- The Washington Times - Friday, December 18, 2009




By Christopher Andrew

Knopf, $40, 1,023 pages

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden

Any book with the words “authorized history” in the title causes my eyebrows to twitch reflexively. Even when the work comes from such a respected British historian as Christopher Andrew, one must wonder, “Can the reader expect a glowing, dimples-and-all treatment, or a hard examination of the agency at hand?”

“Defend the Realm,” Mr. Andrew’s 15th book on intelligence, does both. Very evenhandedly, he deals with the successes and the glitches of MI5, formally known as the Security Service, roughly equivalent in function to our FBI, in that it focuses on internal security. The Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, does foreign intelligence. Mr. Andrew writes that when he was commissioned to write a centenary history of MI5, he was assured of total access to its files.

With one exception, as shall be noted, he got what he wanted. And he made good use of the material, for his book is absolutely fascinating. He deals, in succession, with MI5’s work against the Germans, the Soviets and the ongoing fight against terrorism - a sweeping and highly readable account of a century of British intelligence.

MI5 and MI6 began their lives in 1909 as a single agency under the Defense Ministry with a “staff” of two men. (They split several years later.) People who have long accepted the notion that British intelligence is omnipotent might be surprised to learn it was in an “enfeebled state” in the early 20th century.

Much of the mythology stemmed from the genius of Sir Francis Walsingham, spymaster for Queen Elizabeth I. Supposedly “British intelligence, like the British Empire had grown steadily in size and influence, spreading its tentacles across the globe. In fact, the faux reputation for infallibility was the creation of such fantasist Edwardian spy novelists as William Le Queux, a Walter Mitty figure who claimed to have been a major figure in the “operations” he described.

But the Brits proved to be fast learners, coming into full bloom during World War II, when MI5 succeeded in outwitting the Germans at every turn. The Soviets were a more formidable adversary, and here Mr. Andrew faults MI5 for not detecting such traitors as the Kim Philby ring and other spies. Indeed, the playing field was not leveled until the British government gutted up and expelled scores of Soviet “diplomats and trade officials” - i.e. KGB officers - in the 1970s.

The British left has long accused MI5 of targeting politicians it considered unduly liberal, notably Prime Minister Harold Wilson. As Mr. Andrew documents, MI5 had good reason to keep a close eye on Wilson’s dealings, for several European businessmen with whom he had social and professional dealings had ties with the KGB.

Mr. Andrew writes that MI5 withheld portions of the Wilson file during his research. One can surmise that medical records might have been at issue, for at times Wilson seemed - well, is daft the proper word? He was obsessed with the notion that the KGB overheard his every conversation. To throw off the Soviet spies, he would look at the ceiling and mutter inanities such as “the fox has a black cloak.”

He also suspected CIA and South African intelligence of plotting against him. George H.W. Bush visited Wilson while director of central intelligence and said as he left, “Is that man mad? He did nothing but complain about being spied on!”

Wilson forbade MI5 to do a telephone tap on left-wing Labor parliamentarian Bob Edwards, who was under strong suspicion as he rose to be chair of the Defense, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs SubCommittee, and vice chairman of the Western European Union Defense Committee.

A decade later, defector Oleg Gordievsky revealed Mr. Edwards to be a longtime KGB agent. (In a series of articles this fall, the Spectator, the British weekly magazine, documented how a number of leading trade unionists took both money and advice from Soviet diplomats. The material came from recently released Soviet documents.)

At times Mr. Andrew’s book is a voyeur’s delight - indeed, some sections seem lifted from London’s tabloids. He details a gloriously convoluted affair involving a bisexual member of Parliament, Lord Boothby, and a gay psychopath named Ronnie Kray, who with his twin brother Reggie ran North London’s leading criminal gang. The gay Labor MP Tom Driberg was part of their menage. MI5 concluded that “since he [Boothby] had no access to official secrets, his private life was of no concern to the Service.”

Another reason for MI5 discretion, as Mr. Andrew notes, was that “the bisexual Boothby was the long-term lover of Lady Dorothy Macmillan,” wife of the prime minister, Harold Macmillan. (One can only speculate what the late J. Edgar Hoover would have done had such a tasty morsel dropped on his desk.)

In a sense, the very existence of such a book is a major event in the realm of British intelligence. Until the late-20th century, the British press was even enjoined for publishing the name of the MI5 director general. As the historian Michael Howard wrote in 1985, “So far as official government policy is concerned, the British security and intelligence services do not exist. Enemy agents are found under goose-berry bushes, and intelligence is brought by the storks.”

Dame Stella Rimington, who in 1992 became the first female to head MI5, set as her goal “the demystification of the Service and the creation of a more informed public and media perception.”

Mr. Andrew’s work is the culmination of the openness campaign she started. Four cloaks, four daggers. A good read.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence.

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