A study of the British intelligence service in which the author ponders an important question: Did the Cold War threat really warrant the grand drama and danger required in betraying country and friendships?
As security correspondent for BBC News, Corera is well-positioned to examine the overall arc of British intelligence since the close of World War II and the characters who have had the biggest impact and most lasting legacy. The author advances his stately narrative of the British overseas intelligence service, MI6 (a sister service to the domestic MI5), chronologically, from the first glimmers of panic felt in war-torn Vienna as the Iron Curtain descended over Eastern Europe through the heyday of the Moscow watchers in the 1960s. He then moves on to subsequent hysterical mole hunts and the shift in the 1990s to intelligence monitoring of terrorist cells and rogue governments. In refugee-flooded Vienna, the British security agents Kim Philby, Graham Greene and David Cornwell (aka John le Carré) all got their first taste of the risky commodity of intelligence at a time when there was virtually no knowledge of insider Soviet activity. The British and CIA scoured the émigré groups in search of agents and intelligence, with the first efforts involved in supporting partisans in oppressed Baltic states like Albania and Latvia. The two functions of MI6 and the CIA, information gathering and covert action, would converge uneasily in efforts to destabilize governments in Eastern Europe, Egypt, the Congo, Afghanistan and, much later, hauntingly, in Iraq. Corera also looks at some of the significant unsung female agents like Daphne Park and Eliza Manningham-Buller.
An absorbing study focused on the questionable cost of gathering secrets.