Try It on the Natives

James C. Scott

  • Empires of Intelligence: Security Services and Colonial Disorder after 1914 by Martin Thomas
    California, 428 pp, £29.95, October 2007, ISBN 978 0 520 25117 5

At the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, the American Communist Party was a pale shadow of what it had been two decades earlier. Thanks to the FBI, the McCarthy hearings in the Senate and the Un-American Activities Committee in the House of Representatives, blacklists, firings and generalised fear, the Party’s ranks had been radically thinned. And still it lived. That it survived was in no small measure due to the membership of FBI informers who, creatures of bureaucratic routine, continued to attend Party meetings and pay their dues: it was, after all, their job. Without the FBI’s backing the Party might have vanished altogether.

Institutions whose explicit mission is to eliminate an identifiable adversary develop a vested interest in breathing life into their antagonists. The police thrive on crime waves. J. Edgar Hoover’s list of the ‘Ten Most Wanted Fugitives’ was always filled; it was a public relations stunt that all but guaranteed that his budget requests would be met. When firemen laid off in Boston were found setting fire to vacant warehouses, the same mechanism was at play: they were creating a demand for their services. And those whose job it is to eliminate poverty or to civilise barbarians never seem to run short of poor people or savages.

Similarly, the French and British intelligence services in the Middle East and North Africa that are the subject of Martin Thomas’s immensely informed, meticulous and close-grained study not only had an interest in finding activities – unrest, subversion, proto-nationalism – which they then might surveil and suppress: they sought out precisely those activities that best suited their skills. Organised conspiracies and opposition groups with identifiable leaders could be followed, ‘turned’, intimidated, arrested, exiled and, if necessary, assassinated. The notion that someone, somewhere, was always pulling the strings and could be neutralised was the premise that best suited what their bureaucratic training had equipped them to do.

What they were not prepared to confront, however, were the often diffuse, acephalous, not to say anarchic stirrings in the streets. Popular uprisings posed three problems. First, short of arresting hundreds of people indiscriminately, which they were loath to do, there was no effective action they could envisage taking to prevent popular protest. The only appropriate response, often, would have been a shift in colonial policy. But this option was out of their hands and, in any event, would not have had the effect of increasing their budgets and personnel – something they were constantly striving for. Facing up to widespread unrest would also have forced them to recognise that the colonial enterprise was deeply unpopular and morally bankrupt. While colonial officials, as Thomas points out, were under no illusion that they were loved by their colonial subjects, they did believe that so long as they maintained order and promoted commerce, they would be tolerated, if not respected. Those whose responsibility it was to monitor the Arab and Berber populations continued to believe that if a few agitators, ideologues and foreign agents could be isolated, the tumult would subside. This naive faith in their own good intentions persisted right up to the eve of World War Two, and was reinforced by the Popular Front government of Léon Blum and its near twin, ‘welfare colonialism’, in the British colonies. ‘It’s so simple,’ Orwell said of late colonial Burma. ‘The official holds the Burman down while the businessman goes through his pockets.’

Thomas has thoroughly plundered the French and British archives, revealing the Byzantine squabbles between the branches of the intelligence agencies in, say, Mandate Palestine or the Maghreb; and he analyses in forensic detail quarrels between those on the ground in Cairo or Algiers and the military brass, the police and the local civil bureaucracy, not to mention the ministries at home. The lists of reports, minutes, rebuttals, proposals and complaints in Empires of Intelligence can seem endless, but it’s good to be reminded that intelligence agencies are, above all, report-writing factories staffed by clever and imaginative clerks.

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[*] Routledge, 238 pp., £70, October 2007, 978 0 415 37280 0.