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Intelligence review

‘For centuries before the Second World War, educated British people knew far more about intelligence operations recorded in the Bible than they did about the role of intelligence at any moment in their own history.’

Nowadays, one might think, few would even know that. But that’s where Christopher Andrew – Emeritus Professor of Modern and Contemporary History, and late President of Corpus Christi, Cambridge (Marlowe’s old haunt) – begins his compendious survey, with the story of the twelve Israelite spies sent out by Moses into Canaan, then stricken with plague for coming back with intel that displeased their overlords.

At approx. one word per long, footnoted page, it seems hopeless, almost impertinent, to try to summarise The Secret World: a list of just the ‘firsts’ would take up half this magazine. What’s more, ‘intelligence’ includes a multitude of sins. But pulling together, variously, the threads of deception, subversion, image analysis, psychological operations, covert operations, propaganda, espionage, signals intelligence (Andrew’s chief hobby-horse) and what the KGB called ‘active measures’ (that is, killing) – or, in Clausewitz’s characteristically straightforward wording: ‘every sort of information about the enemy and his country – the basis, in short, of our own plans and operations’ – Andrew’s brightly-coloured tapestry depicts the following:

Egyptian-Hittite diplomatic correspondence (intercepted); the presence of seers in Classical militaries (ridiculous); Caesar’s early use of ‘substitution ciphers’; China’s 2000-year-long insularity; Mauryan India’s enthusiasm for assassination; the formative ‘Secret Stage’ of Islam; the 13th-century internal crusades of Christianity; the commercial intelligence of Renaissance Venice (‘the custodian of the archives was illiterate to prevent his reading their contents’); Ivan the Terrible; the intelligence partnership between Elizabeth I and the ruthless Walsingham; Richelieu’s Cabinet Noir; the original Special Relationship, between the English and the Dutch … [we’re approaching p200 now] … and so on, up to the grotesque return of holy warfare in our own supposedly enlightened era.

This is not simply by way of a completist stratagem. Israeli security services, Andrew points out, take their mottoes – and their remit – from religious scripture. Likewise Sun Tzu, the Indian Arthashastra, and the Hadiths all actively feed into contemporary, real-world conceptions of what intelligence is for, and even how to go about it. Andrew’s avowed intent is ‘to recover some of the lost history of global intelligence over the last three millennia, to show how it modifies current historiography, and to demonstrate its continuing relevance to intelligence in the twenty-first century.’

Straightening out the ‘non-linear’ history of intelligence is one thing: peaks and troughs occur, nations scale back intelligence activities in peacetime, and official secrets legislation hinders research. Few people had heard of Bletchley Park for decades after WWII; and Cold War history to date remains misshapen by the Kremlin’s ability to better keep a secret than the CIA.

But Andrew is determined to correct the ‘long-term historical amnesia’ not only for the purpose of tweedy, collegiate assessment, but also for the sake of ongoing intelligence. Wars, not surprisingly, routinely prove a hasty turning point. But Xenophon suggested it was probably a good idea to give some thought to spies before hostilities (a lesson repeatedly unlearned over the intervening ages) – and yet for most of the hundred years between Waterloo and WWI, Britain essentially had no intelligence infrastructure. It is absurd to have to reflect of Bletchley Park (e.g.), that ‘no other wartime profession was as ignorant of its own past.’ Andrew fairly grinds his teeth at the thought of Allied cryptanalysts busy reinventing the wheel (or many spokes of it), completely unaware their predecessors had helped repel the Armada and defeat Napoleon doing just this sort of work.

‘The value of even the best intelligence,’ of course, ‘is only as great as the use made of it.’ The Secret World, inevitably, contains a litany of ‘intelligence failures’ which are, often as not, in fact broader political ones. The burning of the English fleet in the Medway (no budget); Pearl Harbour (inherent racism); Stalin before Operation Barbarossa (Trotsky mania); the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (missed by CIA; but ill-considered by the KGB). Andrew admits it’s possible to get away with these: at its height, the Roman Empire had so many soldiers that there were essentially no rebellions, and no need for much intelligence. But the same cannot be said of our ‘Forever Wars’.

A lifelong academic, bestseller of intelligence scoops like the Mitrokhin archive, and official historian of MI5 (in which role, if in no other, he is enrolled in the Security Service), Professor Andrew knows whereof he speaks – and, no doubt, from time to time, whereof he must keep silence.

Though not shy to repeat himself to make a point (he laments, as scholars will, that other historians fail to note the vital issues in his field), this magisterial result is highly readable, if barely portable. Needless to say, it’s packed with fascinating characters. And with 200 pages of notes and bibliography that are an absolute trove for the intelligencer (not to mention raw material for several dozen novels), The Secret World looks certain to become a standard reference work for graduate intelligence-type courses, and beyond.

For The Oldie

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