Book Review: Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5

In 2002, the British government agency, Military Intelligence, Section 5, also known as the Security Service, or simply MI5, advertised for a part-time historian to write an official history of the Service, in time for its 100-year anniversary in 2009. The paperback edition, released December, 2010, included some small corrections and improved details, particularly on more recent terrorist activity, which previously, for security reasons, could not be published.

It’s a far cry from just a few decades ago where Service staff often could tell no one where exactly they worked, and even the appointment of the Director General was not publicly announced. In order to complete this monumental task, Christopher Andrew, a leading authority on the history of intelligence had access to tremendous amounts of declassified along with still confidential records. No doubt there were occasional clashes between the desire to detail a complete history and the need to avoid compromising national security.

The story of British intelligence dates to the first decade of the 20th century, precipitated by several years of increasing public hysteria and popular novels about “the Kaiser’s spies” operating in England. It all culminated in October, 1909 with an army captain named Vernon Kell and a navy commander named Mansfield Cumming running a two-man operation, trying to build an intelligence organization from the ground up. It wasn’t long before the two men parted ways to head their own organizations. Kell was first Director General MI5, whose province would be espionage and subversion within the Commonwealth, while Cumming was first Chief of MI6, responsible for collecting intelligence about foreign powers outside British soil.

This hefty history seems both thorough and objective. Broken into sections on “The German Threat”, “Between the Wars”, “The Second World War”, “The Early Cold War”, “The Later Cold War”, and “After the Cold War”, the individual chapters nevertheless cover much of the same period from different perspectives. For example, one chapter in the section of “The Early Cold War” covers some specific decrypted Soviet communications that would eventually lead to the uncovering of the famous “Cambridge Five”, enormously successful Soviet spies who had penetrated British intelligence.

Then another chapter is all about the lesser-known but simultaneous period in history of the early negotiations for the state of Israel. The major security threat of that unstable time was Zionist terrorism. (Andrew also tells us that the extremist Jewish Nationalist groups of this time were the very last in history to self-describe as terrorists for their cause.)

It’s interesting to see how priorities have changed throughout the history of the Security Service. Though originally conceived of as defending British Commonwealth from agents of foreign powers inside its borders — essentially spies, saboteurs, and a potential fifth column in case of war – MI5’s authority over all state enemies within the realm also put it front and centre in all instances of domestic terrorism as well.

The significance of this became clear during the Troubles of Northern Ireland, starting in the late 1960s. Actions by the Irish Republican Army originally catalyzed the creation of Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police almost a century earlier (previous to the existence of any military intelligence service), but the Security Service took a leading role when violence re-erupted in the later 20th century. In more recent decades, Muslim terrorist groups have been a major concern to both intelligence officials and the general public in the West, and this, too, has fallen firmly within MI5’s operational scope.

By far the biggest focuses of the Service throughout its history are the enormously successful “Double-Cross System” used to mislead the Germans by false information in the Second World War, and the 40-plus years of espionage and counter-espionage against the Soviet Union, including the uncovering of the “Cambridge Five” and the famous “Atom Spies” who passed on the secret of the bomb. But as noted, it’s interesting to see that even while lesser-known threats are in the background as far as the public is concerned, the Service still has a smaller team quietly collecting information. During WWII, only a small amount of energy was devoted to Soviet intelligence (not enough, it later turned out), but analyzing what intelligence was collected became a priority during the Cold War. Similarly, glimmerings of Muslim terrorism are foreshadowed in the latter years of the Cold War, though they were not considered a priority at the time.

This is not a weekend read. Andrew could probably take some of the highlights and cut this 1000-page behemoth into something much more digestible, but if he did, it wouldn’t be a history anymore. Objective, fact-based (with an endnote for nearly every sentence to prove it), and detailed, Defend the Realm really packs it in. The density of information is high, the amount of filler is essentially nil, and the type is quite small.

Andrew also does not speculate as the writer of a general audience work might. He’s a professional historian and this is a professional piece of historical scholarship. I’ve been reading this book on and off for six months, and some casual readers might have given up before then. It’s not narrative and we know only what definitely happened; he does not tell us about the emotional states of the principal players or speculate on the dramatic tension at some of the events.

On the other hand, the material sometimes speaks for itself. This is the real-life story of war, foreign spies, secret political meetings, terrorists, and narrowly-evaded disasters of all kinds. For hard-core history/military/intelligence buffs, this is a goldmine of carefully collected and organized material. The shadowy realm of military intelligence is a rarely thought about but inescapable part of our modern world.

(Vintage Books, 2010)

Article first published as Book Review: Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew on Blogcritics.

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