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 truth and falsehood, fact and fiction, right and wrong, is often far from clear, and where self-deception and self-dramatization are unavoidable occupational hazards. But he has triumphantly surmounted these difficulties, and produced a history of the Secret Service which is as exciting as any spy novel, and which also makes the most powerful case I have seen for greater public accountability.

Andrew’s history is divided into six major phases. It begins in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, with the establishment of intelligence departments in the Admiralty and War Office, and with the creation within the police force of the Criminal Investigation Department and the Special Branch, largely in response to growing international tension and fears of domestic subversion, especially from the Irish. But as was so often to be the case, the politicians were rarely interested, there was insufficient coordination and inadequate funding, and little was achieved by such amateur agents as Baden-Powell, later the founder of the Boy Scouts, who thought spying a “jolly lark,” and who enjoyed dressing up.

Appropriately enough, the government was forced into more resolute action only in the 1900s, by the proliferation of deluded and fantastical “invasion scare” literature, which began with Erskine Childers’s Riddle of the Sands, and was carried to even greater extremes of farcical paranoia by Le Queux’s and E. Phillips Oppenheim’s thrillers. The result was that, in 1909, a subcommittee of the Committee of Imperial Defence recommended the setting up of a Secret Service Bureau, whose home and foreign departments were the direct forerunners of MI5 and SIS (which later became MI6).

During the First World War, these diverse and makeshift British intelligence services were active in three spheres. The least important was the home front, where imaginary fears of German spies, and the elaboration of extravagant conspiracy theories, created far greater difficulties for MI5 and the Special Branch than the few authentic German agents, who were easily picked up, and the threats of labor unrest in the aftermath of conscription which were (as usual) greatly exaggerated. On the western front, intelligence was gathered about German train and troop movements by using aerial reconnaissance, collaborators in occupied territory, and agents in Holland and Switzerland; it was often sent home by carrier pigeons. But on the whole, this was not a success: the rival British intelligence networks rarely cooperated, and were often infiltrated by the enemy, while Douglas Haig, the British commanding officer, was not eager to use the material that was made available to him.


But there was one outstanding triumph: the interception and deciphering of German naval and diplomatic communications by “professor types” recruited to Room 40 of the Admiralty. This not only anticipated the later achievements in World War II at Bletchley, but also made possible the discovery and publication of the Zimmermann telegram of 1917—in which the German foreign minister proposed that Mexico join an alliance against the US—and the successful countering of the German U-boat menace.

By the end of the war, it was Bolshevik Russia, rather than Imperial Germany, which was seen as the great threat, and on which the intelligence services concentrated their now much diminished resources. Clandestine attempts to prop up the Kerensky government, to persuade Lenin to fight on against the Germans, and to support the White Russians in the Civil War, were all equally unsuccessful. In India and in Britain itself, there were renewed fears of civil unrest and of widespread subversion, this time seen as part of a worldwide Comintern plot. But once again, they were wildly exaggerated. The armed services remained loyal, the trade unions wanted higher wages, not revolution, and Indian national protest owed much more to Gandhi than to Lenin. As in the war, it was the code breakers who obtained the most valuable secrets, by successfully intercepting Russian diplomatic communications between 1920 and 1927. But this knowledge was put to dubious and ineffectual use. In 1924, the leak to the British press of the (apparently genuine) “Zinoviev letter”—which implied close links between the Comintern and the British left—helped to bring down the Labour government. And three years later, when the Conservative government broke off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, it foolishly revealed its sources of information, whereupon the Russians promptly changed their codes, which were thereafter unbreakable.

Beyond doubt, the period from the late 1920s to the outbreak of the Second World War was the low point in the history of British intelligence. For much of the time, the politicians starved it of both money and attention. Those on the left believed—with ample justification after the “Zinoviev letter” affair—that the Secret Service was their enemy, and those on the right were on the whole too gentlemanly or too lethargic to be bothered. At home and abroad, government security was virtually nonexistent, making possible the first infiltrations by the Cambridge moles; and this, combined with continued inability to decipher foreign codes, meant that the Germans, Italians, and Russians knew much more about British intelligence in the 1930s than Britain did about theirs. Not surprisingly, the conduct of British foreign policy was bedeviled by contradictory information from the Secret Service and by confused responses from the politicians. At each stage on the road to war, from the occupation of the Rhineland and the Munich settlement, to the invasions of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, and the Low Countries, most of the available British intelligence was faulty, and what was not was usually ignored.

