Her Majesty's Secret Service: The First 100 Years Timed for the centennial of MI5 and MI6, Gordon Thomas' history of British intelligence teems with double agents, whistle-blowers and moles. Drawn from Thomas' many contacts among spooks and spymasters, Secret Wars is a riveting read.


Book Reviews

Her Majesty's Secret Service: The First 100 Years

Secret Wars: One Hundred Years Of British Intelligence Inside MI5 And MI6
Secret Wars: One Hundred Years Of British Intelligence Inside MI5 And MI6
By Gordon Thomas
Hardcover, 448 pages
Thomas Dunne Books
List Price: $27.95

Read An Excerpt.

Gordon Thomas is the author of more than 50 books. Edith Thomas hide caption

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Edith Thomas

Secret Wars, Gordon Thomas' thoroughly enjoyable if flawed history of British intelligence, makes for fascinating reading. Teeming with glimpses into Her Majesty's Secret Service, the book drops us into enough furtive subterfuge from wood-paneled Whitehall or bombed-out Berlin to make 007's fictional assignments seem pedestrian.

As Thomas shows, real spying for the increasingly impotent island nation has required far more bluff and daring than Bond's work for the geopolitically inflated superpower of Ian Fleming's Britain.

The romance of British espionage began to take modern form in 1909 with the formulation of MI5 and MI6 — respectively, London's domestic and foreign secret services, roughly equivalent to the FBI and CIA. Written in time for this year's centennial birthdays of the two services, Secret Wars rivets with endless details of double agents, whistle-blowers and moles.

Thomas' reconstruction of the 1956 Suez Crisis, in which the British, French and Israeli governments tried unsuccessfully to reclaim the nationalized canal from Egypt, is especially gripping. So, too, is his mysterious chronicle of the peculiar 2003 death of Dr. David Kelly, a whistle-blowing British bioterrorism expert.

Thomas' prolific career as an espionage writer and reporter gives him a nearly inexhaustible pool of spooks and spymasters from which to draw material. Quite often, he explicitly compares the cloak-and-dagger events he chronicles to the fiction of Ian Fleming and John Le Carre and, to Thomas' credit, the comparisons are apt.

In fact, Secret Wars is such a rollicking good read, Thomas can almost be forgiven for his supercilious attitude toward "human rights lawyers" and his somewhat sycophantic approval of any action pursued, legally or not, in the name of British security.

"[Surveillance] is the most effective way to uncover the paymasters of terror and lead to the closure of those places which advocate terrorism," says Sir John Scarlett, the current director-general of MI6. Sir John may be right, but Thomas is uncritical of such an Orwellian tactic, approvingly reporting the mind-boggling statistic that "By 2007 [in Britain], over £500 million had been spent installing 4.2 million cameras, one-fifth of all closed-circuit television cameras in the world." There are obvious dark ramifications to the use of these "unblinking eyes" — on the streets of English cities and towns, a Briton can expect to be caught on tape by his government an average of 300 times every day, according to Thomas — but beyond likening the breadth of Britain's domestic surveillance system to that of China's, Thomas ignores any civil liberty issues.

He also adopts an uncomfortable maliciousness in discussing, for example, contemporary Islamic terrorism, and is markedly condescending in his treatment of the CIA's many latter-day follies — while giving MI6 a pass on its own embarrassing screw-ups.

Still, Thomas' arguments will force readers to reflect on our own convictions about security and freedom. His haughty dismissal of Prime Minister Clement Attlee's 1946 determination that the incoming head of MI5 "must have a lively appreciation of the rights of the citizen" seems petty and unwarranted — until he introduces Percy Sillitoe, Attlee's hapless choice for the position.

Sillitoe, Thomas' narrative bears out, did not serve British citizens well, and we're left to ask ourselves just how feasible Attlee's idealism is in modern times. For every ruthlessly efficient but hawkish John Scarlett in British intelligence, Thomas demonstrates, there's a Percy Sillitoe.

As the book establishes, perhaps in spite of itself, striking this balance — between a dovish "lively appreciation" for rights and 007's brutally efficient "license to kill" — is the challenge that our secretive guardians at the gates will increasingly face.

Excerpt: 'Secret Wars'

Secret Wars: One Hundred Years Of British Intelligence Inside MI5 And MI6
By Gordon Thomas
Hardcover, 448 pages
Thomas Dunne Books
List Price: $27.95

Chapter 8: The Winds of Hate

There had been ample warnings for MI6 officers in Cairo, which they failed to grasp. The Egyptians increasingly resented the physical presence of British troops and their support system of English civil servants and had come to regard their country's own politicians with contempt. Nowhere was that feeling stronger than among the younger generation who had hurled abuse at King Farouk's royal yacht as it took him into exile in Naples, his loot from the national bank stacked in the hold, each box containing twelve gold bars. Yet throughout successive Ramadans and the holy pilgrimages to Mecca, the warnings continued to be ignored by the Secret Intelligence Service commander, John Collins, and his officers as they sipped their sundowners under the electric fans of the Gezira Sporting Club in the fashionable Cairo suburb of Zamalek.

