Underground, ground under

Godfrey Hodgson on the covert career of a master spook
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gentleman spy: The Life of Allen Welsh Dulles Peter Grose Andre Deutsch £20

Over the Easter Weekend of 1917, as America's entry into war approached, the staff of the United States embassy in Vienna was evacuated to Berne, Switzerland. Early on Easter Sunday morning, a 24-year-old secretary of the embassy called Allen Welsh Dulles took a telephone call. Would he care to meet the leader of the emigre Bolshevik delegation in Berne? Couldn't it wait until Monday? asked the young diplomat, impatient to keep a tennis date with a young Swiss woman to whom he had an introduction. Monday, said the thick Russian accent on the phone, would be too late. On Monday Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, known in the underground as Lenin, left Switzerland for his homeland in the famous sealed train, obligingly provided by the Kaiser's government in the hope that on his return to Russia he would negotiate peace on the Eastern Front, enabling Germany to crush her enemies in the West.

More than 30 years later, as the legendary head of the Central Intelligence Service, Dulles loved to regale young intelligence recruits with that story: the moral was that the good practitioner of what Dulles liked to call "the craft of intelligence'' kept his mind and his door open and never turned down a possible contact.

Dulles moved on to Paris for the ill-fated Versailles peace negotiations. After the Senate voted to reject the peace treaty, and the United States withdrew into isolation, he soon grew bored and joined his chilly older brother as a partner in a New York law firm.

In the summer of 1940 he slipped back into Switzerland. The next 18 months were his glory days. He was soon comfortably ensconced in a burgerlike Swiss residence with a butler who doubled as an informer to the local police, and an upper- class American matron as his assistant and mistress ("We'll let the work be cover for romance and the romance be cover for the work," he told her, with characteristic pragmatism).

It wasn't long before Dulles had built up a network of agents inside Nazi Germany. Colonel Claude Dansey, head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, thought the material Dulles was getting from sources in contact with the July 20 anti-Nazi plotterswas "an obvious plant"; but he was wrong. Dulles supplied his masters with excellent information about the progress of the plot.

Peter Grose thinks that Dulles was never quite so effective as when cut off from the giant wartime military and intelligence bureaucracies. Later, when he joined the CIA, he became fascinated by the secret side of Cold War intelligence. He was far more interested in covert operations - the bribing of Italian politicians in 1948, the overthrow of Mosaddeq in Iran in 1958, the attempts to support guerilla operations in Eastern Europe, the Ukraine and the Baltic States - than in the evaluation and analysisof intelligence. "There was something of the little boy in Allen," wrote Sherman Kent.

Intelligence collection, almost as much as covert action, could involve monkey business. Grose describes how one agent from the organisation that Dulles took over wholesale from the Nazi Abwehr tried to tap into Soviet communications in East Berlin by towing a cable across a canal behind a toy yacht. The agent was caught and executed; Cold War intelligence might be black comedy, but it was also deadly. Later the CIA did succeed in digging a tunnel to tap the same Soviet cables. And Dulles was in charge of the U-2, the long-winged black aircraft that criss-crossed the Soviet Union at 70,000 feet doing aerial reconnaissance.

In the end Dulles's fascination with "monkey tricks" was his undoing, and almost the Agency's as well. Under his leadership it penetrated student groups and subsidised magazines. It experimented with LSD and other personality-changing drugs. And it mounted a whole series of covert actions against Fidel Castro.

As a member of the Warren Commission , Dulles was able to head the investigators away from looking too deeply into the Agency's involvement in plots to assassinate Castro. But no one could hide the Agency's catastrophic attempt to help Cuban exiles invade. It collapsed ignominiously at the Bay of Pigs. Dulles had to resign, and the CIA's reputation has never been quite the same since.

Peter Grose, a former New York Times reporter turned foreign policy expert, has written a full-scale biography on the grand scale. It is fair, well-written and full of spicy anecdotes. On the whole the reputation of the master spy of legend loses nothingby being painted, warts and all, as a figure of flesh and blood, though cloaked in mystery and armed with weapons more lethal than any dagger.