- Hardcover: 448 pages
- Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books; 1 edition (March 17, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0312379986
- ISBN-13: 978-0312379988
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.6 x 9.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 21 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,895,669 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Secret Wars: One Hundred Years of British Intelligence Inside MI5 and MI6 Hardcover – March 17, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Two famous British institutions will celebrate their centenaries in 2009: the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI5 and MI6. They maintain an aura of secrecy, a touch of sophistication and a hint of melodrama even in this age of populist candor. Thomas (Descent into Danger), who enjoys justified respect as an authority on the intelligence world, has a broad spectrum of contacts and confidants in both services. He taps their memories and insights in this reconstruction of Britain's intelligence operations from the Age of Empire through the cold war and into today's constantly metamorphosing Islamic challenge. The emphasis on personal evidence at the expense of archival sources gives the work an anecdotal tone and a contemporary focus that makes the subtitle misleading. Both are compensated for by the immediacy of the material and the vividness of the narration, presenting a fascinating cast of moles and double agents, whistle-blowers and politicians. For the ambience of the closed world that inspired James Bond and George Smiley, this book is a winner. (Mar. 3)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
A veteran writer offers this centennial history of the two almost legendary British intelligence agencies, MI5 (foreign) and MI6 (domestic). Founded during the run-up to World War I, they have served the British Crown with varying degrees of skill and success in all the political conundrums and crises since. They have also been gold mines for thriller writers. As an author of intelligence-related fiction and nonfiction (e.g., Gideon’s Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad, 3d ed., 2007), Thomas bring to the agencies’ histories a high level of expertise, a fluent style accessible to lay reader and expert alike, and a combination of frankness and balance about some of his subjects’ less glorious chapters. Those involve such things as the Soviet mole during the post–World War II era, the ongoing tension with the CIA, and the problem of deciding whether operations against the IRA and more recent terrorist groups are foreign or domestic. A good basic book on its subjects.
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Clearly, Thomas has his sources (not revealed in any footnotes or references) and it is difficult for a reviewer to distinguish between facts and conjectures. The result is a book that requires a considerable intelligence background in order to sort out numerous of his claims.
For some reason, both MI5 and MI6 tried to stop publication of it in England (similar to its attempts to ban Peter Wright’s Spycatcher (New York: Viking) in 1987. Thomas was never a member of either organization and had obviously never signed the Official Secrets Act. While clearly having access to many of the services’ former (and possibly current) members, Thomas has put together a sometimes embarrassing “history” of MI5 and MI6.
It is, nevertheless, a fascinating read for the aficionado and the intelligence professional. Some examples of Thomas’ claims:
--Semyon Mogilevich, who ran a money laundering, drug trafficking outfit with the help of newspaper tycoon, Robert Maxwell, told Thomas through a CIA agent that he had obtained “good evidence that through these front companies Mogilevich has begun to place large amounts of money in the U.S. trying to influence the 2008 elections.” (p. 60)
--The first MI5 Director-General Vernon Kell had planted a story in the newspapers that MI5 had uncovered a plot “to assassinate Lloyd George by killing him with a poisoned dart to be fired from an air rifle while he played golf.” (p. 81)
--CIA station chief, Chester Cooper, claimed that British Prime Minister Anthony Eden “was barely surviving with less than five hours of sleep and a dependency on drugs which ‘appears to have affected his judgement’” during the Suez Canal crisis in 1956. (p. 149)
--Thomas identifies “for the first time” the KGB officer (Lev Aleksandrovich Shulikov) based at the Soviet Embassy in Paris who masterminded the assassination of Georgy Markov using a ricin-poisoned umbrella. (p. 213)
--While Thomas does not endorse the conspiracy theory that MI6 arranged for the fatal accident of Princess Diana in the Paris tunnel, he provides considerable leitmotif for those who still hold that Prince Phillip (and others of the Royal Family) would extend their dislike for the Princess to murder. (pp 291-93)
--Allen Dulles, the longest-serving director of the CIA , harbored a life-long dislike for what Great Britain had done to destroy the Indian subcontinent, telling CIA officer Bill Buckley: “There was something almost touching in the way [Dulles] said he was glad to have lived long enough to see the ‘Brutish [sic] Empire, as he called it, consigned to history.” (p. 163)
While the reader can disagree with much of Thomas’s pointed arguments, there are instances where he doesn’t quite come straight. On page 295, he briefly alludes to the shooting by SAS officers of IRA terrorists in Gibraltar thusly: “. . . the SAS shot dead three IRA terrorists on Gibraltar, despite a warning they were not armed.”
