- - Tuesday, July 31, 2012

By Ben Macintyre
Crown Publishers, $26, 381  pages

Let me commence with a confession. When I picked up Ben Macintyre’s book, I was dubious. Given all that has been written about British deception operations during World War II, including memoirs by many of the spies themselves, what possible new material could he offer?

The answer, I discovered within a very few pages, was one heckuva a lot. He draws upon previously untouched documents from the intensely secret Twenty Committee, which oversaw deception for the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6). The committee was so named because the number 20 in Roman numerals, XX, forms a double cross. As has been well told by other historians, captured spies were offered an option: Either work for SIS and feed false information back to Germany, or mount the gallows in the Tower of London. Mr. Macintyre goes a significant step further in giving us an inside look at the highly technical workings of Double Cross.

Working a deception scam is one of the more ticklish intelligence operations imaginable. If the adversary deduces that he is being deceived, he realizes the false picture you are trying to present, and hence he can pinpoint what you really are intending to do. In this instance, the British goal was to mislead the Germans about the intended site of the invasion of Europe — suggesting it was Calais and Norway, rather than Normandy. Hundreds of thousands of lives could have been lost if things went awry.

SIS had an unwitting accomplice in the Abwehr, German intelligence, which flooded Britain with dozens of spies by boat, submarine and parachute. Most proved inept; some did not even speak understandable English. By March 1943, SIS could report to Prime Minister Winston Churchill that “126 spies have fallen into our hands twenty-four have been found amenable and are now being used as Double Cross agents.” Thirteen captured agents had been executed up to that point. “Deeply interesting,” the prime minister scrawled on the report.

Mr. Macintyre has chosen to concentrate on six doubled agents who were colorful, productive and (at times) infuriating to their handlers. A characteristic shared by many of these oddball characters was sexual adventurism and a knack for improvisation in their spy craft.

Consider Elvira de la Fuente Chaudoir, the bisexual daughter of a Peruvian diplomat living in London, where she frequented the “smart clubs.” She appealed to SIS because her diplomatic passport allowed her to travel freely in Vichy France, do political reporting and, with luck, be recruited as an agent by the Germans. This intelligence technique is known as coat-tailing, “dangling a potential recruit before the opposition in the hope that, if recruited, he or she can be put to work as a double agent.”

SIS knew Chaudoir’s propensity for wild living. One report tut-tutted that she “favors the companionship of women who may not be careful of their virginity.” But as one of her handlers put it, “even the most intelligent and discreet of people will tend to indiscretions if they think they are talking to a foolish and beddable woman.” Sure enough, she easily ensnared a German intelligence officer and fed him bogus information thereafter.

My favorite among Mr. Macintyre’s gallery of rogues is Dusko Popov, the playboy son of a Serbian industrialist who was “addicted to sports cars and sporting girls.” Popov gave the Germans such a mass of SIS-supplied “intelligence” that he persuaded the Abwehr to let him expand his spying to the United States.

Through an intermediary, the gullible Germans funneled almost 100,000 British pounds to Popov through a New York bank account between 1940 and 1945 — the equivalent of almost $7 million in today’s funds. Popov took a 10 percent cut off the top, which he spent on so many women that I lost count; the rest went to SIS to finance operations against the Germans.

Perhaps even more audacious was a Spaniard named Juan Pujol, a former chicken farmer who hated the Nazis from the start and volunteered his services to British intelligence in Portugal. He was rejected. The Abwehr was more receptive. So Pujol busied himself fabricating “intelligence reports” on the Royal Navy (cribbed from a reference book) and British morale. All were written in Lisbon: He convinced the Abwehr that he had snuck into London. Many reports, sent via letter drops, contained howling errors that the Germans did not detect. (Pujol eventually did hook up with SIS; a splendid account of his career was written with Nigel West in 1986, “Operation Garbo.”)

Churchill looked upon such deception with glee. He wrote a beautiful postwar paragraph that accurately summarized Double Cross: “Tangle within tangle, plot and counter-plot, ruse and treachery, cross and double-cross, true agent, false agent, double agent, gold and steel, the bomb, the dagger and the firing party, were interwoven in many a texture so intricate as to be incredible and yet true.”

Nonetheless, the Double Cross Committee worried that Sir Winston, a chronic meddler, might interfere with its work. SIS officer Guy Liddell feared that he might, “on seeing some particular item, go off the deep end and want to take action, which will be disastrous to the work in hand.” So initially the committee kept him at a cautious arm’s length, with his overall approval but scant knowledge of detail, “plausible deniability,” in spy-speak.

By July 1942, SIS officer Tar Robertson made the somewhat startling but accurate claim that he, and not Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, controlled the German espionage network in Britain “and as a consequence he could make Hitler and his generals think what he wanted them to think.” The coup enabled SIS to distribute information to the Germans that was “methodically misleading and potentially destructive.”

Forget fiction when you are buying beach reading this summer. Ben Macintyre’s factual account is more gripping than what you will find anywhere else. It is a story unsurpassed in the long history of intelligence.

Joseph C. Goulden’s most recent book is “The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak Into English” (Dover Publications, 2012).

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