The following is a review by Phillip Knightley in the London Sunday Times of the new book by Stephen Dorril: MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations, published by Fourth Estate, price £25. It runs to 907 pages.
Read on ...
In 1956 Major Francis Quinn, the head of MI6's "Q" Ops Department and the real-life version of the long- suffering boffin in the James Bond films, was asked to inject some lethal poison into a popular brand of Egyptian chocolates.
It did not take Quinn long to figure out what was going on - MI6 planned to assassinate President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the troublesome leader of Egypt. Quinn did the job, but told his section head that he was concerned that Nasser might offer a deadly chocolate to some innocent person.
"was assured there would be no danger of this in the planned precise arrangements for donation and subsequent removal of evidence."
The chocolates were handed over, but since Nasser lived until 1970, the arrangements must have gone wrong somewhere down the line - as a lot of spy plots tend to do.
This is just one of the many MI6 operations Stephen Dorril describes in this huge book on the service's history since the second world war. It is an ambitious project. Similar but less exhaustive books have been written either by former MI6 officers or trusted historians. Dorril is an outsider, but he has several interesting theories.
The first is that too much attention has been paid to traitors such as Philby, Burgess, Blake, Blunt, Cairncross and Maclean (Foreign Office), and not enough to what MI6 itself did over the past 50 years. Next, that, contrary to received opinion, the activities of MI6 are not as secret as it likes to make out, and that there is more in the public domain than anyone realised.
The first theory is a matter of opinion. I believe the focus on Philby et al had to do with explaining Britain's post-war decline - "It wasn't our fault; we were betrayed from within." But the second theory turns out to be spot on.
From a wide range of sources, many of which I have not encountered before, Dorril paints a disturbing picture of a secret service whose power and wideranging activities make it more a government within a government, shaping and implementing British foreign policy towards the image of the world it wants to see.
This is not only conservative, but anti-nationalist and anti-reformist. MI6 was in love with the way things were before the war, saw the fight against Nazi Germany as a mere interlude in the struggle against Bolshevism, and believed that the spy was the guardian of all that was great in Britain.
Dorril quotes one MI6 officer, George Young, expounding what could be termed the spy's manifesto: "The nuclear stalemate is matched by a moral stalemate. It is the spy who has been called upon to remedy the situation . . . We do not have to develop, like parliamentarians conditioned by a lifetime, the ability to produce the ready phrase, the smart reply and the flashing smile. And so it is not surprising these days that the spy finds himself the main guardian of intellectual integrity."
So, over the past 50 years, there they were, up to their necks in all the main international events involving Britain - Palestine, Greece, the cold war, Suez, Cyprus, Iran, Africa, Yemen and the general retreat from Empire. They recruited some of the brightest and best. They loved journalists. There was hardly a newspaper, magazine, radio or television station without an MI6 officer under cover or an agent working on it.
Dorril writes: "The Spectator unknowingly served as 'cover' for three MI6 officers working in Bosnia, Belgrade and Moldova." And they recruited some important national leaders, among them, says Dorril, Nelson Mandela.
This claim should be treated with caution. Dorril carefully writes, "Another MI6 catch was ANC leader Nelson Mandela," leaving open what he means by "catch". Does he mean Mandela was a witting agent of MI6? Or, more likely, that MI6 had friendly dealings with Mandela, felt it could rely on his sympathy and so regarded him - probably without his knowledge - as "an agent of influence"?
Morality and fair dealing did not come into it. In order to recruit a prominent Egyptian intelligence chief, MI6 offered him valuable intelligence about Israel. "Harming Israel's security... did not appear to trouble the conscience of the British," said one Mossad officer.
Even the British judiciary was not immune. When the Americans insisted that the traitor George Blake be heavily punished, Harold Macmillan, the prime minister, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller, the Attorney-General, and Lord Parker, the Lord Chief Justice, "cooked up" between them the sentence of 42 years' jail.
Such ethics infected politicians who had anything to do with MI6. When the Soviet shooting down of the American U-2 pilot, Gary Powers, threatened to reveal that there had also been British U-2 flights over the USSR, George Ward, the air minister, told MI6 that he was prepared to lie to Parliament if he could get away with it.
Now that the cold war is over, is MI6 finished or just diminished? Dorril says it is actually stronger and better funded than ever. Only its targets have changed. "Ten officers in the UKB Unit at MI6 headquarters have been running Operation Jetstream, which directs economic espionage against France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Switzerland."
Dorril says MI6's real budget is anything from twice to five times the official figure of £776m. And it is just as successful in seducing Labour politicians as it has been with others. Robin Cook, the foreign secretary, has gone out of his way to laud MI6: "I have been struck by the range and quality of their work." If you want to compare this praise with the reality, then read this revealing book.
Phillip Knightley is the author of The Second Oldest Profession, a history of intelligence services. MI6 by Stephen Dorril is available at the Sunday Times Bookshop special price of £22 inc p&p on 0870 165 8585.
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