The British Secret Service, also known as MI6, has occupied a suitably ambiguous place in national life. By definition, publicity is deadly to a service of its kind. The ground shifted in the mid-1970s when a few bold spirits wrote accounts of Enigma, the Second World War operation carried out under MI6 auspices at Bletchley, in the countryside near London. Cryptanalysts and mathematicians working there had broken German codes. The official historian of British Intelligence, F. H. Hinsley, believed that this mastery of signal intelligence had shortened the war by several years and saved thousands of British lives. Ian Fleming’s hero James Bond undoubtedly encouraged the general public to imagine that human intelligence, that is to say information acquired by agents on the ground, was equally and comfortingly proficient.

Against that, several persuasively brilliant and sarcastic figures, among them Hugh Trevor-Roper and Malcolm Muggeridge, drew on their Secret Service experiences to describe espionage and counter-espionage as pointless, a waste of time and money. In this view, MI6 was a scratch lot of boobies, too blinkered for their task and skilled only at fighting turf wars. And then there was Kim Philby, promoted almost to the top of the service and privy to its secrets: after defecting to Moscow, he published a memoir blithely mocking everyone who had failed to detect that he had been a Soviet agent all along. The damage went deep.

The Secret Service archives have long been closed, and the British state is so suspicious of transparency that there seemed no prospect of ever finding out whether MI6 had been outwitted by those it was up against or, on the contrary, held its own. It goes against precedent and the whole bureaucratic grain that Keith Jeffery, Professor of History at Queen’s University, Belfast, has been permitted apparently unrestricted access in researching his book MI6. Presumably, the powers-that-be judged that they had a success story to tell, an antidote to Philby, so to speak.

Professor Jeffery found that the files had been thoroughly weeded, which he charitably ascribes to the accumulating volume of paper rather than reflexive security concerns. He writes objectively and clearly, enlivening what could easily seem exhaustive with touches of dry humor. One officer is reported to be “a good shot with rifle, catapult, shot-gun and blow-pipe.” An agent who first bounced checks and later was sentenced to death for murdering his wife simply “had a difficult and troubled private life.” Lieutenant-Colonel Dudley Clarke was arrested in Madrid dressed as a woman “down to a brassiere,” which prompts the comment that “the Service could scarcely have predicted Clarke’s foray into undercover work, if that is what it was.” Again, during the Greek civil war, when an officer from a rival service shot dead an Intelligence agent, for Jeffery “this seemed to take things too far.”

The Secret Service as we know it began in 1909 when Mansfield Cumming, a naval officer, was charged with collecting information on the development of the German fleet, which was considered an open threat to Britain. From his first day in office, he had to find staff and define purposes by himself. The First World War set the pattern for the future, introducing codes, secret inks, letter boxes, sabotage, cover, and agents provocateurs, as Jeffery explains. In the autumn of 1914, Cumming was involved in a car accident in France in which his twenty-four-year-old son Alistair was killed. “Poor old Ally died”: so reads Cumming’s diary entry that day, perfectly encapsulating his character.

Cumming’s successors were Sir Hugh Sinclair, an admiral, and, from 1939 to 1952, Sir Stewart Menzies. The three chiefs were all of a type and so were their colleagues. Biffy, Woolly, Bogey, Lousy—the nicknames of those recruited to the service— conjure up like-minded men with a shared sense of patriotism and duty. The clever and cynical young men who came to the fore in the Second War had such a different moral and intellectual formation that they were certain to ridicule their elders. Jeffery reproduces a letter from Menzies to the Foreign Office marked Most Secret and dated 1943: The refusal to transfer Philby to the Foreign Office as requested, Menzies wrote, gave him “qualms of conscience about interfering with the career of so able a man.” Philby was already engaged in treason, and Menzies’ unsuspecting loyalty illustrates the change in values and outlook from one generation to the next.

The surviving archives record organizational details minutely and provide the greater part of the story Jeffery has to tell. It makes for slow reading to have to concentrate on the ups and downs of this section or that—on the rivalry, say, between Section IX and mir, the Military Intelligence Research at the War Office; to disentangle the multiple acronyms or to retain the distinction that needs to be made on the same page between a ‘Y’ Committee and the Z organization. From time to time, reports were commissioned to examine the role of the Secret Service, and they offer insight into the “Whitehall Darwinian jungle” as Jeffery calls it, where survival of the fittest was the order of the day.

