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Colonel Z : THE SECRET LIFE OF A MASTER OF SPIES by Anthony Read and David Fisher (Viking: $17.95; 361 pp.)

May 12, 1985|KENNETH REICH | Reich is a Times staff writer.

Writing about spies, or intelligence operations in general, is a risky business, because the reliability of the information is almost always in doubt. There are circles within circles in the intelligence community, and sorting out truth from falsehood frequently is beyond the ability of even the most skillful, discerning outside investigator. When, on top of that, authors resort to surmise and conjecture to flesh out an uncertain story, let the reader beware.

In this case, the story is the life of Sir Claude Dansey, a chief of British intelligence organizations during World War II and an intelligence operative beginning during the Boer War at the turn of the century. Since, the authors concede, he was for most of his career "concerned with secrecy and deception, it is impossible now to trace all his movements." Add to that the British tradition of long-term secrecy in such matters, encouraged even further by the unhappy record of Soviet infiltration of British intelligence organizations, and it becomes readily apparent how monumental the task of writing a sound book on Dansey is, even 40 years after his death. No picture of him is even included in the volume.

Perhaps, Anthony Read and David Fisher, the authors of an earlier book on World War II spy operations that has been subjected to considerable criticism, should have waited in this case for more solid material. Then they might have been able to avoid such phrases as it is safe to assume and Dansey must have felt this way or that. These are a substitute for saying that the facts in the matters at hand cannot be established with certainty.

Also, there is considerable name-dropping. For instance, on several occasions the authors allude to Dansey's supposed influence on Sir Winston Churchill without ever really establishing the point. Instead, there are such passages as "whether or not Dansey applied any pressure on the man he had so ably supported during the wilderness years we shall never know."

Furthermore, there are frequent if clauses. "If the agents were Dansey's men and Dansey had turned his thumb down, then her chances of survival were slim."

This is not history. While intelligence accounts must always be taken with a grain of salt, a rock of salt would be advisable here.

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