THE SECRET HISTORY OF MI6
By Keith Jeffery
Penguin Press, $39.95, 810 pages
Several “old boys” who were around for the founding of the CIA in 1947 like repeating a mantra, “The Brits taught us everything we know - but by no means did they teach us everything that they know.” The quip, of course, stemmed from the wartime Office of Strategic Services’ reliance on the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) - formally, MI6 - as a tutor on espionage and spy tradecraft. Founded in 1909, MI6 had been bloodied in World War I and in the political chaos leading to World War II. Hence, the American amateurs looked up to it as the “senior service.”
But how effective an intelligence service was MI6? Did it warrant the near-homage paid to it by the American novices? One must be reflexively skeptical of a book that is billed as an “authorized history.” But Keith Jeffery is strikingly objective in describing a service that, despite some blips over the years, performed splendidly for the United Kingdom.
Be forewarned that “MI6” is not an easy read. One can be discouraged by the sheer mass of material - seemingly endless strings of cable summaries that, on the surface, do not contribute to a coherent narrative. Mr. Jeffery’s disdain for paragraphs is a quirk that an editor should have set to rights. Only the most dedicated reader will slog through a paragraph that covers more than an entire printed page without a break. And a reader is likely to find himself skipping rapidly through Mr. Jeffery’s accounts of the endless wrangling beloved by bureaucrats, whether they are shuffling their papers in Whitehall or Washington.
But, in the end, one realizes that Mr. Jeffery’s attention to minute detail has a purpose, for it demonstrates the reality of the intelligence business. The success of any intelligence operation depends not so much on the spectacular as it does on the assemblage of isolated bits of information that, in the hands of a skilled analyst, tells policymakers what they need to know. In this respect, Mr. Jeffery’s book is perhaps the most authentic account one will ever read about how intelligence really works.
A professor at Queen’s University Belfast, Mr. Jeffery writes that his agreement with MI6 was “utterly unrestricted access to the Service archives for its first forty years,” from 1909 to 1949, which he termed “an unparalleled treat.” The only stricture, a sensible one, was that he not use the name of any asset or agent who had not already been identified.
To be sure, the Britons had centuries of intelligence experience before the founding of MI6, but on an ad hoc basis. After its founding in 1782, the Foreign Office “assembled networks of spies when the country was particularly threatened,” obtaining funding from Parliament through the “Secret Service Vote,” which permitted the diplomatic community to have deniability for naughty work done on its behalf.
The War Office and the Admiralty created their own services. But at the dawn of the 20th century, the emergence of such superpowers as imperial Germany meant that a more formal system was needed. Hence MI6, which was fortunate to have as its founding chief the navy Commander Mansfield Cumming, whose scrawled green-ink signature “C” survives as the title by which the director is identified.
The Foreign Office made life difficult for “Six” - the in-house shorthand term for the service - from the beginning. Members of the consular service were “expressly barred” from intelligence work, and Whitehall sniffed that only the “lowest classes” of locals were likely to be recruited as sources. In due course, MI6 officers were permitted to operate from embassies under the guise of “passport control officers.” Visa fees contributed a large portion of the service’s annual budget.
MI6 fell into political troubles during the 1920s and ‘30s, when it was accused of anti-union snooping that benefited the Tories. The justification was that MI6 knew the Soviets were secretly supplying cash to leftist unionists with the goal of inciting a socialist revolution. (Archival disclosures from Moscow in recent years reveal that MI6 was on-target.)
When World War II erupted, MI6 was fortunate that Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a longtime intelligence buff, to the point where he insisted on being supplied with raw reports so that he could form his own judgments. Throughout the war, a “small red box” containing such reports was put on Sir Winston’s bed at No. 10 Downing St. each evening.
And, ah, the dirty tricks. MI6 knew that the Italian national airline, LATI, was carrying strategic materials to neutral Brazil in violation of a blockade. An officer obtained a LATI letterhead and wrote a letter insulting the Brazilian president as a “little fat man” and leaked it to the Brazilian press. LATI was closed down and its assets confiscated.
Other actions were more deadly. MI6 discovered that a French naval officer, one Claire, who was considered an MI6 agent, worked for the Germans as well. Cables discussed ways to “liquidate” Claire or perhaps kidnap his wife to “bring him to heel.” He eventually was drugged and put into a car for transport to Gibraltar; when he revived en route, he was “hit in head with revolver … he is dead.”
MI6’s most spectacular achievement during the war was the establishment of a vast communications intercept station at Bletchley Park that had tremendous success in reading German military traffic for years. Historians credit this work with shortening the war by months, even years.
The postwar MI6 saw its role as “insurance against war.” And in postwar liaison with the new CIA, Peter Dyer, the service’s man in Washington, noted that while the Americans “had relied heavily on us during the war,” the time had come for when the CIA “must stand on its own feet or get out of the business.” In due course, the CIA-MI6 cooperation became a key factor in waging the Cold War.
In sum: This is a read that is sometimes tough, but nonetheless invaluable for anyone who wishes to explore the inner workings of an intelligence service. Five cloaks, five daggers.
Joseph C. Goulden is preparing a revised edition of his 1986 book, “The Dictionary of Espionage: Spookspeak Into English.”