While the facts are correct (except for the unarmed warning), the situation was far more complex and deserves more attention than the brief sentence Thomas gives it. The event occurred in 1988, when in the previous year, British Intelligence learned that the Irish Republican Army was planning a terrorist attack which the Gibraltar police believed might result in loss of life. It was known that the IRA was perfecting methods of remote control of their bombs by radio. This was substantiated by mysterious radio signals reaching the Rock from Spain. The IRA unit was known to be comprised of two well-known assassins, Sean Savage and Daniel McCann, and a female, Maired Farrell. The attack was expected on March 8 during the changing of the guard. Savage arrived in Gibraltar, parking his rented white Renault 5 in a parking lot, awaiting the arrival of another car carrying the explosive device. The group had been under the surveillance of the Spanish police, who for some reason, reported their observations to London instead of directly to Gibraltar. Savage along with Farrell and McCann walked around the center of town for awhile, then proceeded towards the frontier.
The police checked the Renault and found an unusual aerial, indicating a possible radio-controlled bomb in the car. The SAS officers following the trio, noticed that the group seemed to be aware that they were being watched. Fearful that they terrorists might at any time decide to activate the radio device, the SAS opened fire, killing all three.
The subsequent coroner’s inquest returned a verdict of lawful killing, although no bombs or detonators were found on the bodies. However sixty-four kilograms of semtex explosives with a trigger attached were found in the other car. Although much of the operation remains secret, it is probable that the intention of the police (SAS) was to arrest the three, but the fact that Savage had spotted the surveillance and the group had split up, this plan was foiled and prompt action was deemed necessary. For a short summary of this incident, see The Royal Gibraltar Police 1830-2005 by Cecilia Baldachino and Tito Benardy (Gibraltar: Gibraltar Books, 2005).
Other rather common errors mar this otherwise good read. One example: on page 84, Thomas states:
“. . . the way America had opted out of the League of Nations had deepened [European’s] belief that Hitler was the strongman needed to control Europe and that Britain should support him.”
While Thomas’s conjecture on how strongly America’s political beliefs affected Europe’s ambivalent and conciliatory attitudes towards Nazi Germany can be argued, his facts are simply incorrect.
A brief history review seems to be in order: the Treaty of Versailles ending the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers was signed on June 28, 1919 (coincidently five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand). Influenced strongly by the opposition of Henry Cabot Lodge, the U.S. Senate voted against ratifying the treaty. As a result the United States did not join the League of Nations. The U.S. Congress did pass the Knox-Porter Resolution which brought a formal end to hostilities between the United States and the Central Powers. President Warren Harding signed it into law on July 21, 1921. Thus the U.S. did not “opt out” of the League of Nations. (See generally Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan (New York: Random House, 2001)
While there is nothing profound here, many of the conclusions could easily have been made differently and unless one has at least a modicum of intelligence background or knowledge, this is not the definitive book on the history of MI5 and MI6. The bibliography is not particularly enlightening and without any footnotes, it is impossible to check the veracity of Thomas’s assertions. While, again, it is a good read, it is not the “definitive history” of the services.
The book is a notional compilation of stories and gossip as might be exchanged along the bar at the Special Forces Club, Knightsbridge, London. Bantered between retired spooks, agents, administrators, bureaucrats, and sometimes heroes, over numerous pink gins, but tales all the same.
In a shadow land where precision is prized and details can be damming, the author takes no mind of either. Other reviewers have remarked on and listed some of the numerous mistakes of fact, did Kim Philby defect from London or Beirut? Was the V-1 a rocket or a pulse-jet? Mr. Thomas seems to use the terms "MI5" and "MI6" interchangeably, they are not, and has the same Directors heading up either one, only one individual did that. Of accounts of where I have some knowledge, I see the mistakes as well.
The author is a gifted writer of creative non-fiction, he makes characters come alive, he paints vivid descriptions, draws interesting inferences, He seems to have written the book from personal contacts and interviews with a variety of actors in this world, from the flunky to the very senior indeed. it's a pity he didn't take another six months and fact-check his work.
Mr. Thomas has also been done ill by his editor, if indeed there was one. The book contains many mistakes of punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and sentence structure, errors easily caught by any competent copy editor. I too have been hoist by this petard in my books. I can sympathize but not forgive.
At that bar in London, as the night passes and the pink gins are replaced by brandies, the tales become more interesting and less accurate until one can't discern fact from fiction. Perhaps that is the theme of this book, that things in the intelligence world are not what they seem. Have your batman bring you an Armagnac, light a contraband Cuban cigar, and enjoy the book, just don't file a report on it to Control.
But after reading several of these books part of the story repeats itself too much. He focus in M15 and M16 but in order to do that he also cross with the other novles. Is clear that he has to go back to some parts of the other novels in order to provide a context, but the book just feels like big cuts of all the others with just small details.