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With Friends Like These

MI6 Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service; By Stephen Dorril; The Free Press: 980 pp., $40

September 10, 2000|ANDREW COCKBURN | Andrew Cockburn is the co-author of "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein."

There has long been a tradition at Oxford--it was certainly going strong in my day in the late '60s--in which certain tutors would discreetly suggest to select students that they "might care to have a word with a few fellows from the Foreign Office." Thus were Britain's future spooks recruited for the fabled MI6. Sebastian, a friend of mine tapped in this manner, was an obvious choice: brilliant, fluent in several languages, socially well-connected and, or rather but, flamboyantly gay. On the appointed day, he found himself in a room with three middle-aged gentlemen of military demeanor. The interview went well, with Sebastian's audience visibly dazzled by his linguistic qualifications, obvious intelligence and acceptable (conservative) politics. After 90 minutes, one of the trio genially asked if there was anything else my friend wanted to tell them about himself. "Well," answered Sebastian, "I am obviously homosexual, but since I am quite open about it, there would be no possibility of blackmail, so it really shouldn't matter."

The temperature in the room dropped like a stone. "Good god, you are?" spluttered one of the spooks. "I think you had better forget that this interview ever took place."

Many people I know in Britain who have had contact with MI6 or, as it is variously known, SIS, "the Service" or "the friends," can report similarly bizarre experiences--in the late '80s, a candidate was asked to list various titles of the British nobility in order of precedence. Yet at home and abroad, the myth of James Bond continues to transcend a more realistic parallel: Monty Python with a vicious tinge. In the Middle East, for example, there lingers a curious respect for the guile and omniscience of British intelligence that is rarely borne out by results. One can only conclude that, unlike the CIA, whose tawdry secrets have been sufficiently exposed over the years to excite a healthily derisive attitude among the citizenry, MI6 continues to profit from its carefully cultivated air of mystery, enforced when necessary by the draconian Official Secrets Act. In 1963, my late father published the actual name of C, as the head of MI6 was always called, in Private Eye magazine. This was the first time the identity of the spy chief--Dick White at the time--had been printed in Britain, and I was recently gratified to learn from declassified archives that this revelation prompted an emergency meeting of a high-level cabinet subcommittee to consider whether to send my father to jail. They wisely decided against the idea. Such objective reporting was, however, exceedingly rare, which is not surprising given the large number of Fleet Street journalists who have served as MI6 assets, happy to publish a planted story when required.

Stephen Dorril, a British academic without any direct personal connection to the world of intelligence, has set out to shed light on the postwar history of this "strange and secretive society," relying on the fact that, as he explains, "there is far more in the public domain than anyone has realised." Unfortunately, his delight at finding information in the public record sometimes outweighs his judgment. I really do not believe that the travel writer Freya Stark, as he confidently asserts, founded the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood on orders from British intelligence. Nelson Mandela convincingly rebutted Dorril's credulous assertion that he was a British "asset" soon after the book's release in the United Kingdom.

Nevertheless, after burrowing through an immense amount of material, the author has emerged with a picture of an organization highly skilled in bureaucratic maneuvering and self-protection but rather less effective at the stated object of the exercise: finding out what the other fellows are up to. Thus, among other lapses, MI6 was totally surprised by the split between Tito and Stalin, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the fall of Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran, the end of the Cold War, Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and so on. The verdict of an official inquiry into its utter failure to anticipate the fascist Argentine junta's attack on the Falkland Islands in 1982 could be applied to the work of MI6 (and most other intelligence agencies) in general: "Changes in the Argentine position were, we believe, more evident on the diplomatic front and in the . . . press than in the intelligence reports."

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