Writing about espionage and intelligence can be a tricky business. By their very nature they are secretive and involve deception. Obtaining confidential information often requires lying, illegal or unethical behavior, and the use of people of dubious moral character. Those involved have powerful motives to muddy the waters in which they have swum. Because secrets and how they are used and misused can reflect badly on powerful and important politicians and statesmen, the pressure to bend the truth can be overwhelming. And because so much of the gathering of secret intelligence takes place in a shadowy world, the truth can be hard to discern. The temptation to indulge the public’s appetite for juicy conspiracy theories—not to mention the lure of garnering attention by making hard-to-prove but sensational claims—invites books that titillate but are unreliable. And, since significant portions of even 60- or 80-year-old intelligence files may be only partially available, speculation can often trump knowledge.
One of the protections against misinformation is to rely on written, archival material. Many of the first-person accounts of espionage, penned by spies, by those who tried to expose them, or by those who directed them, contain important and useful information. But without supporting documentation, these accounts can tend toward exaggeration, error, blinkered perspectives, or deliberate attempts to obfuscate. Those writing popular histories of intelligence are sometimes prone to another danger: They eschew the dull, scholarly, and sometimes off-putting apparatus of footnotes and careful evaluation of the sources of information to avoid boring the average reader with caveats, lacunae, or alternative explanations. Even authors with impressive credentials to write about the secret world might produce deeply flawed narratives, faced with these temptations. Colonel John Hughes-Wilson, one of Britain’s leading military historians, unfortunately succumbs to them in his latest book, The Secret State: A History of Intelligence and Espionage.
As befits a military historian, Hughes-Wilson is particularly interested in the acquisition and use of intelligence in warfare. Knowing your enemy’s (or potential enemy’s) hand—his capabilities, plans, and intentions—is a major advantage. What stands in the way of gaining this advantage is faulty intelligence collection, due to any number of causes: inadequately defined intelligence requirements, poorly planned collection efforts, bureaucratic snafus that hinder the collation of information, misinterpreted information, lack of proper channels for dissemination. Hughes-Wilson emphasizes that decision-makers may not get important intelligence crucial for their nations’ safety and security, and that even when they do, there is no guarantee they will use it wisely. Joseph Stalin famously discounted numerous warnings that Adolf Hitler intended to attack the Soviet Union in 1941, believing it was all part of a British plot to drive a wedge between Nazi Germany and the USSR.
Discussion of how this “intelligence cycle” works, and the points at which it can malfunction, is both useful and illuminating, although hardly ground-breaking. Hughes-Wilson covers the various forms of intelligence: HUMINT (spies), SIGINT (signals intelligence), and photographic intelligence. He notes how technological breakthroughs in the last 50 years have revolutionized the world of intelligence-gathering. The ability to scoop up enormous amounts of data has exposed the secrets of not only governments, but private individuals, to hackers and hostile forces. This startling new vulnerability has been married to the capacity of high-speed computers to use algorithms to home in on particular individuals or conversations. The threat it presents to individual privacy is frightening but, again, Hughes-Wilson offers no particular new insights or solutions.
The heart of the book considers a number of spy cases of the past century, and the intelligence triumphs or failures they represented. (As he notes, an intelligence coup for one country is a failure for another.) He briefly recapitulates the motives of several spies, using the traditional framework under which spies are said to be driven by “MICE”: money, ideology, compromise/coercion, or ego.
In short montages, he portrays the Walker family and Aldrich Ames, eager for cash and selling American naval secrets and the identities of American spies in the Soviet Union; the Cambridge Five in Great Britain and Cuban spy Ana Montes, all besotted by faith in communism; British spy John Vassal, forced to betray his country after being filmed in a homosexual tryst in Moscow; and FBI agent Robert Hanssen, convinced of his mental superiority to his colleagues. To anyone with a minimal knowledge of these cases, his summaries are bland and unenlightening, omitting significant details.
Hughes-Wilson makes an addition to the list of motives for espionage—grievance—claiming it to be the most powerful of all. In a scant four pages, he tries to show that Oleg Penkovsky, one of the most significant Soviets to spy for the West, switched sides out of anger at Nikita Khrushchev’s treatment of the Soviet military or resentment about Soviet suspicions of him because of his White Russian background, ignoring or downplaying Penkovsky’s other motives.
Because his discussion of human intelligence omits footnotes, rarely mentions unresolved issues, or even cites secondary sources in a severely truncated bibliography, the author makes a number of unsupported or dubious claims about supposed spies. Without even citing the lone (soundly debunked) book that made the charge, he insists that Benjamin Franklin was a British spy throughout the Revolutionary War. When talking about public figures compromised by scandalous behavior, he claims that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to blackmail President Bill Clinton into releasing Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard by threatening to expose the President’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, without bothering to note the lack of evidence to substantiate this claim. (If in fact the blackmail attempt was made, it also failed.)
Hughes-Wilson is quite willing, too, to traffic in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. According to him, Clinton’s impeachment—which had nothing to do with intelligence or espionage—was blocked by “plentiful Jewish bribes on Capitol Hill and dark threats to expose several well-known Republican Senators who, like the randy Bill Clinton, just couldn’t keep their flies zipped.” In fact, Clinton was impeached but not convicted.
Another dubious story credulously retailed by Hughes-Wilson concerns a very well-placed Soviet spy during World War II, code-named “Werther,” who had access to German operations in Eastern Europe and the USSR. To this day, “Werther” has not been identified. Many years ago, Reinhard Gehlen, a one-time Nazi intelligence chief who transferred his allegiance to the Allies after World War II, speculated that he was actually Martin Bormann, Hitler’s chief aide. Gehlen had no evidence, but Hughes-Wilson finds it intriguing that Bormann never turned up alive “nor [has] his body . . . ever been found.” Except that his body was found in 1972, near where he was last seen in Berlin, and his identity was confirmed by DNA testing in 1998. The bibliography does not list the book that breathlessly presented Gehlen’s musings as fact, nor does the author mention how thoroughly the “Werther”/Bormann claim has been refuted by recent scholarship.
Discussing a 1967 incident concerning the USS Liberty, in which Israeli planes and boats fired on an American ship crammed with listening devices, killing dozens of sailors, Hughes-Wilson offers several theories about the attack, dismissing Israeli explanations that it was a mistake. Several of his charges are simply wrong and libelous—including that it was an attempt to cover up the Israeli Army’s cold-blooded murder of more than 1,000 Egyptian prisoners of war, a massacre that never happened. His animus against Israel is accompanied by a very shaky understanding of Zionism: In discussing the intelligence failures that led to initial Israeli defeats in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he blames a “core belief” in Arab backwardness on the part of “pillars of Radical Socialist Zionism, like Weizman and Jacobinsky.” Presumably he means Vladimir Jabotinsky, who was anything but a radical socialist. Neither Chaim Weizmann nor his nephew Ezer, both of whom served as president of Israel, was a socialist.
While there is a good deal of useful material in The Secret State about the myriad ways in which intelligence has been mishandled in the past, anyone who relies on it for accurate information on intelligence or espionage risks getting an incomplete and occasionally very skewed picture.