Britain's MI5 intelligence building. (Alastair Grant / Associated…)
From Erskine Childers and Joseph Conrad to Ian Fleming and John le Carre, some of the last century's most gripping -- not to mention, entertaining -- fiction has had its roots in the real world of espionage.
The history of spying, on the other hand, is frequently a dicey proposition. Even authors with the best of intentions can be misled or partially blinded by their own loyalties or enthusiasms.
When secrets are disclosed, prudent readers never can be wholly confident that they've been told the whole truth. As Le Carre's George Smiley once put it, "That's the thing about secrets."
The paradoxical dilemma posed by any synoptic account of the secret world is summed up in a 1,600-year-old aphorism from the "Verba Seniorum": "Those that speak do not know; those who know do not speak."
Those reasonable caveats notwithstanding, Christopher Andrew's "Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5" is as complete and thorough as such a history may be and as engrossing as any spy novel.
In part, that's because Andrew, a professor of history at Cambridge, is this era's preeminent historian of espionage; in part, it's because he's one of those English academics in whom erudition and fluent clarity of style are happily conjoined.
MI5, or the Security Service, as it is frequently called, is Britain's counterintelligence and domestic security agency, roughly equivalent to our FBI. MI6, or the Secret Intelligence Service, handles foreign operations, much like our CIA.
Andrew, 68, comes to this project with an interesting academic pedigree.
He was among the young Cambridge historians who studied with the late Sir Harry Hinsley, one of Britain's most important World War II code-breakers. Hinsley and his students essentially went on to create the study of intelligence agencies as an academic discipline.
For some years, Andrew also has chaired the Cambridge Intelligence seminar, which brings scholars and intelligence professionals from around the world together for regular off-the-record meetings.
His most notable previous work has centered on studies of the KGB undertaken with the defectors Oleg Gordievsky and Vasili Mitrokhin, the Soviet spy agency's onetime archivist.
For the last seven years, he also has been MI5's "official historian," a post which -- under British law -- required him to join the service. Such a relationship is bound to raise certain questions in a field where skepticism and mistrust abound.
Still, Andrew is too formidable and well-connected a historian to barter his reputation for a mess of archival pottage. Thus he deals forthrightly in a preface with the opportunities and restrictions his official status entailed.
These issues are particularly acute in the British secret services, since they are hedged around with statutes and customs of discretion foreign to the American sensibility. As Sir Michael Howard said more than 20 years ago, "So far as official government policy is concerned, the British security and intelligence services do not exist. Enemy agents are found under gooseberry bushes and intelligence is brought by the storks."
Since his appointment in 2003, Andrew writes, he's "been given virtually unrestricted access to the service's 20th century files as well as to the more limited number of 21st century records I have asked to see. No other of the world's leading intelligence agencies has given similar access to a historian appointed from outside. A significant minority of the files I have seen contain material on intelligence sources and methods which it was clear from the outset could not be published. I thought it important, however, to read these files in order to try to ensure that conclusions in "Defend the Realm" based on documents which can be quoted are not contradicted by files whose contents remain classified . . . I was given an assurance at the outset (which has been fully honored) that no attempt would be made to change any of the judgments I arrived at."
Andrew goes on to write that the ensuing clearance process was contentious. "My advocacy of the case for clearance on matters which I judge important has, as colleagues in the Security Service can confirm, not lacked vigor."
Whatever is missing from this account -- and, surely, much is -- Andrew's book remains fascinating and instructive, even for those who know the historical material well.
It's impossible, for example, not be struck by the different world inhabited by MI5's proto-agent, William Melville, who at the turn of the 20th century entertained his Imperial German counterpart, Gustav Steinhauer -- the self-styled "Kaiser's spy," who'd trained with the Pinkerton Agency in Chicago -- with dinner and cigars at Simpson's in the Strand. Together, they pursued Russian "nihilist" assassins through the London underworld.
Later, Melville kept track of Pyotr Rachkovsky, head of the Czar's Okhrana, who "invariably had a suite of rooms at the Savoy."