BOOK REVIEW Unmasking British intelligence MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949 byKeith Jeffery Reviewed by Mahan Abedin
Celebrated and glorified in a succession of James Bond movies and countless other works of fiction, the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, aka MI6) has long been the object of extreme mystery, awe and grudging admiration.
Despite the official disavowed status of the SIS (at least until 1994), elements in the British government and sections of the British media and entertainment industry spent much of the second half of the 20th century portraying Britain's external spy service as a super-efficient spying and special operations machine, staffed by quintessentially elegant and uprighT Englishmen whose prowess as field operatives is only matched by their ability to woo the fairer sex.
In keeping with the British government's more open policy on intelligence matters in recent years, and especially with the publication of Christopher Andrew's authorized history of the British Security Service (aka MI5), it is not altogether surprising to see the publication of MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949 by Professor Keith Jeffery of Queen's University, Belfast.
Jeffery's work is proudly presented as an official history on the SIS's official website (https://www.sis.gov.uk/) and the foreword to the book is written by John Sawers, the current chief of the organization. Moreover, by his own admission, Jeffery has been given unlimited access to SIS files spanning 40 years from 1909 to 1949.
The limitations of this type of scholarly endeavor are obvious and one which Jeffery alludes to in the preface. Legitimate concerns about objectivity, accuracy and lack of sufficient distance from the secret state notwithstanding, Jeffery's work is an outstanding piece of historical research, in so far as it sketches the origins and early development of the British Secret Intelligence Service in tremendous and largely convincing detail.
"Went to the office ... and remained all day, but saw no one, nor was there anything to do there." That was the entry on October 7, 1909 of Commander Mansfield Cumming's diary, marking the first day of the modern British intelligence services. Cumming was the co-founder of the Secret Service Bureau and the head of its foreign section, which in due course metamorphosed into the Secret Intelligence Service. The other branch of the bureau, headed by Vernon Kell, later gained an independent institutional footing as the Security Service.
Originating in a joint project by the Admiralty and the War Office, in the next 40 years the organization founded by Cumming would come to play a pivotal role in the formulation and implementation of British foreign policy, in particular by providing crucial support to the United Kingdom's war effort in both world wars.
The stock in trade of the SIS then, as it now is, is the acquisition of foreign secrets primarily through the recruitment and handling of human sources, technically known as HUMINT (human intelligence). However, as Jeffery makes abundantly clear, the SIS was also responsible for the management of the Government Code and Cypher School (which in 1946 became GCHQ-Government Communication Headquarters) until just after World War II. GC&CS (and later GCHQ) is the lead British agency for the collection and analysis of signals intelligence (SIGINT).
Grand British institutions are often defined by their founders. This is no different with the SIS and its legendary founder Mansfield Cumming, who gave rise to the signature "C" as the code name for the chief of the Secret Service, a tradition that has survived to this day, even though the real names of the heads of MI6 have been known since 1994, with the advent of the Intelligence Services Act.
Among the many revelations in Jeffery's book is the disclosure that the earliest document with a "C" signature in the archives was a memorandum from Cumming to Admiral Alexander Bethell (the then director of British naval intelligence) on January 10, 1910 (pg 726).
Hailing from a privileged (as opposed to overly-privileged) background, Cumming's Victorian values were balanced by an enthusiastic embrace of the modern world, typified by his love of fast cars and the possession of an early pilot's license.
Most important of all, despite a near total lack of intelligence experience and pedigree (for instance Cumming was not a linguist), he quickly mastered his role and in due course became the quintessential spymaster, or in Jeffery's words "[the] identikit spymaster: mysterious, secretive, engrossed by what became known as tradecraft - secret writing, disguise, cover and the like." (pg 726)
Jeffery's 752-page book is heavy reading, replete with the smallest details. It is easy to get bogged down in fascinating snippets, like for instance the revelation that in October 1915 the SIS had identified semen as the best invisible ink (pg 66). Jeffery writes with remarkable clarity and scholarly caution about four areas in particular which should be of compelling interest to academics with a serious interest in intelligence matters as well as tradecraft practitioners.
First, Jeffery painstakingly positions the SIS in an interdepartmental and broader Whitehall political and bureaucratic context in meticulous and convincing detail. One of the striking features to emerge from the book is the SIS's near-perennial quest for survival during its first 40 years of existence.
This is particularly the case during the inter-war years (1919-1939) when the service was starved of funds and barely able to survive, this despite the growing realization within the British government that in the 20th century an organized foreign intelligence service was crucial to the conduct of foreign policy.
The real debate centered on whether to allow the SIS to operate on its own or to amalgamate it in a unified security and intelligence organization that would house both domestic and external intelligence functions under a single organizational roof. The service won a major victory in October 1931 when a clear-cut distinction was made between some of the most sensitive functions of MI5 and MI6 (pg 236). This was followed by the Bland Report of October 1944 which effectively ensured the service's survival as an independent organization indefinitely (pg 596-603).
