Making things happen

R.W. Johnson

  • The Missing Dimension: Governments and Intelligence Communities in the 20th Century edited by Christopher Andrew and David Dilks
    Macmillan, 300 pp, £16.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 333 36864 9

As for his secret Spials, which he did employ both at home and abroad, by them to discover what Practices and Conspiracies were against him, surely his Case required it: He had such Moles perpetually working and casting to undermine him. Neither can it be reprehended. For if Spials be lawful against lawful Enemies, much more against Conspirators and Traytors.

Francis Bacon,
The History of the Reign of Henry VII

One of the benefits of the contemporary fascination with the world of intelligence operations is the growing perception that this ‘missing dimension’ which lies behind so many newspaper headlines lies behind a good deal of history too. Unfortunately, and sometimes scandalously, a good deal remains hidden. Despite the Thirty-Year Rule it is only now that evidence is beginning to dribble out about the police spies and informers among the unemployed workers’ movements of the 1920s and 1930s; even their activity among 19th-century Fenians and anarchists remains a closed book. The only possible reason for such continuing secrecy is that any government which reveals how its predecessors spied upon their own populace may also face some embarrassing queries as to what comparable actions it is getting up to itself today.

It is, at first sight, odd that we know a great deal more about the more necessarily secret world of military and foreign intelligence. The reasons for this are actually quite simple. Not only will one’s foreign opponents seek to publicise one’s activities, but the continuing bureaucratic war for scarce resources not infrequently leads intelligence services to boast of their past coups. Moreover, when military intelligence becomes really important – that is, when there is a war on – large numbers of outside ‘amateurs’ have to be recruited into the machine – and in the long term such people leak.

Without doubt, the richness of the Andrew and Dilks collection owes much to such factors. Most of the essays are concerned with the 1900-45 period, and one learns of such fascinating byways as Japanese covert support for Russian socialist revolutionaries against the Tsar, and the intelligence gained by these from such Finnish dissidents as Konni Zilliacus. (Interestingly, Who Was Who reveals that the Labour MP of the same name, whom I take to be the former’s son, began his career as an officer in the British Intelligence Mission to Siberia in 1917-19.) Similarly, one reads of Woodrow Wilson’s laborious and amateur efforts to encode his own messages to Colonel House: his code for the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy was ‘Mars’ and ‘Neptune’. As Andrew drily adds: ‘European codebreakers doubtless found the few hours required to decrypt Wilson’s most secret communications unusually diverting. The great champion of open diplomacy was splendidly unaware of the degree to which he was practising it himself.’

Inevitably, ‘the Cambridge Comintern’ comes in for further treatment, this time in a long autobiographical essay by Robert Cecil. Perhaps the chief novelty is the persistent implication that the writer, academic and MP, Goronwy Rees, may have been active in the Soviet cause over a considerable period of years. If so, it certainly lends a new twist to one’s reading of the vitriolically right-wing pieces Rees (under the pseudonym ‘R’) later contributed to Encounter, especially when one considers that journal’s funding by the CIA. Moles within moles?

Otherwise one’s main conclusion in respect of the Maclean, Burgess, Blunt and Philby cases has to be less about the current television image of privileged young Bolsheviks conspiring to the sound of choirboys in the ancient quad than about the sheer blithering incompetence of the mandarins who let them get away. But one could usually survive one’s blunders in the British Foreign Service if one came from the right class. Thus Sir H. Knatch-bull-Hugessen, our Ambassador in Ankara, not merely survived his laxity in the ‘Cicero’ case, which led to the leak of the D-Day plans to the Germans, but was actually promoted to be Ambassador in Brussels. Similarly, Kim Philby’s career would have come to a summary end in 1945 but for the absurd amateurishness and procrastination of Sir Maurice Peterson, the British Ambassador to Istanbul. If Peterson had acted more quickly or had even addressed his letter to the right man, Philby would never have had time to destroy the Russian defector, Volkov, who was about to shop him. As Cecil adds, with bitter restraint: ‘It is painful to record that in 1946 Peterson was promoted to be Ambassador at Moscow.’ But it was really the same with Burgess and Maclean: in any normal organisation they would have been sacked for their wild and drunken behaviour long before they had done much damage. And Blunt too: Rees had promised not to betray Burgess or Maclean, but when Burgess fled Rees decided to own up and shopped Burgess, Maclean and Blunt. Nonetheless, it took another 12 years for MI5 to accept fully that Blunt was a traitor too.

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[1] H.H. Ransom, ‘Secret Intelligence in the USA, 1947-82’, in Dilks and Andrew.

[2] Sunday Times, 15 April 1984; Guardian, 12 June 1984.

[3] New York Times, 23 October 1983.

[4] New York Times, 21 October 1983.

[5] Washington Post, 7 October 1983.

[6] Kim Philby, My Silent War (1973), pp. 138-146.

[7] J. Bloch and P. Fitzgerald, British Intelligence and Covert Action (Junction Books, 1983). Bloch, a South African, has effectively been sentenced to expulsion from the UK – a curious action given that no charge under the Official Secrets Act has been made against his (British) co-author.

[8] See F. Brodhead and E.S. Herman, ‘The KGB Plot to Assassinate the Pope: A Case Study in Free World Disinformation’, Covert Action Information Bulletin (Washington), No 19, Spring-Summer 1983.

[9] R.W. McGehee, Deadly Deceits. My 25 Years in the CIA (Sheridan Square Publications, New York 1983).