Tuesday, March 29, 2011


That’s the headquarters of MI-5 up there. MI-5 has some of the same functions as the American FBI. Unlike the FBI, MI-5 does not deal with criminal cases such as fraud, bank robbery, kidnapping, and so on. It deals with areas such as counter-espionage, counter-subversion, and counter-terrorism. The various police departments in the United Kingdom deal with ordinary crimes such as the ones I named. MI-5, and its sister service, MI-6, the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service as they are more properly known, both originated in 1909. While MI-5 handles internal intelligence matters, MI-6, home of the fictional James Bond, deals with foreign intelligence, and is similar to the American CIA.

Defend the Realm is a massive (1,000+ pages), and is heavily annotated. Unfortunately all too many of these annotations, particularly for recent events are listed as “Recollections of a Security Service Officer,” or “Security Service Archives.” This latter is particularly galling. The archives consist of several hundred thousand pages of documents. Verifying a statement from a source for which one requires a security clearance, and not having the exact location, or document reference number renders the citation essentially useless.

The volume is an official history of the service. That means that it’s heavy on the acronyms. Unfortunately, while there is a brief list of acronyms in the back, it is not complete, and if you’ve forgotten, as I have, what PUS stands for then you’re SOL.

I can’t say that I’m up on the government of the UK, and it’s intricacies, so I won’t try to say too much about those matters, or even about the Prime Ministers. Once I get outside of Churchill, Thatcher, and Blair I’m pretty confused about who was what and when they were.

Readers who are aghast at the provisions of the Patriot Act may find it interesting to learn that in the UK, prior to 1909, that in order to investigate a person’s mail and put a watch on correspondence that it was necessary to get a warrant for each letter that was to be opened. This made intelligence gathering via the mail watch impractical. Churchill, as Home Secretary, came up with what is known as the Home Office Warrant (HOW). This enabled a person’s entire correspondence to be watched. The HOWs are “general warrants authorizing the examination of all the correspondence of particular people upon a list to which additions were continually being made” (37).

The anthrax scare of 2001 was not the first use of anthrax as a bioweapon. During WW I Dr. Anton Dilger, a German-American, produced bacillus anthracis and pseudomonas mallei cultures that were used to infect horses and mules being shipped to Europe (78).

Mi-5’s most notable success prior to the start of The Great War was to round up all of the German agents resident in the UK prior to the outbreak of hostilities. In a later war the intelligence agencies would control all of the German agents running against Britain.

With the coming of peace the Security Service turned to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), and began to infiltrate the organization. MI-5’s primary emphasis during the interwar years was counter-subversion, not counter-espionage. This emphasis is part of the reason why Burgess, MacLean, Philby, Blunt, and Cairncross, the Cambridge Five, were not caught earlier.

WW II was the period during which the Brits were able to gain control of the German agents operating against them, and to use that control to run operations such as Mincemeat and Fortitude.

What emerges from the post-war years is that MI-5 had its greatest post-war success as a result of Operation Foot, in which over 100 Soviet agents were expelled. Other notable postwar successes were aiding in the decolonization process as Britain withdrew from its overseas empire.

Andrews covers the first post-war terrorist campaign in the Middle East. This was not Arab terrorism, but terrorism by Israelis aimed at hastening the departure of Britain from what was then Palestine. This is a part of history that I’m not altogether familiar with. I’d heard of the bombing of the King David hotel, but had thought that it was a hotel housing tourists. It was a hotel that was occupied by British troops. Warnings were supposed to have been given, but they appear to have been ignored, or not to have reached the proper authorities. In any case, while the bombing might be defensible as a military target, the use of letter bombs sent to targets in Britain does not seem to me to be defensible.

Andrews also covers the Profumo affair, which seems to have been a lot of hullaballoo about nothing. Christine Keeler, shown at left, was, at the time, what the Brits would describe as a good looking tart. However, check out the picture of her that accompanies this one. She shows the signs of 50 years of hard living. Her companion in sin, Mandy Rice-Davies, seems to have held up somewhat better. The total amount of information transmitted by the girls appears to have been none.

Other aspects of the postwar era covered are the IRA, and the emergence of Islamic terrorism.

Much of the material that is of greatest interest, that of the post-war era, cannot be revealed in detail due to security considerations.

A major problem with the book is that histories of intelligence operations tend to be either stories, tales of derring-do that differ from James Bond only in their greater veracity, or to be histories devoted to bureaucratic issues. Much of Andrews book falls into the latter category. So while the book is well written, there are stretches of pretty dull material that will put off the reader looking for stories such as those to be found in Bodyguard of Lies, or other books of the genre.

Next up, The Abacus and the Cross, about Pope Sylvester II, and the science of the Dark Ages. You didn’t know there was science during the Dark Ages? Read the post, and then read the book to find out why much of what you were taught about science and religion and their conflict is false.

Note: Bodyguard of Lies, linked to on the right, was published in 1976. Some of the information in it is outdated, or inaccurate in light of what is known today. Nonetheless, it is an interesting and entertaining book, and remains so despite any errors that may be in it.