Book Review: Secret Wars, by Gordon Thomas

Gordon Thomas Secret WarsBy Joseph Fitsanakis* | intelNews | 05.29.2009
GORDON THOMAS’ SECRET WARS (St. Martin’s Press, 2009), whose publication coincides with the centennial year of Britain’s intelligence and security services, is a useful historical narrative of MI5 and MI6. The book’s strength rests on Thomas’ skilled storytelling, which, coupled with some interesting new information, will appeal to both popular enthusiasts and scholarly devotees of intelligence history. The latter, however, will have to overcome the surprising absence of any source notes in the book. Thomas attempts to make up for this by naming approximately half of his primary information sources. Noticeably, however, of the author’s 44 named primary sources, 12 are Israelis and only 11 are British.

Putting the (inexcusable, in this reviewer’s opinion) absence of source notes aside, even the most rigorous intelligence historian will appreciate the fascinating character studies that Thomas has sprinkled throughout the book. Who knew, for instance, that Sir Colin McColl, director of MI6 from 1989 to 1994, was a skilled flutist? (p224) Or that Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, MI6 director from 1923 – 1939, “had a liking for music-hall comics [...] and never missed the Sunday morning Anglican service in the village church”? (p133) Or even that Sir Dick Franks, MI6’s eighth director, kept a framed quotation from Lenin in his office? (p185) Such personal anecdotes, which Thomas details abundantly in his book, deepen our understanding of the cultural and psychological conditions that helped shape MI5 and MI6’s institutional identities.

Despite some sensationalism (“[s]ufficient film to encircle the equator was downloaded daily and analyzed” by Britain’s CCTV circuits, p14), which is in many ways an unavoidable component of good story telling, Secret Wars contains a fair amount of what can be considered new information. We learn, for instance, that Ali-Reza Asgari, the Iranian Brigadier General and former defense minister who defected to Britain in 2007, has been an important source for the West on the relations between Pakistani government officials and the Taliban. We also learn that on June 22, 1952, when the Free Officers movement staged the Egyptian Revolution, the MI5 station in Cairo “did not have one file” on Muhammad Naguib, one of the movement’s leaders and Egypt’s first president. Thomas also gives an interesting account of the intense rivalry between the CIA and MI6 in South Africa in the days of apartheid, as well as some excellent primers on little-researched biological warfare agencies or programs, such as the Soviet Union’s Biopreparat and South Africa’s project COAST, and the role of British intelligence in monitoring them. Thomas also offers several interesting morsels of information that could help open up new paths in intelligence history research: for instance, the information that Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian political dissident who was assassinated in London in 1978, was killed by Lev Aleksandrovich Shulikov, a KGB officer at the Soviet Emassy in Paris; or that mujahedeen bound for Soviet-occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s were trained in the Scottish highlands; or even that there were more Soviet spies stationed in India than in the whole of Eastern Europe during the early stages of the Cold War.

Throughout the book, Thomas quietly provides carefully selected pieces of information, known almost exclusively to those on the inside, as if wishing to authenticate the legitimacy of his sources for those in the know. It is, for instance, common knowledge among insiders, though rarely publicly discussed, that “Tony Blair handpicked [Sir John] Scarlett as the director-general of MI6” (p5); that MI6 maintains a regular attachment of agents to the Mossad (p12); that “[n]ot even Kim Philby [...] created more damage than Aldrich Ames”, the KBG’s mole in the CIA (p194); and that Moscow remains today “the most dangerous place for a spy” (p6), indeed far more dangerous than Baghdad, Tehran or Kabul.

In several instances, Thomas’ historical account comes across as honest and direct. He describes MI5’s shameful targeting of British antiwar activists in World War I, including the organization’s routine use of media informants and provocateurs. He points out that several senior MI5 figures, including interrogator Colonel Robin Stephens, “had deep-seated antipathy toward Jews, homosexuals and Germans, in that order”, during World War II (p92). He describes Tory leader Anthony Eden as “the first peacetime British prime minister to sanction the cold-blooded murder of a head of state” (namely Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, p151). Finally, not in order of importance, he reveals how MI6 organized bank robberies in the Republic of Ireland and how MI5 helped plant a bomb in Dublin in 1972 —though regrettably he essentially writes off these crimes as simply representing “lack of judgment” (p176).

