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The Secret World: A History of Intelligence Hardcover – September 4, 2018
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The chapter on Muhammad and the rise of Islamic intelligence is a rare treat, compelling reflections on the fact that the Muslim adversary, Israel, today has one of the most sophisticated and effective intelligence, and yet, Muhammad began the Muslim intelligence about 620 BCE. Andrew’s account of Elizabeth I and her super spy-in-chief, Sir Walsingham has intrigue and excitement, and the story included plots of assassination, not by the Pope, but by Mary Stuart’s Catholic followers.
Andrew covers espionage and intelligence in Britain, France, and America in the formative years; and in the case of France, from the ‘Revolution’ to Napoleon and beyond. After a detailed account of intelligence and counter-intelligence in Europe before the First World War, he continues with the most exciting parts of the book – espionage in the two World Wars, and the Cold War that followed. In his concluding chapter, Andrew shows from 21st century events including the interrogation of Saddam Hussein, Snowden, and Wikileaks, that intelligence is crucial and equally, that we must understand how intelligence gathering has changed in the age of digital technology.
One glaring shortcoming of this book, as has been pointed out by another reviewer, is that there is the conspicuous absence of intelligence from and against the Communist countries, Russia and China, in particular. The Arab-Israeli wars would have yielded much information and lessons in intelligence, as would the Vietnam War, and the Iraqi wars. Perhaps Andrew has a volume II in mind?
The introduction and conclusion were especially fascinating because they relate many current events to the premise of the book, and drive home the premise: histories have been written without the inclusion of the key element of espionage and intelligence, creating mistaken interpretations of historical events, and that the lack of historical knowledge has caused mistaken interpretations of intelligence.
The author makes a clear case for the importance of intelligence, both secret and that available from open sources, for positive actors on the world stage: to avoid conflicts and wars, to win wars, to build alliances, to support allies, to have clarity when making momentous decisions, to undermine aggressors out to destabilize regions or countries.
A group's use of intelligence for nefarious purposes is also presented in the book: for the destruction of rivals, for financial gain for a clique, for the acquisition of power and influence ultimately for the acquisition of financial gain, and to enhance the egos and sense of security of deluded actors on the world stage.
The chapters are historical divisions, which are always a false form of organization in histories since real life has no smooth beginnings nor endings, but instead tentacles that thread in and out of events, spread out over time. That means there is much overlap between the chapters.
I'm a fan of history books, but they can be mind-numbingly monotonous, just a long series of wars, conflicts, treaties, royals, ministers, pretenders, historical figures, etc. They are very difficult to write, and it is very challenging to keep the reader's interest. I've read great histories and not so great historical accounts. This book falls mid-range, so my advice is take the reading slowly so as not to become overwhelmed.
Since the book clocks in at 960 pages, it will take a while to get though it! It is best if the reader has a sound founding in world history. If not, you can read up along the way, but expect to be overwhelmed. I started with the beginning and conclusion, then hit then the eras of most interest to me, after which I moved on to the other eras. Some chapters I read more diligently than others, to be honest.
The author points out along the way the most common reasons for intelligence community failures, which is fascinating in itself: not seeing things in historical context, prejudice influencing interpretations, underestimating opponents due to arrogance, rivalry within the intel-community hurting the sharing of knowledge, relying on the various crackpots who seem to be attracted to espionage, tailoring analyses to the powers-that-be's expectations, overestimating the organization of enemies, not considering enough the open-versus-authoritarian nature of an opponent's system and how it can affect intelligence, letting myth and religion influence interpretations.
While reading, I created a mental picture of the author as an elderly man, and I wasn't wrong. I found the use of the archaic word “flamboyant” for homosexual men odd in today's more open environment. Also odd was the near universal avoidance of the role that people's sexuality can play in intelligence gathering and interpretation, and the effect of being from a sexual minority, especially a persecuted minority, has on someone becoming a spy or a leaker or an assassin, despite there being historical and current instances. There was also scant mention of sexual blackmail and sexual manipulation in the spying game, which I found hard to fathom considering both human nature and sexual bigotries that have existed through time.
One section in the last chapter especially caught my eye. It is about autocrats and begins with a description of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Autocrats are described as being by nature self-delusional, uneducated and ignorant, irrational, self-destructive, surrounded by sycophants, and being people who put out false narratives that they come to believe, and on which they make major decisions to disastrous effect. The example of Saddam Hussein was offered to show that when dealing with autocrats, analysts can be way off, because the analyst can rarely get into the mind of a self-deluded person. What do they really believe? No one really knows. That is when you are in the danger zone of an unpredictable-actor. I received a review copy of this book; this is my honest review.