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

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.

Intelligence-gathering bureaucracies, Thomas also reminds us, are in constant danger of choking on their own paperwork. Yes, in retrospect, there was firm evidence that something on the order of 9/11 was being hatched. But much of that evidence consisted of small, scattered shards in different reports by various agencies that remained unread at the time or, if read, were neither understood nor passed on in a timely manner to others who might have grasped their significance. And each particular fact that was later considered meaningful was drowned out in a din of background noise.

At its best, the evaluation of intelligence should approximate the model of disease and epidemic identification developed by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. The CDC receives daily reports from dozens of corresponding hospitals on admissions, symptoms, diagnoses, procedures and medications, patient outcomes and unexplained anomalies. Most of the information is no more than background noise. With its practised ear, however, the CDC has been able to identify patterns that, to a single reporting hospital, would show up only as unexplained curiosities. HIV/ Aids, Legionnaires’ Disease and Toxic Shock Syndrome, among others, were identified – one might even say, created – in this fashion. The evidence for global climate change has been accumulating in a similar way.

Political, economic and military intelligence, especially in the colonial context, is far messier. Its practitioners are less sure of what they are looking for and, to make matters worse, they are looking at far more than the statistics of illness. Each branch of the intelligence-gathering hydra has its own particular interests, shaped in part by the rivalry for prestige, funds and promotion. The result is not so much outright fabrication as a smoothing over or an ignoring of inconvenient facts, along with the delivery of information that agents imagine will please their superiors. When Bush and Cheney were eager for any shred of evidence that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, they found willing allies in the intelligence agencies to cherry-pick the evidence they needed. That a handful of officials dissented from the rush to please their chiefs was notable; that the vast majority were swept along by the prevailing political tide was business as usual.

Thomas is well aware of the prejudices and narrow interests of those whose conduct he is examining. Their implicit belief in racial hierarchy, their faith in the basic nobility of the colonial mission, and their tendency to assume that popular unrest was either the result of larger causes such as crop failures or economic slumps, or the result of agitation by a handful of Islamists or Communists, meant that they were likely to be blindsided by self-consciously political protest. Again and again they were caught off-guard in gauging the depth of the resentment felt by their Arab subjects or the scale of the protests they were capable of mounting.

Having mastered an enormous mass of disconnected archival detail, Thomas appears to be in danger of being buried in the same blizzard of paperwork as his subjects. Many of his judgments are delivered in language one would expect to find in an intra-mural audit or inquiry: how might new information be gathered? Should the table of organisation be revised? How can information be shared in a timely manner? Who should be in the loop? Because the authors of the memos and reports take for granted the working assumptions of the colonial order, Thomas often ends up unwittingly seeing the world through their eyes. It’s a pity he hasn’t stepped back from the paperwork, opened his lens wider and asked larger questions, though the richness of his account allows one to ask some of them for him.

The most straightforward question is how effective – or ineffective – this vast ‘intelligence state’ actually was. How did it shape local politics? What did it prevent? What did it foresee? The answer is that it was almost entirely ineffective. Given that the colonial order was swimming against a worldwide current of nationalist aspiration and popular democracy, this is hardly surprising. So much of what happened on the ground was the result of circumstances far beyond the control of intelligence agencies: depressions, wars, shortages of essential commodities. Even the bureaucratic environment in which agents operated was subject to rude shocks: budget cuts, policy shifts, a new government in the metropole, a new political or information ‘panic’ in Paris or London. What the intelligence arms of the colonial state achieved, on the evidence provided here, amounted to embroidery around the edges of faits accomplis.

