Powers of intelligence
Donald Cameron Watt welcomes a new generation of spy-watchers
Saturday 14 December 1996
It would be nice to think that all this marks the end of the persistent breach of the Official Secrets Act by a handful of writers echoing the whinges of disaffected anonymous secret servants, which has for so long passed as the record of British intelligence. A vain hope, I fear. But after Mark Urban's impressive catalogue of the great and the good among his informants in UK Eyes Alpha (Faber, pounds 16.99), Michael Smith's trawling of the Public Record Office, New Cloak, Old Dagger (Gollancz, pounds 20) and Michael Herman's serious, officially encouraged, efforts to provide the intelligence services with a theoretical underpinning, Intelligence Power in Peace and War (Cambridge, pounds 50, pounds 16.95), the whinge-echoers should be the more easily recognisable.
Bradley Smith's previous study of Anglo-American wartime intelligence co-operation has already made the continuation of that co-operation a cliche of studies of the "Special Relationship". His gift for disinterring from the public records in London and Washington what the censors fondly believe to lie fathom-deep in their most secret repositories is legendary. Sharing Secrets with Stalin lacks Soviet sources; but its revelations of how the professional intelligencers of the Big Three coped with the conflict between their ideological suspicions of each other and their need for victory, and how the degree of exchange fluctuated as the military successes of each enhanced their standing in the eyes of their opposites, makes this a yardstick for the closeness of the East-West alliance. The British came off very badly. Smith's demonstration that even after Hiroshima, the US went on supplying the Russians with top-level military intelligence on Japan makes nonsense of the contention that Hiroshima was the first shot in the Cold War.
In Beyond the Front Line (HarperCollins, pounds 20), Tony Geraghty - ex-para and specialist in SAS derring-do - writes of Brixmis, the former British Military Liaison Group with Soviet forces in East Germany. Their concentration on Soviet troop movements and military installations led to violent, potentially lethal, confrontations with Soviet or GDR security forces. Serving only two-year tours of duty, they were bold, enterprising and unconventional. They also served the cause of peace by allaying fears of Soviet military build-ups and surprise attacks.
Leslie Collitt's title is an uneccessary nonsense. Unlike Karla, Smiley's opponent in Le Carre's televised trilogy, Marcus Wolf was an East German desk warrior, Moscow-trained and Moscow-appointed to head East German foreign intelligence. Collitt's sources are Stasi files and Wolf himself. Under him, East German intelligence agents seduced their way into the heart of West German politics. Collitt's study is the most comprehensive so far available in English.
The journalists Mark Urban and Michael Smith complement each other. Urban's UK Eyes Alpha is compulsive reading on the Whitehall in-fighting between the secret services and Mrs Thatcher's mania for control. In New Cloak, Old Dagger, Smith is particularly good on Northern Ireland. Between them they lay many of the myths perpetuated by the literary buckets that catch dissident leaks. Aficionados will need, to read both. Smith weakens his own solid research with some very dodgy historical sources, and Urban apparently believes his sources told him everything - a dangerous ploy in writing intelligence history. He has also talked to too many ex-CIA US nationalists whose Who-needs-you-old-boy Anglophobia has made him overly pessimistic about the future.
Common to these approaches is an inability to distinguish between military and political intelligence about other countries. By contrast with the other great powers in the first half of this century, Britain concentrated on the former as well as the latter. It made the security agencies arms of the Foreign Office, not the forces or the police. This raises the question of how much secret intelligence really counts in the overall political assessment of the external world.
It is to this that Michael Herman (among much else) directs himself. His indispensable Intelligence Power in Peace and War is based on the widest of reading, which he summarises with skill and clarity. What is available, however, is largely generated by American views of the US-Soviet confrontation. None of this is very helpful to the adaptation of intelligence work to the problems of a world still full of threats to Britain's interests. As our effective power dwindles, the need for reliable assessment and for political and public confidence in it increases. Secret intelligence may only constitute ten per cent of the total picture ten per cent of the time, as a hard-bitten ex-diplomat recently said. But its neglect will cost Britain treasure, let alone lives.
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