On the other hand, Secret Wars contains some historical inaccuracies, as well as several uncritical statements, which are perhaps indicative of Thomas’ political preconceptions. There is, for instance, no evidence in the historical record to verify the author’s unfortunate claim that the Cypriot war of independence from British colonialism was a “Communist-led insurgency”. Nor is it true that the US Army’s Military Intelligence Section (MIS, also known as MI8 or the Black Chamber) was “finally closed down in 1929 by Henry Stimson when he became [US] secretary of state”, as Thomas states on page 83. It is true that Stimson, acting with the consent of president Herbert Hoover, ordered MI8’s liquidation on the grounds that “[g]entlemen do not read each other’s mail”; but instead of terminating its cryptological functions, as instructed, the US Army clandestinely transferred MI8′s duties to a new cryptologic unit under the Signal Corps, named Signals Intelligence Service (SIS).

Perhaps more importantly, Thomas is highly uncritical of British intelligence practices in the Cold War, which often mirrored the immorality and ruthlessness of those of Communist bloc intelligence services. He describes the KGB as an organization with a “deserved history of violence and criminality” (p251), but mentions nothing about MI6’s criminality in colonial India, Cyprus or Kenya. He details the Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) “murderous campaign in Northern Ireland”, but fails to criticize with equal rigor the shameful and murderous collusion between British security forces and loyalist paramilitaries in the 1970s, meticulously detailed in the 2007 Barron Report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice. He decries Soviet imperialism, in the context of which “Poland became another part of the Soviet Union, along with East Germany”, but fails to decry British imperialism, which brutally dominated vast colonial territories for several decades after World War II. In essence, readers seeking a nonpartisan and nonaligned account of intelligence activities during the Cold War may be disappointed by Thomas’ historical treatment. The author is routinely all too willing to simplistically describe Soviet intelligence operatives as “essential cog[s]” in a “machine” (p190) while failing to project an equally critical attitude toward Her Majesty’s intelligence and security establishment.

Despite Thomas’s ideological preconceptions, which tend to hinder his historiography, this reviewer was left wishing for more pages at the end of Secret Wars. These would have helped expand several extremely interesting tidbits of information, which are scattered throughout the book, but are essentially left dangling without further elaboration. For instance, Thomas states that “the collapse of the Berlin Wall had caught [MI6] analysts [...] by surprise” (p225), or that the majority of New Labour politicians who came into office in 1997 “had previously little or no contact with MI6” (p9). These are extremely interesting points that deserve further elaboration, as does the often-rumored assertion, repeated here by Thomas, of the “deep distrust” that British intelligence allegedly held toward Downing Street during the Harold Wilson administration, who MI6 supposedly suspected of having “links with Moscow” (ibid.). The author should have provided at least some proof for this and several other serious allegations, including that the KGB secretly funded and trained the IRA and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the 1970s (p168).

Finally, there are some inconsistencies in terminology: the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (Служба Внешней Разведки, or SVR), is referred to as both SVR and SUR throughout the book. Kim Philby is referred to as a “renegade spy” (p13), when in fact he was an officer of the USSR State Political Directorate (OGPU) prior to joining British intelligence, which technically makes him an accredited Soviet officer, not an agent or an informant. Thomas also mentions the US Director of Central Intelligence (p307) in referring to the year 2007, by which time the post had been technically purged and replaced with the Director of National Intelligence.

Ultimately, the imperfections of Gordon Thomas’ Secret Wars are the imperfections of nearly every book that attempts to penetrate the secretive, controversial and deceptive world of espionage and intelligence. Thomas deserves praise for even daring to engage in a non-authorized historical account of MI5 and MI6. His political preconceptions aside, the shortages in his historical accounting are not his, but are intrinsic to the field of study to which he has so bravely committed his scholarship.

* Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis has been writing and teaching on the politics of intelligence for over ten years. His areas of academic expertise include the institutional analysis of the intelligence community; the interception of communications; and the history of intelligence with particular reference to international espionage during the Cold War. He is co-founder and Senior Editor of intelNews.org. His latest writings for intelNews.org are available here.

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