Throughout the period when they were in charge, the three chiefs managed, in turn, to fight off every attempt by different ministries to absorb the Secret Service. The Foreign Office, nominally the department to which the Secret Service answered, could at least make the case that Secret Service activity might collide with foreign policy and that the detection of anything illegal would be catastrophic. The fiercest challenge to Secret Service independence came from the Special Operations Executive (soe), an irregular force operating, from 1940, behind the German lines to set Europe ablaze, as their main promoter, Churchill himself, liked to put it. In the end, the Secret Service swallowed soe. Throughout the period, the agency resisted the broader temptation to interfere in domestic politics, with the exception of the Zinoviev letter, the still murky incident from 1924, when a purported call for Communist revolution that was almost certainly based on a forgery brought down the Government.

Jeffery describes very well how the pursuit of intelligence necessitated establishing branches all over the world, from Scandinavia to the Far East. The pattern everywhere was identical. An agent from headquarters went abroad undercover, usually as a Passport Control Officer. He then recruited sub-agents; identified only by numbers, their names are still unknown or concealed. The terms of employment remain vague, except for a remark that, from 1942, everyone including the chief was still paid in cash but had to pay tax. Paybooks were written in pencil, in an emergency “ready to be rubbed out.”

Sub-agents played the James Bond role. Jeffery shows that they were mostly well-chosen though some were quite colorful; headquarters staff became skilled in spotting “scallywags” and “rogues,” peddling something in the hope of easy money. Information was generally only as good as the funding available to buy it. In this milieu, ideology was rarely a factor. One informant in the 1920s who claimed to have reports in Persian from the Persian embassy in Moscow was actually providing a Turkish translation of parts of the Koran. A man of Lithuanian origins specialized in blowing safes. “Two journeys and retire for life” was the saying about South American diplomats bribed to transmit material in diplomatic bags.

Despite the difficulties of penetrating a totalitarian police state like the Soviet Union, the Secret Service enjoyed some success, for instance, in obtaining a Red Army code-book taken by Finns off a dead Russian officer. The American Mrs. Elizabeth Pack, known as Cynthia, seduced the Vichy press officer Captain Charles Brousse and provided so much information about the French collaborationist regime that Menzies complained. Paul Thümmel, a well-placed officer in the Abwehr, or German counter-intelligence, was one among many to pass on valuable information from inside Nazi Germany. In the Second World War, the Secret Service reached its professional peak. By 1944, the counter-intelligence section had 113 double agents.

One service veteran refers to “the rougher stuff without which the fight could not continue.” Some of this was well outside legal norms. A man referred to as Blanchet or Bla was parachuted into France in 1941 to operate a wireless set. Arrested, he went over to the Germans, only to be summarily executed for his treason by British agents. In the belief that they were being protective, the authorities hid the truth from his wife after the war. Similarly, a man known as Paul Lewis Claire gave secrets away to the Germans and was killed during an agency kidnapping that went wrong. A Gestapo officer by the name of Horst Kopkow was suspected of war crimes, but, because he had targeted Soviet spies, the Secret Service faked an alibi that enabled him to become a Cold War asset. In 1946, the Attlee Government asked Menzies to find a way to prevent Jewish concentration camp survivors from entering Palestine. William Hayter of the Foreign Office instructed the Secret Service to attack ships carrying these immigrants, with the proviso that nobody be killed. Five ships were duly put out of action. Sabotage was blamed on the Arabs. I knew Hayter later on, when he was Warden of New College, Oxford, evidently a standing example of how easily a suave and civilized man becomes party to an inhuman and illegal plot.

No doubt constrained by officialdom, Jeffery stops his account of the Secret Service in 1949. From then on, Philby was doing his worst and information from the archives on that score is likely to be withheld indefinitely. It is something of a marvel that Jeffery has been permitted to reveal so much about the dark underside of the past century.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 5, on page 74
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