Sir John Scarlett, former director general of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), met with The Washington Times in October to discuss "The Secret History of MI6 From
1909-1949." An edited transcript of that conversation follows.
TWT:What is the book about?
JS: The history of MI6 from 1909 to 1949. 1909 was when the service was founded. The centenary was last year. [It's] the oldest continuously active intelligence service in the world. Up until 1949, this is a history drawing on full access to the archive. This historian [Keith Jeffery] had unrestricted access. So that's what it is. It's a serious history about the service.
TWT:Was access truly unrestricted?
There clearly were areas and types of information which the author couldn't get into - not being able to name any new agents who were not previously known, for example. And the restriction on the officers that he'd been able to name. He does name quite a few officers from the service in the book, and wherever it's necessary to do that, I hope he saw a very great need to do it. But there's not a gratuitous listing of officers' names. So there were those kinds of restrictions. As long as people felt confident that these important security considerations were being respected and that our obligations to our sources were being respected - an absolute obligation - and the current efficiency of the service was being respected and not in any way undermined, then we had very little push-back from it.
TWT:Did author Keith Jeffery approach you, or did you ask him?
JS: There was a competition. He was surprised, but he recognized what a unique opportunity it was. He saw that it was complicated; he saw that he had a risk taking it on. And it's very, very good that he did.
Again, it's a risk from our point of view, but he has triumphed because he's written a long book, but it's entertaining. And it's detailed but done with a light touch while still being serious. He's brought out the characters, the stories. It is exactly what I wanted. Despite failures and cock-ups and so on, it's a story to the credit of a service and of people who worked in it and for it.
TWT:Why did you feel there was a need to do it? Sunshine, after all, isn't particularly in its heyday for intelligence services.
JS: Well, yes and no. It's certainly a radical step and a unique step that's not been done before. There was a particular moment, the centenary [of MI6], that in the view of the establishment was a good moment to do it.
Of course, last year MI5 published a history up to the current day of its activities, so that project was well under way when we decided to do this. So there were clear precedents of similar activities that were going on around us. We didn't need to do it; there was no absolute requirement. It was a judgment. But it was in the wider public interest and the service's interest to do it.
Up until now, what this book is talking about and the record it's drawing on have been secret. And they've been secret for a good reason: An intelligence service that talks about or allows itself to be written about regarding its activities, true stories, its techniques, its officers, its sources, then of course, it puts at risk its efficiency in current operations.
So there's a compromise involved here. There was a strong interest not just in one's duty to history - to make this archive available to a professional historian - but also a strong interest from the service's point of view: Using this history, which is an exceptionally long history, and drawing on it, to play to the public demand for the true story of what it actually did in the early years of its history.
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?
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.
That said, I have enjoyed recently two books of nonfiction by Ben Macintyre: "Operation Mincemeat" and "Agent Zigzag," which is a story in which an MI6 agent had a role.
In the academic way, there's a particular story from the first world war, "The Secrets of Rue St. Roch," written by Janet Morgan. It's a story of an intelligence operation run behind the German army lines on the western front based on diaries, letters and notes left by her father-in-law, which she found in a drawer.
And this is more heavyweight and serious, the biography of Churchill's intelligence adviser. "Churchill's Man of Mystery: Desmond Morton and the World of Intelligence" by Gill Bennett. Desmond Morton was an SIS officer who in 1943 went into No. 10 with Churchill.
TWT:When can we expect a book from 1950 on?
JS: You can't.
TWT: When do we see your memoir?
JS: You don't.
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