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'Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5' by Christopher Andrew

This gives a fascinating and instructive account of the history of the British Security Service by a noted Cambridge historian.

December 30, 2009|By Tim Rutten

The competition with Germany and its intelligence services preoccupied MI5 through World War II.

The famed "double cross" operations against the Third Reich and its Abwehr probably represented the Security Service's finest hour -- and one of the most complete triumphs by any intelligence agency in time of war.

Andrew's account of MI5's masterful deception operations reads like one of the multitude of spy novels they inspired.

At the same time, his account of Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean -- the so-called Cambridge spies who betrayed U.K. and U.S. intelligence to the Soviets -- is unsparing and adds enlightening detail to ground frequently and painfully plowed. (In regard to more recent events, particularly MI5's counter-terrorist operations against the Provisional IRA, Andrew's material is sketchier and less satisfying.)

When it comes to Blunt, Philby et al., Andrew demonstrates just how adroitly the Soviets played on the clubby, inbred culture of MI5, which until 1997 relied entirely on personal recommendations for recruitment -- consciously excluding women and Jews.

Blunt was able to secure a wartime spot in the agency, though he'd been denied a Trinity College fellowship because of his indiscreet homosexuality, because the then-head of the Security Service knew the art historian and didn't think he was serious about his communism.

The Soviets appear to have had the best of the British and the Americans on the Cold War's secret front.

That may have been the case because, while the English have a talent for deception and the Americans for technology, the Russians have a genuine genius for conspiracy -- and the patience to play it out.

Thus, they recruited Americans who, first, spied for politics and later for money. In Britain they sought out the Cambridge aesthetes, who appear to have sold out their country because they'd made an aesthetic of betrayal.

Their friends never seemed to notice, because they were amusing and had the right school ties.

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