There was one major exception: the Arab Revolt of 1916-17, which Thomas unaccountably skirts. Judging by the thorough account by Polly Mohs in Military Intelligence and the Arab Revolt: The First Modern Intelligence War, the military campaign, cooked up by the Arab Bureau in Cairo and led in part by T.E. Lawrence, was able to defeat the Ottoman Turks and take Aqaba only by virtue of signals and image intelligence.* Once the enemy’s codes had been cracked, their movements on the ground could be photographed and tracked by seaplanes based on the Red Sea coast and relayed by wireless telegraphy to Lawrence and his Arab allies. The Ottoman forces, according to Mohs, didn’t stand a chance. Lawrence’s Anglo-Arab columns knew in advance exactly where they could intercept their enemies as well as having complete control of the airspace over the battlefield. Here, at least, intelligence made all the difference.

One searches Thomas’s pages in vain for the broader judgments that his command of the sources should permit. Instead, he offers us the concept of the ‘intelligence state’ or the ‘information order’, ‘a combination of intelligence provision, threat assessment and state efforts to control social communication in colonial society’ whose purpose was ‘to close or at least narrow the gaps between the ruling power and all strata of indigenous society’. Apart from the fact that the ‘intelligence states’ in question manifestly failed to narrow the gap between the colonists and their subjects, it’s hard to see what the term adds to our understanding of colonial intelligence work. All colonial states are, in this broad sense, ‘intelligence states’. In fact, given the distance between the rulers and ruled in the French and British metropoles in the 1920s and 1930s, the effort to infiltrate and control domestic left-wing working-class movements and their leadership, and the new technologies of identification and surveillance, Thomas’s ‘intelligence state’ could just as well describe the domestic governments of France and Britain. Indeed, domestic security and colonial order went hand in hand, even if they were separate jurisdictionally: the French police’s surveillance and repression of migrant workers and soldiers from the Maghreb, for example, were intended to prevent them from being ‘infected’ by leftists and revolutionaries in France and, in turn, infecting ‘natives’ back home. Nor was it uncommon for personnel to move back and forth between domestic and colonial intelligence work.

These much proclaimed but largely artificial boundaries raise the question of the long-term relationship between colonial administration and metropolitan governance. The colonies, beginning with Ireland, could be viewed as a vast experimental terrain where all kinds of unproven techniques and procedures could be tested. As guinea pigs, colonial subjects were ideal. They could be mobilised for experiments against their will; if the experiment went badly for them they had no representative institutions through which to cry foul. Laboratory trials were possible here that would never have been countenanced by citizens at home.

The first systematic inventory of population, livestock, crops and landholdings was conducted by Cromwell’s adviser William Petty after the conquest of Ireland, the better to plunder the country’s natural resources and divide the spoils among the conquerors. Cadastral surveys were instituted as a normal administrative routine by the British in India long before they came to Britain itself, where they threatened the monopoly on information enjoyed by local solicitors. And experimentation in police work was conducted in Ireland and India, where colonial subjects had no legal recourse. It was in the colonies, too, that identity cards were first designed and issued – by fiat, naturally. Fingerprinting was first used in Bengal, to ensure that only certified pensioners were collecting their monthly stipend, and collecting it only once. If these field trials were successful, as in the case of fingerprinting, the technique could be repackaged and exported back to the metropole. If it failed, no matter: the damage to the colonial guinea pigs, their property and their livelihoods could be safely brushed aside. Most of the experiments in public health such as new vaccines were first administered in the colonies – a practice that continues today in the developing world. The riskier the experiment, the greater the likelihood it would be tried first on colonial peoples.

The term ‘colonial subject’ in this context ought to be expanded to include the indigenous and subject populations of white settler colonies such as the United States, Australia and Argentina. The infamous ‘Tuskegee 8’ experiments – conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the US Public Health Service on black sharecroppers with tertiary syphilis who were promised free treatment but, in fact, were allowed to languish so that autopsies could take place on their death – would never have been performed on fully enfranchised whites. The abduction in the US and Australia of the sons and daughters of native peoples so they could be sent to boarding schools designed to ‘civilise’ them would never have been performed on even the poorest white populations in either country. The freedom to use others as guinea pigs is therefore extended to peoples judged to be inferior and powerless whether or not they are, in a formal sense, colonial subjects.

