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There are some books that Kindle just doesn’t do justice to. Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew is one such tome. On a Kindle it becomes just another electronic file. But its size—over a thousand pages, and packed with more than 4,000 source notes and references to over 500 other books, size tells you this was no ordinary undertaking.
Defend the Realm, a decade-long project for Andrew, a Cambridge professor and the person widely recognized as England’s leading historian of intelligence, is an authorized history. Andrew received unprecedented access to MI5’s files. Intelligence agencies don’t usually open their doors to independent historians. Nor does MI5’s director write many introductions for books, as he does here.
But “authorized” doesn’t necessarily mean whitewash. While the book is not intended as a hard critique, there are plenty of fresh details about celebrated events, behind the scenes tidbits about successes and foibles, and dish about infamous people. Even the 32 pages of photographs, many from MI5’s archives, have never before been published. Defend the Realm (from MI5’s Latin motto, “ regnum defende”), traces MI5’s growth from a staff of two in 1909 to today’s 3,000-plus agents and employees. It’s crack for history and spy agency addicts.
One of the best parts is proving once again the old adage “those who do not remember past mistakes are doomed to repeat them.” This was especially true when it came to a series of British intelligence failures in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. MI5 and the chief spooks operated as if they had no sense of the history of Irish troubles and made remarkable errors in failing to coordinate policies between the police, the military, and the intelligence agencies. The resulting chaos cost lives and extended the IRA’s reign of terror. The often bitter internecine competition between MI5 and other British intelligence departments over the IRA terror campaign is reminiscent of the crippling FBI-CIA rivalry over Islamic terrorism that led to the two American agencies repeatedly crossing wires in the lead up to 9/11. MI5’s files reveal how brilliantly the agency fought Hitler by capturing most of the Nazi spies in Britain and turning 25 of them into double agents. But it struggled against Cold War Soviet espionage and failed miserably early on to grasp the threat posed by Islamic extremism.
Its terror fighting efforts since the September 11 attacks have been mixed. While it failed to stop the July 7, 2005, transit bombings that left 52 dead, it has also had a string of successes, including exposing/stopping the plan to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners using liquid explosives (yes, air travelers, you have MI5 to blame for having to put all your liquids into 3 ounce containers every time you pass through airport security).
Even people with casual interest in the intelligence trade will likely find it surprising that MI5’s hierarchy believes the threat from Islamic terrorism has stopped growing. However, before you completely relax or protest, the British spooks still think that “for the foreseeable future,” al Qaeda will remain committed to pulling off a major attack with nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. "It is not a question of if, it is a question of when such weapons will be used," writes Andrews.
I’d be shocked if there wasn’t likely a heavily padlocked closet of dirty laundry—covering intelligence failures to failed plots—that will likely never see the light of day. Still, his book is as juicy as an official spy history can be.
For Andrews, his favorite personal discovery among the 400,000 MI5 files through which he plumbed was that on the eve of World War II, the agency was desperate to warn Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain about the Nazi threat. MI5 had concluded that Hitler planned a “massive program of territorial expansion,” but feared that the pacifist-leaning Chamberlain might ignore their report. So, the agents included a few examples of how Hitler regularly insulted Chamberlain in private, underlining three references where the Fuhrer dismissed the British prime minister as an “asshole.” Hitler also mocked Chamberlain’s trademark umbrella, saying it made him look feeble and weak. The insults so got under Chamberlain’s skin that he paid great attention to the report and it helped stop the British wavering about Nazi aggression.
Among other tidbits, Andrew convincingly debunks longstanding stories that MI5 so disliked Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the 1970s that it had mounted a smear campaign in an effort to destabilize his administration. And he does a good job of absolving the security service and the London police from framing and driving to suicide one of the key characters in Britain’s famous 1960s spy scandal in which John Profumo, secretary of state for war, was forced to resign over a torrid affair with a prostitute, Christine Keeler. When it was discovered that Keeler was also having an affair with a Soviet agent based in Moscow’s British embassy, all hell broke loose. The conspiracy theories have long centered around the death of Stephen Ward, who Andrew describes as “a sexually eccentric society osteopath and portrait painter who introduced Profumo to the 19-year-old Keeler at a party….” After finishing Andrew’s account, Ward seems only a sorry character who took an overdose of pills while he was under investigation for earning a living from prostitutes like Keeler.
Of course, Defend the Realm is ultimately an authorized work, and no matter how knowledgeable Andrew is about his subject, he was ultimately restricted to review what the security service would release and not everything he wanted to see. I’d be shocked if there wasn’t likely a heavily padlocked closet of dirty laundry—covering intelligence failures to failed plots—that will likely never see the light of day. Still, his book is as juicy as an official spy history can be. It puts the reader inside one of the planet’s most effective intelligence agencies. You just need to remind yourself every hundred pages or so that this is the history MI5 wants us to know. One day, we might get a thousand-page book on the history they don’t want revealed. That would be the perfect complement to it for your MI5 library.
Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's chief investigative reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. His latest book, Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth and Power—A Dispatch from the Beach, was published in October. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.