Yet, in a manner reminiscent of the many spy novels where victory is clutched from the jaws of defeat at the eleventh hour, Andrew’s story reaches a triumphant climax during the Second World War. The hero of his book turns out to be Winston Churchill himself, the first prime minister with an insatiable appetite for secret intelligence, who relied heavily and wisely on the information it provided, whose leadership molded its disparate departments into a unified community, and who insisted that resources be lavished on an organization hitherto inexcusably starved of funds. This made possible the improvised recruiting of so many Oxford and Cambridge scholars to MI5, SIS, and Bletchley, whose numbers increased fivefold in the space of eighteen months. The hasty and casual methods used resulted in the appointment of men like Blunt and Philby. But it also led to the breaking of the Enigma machine ciphers, which enabled the British to intercept German military communications for most of the war. And the intelligence thereby acquired made it possible to stop Rommel from reaching Cairo, to win the Battle of the Atlantic, and to deceive the Germans about the location of the D-Day invasion. This may not have changed the final outcome of the war, but it certainly shortened it, and thereby saved millions of lives.


Once again, in the aftermath of victory, the Secret Service was wound down, most of the “professor types” returned to their ivory towers, and the unified control and esprit de corps of wartime evaporated. And, although there was no return to the austerity of the 1930s, subsequent changes in the pattern of international relations and in the technology of intelligence have again fundamentally undermined the position of the British Secret Service. The loss of its status as a great power, combined with the advent of the computer and the communications satellite, has turned Britain into a junior partner in the intelligence field, heavily dependent on the resources, good will, and tolerance of the United States. There were some notable successes in the retreat from power in Malaya and Iran, but some equally notable disasters, like the unsuccessful attempt to detach Albania from the Soviet orbit in 1949, and the plot to assassinate Nasser in 1956, which was mercifully never carried out.

In recent years, the wheel has come full circle, as Secret Service activity has once more been concentrated on the battle against Irish terrorism and communist infiltration of the trade unions. The interminable succession of spy scandals has severely damaged morale and understandably undermined American confidence, while the Thatcher administration’s decision to ban trade unions at the government decoding headquarters at Cheltenham was probably ill-advised and was certainly ineptly carried out. Unlike most fictional spy stories, this book does not have a happy ending.

It demonstrates, however, the value of treating a sensational subject in a serious and scholarly way. It clearly makes good the claim that any study of modern British foreign and defense policy that “leaves intelligence out of account is bound to be incomplete.” Admiral Jellicoe’s apparent indecisiveness and excessive caution at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 seem altogether more understandable now that we know that the intercepted signals of the German Navy were not forwarded to him in time. Churchill’s attacks on government defense policy in the 1930s appear in a new light when we learn that he enjoyed access to intelligence information throughout this period, and that this access was officially sanctioned by Macdonald, Baldwin, and Chamberlain, the very men who bore the brunt of his well-informed criticisms. And it is a supreme and well-documented irony that the Chamberlain government finally accepted the inevitability of war with Germany in early 1939, not because of the threatened invasion of Czechoslovakia, but because of faulty intelligence predicting an imminent attack on Holland.

To this extent, the Secret Service has probably been more important than the fictional accounts of it may suggest. But in other ways, it is clear that the romances of Buchan and Fleming exaggerate and mislead. For most secret service work is much more concerned with the humdrum and routine collection of intelligence than with the high living and spectacular adventures of a few glamorous men with licenses to kill. There are occasional James Bond types to be found in these pages, like Sidney Reilly in Russia and Mervin Minshall in the Balkans, and there are some glorious moments of high farce when the antics of men like Baden-Powell and the delusions of fanatics like Le Queux are described. But their achievements were rarely significant, and were never remotely as important as they themselves were inclined to believe. For all its bravura and panache, this account is emphatically the history of Smiley’s people, the glum and methodical bureaucrats who see themselves as running a small business. And as such, it conveys with great conviction the downbeat reality of secret-service life.