Fourteen years earlier, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery had relaxed in the club while planning how his Eighth Army would drive Erwin Rommel's Afrika Corps out of North Africa. Now, it was a favorite place to gather for not only the spies of MI6 but those from the CIA, NKVD, France's SDECE, and Israel's Mossad.

"The Brits had their own corners near the billiard room, the Americans had colonized a place near the entrance to the restaurant, and the rest their own spots. Walking into the club you got a pretty good idea of the current state of 'the Great Game.' If the Russians had something going, they would be doing some serious drinking. If the French had pulled off something, there was champagne on the table," recalled Wolfgang Lotz, one of the two Mossad agents in the city.

His own cover as the owner of a riding school gave him the perfect reason to visit the club; many of its clients were racehorse owners. His targets were the wealthy Egyptians who sipped the crushed fresh grapes and vodka cocktails. One was the deputy head of Egyptian military intelligence and the chief of security for the Suez Canal zone. He had provided Lotz with his first intelligence success, handing over the complete list of Nazi scientists then living in Cairo who had used concentration camp victims for their wartime experiments. Each was systematically executed by Mossad's assassination squad, the Kidon, sent from Israel and led to their targets by Lotz.

The CIA outnumbered by four to one State Department diplomats in the city. The Soviet embassy's NKVD officers concentrated on Cairo University, seeking students they could recruit by offering them free tuition at Russian universities. The German BND officers chose the coolness of the Egyptian Museum as a favorite place to meet their informers, listening to their latest information as they strolled past the ancient wonders of Egypt. Other foreign spies had their favorite meeting places: on board one of the Nile ferries, in the Zoological Gardens, outside the central bus station, or a sidewalk cafe on the road leading to the City of the Dead, the Muslim cemetery near the old city wall.

"For a spy, Cairo was in every sense a perfect posting. The Egyptians are natural information hoarders. Get a good one in the right position in government and half your work is done," Eli Cohen, another Mossad agent, told the author. Luke Battle, American ambassador to Egypt from 1964 to 1967, was less enthusiastic about the CIA's attitude to its work in the capital. "Too happy-go-lucky, and when things went wrong, its people thought they could sweep it under the carpet," he recalled.

A similar attitude permeated the MI6 station. The end of the Mandate in Palestine in 1948 and the emergence of Israel as a sovereign state had meant the loss of a powerful base for the Secret Intelligence Service. Cairo was the obvious replacement, still enabling it to monitor Soviet activities around the region and ensure the Suez Canal did not fall into Russian hands but remained the vital link between the United Kingdom and the Far East, guaranteeing the flow of oil. As long as Britain controlled the canal, any threat of "a bunch of Muslim hotheads causing a problem", Collins had assured London, was "not a serious matter."

On June 22, 1952, three thousand Egyptian soldiers led by two hundred of their army's finest officers and under the command of General Mohammed Neguib had swept through the city, taking control of the radio station and seizing power in a classic coup. A month before, Collins had sent a telegram to the Foreign Office in London, "The army is loyal to the king." On the day of the coup, the MI5 station did not have one file on Neguib.

Another warning that Collins had ignored was the arrival in Cairo of Kermit Roosevelt. The grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt and the man Kim Philby had called "the quiet American," Roosevelt had been the OSS chief in the Arab regions during World War II. He had been sent to Egypt in the wake of the coup by U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson to effectively start the process that would see the transfer of power in the area from the Old to the New World, from Britain to the United States. Like Allen Dulles, Roosevelt had little liking for the British Empire and the failure of its policymakers in Whitehall to recognize reality: A new political climate had blown in on the desert winds.

Roosevelt had come to Egypt to develop secret channels, already started by the local CIA station chief, James Eichelberger, with the anti-British officers who had taken part in the coup. Eichelberger was a veteran Arabist, speaking the language and understanding the culture. He had money to spend and used it to buy American influence with the officers. His anti-colonialism gained him many friends.

One was the ultra-nationalist, Gamal Abdel Nasser. In his early thirties, with the charismatic oratory of a born rabble-rouser, Nasser had been the strong arm behind Neguib and the perfect choice for Roosevelt to unfold his plan to. The United States would support the new government with as much economic aid as it needed in return for a guarantee that Egypt would have political stability "oriented toward the free world". The United States would replace Britain as Egypt's principle banker, armourer, and defender.

They had met late at night in Farouk's old office. Seated behind the king's desk, Nasser cut an imposing figure in his crisply laundered khaki uniform with his colonel's pips on its epaulettes. He had listened in silence, his coal-black eyes never taking their gaze off Roosevelt's shiny face until he finished speaking. He recalled what followed to the author, "I stood up, walked round the desk and shook Roosevelt's, hand and said his words were the most wonderful I had heard. I said that one day he would have a monument in his honour in Cairo."

Roosevelt arranged for the first tranche of money from the CIA slush fund, which in the end would total $12 million, to be transferred into an account Nasser had designated. Bribery would be a hallmark of Roosevelt's activities in the country, "the quickest and guaranteed way to buy influence," he once said. In turn Nasser kept his promise, later using part of the money to later build the Cairo Tower, an ugly monument on an island in front of the Nile Hilton — Nasser called it el-wa'ef rusfel, Roosevelt's erection.

From Secret Wars by Gordon Thomas. Copyright © 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, LLC.