documents] that had been purloined supposedly from the RAF office in Lisbon. And it was her lover who photographed her doing it and gave her a copy of the photograph. She handed it to her [British] case officer, who sent it to London, and it sat in the archive ever since. And I’m sure the historian was excited to encounter it.

TWT:Agent Ecclesiastic, Operation Mincemeat - there seems to have been so much spycraft in those days that was filled with derring-do and romance. Is that peculiar to that era? Does this continue?

JS: It’s exciting being in intelligence work. It’s exciting being at MI6. It was exciting then; it’s exciting now. But the people who work for the service enjoy it. You can feel it when you read the book. And it’s all completely recognizable. Of course, the period covered by this book is a dramatic period. It’s two world wars. So the mobilization of the service, and the range of activity, and many of the big stories that are there are wartime stories. And there’s a particular kind of adventure and danger that goes with war on this scale.

TWT: And they relied on human intelligence mainly?

JS: At MI6, yes. And this is a book about a human intelligence service and humans, as opposed to signals intelligence, or SIGINT, which was the work of Bletchley Park. It’s complicated because, first of all, of course, [the] work of Bletchley Park is the single biggest intelligence success of all time. Its successes have led people to conclude that it was the story of British intelligence in the second world war; that SIS pales beside it. But it’s a lot more complicated than that.

MI6 is intricately tied up with the work of Bletchley Park. The initial breakthrough of Enigma came in the 1930s, in 1931, from a human intelligence source in the German army. There is a great deal of information about Enigma in the early days. That ran for seven years at least, and the French, with whom we had good relations, shared material with us. And it intensified in the late 1930s. If that hadn’t happened, then the whole Enigma story wouldn’t have worked out the way it did.

TWT: Were the literary men like Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene good officers?

JS: These were people who worked in wartime service. That was their national duty, and that’s what they did. Some were good; some weren’t.

The one who had problems with the service subsequently was Compton Mackenzie, who was in Greece during the first world war and ran a successful operation in the Mediterranean. It was an extremely expensive operation, but he did things in style. He was very friendly with the chief of the day.

And then he wrote a number of books about his experiences, and in the early 1930s he wrote a book that it was felt just went too far and revealed too many secrets about the service. He was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act and had to pay a fine. It was quite serious business. So of course, there’s always a risk. You can write fiction, but if you write your memoirs, it’s a completely different matter.

And we did have one or two difficult memoirs written by a former officer in the 1930s that could have done - very nearly did - massive damage to future capability. The officer who had been responsible for the running of trains in Belgium, 1917-1918, at Argonne Blanches, Henry Landau. He left the service and fell on hard times. And in the 1930s, he published his account. It was a great success that gave a great deal of detail. He wrote it in a way that showed no expectation that six years later the operation would be on again. But a leader of the group went into hiding and eventually was shot. But that’s a very good example of why it’s dangerous for someone who’s in operations to go on without permission and write a book.

TWT:What are your favorite spy reads?

JS: I have to admit straightaway I am not a great reader of spy fiction. I know that sounds pedantic. I’ve never found it that attractive, though I understand why some people do. That’s fiction; it’s not fact. And the brutal truth is it’s more exciting doing the real thing.

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