It also eloquently demonstrates the real limitations to such activity. For it is in the collation and analysis of intelligence that the greatest difficulties are to be found, and where the greatest mistakes are usually—and often unavoidably—made. With so many competing agencies, it has rarely been possible to gather all the relevant material in time. And it is never easy, and sometimes quite impossible, to distinguish between true and false intelligence, important and insignificant intelligence. As a result, both the military and the civilian analysts tend to believe what they want to believe, and make decisions about intelligence based on essentially strategic or political criteria. So, in the First World War, General Haig took note of the optimistic intelligence reports and resolutely discounted the rest; and in the Thirties, Neville Chamberlain refused to credit the information produced by Sir Robert Vansittart, the permanent undersecretary at the British Foreign Office, even though it was usually more accurate, because it did not fit in with his own policies. Above all, this history reminds us that, however accurate and reliable the intelligence may be, it still remains exceedingly difficult to predict the political and military intentions of a foreign power on the basis of it.

But one of the many delights of Andrew’s book is that it is possible to predict what some of the reactions to it will actually be. Both inside the service and out, those of the far right will find much in it and about it that will confirm their paranoid tendencies and conspiracy theories. They will see it as a book that exposes the Secret Service to sustained and unfair criticism, makes heroes out of the long-haired but short-serving intellectuals of Bletchley, constantly belittles the achievements of its regular agents and officials, deliberately understates the threats to national security that these brave and gallant men have so often overcome, mischievously sacrifices official secrecy for scholarly sensation, and thereby undermines both the credibility and importance of the service. Indeed, from this perspective, Andrew’s book will no doubt be seen as the supreme example of Cambridge treachery toward the Secret Service; for if there is anything worse than a mole subverting the organization from within, it is an intellectual ridiculing it from without.

More independent-minded readers will view things differently. They will be impressed by Andrew’s evidence of the narrow social background, the highly reactionary sympathies, and the limited intellectual resources, of so many of the Secret Service’s personnel. Much of this book reads more like a history of the Drones Club than of an intelligence outfit: names such as “Fido,” “Nobby,” “Blinker,” “Bubbles,” and “Pink Tights” abound; many agents sport monocles and spats as part of their everyday costume; and they become involved in ludicrous and implausible adventures, but with no Jeeves to pull them through. Equally clear is the evidence of the service’s political partiality: in the Twenties it was irresponsibly hostile to Labour and excessively well disposed to the Conservatives, while in the Thirties its hatred of communism and admiration for Hitler meant that it gave one-sided support to the policy of appeasement, notwithstanding its inability to detect Soviet agents from within.

But in writing this book, Andrew himself has a broader and more urgent concern, which is to attack the “ancient and irrational taboo” that strict confidentiality is the necessary precondition for successful undercover operations. For on the contrary, it is his belief that the British Secret Service is far too secret for its own good, and that this is more the fault of the politicians than of the intelligence community itself. In part, this is because most ministers have been confused about their responsibilities, and have viewed the secret services with indifference or suspicion, thereby only reinforcing the service’s innate tendency to paranoia, introversion, self-perpetuation and distrust of politicians. But in addition, by obstinately refusing to concede any adequate form of public scrutiny, successive governments have allowed the very real problems of insufficient funding, casual recruitment, incompetent leadership, and lack of unified control to accumulate and to go untreated for generations. What is urgently needed, Andrew concludes, is a system of parliamentary scrutiny resembling the congressional committees that were set up to investigate the US intelligence agencies in the aftermath of Watergate.

In short, Andrew’s cure for the past and present ills of the British Secret Service is more public accountability, not less. Of course, this is an argument that cannot be proven. Many of the shortcomings that his book catalogs—mistakes in recruitment, conflicting intelligence reports, the dangers and difficulties of dealing with double agents, and the incorrect evaluation of data by the military and the politicians—are no doubt to some extent intrinsic to espionage. Furthermore, it is by no means clear whether the United States secret services—for all their greater accountability—are in fact that much better than the British. The scale and significance of British Secret Service operations have dwindled so dramatically and so drastically since the halcyon days of Bletchley that it may be positively anachronistic to suppose that the remedies of the Thirties will be appropriate for the very different circumstances of the Eighties.

Nevertheless, the evidence advanced here, of an organization lamentably deficient in historical perspective, and dangerously isolated from the very national community which it is in existence to protect, suggests that something should be done about it. Short of appointing Andrew himself as the head of the Secret Service, some limited but effective form of parliamentary scrutiny does indeed seem to be the next best thing. At the very least, the case made here is so cogent and so convincing that it demands and deserves attention: the British Secret Service would keep its secrets better if it was forced to be less secretive about itself.

This Issue

March 27, 1986