- - Wednesday, September 19, 2018


By Christopher Andrew

Yale University Press $40, 948 pages

At hand is a truly magisterial work, a sweeping history that stretches from the biblical era to the present. Christopher Andrew is the leading academic intelligence historian of our time. A professor at the University of Cambridge, he has written a veritable shelf of books on intelligence.

“The Secret World” is a must-read for any person with a serious interest in intelligence. But be forewarned. The more than 800 pages of text require more than a casual scan, but are well worth the investment of serious time.

His evidence, buttressed in 111 pages of documentation sources, is rich with anecdotes and opinions of world leaders who relied on — or ignored — intelligence as a tool of office.

Despite his overall admiration of the intel trade, Mr. Andrew is coldly objective about instances where matters were flubbed. Consider, for instance, Israeli spies who scouted Canaan as the Promised Land centuries ago. The Canaanites, they claimed, “included giants who made them feel no bigger than grasshoppers.” He also notes that some glitches are timeless, citing a biblical operation where spies ended up in a brothel, thus melding “the two oldest professions.”

Sixteenth-century tradecraft had its oddities. Officers in the “security service” of Russian Czar IV rode with dog heads attached to their saddles “to sniff out treason,” and carried brooms “to sweep away traitors.” Today’s counterintelligence is somewhat more sophisticated.

But his score card lists far more triumphs than blunders. Most notably, he credits signals intelligence (SIGINT) as a key element in the Allied victory in World War II.

Mr. Andrew’s focus throughout is on the value of pilfering an adversary’s messages, be they scratches on clay slates or electronic signals.

For centuries, he documents, European powers routinely waylaid rivals’ letters and deciphered coded messages. (His book reproduces many of the coded messages; how anyone made sense of them caused me to scratch my head.) He credits the Venetians with establishing the first code-breaking agency in the 1400s.

Frederick the Great voiced enthusiasm about his spy corps, declaring, ” in the payment of spies, we ought to be generous, even to a degree of extravagance. That man certainly deserves to be well rewarded who risks his neck to do your service.”

Conversely, an 18th-century English diplomat deplored espionage, declaring “I abhor this dirty work.” To which a compatriot, the Earl of Malmesbury, retorted, “When one is employed to sweep a chimney, one must black one’s fingers.”

And, as Mr. Andrew notes, intelligence chiefs were not above altering intercepted messages for nefarious purposes. For instance, the famed spy chief Sir Francis Walsingham, in the service of Queen Elizabeth I, forged a letter from rival Mary Stuart that resulted in her execution — “a unique and disreputable episode in the history of English intelligence.”

But George Washington was firmly in the realist school. As Mr. Andrew notes, good intelligence enabled him to “avoid more battles as he fought” during the Revolutionary War. He so valued intelligence that it consumed 12 percent of his budget when he became president. Colleague Benjamin Franklin specialized in writing spurious news stories aimed at demoralizing Hessian soldiers fighting for England.

Surprisingly, for all his military acumen, Napoleon Bonaparte “was usually impressed only by intelligence which confirmed his preconceived views.” Centuries later, the Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin suffered the same fault. For instance, he reflexively scrawled obscenities on warnings of a pending German invasion in 1939. Uncountable thousands of Red Army soldiers died as a result of his inaction.

The invention of the telegraph in the 1880 was “a turning point in intelligence history,” Mr. Andrew notes. Rather than stealing written communiques, technical-minded spies learned to intercept wireless communications and decipher what they contained.

The American government held its own against foreign code breakers through the first part of the 20th century, with a “black chamber” presided over by one Herbert Yardley. Then, in 1929, an incoming secretary of state, Henry Stimson, shut down the operation on grounds that such intercepts were “unethical.” Fortunately, common sense eventually returned, and the United States was taken into SIGINT partnership with Great Britain during World War II.

As an example of the Cold War importance of intelligence, Mr. Andrew points to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when fingers neared the nuclear button in both Washington and Moscow.

Mr. Andrew drives home an important point. Soviet covert actions during the Cold War were even more numerous than well-publicized operations by the Central Intelligence Agency. The Soviets, of course, were not subject to press scrutiny.

Mr. Andrew’s conclusion: “The more that is discovered about the long-term history of intelligence, the more difficult it will be for policy-makers and practitioners to ignore past experience.”

But is such experience being heeded? “It is not difficult,” Mr. Andrew writes, “to think of current world leaders with little or no discernible historical interests.”

An outstanding work. Ten cloaks, ten daggers.

• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence matters.

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