Review: Inside British Intelligence: 100 Years of MI5 and MI6

The book MI5 tried to stop you reading is meticulously researched and as page-turning as any thriller.

Inside British Intelligence: 100 Years of MI5 and MI6 – Gordon Thomas

JR Books – May 12th 2009

Review by Marcus Dubois

Nigella Lawson turned down MI5. The self-proclaimed Domestic Goddess may be known for baking, yet whilst studying at Oxford in the early Eighties spooks targeted her for recruitment. And the key factor which influenced her turning down the offer? The advice of her father Nigel, the former Tory chancellor. ‘Steer clear of the intelligence people’ he warned.

Steering clear of intelligence? An anathema to the author of this revelation. Gordon Thomas – who brings his love of all things spy and surveillance to its logical conclusion in Inside British Intelligence: 100 Years of MI5 and MI6. This year, two British intelligence institutions celebrate their centenaries: the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). In a world where Bond and Bourne capture the imagination more than ever on the silver screen, the Services still continue with an image of sophistication and an aura of secrecy despite an era of increased accountability.

Being brought to task may rankle with MI5 and MI6, lynchpins of defending British interests, who perhaps believe they should be above populist scrutiny. The English author of Inside British Intelligence chose to first publish this book abroad; yet before its UK publication the Services took the matter to court to stop any publication here. In the end the courts ruled against MI5 and MI6 despite the fact the book is said to contain the names of officers who had not previously been identified. The reason? Inside British Intelligence was already widely available in the US, with the first handful of pages and the entire index available to be read on the internet.

The fear of the potential damage from this publication may have stemmed initially from the reputation of Thomas, a man who has dedicated over 50 years of his life to writing extensively about intelligence and surveillance. Impressive sales stem from an ability to combine meticulous research with the page-turning style of a thriller, satisfying both historians and fans of spy novels alike. Storytelling is Gordon Thomas’ forte; he paints a superbly evocative portrait of the head of MI6 to set the scene in a weighty book bursting with hitherto untold stories. Anecdotes from Winston Churchill sit side by side with the aforementioned Nigella revelation in Thomas’ fluid narrative.

Untold revelations are the key to selling a new history of the secret services, and in this Thomas does not disappoint. In our internet age the mysterious death of Dr. David Kelly, a biological warfare specialist to the Ministry of Defence, has been extensively covered and analysed. Inside British Intelligence, however, contains revelations which may make those at MI5 shift a little more in their seats.

Dr Kelly is reported to have taken a telephone call at his house in Southmoor on July 16th, 2003. Immediately after he took a short walk. The following morning his body was found close to the house after he did not return home. According to Thomas, Thames Valley Police head Alan Young started a file, and the author notes: “At some point the decision had been taken to launch Operation Mason. Who gave the order would remain a secret, just as would the contents of the file that detective chief inspector Young had opened to commence the police investigation ‘into the circumstances surrounding Dr Kelly’s death’. Most remarkable was that Young had been asked to start his file an hour before Dr Kelly had set out on his walk.”

Someone ordered Young to open a file on a man who was still alive; and that someone knew he was soon to die. It comes as no surprise that this person remains anonymous, as Thomas remains frustratingly coy in the face of such damning evidence. During the Hutton enquiry the front page of the file was allowed into the public domain. The author claims the Home Office, Downing Street and MI5 have copies, but “the rest of its contents have remained locked away in the MI5 registry”.

In order to enjoy this book any reader is forced to accept the limitations of reporting on the spy services. The paper trail appears sound enough, yet crucially no source notes are listed in this history of ‘100 years of MI5 and MI6’. In fairness to Thomas, he makes the following disclaimer explaining how human contact should take precedence over following papers: “The recall of those well-placed sources was often more revealing than reading stacks of documents, sometimes marked with SECRET or TOP SECRET.”

Unfortunately for those with historical or academic leanings, any book proclaiming itself a ‘history’ must have verified sources. This is admittedly near impossible when writing about spies; interviews with former spooks and trusted sources can never bear fruit because they invariably ignore any further questioning. ‘Neither confirm nor deny’ is the slogan, as spies continue today to avoid tacitly promoting the existence of stories or claims.

Domestic sources aside, the book is exciting for its direct quotations from a rich bed of foreign sources. Bearing in mind that Thomas has used them extensively in previous intelligence bestseller Gideon’s Spies, we still enjoy the thoughts of a number of former CIA and Mossad directors who underpin a pulsating narrative. The standout contributor is Marcus Wolff, the infamous chief of the former East German Stasi. And closer to home we even receive the insights of a former consulting psychiatrist to MI5 and MI6.

Broad in scope, Inside British Intelligence cleverly combines a lightness of touch (the Nigella revelations) with anecdotes that illustrate Thomas’ unrivalled understanding of the worldwide intelligence network. According to newspapers, in October MI5 will publish a carefully vetted official history by Cambridge historian Christopher Andrew. The offical MI6 book by history professor Keith Jeffrey is not due until next year, and will inexplicably end in 1949. As with celebrity biographies, it is often the unofficial ones which contain the best revelations and the most accurate all-round narrative. As it so happens, they tend to be the most enjoyable as well.