Authoritative history of Britain’s spy services by a veteran who has been writing about “the Great Game” for 50 years.
Thomas (Secrets and Lies: A History of CIA Mind Control and Germ Warfare, 2007, etc.) has a keen sense of historical context and a solid understanding of the renewed urgency of intelligence in the age of global terrorism. His basic argument is that the intelligence services of Britain and other democracies will benefit from greater transparency in their operations, which will reduce fears that the agencies will trample on civil liberties. MI5 (responsible for internal security) and MI6 (the foreign secret service) were founded simultaneously in August 1909, partly via the advocacy of Home Secretary Winston Churchill, in the face of perceived threats from German spies and Irish nationalism. By 1914, MI5 had created a file of 16,000 aliens, 11,000 of them German. By the time World War II began, MI5 and MI6 were clearly vital to Britain’s security. In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt sent William Donovan to receive guidance on founding the OSS (forerunner to the CIA), in exchange for secret wartime assistance. Thomas captures the agencies’ intriguing mixture of formal tradition—caricatured in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels—and post-1960s flexibility, which included a long-overdue openness to women that culminated in Stella Rimington’s elevation to the directorship of MI5 in 1992, as well as use of new surveillance technologies first embraced by American intelligence organizations. Another strength of this book is its depiction of the complex interplay among MI5, MI6 and the intelligence services of foreign nations, primarily the United States, but also Russia, France, Saudi Arabia and many others. Numerous anecdotes portray these relationships as mixtures of mutual assistance and not-so-secret rivalries. In particular, the 1963 defection of pro-Soviet traitor Kim Philby caused decades of mutual mistrust with the CIA, which only ebbed with the close of the Cold War.
A well-written page-turner that demystifies the notoriously foggy “wilderness of mirrors.”