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The Secret History of MI6 Hardcover – September 21, 2010
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The British Secret Intelligence Service—popularly known as MI6—is the oldest established continuously surviving foreign intelligence-gathering organisation in the world. It has also historically been the most secret department of the British government. Founded in 1909, its existence was not officially acknowledged until 1994. Before then official British representatives had to pretend, sometimes with embarrassing results, that there was no such organisation as ‘MI6’, and even if there was, they ‘couldn’t possibly comment’ about it. Although the agency has had a website since 2005, few details are released about the number of people who work for it or the size of its budget, nor are any of its officers publicly avowed, with the sole exception of the Chief, whose name has been published since 1992. Unlike Britain’s other security and intelligence organisations, MI5 (which covers domestic security, rather like the FBI) and the signals intelligence agency, the blandly-titled Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ; analogous to the NSA), SIS releases absolutely none of its departmental records to the British National Archives. For almost all of its hundred-year existence, the strict line has been taken that the super-secret work of SIS, gathering foreign intelligence from foreign sources, has been of such vital national importance that no iota of information about it could formally be released to the public. Until now.
The writing of an officially-authorised history of SIS presents challenges for the agency and historian alike. For the outcome not to appear to be some sort of ‘hack house history’ (and thus vitiate its value as a reliable, scholarly and authoritative work) the author has to be given sufficient freedom—or licence—to exercise his or her own critical judgments. The author, too, has to surmount the wisely sceptical assumptions of colleagues who may believe that the fact that he has been deemed suitable for the task may precisely render him unsuitable to produce a rigorous and independent history. Writing to such a commission necessarily involves accepting some constraints on what may be published, but so long as any redactions are limited to genuine matters of national security (though that itself is a matter of potentially differing judgment), and not simply to protect the agency from embarrassment, or to suppress failure or wrong-doing, it ought to be a price worth paying. It may in some degree be invidious that only a single individual is granted uniquely privileged access to what is certainly the ‘Holy Grail’ of British archives, but since it is the case that for the foreseeable future no similar access will be granted to anyone else, then perhaps the risk is worth taking.--Keith Jeffery
"Perhaps the most authentic account one will ever read about how intelligence really works." -The Washington Times
"A very fine book...full of episode and personality." -The Telegraph
"An important cautionary tale that has implications worldwide." -Seattle Times --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
There is a much needed list of abbreviations and what they stand for and a detailed index. There are some illustrations and diagrams throughout the reading and two sections of photographs.
Jeffery says he was given unrestricted access to the archives, however, it has been the practice to destroy huge numbers of documents once their usefulness was up... how that is determined is never explained. This is not a book containing stories of daring and master spy techniques, instead it reads more like a government report; and in many ways that is its' failing. There is only accuracy rather than, also the appeal of and recollection of operations completed. The writing does rise above the drudgery in explaining how agents should work, some accounts of wartime activities and in some incidents, such as the search for invisible ink; but these 752 pages are extremely dry and mainly contain a recitation of who headed the agency, what they and their subordinates did and why; explanations of different reports and the organization of the agency and attempts to combine the agency with other government bureaus. None of the exhilaration of the job or work well done comes through.
The details are fully and firmly about Great Britain, little is mentioned of interactions and cooperation with other countries, other than in the conclusion, where there are 5 or 6 pages about the relationship with the CIA. If there is a comment it usually consists of, "which also involved United States (or whatever country) participation".
Those who wish to learn the bureaucratic details of the SIS- MI6 would indeed enjoy reading through this book.
We get here an in-depth look at the heads of the Service, and its role in peace and war: from Boche to Bolsheviks is the title of one chapter, and it might as well have titled the whole book, really, if Jeffrey was trying to write a catchy story rather than an authorised history. There are lots of interesting vignettes here, but little on what you might be looking for - the Cambridge 5, the man who never was, etc: often because this was done by organisations other than MI6. The SOE for example were a wartime sabotage force, not an intelligence service.
At times it's a little dry, but there are interesting thoughts on the need for political independence of a secret service which in turn relies on its being nonpartisan. None of this is dross, or mere noise, but if you are looking for a chronicle of wartime adventure or secret operations and assassinations revealed...alas, this is not the book for you. The cover does say, reads like the script of a Bond film, but really its mostly just the bits where Bond meets with M (itself a play on C) that this book represents.
This is a great work, but be aware what it is not before you buy it.
Here Sir John Scarlett and Keith Jeffrey discuss the book and MI-6 for an hour. Scarlett is the former chief of MI-6 who commissioned the work.