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This article was published 18/12/2009 (2653 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Defence of the Realm
The Authorized History of MI5
By Christopher Andrew
Viking Canada, 1,032 pages, $45
A great deal has happened since Britain's Security Service, MI5, was established in 1909 as a two-man operation.
It has provided invaluable information during two world wars, tried to fend off Soviet spies during the Cold War (with rather little success as the Cambridge Five led by Kim Philby shows), faced the IRA, tracked Communist connections to British unionists and has watched its role shift drastically from counter-espionage to counter-terrorism as the agency marks its centenary.
Christopher Andrew is a respected espionage chronicler and Cambridge University historian who was given access to MI5 records to write this interesting, engaging and massive look at his nation's clandestine anti-spy agency.
Andrew admits there was material he wasn't allowed to use for current security reasons. But the history has the feel of being exhaustive within those parameters. The "authorized history" designation will, of course, raise questions in the minds of many readers.
It is, however, a fascinating read for lovers of espionage and security issues. There is much, of course, that is well-known -- especially the story of the devastating blow to Western intelligence of the spying by Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean and John Cairncross, known as the Cambridge Five.
Not only did the information they supplied to the Soviets hurt the U.K. and United States, the defections of Burgess and Maclean in 1951 and later confirmation that Philby spied on both nations initiated an almost debilitating hunt for moles that lasted almost two decades.
Canada makes an appearance in Andrew's narrative in the well-known story of Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko who defected in Ottawa (even if it took him a couple of days to get anyone to believe his story) and his revelations of the depth and breadth of Soviet espionage.
The book details MI5 successes and defeats, bureaucratic problems, political meddling and the agency's maturing from a typical old boys club to a modern intelligence agency that, it is wont to herald, has actually been run by women.
Andrew has a sense of humour and has fun describing the early recruits to the service as coming from good families, good schools or the military, and uniformly listing outdoor pursuits such as hunting, riding and tennis. And they were all men. His descriptions could have been the basis for a Monty Python skit.
There are interesting domestic cases, such as Prime Minister Harold Wilson's ravings in the latter stages of his time in office in the late 1970s that MI5 was plotting against him. Andrew recounts how Wilson used to "turn on all the taps in the lavatory and gesture at imaginary bugs in the ceiling" before talking to anyone. There has been some debate in the British press over whether Wilson was right and whether Andrew is whitewashing the situation.
Andrew also details Margaret Thatcher's efforts to use MI5 during labour unrest during her time as PM to counteract the "wreckers" of the British economy. MI5 made it clear that was not its role, but it did spy on Communist organizations that were, in fact, controlling some union activities with the help of Soviet funding.
There are warts enough exposed in the book, such as the treatment of women in the service, the attitude of many MI5 officials toward emerging African nations (the N-word was used), the fact Jews weren't recruited until the mid 1970s on the grounds that dual loyalty to Britain and Israel might create a conflict of interest. The agency's slow recognition of the terrorist threat from within the country is also presented.
It is a daunting book to read, but worth the effort for anyone interested in the murky world of counter-espionage.
Free Press copy editor and jazz columnist Chris Smith denies being anybody's double agent.