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Journal of No. 118


June 13th, 2013

The Secret History of MI6: 1909-1949, by Keith Jeffery @ 05:11 pm

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This dense and hefty tome has been slowing down my reviews (I know you're all broken-hearted). But at long last, I made it to the end. It was something of a marathon, only occasionally enlivened by truly fascinating details. Probably the most interesting thing is to see how the greatest danger to SIS/MI6 was not SMERSH or the Abwehr, but HM Government. Much of the drama in the book relates to internal turf battles between the service, the military, the Foreign Office, MI5, and the Special Branch of Scotland Yard. Woooo! Bureaucracy! That's what we came for, not some lousy old James Bond shenanigans! Okay, there's a little Bond shenanigans, as when an agent was indeed infiltrated into a beach party in a special wetsuit to cover his evening clothes. But unfortunately, the truth is that the everyday operations tend toward the ultramundane, and boy is it served up with a lot of detail.

But some of the bureaucratic business is interesting as well. Early on, one way to get a little extra cash for operations was for the secret service agents to also run Passport Control offices at embassies in foreign countries. It provided cover, and although the Passport Control Officer had to actually work the passport job, the government provided funds that could also be used for the clandestine activities. Ultimately, and hilariously, it became something of an open secret that British PCOs were all spies. Later, this turned out to be somewhat helpful. MI6 used the PCO to make contacts with the secret service of the (friendly) host country for liaison and coordination efforts; meanwhile the secret secret service peeps would carry out their own operations in the country.

The book was also kind of interesting from a professional standpoint: an independent entity offering research reports to its clients, struggling to satisfy their information requirements. Looking at it in those terms (as the service's leaders had to) was curiously familiar.

And it's hard not to appreciate the history, when it involves both World Wars, the first coming during the service's infancy, and the second helping to transform it into a modern intelligence agency. Unfortunately, the alternative to the bureaucracy and the tedium was not James Bond shenanigans. Too often it was "We infiltrated 3 agents with wireless devices into Germany from Switzerland. Although they were all captured and shot, one of them transmitted valuable messages about German military railway schedules for three months before that happened. War Office very satisfied with results. Send more agents."
 
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Journal of No. 118