The Middle East was no less an experimental laboratory for the control of populations than Ireland and India. The most significant series of experiments conducted in the period Thomas covers was in the field of aerial photography and bombardment: experiments which would come to fruition in the bombing of civilian populations in Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo during World War Two. The Germans, having developed comparable techniques of aerial reconnaissance and terror-bombing in their own African colonies, used them with devastating effect at Guernica. In each case, the technology had been tried and perfected in the colonies.

Thomas is not unaware of these experiments. The dust cover of Empires of Intelligence reproduces an aerial photograph of a burning Iraqi village, bombed in November 1924 to terrorise a rebellious sheikh and his people into submission. They capitulated immediately. Did the new techniques of aerial photography, combined with airborne bombs and machine-guns, offer a more cost-effective way of subduing rebellious populations than traditional methods? In what circumstances were they most useful? These were the issues that needed to be settled. In Mandate Iraq, Thomas notes, ‘coercive bombardment of recalcitrant tribes, disaffected communities and even urban strikers … remained the most salient feature of imperial policing.’ The RAF regarded Iraq as a ‘splendid training ground’ and argued that only the use of air power could ‘keep the peace’. They proved the point in bombing rebellious Shia villages during the 1920 uprising. Aerial bombing raids were judged more effective than punitive ground expeditions not simply because they were faster, cheaper and less dangerous to the attackers, but because of their ‘moral effect’ – their capacity to instil terror, or ‘shock and awe’.

Thomas gives an astute account of the debate over air power. In order for aerial bombing to be effective, the pilots had to know precisely what to bomb. Aerial reconnaissance and photography were crucial but insufficient. They could identify road blocks, rebel movements, downed bridges and sabotaged rail lines, but they were of limited value without the local knowledge supplied by intelligence officers on the ground. Until the modern bombsight was developed even low-level bombing was a very blunt instrument indeed in crowded areas.

Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate All the Brutes: One Man’s Odyssey to the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide (1996) and A History of Bombing (2001), both say far more about the ‘intelligence state’ than Thomas can through his narrow focus on the archives. Beginning with an Italian aviator dropping a hand grenade from a light plane over Tripoli, Lindqvist shows that almost all the torments Europeans inflicted on one another were first tested and refined in the colonies and on people whose rights and sufferings were not considered to have risen to the level of white Europeans.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 30 No. 21 · 6 November 2008

‘The first systematic inventory of population, livestock, crops and landholdings’ in the British Isles was carried out not by Cromwell’s agents in Ireland, as James Scott has it, but by those of King William I in England in 1069 (LRB, 9 October). The details of this survey are recorded in the Domesday Book.

J.A. Bosworth
Cugy, Switzerland

James Scott is right to conclude that the torments inflicted by Europeans on one another were first tested in the colonies, or in the US as a consequence of the colonial encounter. But there is more to this than Scott suggests. Much of the more mundane, everyday coercion we experience as ‘being managed’ has the same colonial origins. The elements of Fordism (division of labour, rules, measurement etc) were first set out in antebellum guides to the ‘management’ of slaves, and implemented by their 38,000 salaried managers (as counted in the 1860 US Census). And those still tempted, post-meltdown, to accept Boltanski and Chiapello’s notion, cited by Hal Foster in the same issue, that the contemporary worker is a creative, autonomous individual, might remember that the other side of surveillance and coercion is co-optation. Today’s managerialist notions of co-optational ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’ have their roots in practices designed to enable the early 20th-century mode of colonial administration called Indirect Rule, whereby limited amounts of autonomy were granted to co-opt otherwise resistant populations. This autonomy was always controlled and delimited; and ‘sovereign power’ was always ‘reserved’.

Bill Cooke
Lancaster University

Vol. 30 No. 22 · 20 November 2008

A little correction in turn for J.A. Bosworth (Letters, 6 November). The Domesday survey dates not from 1069 but from 1085/86.

Tony Scull
Ilkley, West Yorkshire

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences