“ It is wiser to find out than to suppose....”
100 years of a spy-empire...
When Sir Winston Churchill resigned from the office of the Prime Minister of Great Britain, in 1955, he was quoted as saying “I will not preside over the dismembering” of what was previously The British Empire. But as the Empire shrank quickly to the size of the United Kingdom, the “Spy-Empire” of MI5 and Mi6, founded in 1909, never receded but expanded world-wide and turned high-tech.
On the eve of its 100th Anniversary, one of the best and most popular British writers, specializing in intelligence, pays a tribute to many generations of British spies and their spy-masters, who have influenced the history of Great Britain and of the world.
His book,“Secret Wars. One Hundred Years of British Intelligence Inside MI5 and MI6” (St.Martin’s Press, March 2009), is a fascinating read for everybody, and for intelligence operatives and young secret service recruits, in particular it should be a must. This book is not a history text or a mere chronicle of events, and it’s not a panegyric either. “The great advantage of being a writer” – Graham Greene once said – “is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listening to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is useful to a writer, you see – every scrap, even the longest and most boring of luncheon parties.” For a greater part of his 75-year-long life, Gordon Thomas was doing just that: meeting spies and spy-masters, not only British but also American, Israeli, Russian, Chinese, Polish, German and many others and listening to their insider’s stories. The best and undisputable value of his book is the author’s encounters with real flesh and blood intelligence people, including some of them that turned the tide of history.
The research for this book took the author almost 50 years, since the Suez Crisis in 1956, which he had witnessed as a foreign correspondent based in Egypt. From his contacts there he learned about President Naser’s plan to nationalize the Canal and he warned the Foreign Office about that – only to be told that if he missed the truth he better forget about his journalist career. He was right. But it was the British Government to fail in their insane plans to assassinate Naser (described in the book) and then to abort a British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt, secretly conceived not to inform the Americans. Later on Gordon Thomas covered many other events, which had been planned, provoked or carried out with the participation of secret intelligence services. He was introduced to the world of spying by his late father-in-law and life-time friend, a former British covert agent, Joachim Kraner, to whom he later paid a tribute in his writings.
“Secret Wars” is a story of the British Intelligence over the span of a hundred years, since 1909, when MI5 and MI6 (code-names for the military counter-intelligence and intelligence) were founded to prevent an expected German attack on Great Britain. The over-400 page book is not a systematic, chronologically arranged tale. Each of its 20 chapters is a purposeful mixture of past and present events, sometimes with projections into future. For a reader, this book is a fascinating, perfectly composed thriller, which The New York Times described as “Literally impossible to put down.”
Mark Twain was quoted as saying: “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” He had writing fiction on his mind but his words could just as well be attributed to the distortion of intelligence by politicians. James Angleton, a famous CIA spy-master and spy-catcher, whom Gordon Thomas had interviewed, summarized this unhealthy relationship between intelligence and politics by these words, quoted in the book: “Secrecy from public scrutiny leads to often uncheckable and different accounts of the same events, which are often contradictory and distorted.” Thomas’ book gives innumerable examples of such misuse of the honest fact-finding by intelligence services, of which a recent one could be a “sexed-up” report about alleged Saddam’s WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) that Prime Minister Blair and President Bush used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The Great Game often recalled in “Secret Wars” as the never-ending deception war waged by national intelligence agencies was played over the last hundred years by MI5 and MI6 continues. “The color of truth is gray” (Andre Gide), because truth is evasive and often hidden from the public by purposeful cover-up. Generations of British spies, as well as their controllers and masters, contributed to the security of their country, at times preventing national disasters and saving many thousand of lives during wars. But the British (and also American) intelligence services have been, for decades, deeply penetrated and harmed by Soviet “moles,” recruited at the best universities, such as Cambridge and Oxford. Gordon Thomas writes about treason within the British services and about a complete failure of the counter-intelligence to detect it. The cases of Kim Philby (a high-ranking British counter-intelligence officer and a long-time Soviet spy) and of nuclear scientists, Klaus Fuchs, Alan Nunn May and Bruno Pontecorvo, who passed top atomic weapons secrets of the West to the Soviets, are perhaps the most significant. The author describes these treason cases with passion and talent and warns that “splendid isolation” of some British heads of The Services and their failure to put together and check simple facts, led to a disaster inside MI5 and MI6 and to a long-term lack of confidence between the British and American intelligence.
As the motivation of the Communist spies inside MI5 and MI6 was mainly ideological, the CIA and FBI suffered even bigger losses due to simple “commercial” motivations of their own traitors, like Ames and Hansen. Greed for money was their only reason to betray the services and the country. Aldrich “Rick” Ames destroyed the American spy network in the Soviet Union in the 1980s and caused the deaths of many Russian CIA agents for a reward of some $ 2.7 million from the KGB. Caught, he admitted with sarcastic grin that “The human spy, in terms of the American espionage effort, had never been terribly pertinent.”
Yet the British SIS (MI6) could also score big success with their top spy in the Soviet Russia, Oleg Gordievski, who’s brave exfiltration from USSR by a diplomatic car to Finland in 1985 had proven the efficiency of the British intelligence. A former MI6 covert agent, Richard Tomlinson, told the author, referring to SIS chief Collin McColl who worked in Russia and Poland: “Being in SovBlock meant you lived on the tightrope every moment of every day. Someone who could do that had to be very special.”
With the collapse of the Soviet Block in the early 1990s, the very nature of the Great Game has changed. The exceptionally high value of Gordon Thomas’ book is his factual description and professional assessment of the substantial changes in the intelligence community, caused by new political and military situation of the world at large.
The times of the absolute domination of the two super-powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, have passed forever. For some years, in the 1990s, the U.S. leadership naively believed America could become the only world’s super-power to dictate its policy and to promote the democratic values of the West to the rest of the globe. But soon new threats appeared and the United States (and also Britain as their main ally) realized that the world was too complicated to rule and that the peaceful victory in the Cold War was but a temporary success.
“Secret Wars” is a perfect book to prove that. Once again, Gordon Thomas demonstrated his unique talent in grasping of new trends in the Great Game and in the intelligence community. For no one knows how long a time, the world will be a very dangerous place, with many global and regional centers of power, and with growing problems. Terrorism, which was seen by MI5 and MI6 as mainly a local (IRA) problem or as an offspring of the Communist diversion, had developed into a global monster (al-Qaeda) and its main ideological motivation had become radical Islam, or Islamism.
The negligence of this phenomenon by American and British intelligence agencies led to their ineptitude to prevent 9/11 in America in 2001, and the London bombings of 2005. In spite of many efforts to disrupt al-Qaeda, to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, the Islamist radical network is still developing and posing a deadly threat to the West and to Asia and Africa. Two extremely dangerous developments added to the threat of international terrorism: bio-terrorism and nuclear-terrorism. Both have been described in “Secret Wars” with utmost accuracy and a powerful vision. The arsenals of bio-weapons, deadly viruses and bacteria, originally developed in the Soviet Union and also in the West, penetrated to rogue countries, from where they might be distributed to non-state terrorist organizations. On the other hand, nuclear materials and even weapons could be bought up on black markets by envoys of al-Qaeda to be used against the “Infidels” and were also offered by a Pakistani Dr. A.Q.Khan “commercial” network. Dr. Khan described himself as “world’s nuclear bomb peacemaker.” Nuclear scare embraced America and Britain following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil (2001) and the suicide bombings in London (2005). The author pays much attention to these tragic events and to the inability of the powerful secret services to predict and prevent them.
“There’s a new world out there. Adjust or die,” Gordon Thomas quotes former chief of the CIA, Bob Gates. But fortunately for the Western intelligence, people from the “other side” decide to “walk-in” and offer their help. One of these people was (the late) Vladimir Pasechnik from Russia, who contacted the British service to report about his KGB enterprise Biopreparat developing mass-killing toxins, viruses and bacteria. Asked why he did that, he replied: “I want the West to know. There must be a way to stop this madness.” Dr. David Kelly (also late by now), a top British microbiology and bio-weapons expert, told the author after his interrogation of Pasechnik: “The really terrifying thing was that I knew Vladimir was telling the truth.”
Thomas dedicated more than one chapter of his book to the tragic plight of Dr. Kelly, whose more than 30 trips to Iraq in search of bio-weapons ended by a conclusion that there weren’t any. In spite of that, a “sexed-up” intelligence report to the British PM had been used as an excuse for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In the same year, Dr. Kelly, disgraced and left alone by MI6 and MI5, died, or rather was murdered in strange circumstances. Before his death, a number of bacteriologists from several countries, including Britain, Russia and the U.S.A., were killed by unknown perpetrators, allegedly for refusing to share their knowledge with North Korean, Iranian and probably Chinese intelligence.
New threats and at the same challenges to the intelligence services of Britain and the West, described in detail by Gordon Thomas in “Secret Wars”, could be summed up as: international terrorism, rogue regimes (North Korea, Iran in particular) and a technological diversion, including professional cyber-attacks, led and developed by some states (Russia and China) and even by members of the Western alliance (Israel). It started in early 1980s with the theft of a powerful tracking software system, PROMIS, invented by a former NSA expert William L. Hamilton and produced by his small Washington D.C.-based company Inslaw Inc. Of PROMIS a former Mossad operative, Ari Ben Menashe, quoted by the author, said: “PROMIS changed the thinking of the entire intelligence world.” And Charles Foster Bass added: “Like any good spy novel, the Cox Report alleges that Chinese spies penetrated four U.S. weapons research labs and stole important information on seven nuclear warhead designs.” Only an American citizen and Israel’s spy, Jonathan Pollard (still in American top security prison) could do more. Pollard transmitted over 360 cubic feet of U.S. secret documents to Tel Aviv and some were also sold to Russia. A former CIA chief, the late William Casey complained about that to the author: “It was a double blow. It had cost us every worthwhile secret we had. And it had been stolen by a country supposed to be our ally.”
But God perhaps rewarded the West and MI6 with a voluntary service of a high-ranking Iranian intelligence general, Ali Reza Asgari from VEVAK, code-named “Falcon”, who informed the British intelligence about the nuclear program of Iran and was successfully exfiltrated via Turkey and Bulgaria to the U.K. His motivations were personal and perhaps also monetary, but his services were of top importance to the West.
The spying Great Game goes on undisturbed by moments of failure and agony. The British services, closely cooperating with the American ones, own a big share of the most sophisticated spying technology, including satellite surveillance systems, ECHELON eavesdropping network and the fastest computers in the world. A former CIA chief, William Colby, quoted by the author on the NSA computers, said: “makes lightening look slow. One time there was a program that could translate seven languages at five hundred words per minute. Next time I checked, a month later, it had doubled its capacity and halved its translation time.” The various spying technologies like ELINT, SIGINT, IMINT and missile trajectory tracking systems are well described in the book. But all these marvelous inventions are still short of tracking Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Pakistan or Afghanistan and to follow, like PROMIS, the passage of money to terrorists by an ancient Muslim “hawala” human contact network, based on full confidence of the sender, the receiver and the “hawaladar”, the money handler.
As Mark Twain once remarked, “It is wiser to find out than to suppose.” This phrase might be the best description of what the intelligence services always did and do. Their mission is to discover and transmit secret information to help the governments in their decision making. Michael Smith, a defense analyst, quoted by Gordon Thomas in his Personal Notes closing the book, had captured the inner sense of proper spying: “Intelligence will need to be untainted and unlike the notorious (sexed-up) dossier on Iraq, both genuine and accurate.”
“For decades to come the spy world will continue to be the collective couch where the subconscious of each nation is confessed” (John LeCarre).
Gordon Thomas is well placed on this “couch” to observe what the services do and how Britain and the world benefit or lose from their work. The Great Game will never end and “Secret Wars” is a great book to read and learn of the 100 years of MI5 and MI6 and much more.