Book review in The Sunday Express

Noth­ing like being paid to read a book — a win-win situ­ation for me. 

Here’s a link to my review in the Sunday Express news­pa­per of a new his­tory of MI6, called “The Art of Betrayal” by Gor­don Corera, the BBC’s Secur­ity Correspondent.

And here’s the article:

REVIEW: THE ART OF BETRAYALLIFE AND DEATH IN THE BRITISH SECRET SERVICE
Fri­day August 19, 2011
By Annie Machon

THE Art of Betrayal: Life and Death in the Brit­ish Secret Ser­vice
Gor­don Corera Weiden­feld & Nich­olson, £20

THE INTRODUCTION to The Art Of Betrayal, Gor­don Corera’s unof­fi­cial post-war his­tory of MI6, raises ques­tions about the mod­ern rel­ev­ance and eth­ical frame­work of our spies. It also provides an anti­dote to recent offi­cial books cel­eb­rat­ing the cen­ten­ar­ies of MI5 and MI6.

Corera, the BBC’s secur­ity cor­res­pond­ent, has enjoyed priv­ileged access to key spy play­ers from the past few dec­ades and, writ­ing in an enga­ging, easy style, he picks up the story of MI6 at the point where the “offi­cial” his­tory grinds to a halt after the Second World War.

Spy geeks will enjoy the swash­buck­ling stor­ies from the Cold War years and he offers an intel­li­gent explor­a­tion of the men­tal­ity of betrayal between the West and the former Soviet Union, focus­ing on the notori­ous Philby, Pen­kovsky and Gordi­evsky cases among many others.

For the more cyn­ical reader, this book presents some prob­lems. Where Corera dis­cusses the aim­less years of MI6 post-Cold War attempts at rein­ven­tion, fol­lowed by the mus­cu­lar, mor­ally ambigu­ous post-9/11 world, he ref­er­ences quotes from former top spies and offi­cial inquir­ies only, all of which need to be read with a healthy degree of skep­ti­cism. To use a mem­or­able quote from the Six­ties Pro­fumo Scan­dal, also men­tioned in the book: “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?”

In Corera’s view, there has always been inher­ent ten­sion in MI6 between the “doers” (who believe that intel­li­gence is there to be acted upon James Bond-style and who want to get their hands dirty with cov­ert oper­a­tions) and the “thinkers” (those who believe, à la George Smi­ley, that know­ledge is power and should be used behind the scenes to inform offi­cial gov­ern­ment policy).

He demon­strates that the “doers” have often been in con­trol and the image of MI6 staffed by gung-ho, James Bond wan­nabes is cer­tainly a ste­reo­type I recog­nise from my years work­ing as an intel­li­gence officer for the sis­ter spy organ­isa­tion, MI5.

The prob­lem, as this book reveals, is that when the action men have the cul­tural ascend­ancy within MI6 events often go badly wrong through estab­lish­ment com­pla­cency, betrayal or mere enthu­si­astic amateurism.

That said, the oppos­ing cul­ture of the “thinkers”, or patient intel­li­gence gather­ers, led in the Six­ties and Sev­en­ties to intro­spec­tion, mole-hunting para­noia and sclerosis.

Wor­ry­ingly, many former officers down the years are quoted as say­ing that they hoped there was a “real” spy organ­isa­tion behind the appar­ently ama­teur out­fit they had joined, a sen­ti­ment shared by most of my intake in the Nineties.

Nor does it appear that les­sons were learned from his­tory: the Oper­a­tion Gla­dio débâcle in Albania and the top­pling of Iran’s first democratically-elected Pres­id­ent Mossadeq in the Fifties could have provided valu­able les­sons for MI6 in its work in Afgh­anistan, Iraq, and Libya over the past two decades.

Corera is remark­ably coy about Libya des­pite the wealth of now publicly-available inform­a­tion about MI6’s med­dling in the Lock­er­bie case, the illegal assas­sin­a­tion plot against Gad­dafiin 1996 and the dirty, MI6-brokered oil deals of the past decade.

Corera pulls together his recur­ring themes in the final chapters, explor­ing the com­prom­ise of intel­li­gence in jus­ti­fy­ing the Iraq war, describ­ing how the “doers” pumped unveri­fied intel­li­gence from unproven agents dir­ectly into the veins of White­hall and Washington.

Many civil ser­vants and middle-ranking spies ques­tioned and doubted but were told to shut up and fol­low orders. The res­ults are all-too tra­gic­ally well known.

Corera does not, how­ever, go far enough.

He appre­ci­ates that the global reach of MI6 main­tains Britain’s place in an exclus­ive club of world powers. At what price, though?

Here is the ques­tion he should per­haps have asked: in light of all the mis­takes, betray­als, liber­ties com­prom­ised, les­sons unlearned and deaths, has MI6 out­lived its usefulness?

Annie Machon is a former MI5 intel­li­gence officer and author.

Ver­dict 4/5

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