Spooky Business

Her Majesty's Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community

by Christopher Andrew
Elisabeth Sifton Books/Viking, 619 pp., $25.00

The best-known department of the British government is Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But it is better known in fiction than in fact, thanks to the popular stories that have established a particular image of it in the public mind, many of them written by former agents. Some, like William Le Queux, John Buchan, and Ian Fleming, have created a world of breathless excitement and daring adventure, in which the patriotic endeavors of a few brave and resourceful heroes change the course of history—invariably to Britain’s advantage. Others, such as Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, and John Le Carré, have evoked a more reflective mood of monotony and disenchantment, which, nevertheless, has its own brand of clandestine romance. Yet it may well be that the open secrets of these books provide the most effective and misleading cover for the real work and identity of the British intelligence community, partly by making it seem more successful than it actually is, and partly by implying that more is generally known about it than is in fact the case.

For the reality is both less confident and more confidential. In the first place, the British intelligence network seems not so much invincible and impregnable as incompetent and incontinent: a secret service that leaks its own secrets. Since the Second World War, it has been undermined and discredited by a succession of sensational scandals, exposing moles and traitors, defectors and double agents, from Burgess and Maclean, via Vassal and Lonsdale, to Philby, Blunt, and beyond. By comparison, the triumphant world of James Bond is not just fiction: it is pure fantasy. Yet in addition—and despite all this—successive governments have consistently sought to stifle public discussion and parliamentary debate on the dubious grounds that total confidentiality is vital to the Secret Service’s efficient functioning. Its archives remain indefinitely closed, even for its earliest years; the rules governing the publication of the official histories of its wartime activities are inconsistent and unnecessarily restrictive;* only in the late 1970s did the British government officially admit that the peacetime secret service actually existed; and the Thatcher administration has resolutely refused to allow any detailed parliamentary investigation into its operations.

There are, then, two central questions that need to be asked of the British Secret Service. First: how good is (and was) it at finding and keeping secrets? Second: how far should its own existence and operations be kept secret? During the last ten years a Cambridge historian, Christopher Andrew, has been burrowing for the answers, with all the diligence of a latter-day mole. The nonavailability of the intelligence archives has obliged him to track down fragmentary evidence which has escaped government censors or has turned up unexpectedly in the wrong departmental file; to use private sources of information, both written and oral, which cannot always be disclosed; and to resort to conjecture and speculation more extensively than some austere historians might like. Above all, he has had to deal with the bizarre secret-service mentality, where the difference between…

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