The SIS also had to ward off aggressive posturing by the armed services. Initially identified in Whitehall as either the "C" organization or more commonly as MIi(c), the service adopted the cover name of the Directorate of Military Intelligence Section 6 (MI6) during World War II.
This reflected the service's origins as a military intelligence outfit, but as Jeffery repeatedly points out, the service was often at pains to not allow its customers in the armed services to dominate the agenda with their constant need for immediate operational intelligence, as opposed to a more long-term quest for high-quality strategic and political intelligence. The SIS, despite its military origins and the fact that even as late as 1949 the majority of its officers had backgrounds in the armed services, much preferred to concentrate on the latter target.
Furthermore, the SIS appears to have had a more troubled relationship with the Foreign Office, within whose embassies its stations were housed, than previously thought. From the very early years, the SIS heads of stations were posted abroad with cover as passport control officers, in effect ostensibly responsible for the vetting of all visa applications to enter the United Kingdom.
But from the outset, British ambassadors found the extra-curricular activities of their passport control officers and their staff to be at times contrary to and even subversive of normal diplomatic activity. This tension was never fully resolved in the service's first 40 years and it is not clear whether the problem diminished or intensified after 1949.
Second, and related to its struggle for greater autonomy from the armed services, was the service's often troubled relationship with the Special Operations Executive (SOE), formed in July 1949 to conduct special operations and sabotage missions behind enemy lines.
Jeffery's work in this area is highly important, not only in so far as it meticulously describes the ultimately irreconcilable tensions between secret intelligence and special operations, but more importantly inasmuch as it rehabilitates the SIS's contribution to the British war effort. Hitherto pride of place had gone to the wartime Special Operations Executive, not least because unlike the SIS, the SOE (which was disbanded shortly after the war) hasn't been shrouded in deep mystery.
Moreover, the disclosure of the SIS's wartime efforts steals the limelight from the GC&CS and the British signals intelligence exploits at Bletchley Park which is widely regarded to have shortened the war by a considerable extent. Though MI6 was formally in charge of GC&CS, the outstanding success at Bletchley Park and the massive historical interests therein has obscured the role played by human intelligence in subverting the mighty German war machine.
Third, Jeffery charts the origins and early development of the special intelligence relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States. From the groundbreaking work of Captain William Wiseman (the SIS's first representative in the US - posted there in 1915) to the formation of British Security Coordination (a massive SIS-run intelligence organization covering the entire Americas) in January 1941 and culminating with the multi-layered relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency (formed in 1947) at the onset of the Cold War, the author sketches a step-by-step progression of the unique intelligence relationship between the two major Anglo-Saxon countries.
Last but not least, Jeffery does a good job in explaining the SIS's ability to absorb the best foreign talent and generally thrive in a cosmopolitan environment, this despite the fact that the great majority of the service's officers came from the armed forces and thus from a narrow section of British society - and one which is often regarded as quintessentially British.
Arguably the best example is the SIS's recruitment of Georgi Rosenblum, who gained posthumous fame as Sidney Reilly. A Russian Jew and a shrewd businessman with intelligence contacts across Europe, Reilly achieved legendary status as the "Ace of Spies". A committed anti-Bolshevik, he was finally outwitted by the Bolshevik secret service (the OGPU) and lured to his death in an elaborate deception operation in September 1925.
Scholarship or propaganda?
There will be many who will be reluctant to accept the book's scholarly credentials at face value. After all, an official history of the SIS runs the very real risk of making important omissions or presenting the facts in a manner that is not injurious to the interests of the secret state.
While the general thrust of Jeffery's narrative is positively inclined towards MI6, his treatment of the facts - or at least the facts laid at his disposal - is rigorous enough to withstand the most probing scrutiny. Certainly Jeffery's book has a more convincing flavor than Andrew's authorized history of MI5, but as a caveat it should be remembered that Jeffery is dealing with a period that by intelligence standards constitutes the distant past. Hence there is a much less pressing need to spin the facts and whitewash crimes and mistakes.
In conclusion, it is apt to refer to Jeffery's own conclusion, namely the reference to Colonel Walter Nicolai (chief of German military intelligence during World War I) and the Tsarist intelligence officer (and subsequent MI6 asset) Vladimir Gregorievich Orlov, both regarded by Sir Stewart Menzies, the third chief of the Secret Service, as the greatest authorities on secret service work.
Jeffery quotes Menzies as commenting that both Nicolai and Orlov had demanded 40 years as the minimum time required to establish a "really efficient" intelligence service. Jeffery has done a fine job in capturing the essence of that supposed truth.
MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949 by Keith Jeffery. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, September 2010. ISBN-10: 0747591830. Price US$48, 832 pages.
Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Middle East politics. He has been writing on intelligence and security matters for 10 years.