Friday, March 12, 2010


By Jimmy Burns

Walker & Co., $26, 396 pages


By Thomas Leo Briggs

Rosebank Press, $28.95, 311 pages


One of the many worries facing Great Britain’s leadership in the opening months of World War II was whether Hitler-friendly Francisco Franco, the strongman leader of Spain, would eschew his declared neutrality and enter the war on Germany’s side or, as a lesser evil, open his borders to the German military. In either event, the British could lose their naval facility at Gibraltar, vital to protecting access to the western Mediterranean. It is no exaggeration that the outcome of the war depended on keeping Franco neutral.

One of the silent players in this struggle was a one-time British publisher named Tom Burns, who went to Madrid ostensibly as a “press attache” in the embassy, working for the Ministry of Information, the propaganda arm of the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6. In any event, such was the story that he consistently told his family, including son Jimmy, the author of the book at hand. But the younger Mr. Burns was a suspicious sort, a natural byproduct of his years as an award-winning journalist for the Financial Times. Why, he asked himself, did his father’s best friends tend to be old spooks who had retired from MI6 and other intelligence agencies? And what was a “press attache” doing with the miniature Minox camera found in his effects, a gadget long favored by British spies?

After Tom Burns’ death in 1995, his son set about addressing the mystery. One must applaud not only his diligence for reporting, but his keen understanding of the overlap of espionage, diplomacy and propaganda, each of which the Britons employed skillfully during the war. He found people who worked with his father in Madrid - from embassy secretaries to now-aged street urchins who acted as couriers - as well as others who told him, politely but firmly, that their wartime work was still covered by the Official Secrets Act.

Given those latter strictures, his story is necessarily incomplete. But he does detail how British diplomats - often holding their noses - managed to keep Franco from flipping to the German side at a time when Adolf Hitler’s military was sweeping through Europe. One weapon employed was euphemistically called the Knights of St. George, derived from the image of St. George on the face of the British gold sovereign - in actuality, a slush fund of $10 million used to bribe senior Spanish military officers from siding with the Axis.

Burns opinion, in his very first intelligence report, was that Franco’s patriotism was of a nature that would resist any attempt by Hitler “to absorb Spain into his empire.” Ambassador Samuel Hoare was dubious, scrawling “I wonder” on a draft of the message before it went to the code room for dispatch to London. But as the son writes, “Burns’s judgment has ultimately stood the test of time.”

The Germans, with their own diplomatic (and intelligence) presence in Madrid, were distrustful of Burns role from the outset. A Spanish police file, using information from the Gestapo, went so far as to identify him (incorrectly) as the head of the MI6 station. Ironically, Burns’ had equally vicious enemies within his own embassy. A strong Catholic, during the prewar years he publicly decried the persecution of his churchmen by the communists fighting Franco for control of Spain. H.R. “Kim” Philby, who worked on Spanish affairs for MI6 - later unmasked as a Soviet spy - used these writings to attempt to discredit Burns as a “Franco toady.” He failed.

In the end, Franco decided that his best interests dictated continued neutrality, so Gibraltar remained in Allied hands. Jimmy Burns documents how his decision was heavily influenced by British intelligence, making his book a five-cloak/five-dagger read.

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So far as I know, the CIA has no slang equivalent of the fore-mentioned Knights of St. George. But what I shall call “Uncle Sam’s Bucks” were spread here and there during the Cold War, at many levels. An axiom among former officers is that while foreign targets might be hard to purchase outright, many can be “rented” for short-term use.

One operative who put money to effective use was Thomas Leo Briggs, who served in Southeast Asia with Air America Inc., the CIA’s proprietary airline, and then as an agency operations officer. His book is a highly readable account of the tasks performed by an extraordinarily brave band of men who served Air America during the Vietnam War.

Ah, now the money. North Vietnamese prisoners were a rarity at one stage of the war, and American intelligence sorely needed them to elicit order-of-battle and other information, particularly on the flow of arms down the Ho Chi Minh trail to South Vietnam. The “secret war” in the title refers to the unacknowledged conflict with communist forces in Laos. And the cash-for-performance system worked. The occasional bribe was also an effective means of luring away North Vietnamese defectors.

Mr. Briggs offers a succinct (and unapologetic) definition of his work as a CIA special operations officer - activities “that are primarily intended to kill the enemy rather than covertly collect intelligence.” Thus, he called in air strikes on enemy supply lines and tank parks, and arranged for ambushes of North Vietnamese troops on their trek south. Mr. Briggs even dabbled in a bit of - well, faux religion? - in giving instructions to tribesmen on how to bury listening devices intended to detect enemy columns (the renowned “McNamara Line”). I doubt that the ceremony that he persuaded them to perform in planting the devices is found in any theological manual - but again, who can argue with success?

On a painful note. Mr. Briggs is bitter - justifiably so, in my opinion - about the American government’s failure to do more on behalf of Air America pilot Eugene DeBruin, who was shot down in 1963 while dropping rice to loyalist Laotian troops. DeBruin’s detention as a prisoner was well-documented, even in communist propaganda photos. Mr. Briggs submits that because DeBruin was a civilian working in a quasi-combat role, the government was reluctant to do anything for him. He remains missing.

The Air American Association has worked for years, futilely, to have its veterans recognized as government employees. The legalistic rebuttal is that these people worked for a private entity. But, as Mr. Briggs asks, given that the CIA has acknowledged publicly Air America’s proprietary status, “How could any employee of Air America not be considered an employee of the CIA?” A good question.

Joseph C. Goulden is completing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail address is

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