Title: Secret Wars
Author: Gordon Thomas
Thomas, Gordon (2009). Secret Wars: One Hundred Years of British Intelligence Inside MI5 and MI6. New York: St. Martin’s Press
Date Updated: February 25, 2016
Even though, as I will claim, this is one of the worst books written on intelligence, I review it here because of the continuing revelations about the death of MI6 officer Gareth Williams. Two years after his death, the release of his autopsy (April 30, 2012) has left his life and death clouded in enigma. A report from the London Telegraph states:
“The south bank district of Vauxhall is famous for two principal reasons. After long spells at 54 Broadway in Victoria and Century House across Westminster Bridge, SIS (or MI6) took possession of its new headquarters at 85 Vauxhall Cross in 1995. Staff dubbed Sir Terry Farrell’s vast cream and green-coloured ziggurat “Legoland”. It is also known as Babylon-on-Thames, for there are 60 terraces, as well as cameras surveying spiked railings from every angle. Staff enter and leave as inconspicuously as possible through electronic gates.
These look on to an establishment across the road called Roman Chariots Spa. For Vauxhall is also well known as “VoHo”, because of its dense concentration of gay clubs. Some of these – The Hoist and The Spike, within the cavernous railway arches – cater to a specialist clientele which may well include adventurous heterosexuals. Their names indicate what happens within. A cottage craft industry has also sprung up in the area, including a black-painted Master of Leather shop offering bespoke harnesses and studded belts, when it opens after dark.
By some terrible coincidence, elements of these two worlds appear to have met in the macabre case of Gareth Williams. His decomposing body was found in a red North Face bag in the bath of his flat in Alderney Street, Pimlico on August 23 2010 – circumstances which have given rise to speculation that he died as a result of a bondage-related sex game.”
The secret services of the U.K.(MI5 and MI6, or SIS) are shrouded in secrecy, and its people guard their own secrecy just as much. There’s very little of James Bond in MI6, and, if John Le Carré is right, the popular BBC series Spooks (MI5 in the US) bears little relationship to how that agency works as well. One might hope that an experienced journalist might get it right in telling the history of MI6 – even when no one has an idea of how an MI6 officer was found naked inside a zippered bag with the key inside with him. What could have been the chain of events that resulted in the death in such a bizarre way of a highly skill cryptoanalyst of SIS? Unfortunately, we get nothing much of value from Thomas about MI6 that would help anyone really understand the agency at all.
This book is supposedly a centenary history of MI5 and MI6, however the book is filled with errors, invented quotations, and incidents that simply never happened, such as Allen Dulles and Stewart Menzies meeting at the 1945 Yalta conference. Neither attended it. Thomas names Kim Philby’s father as Sir Harry Phiby. St. John Philby never held a knighthood, and never could owing to the British class structure. I read the book and also felt that the writing style was an attempt to snag the careless reader, to make it sound like a novel, rather than a definitive history, which it definitely turned out not to be.
Nigel West is a author and consultant on counterintelligence matters. I had the privilege of hearing a series of his lectures about the Queen Mary II in the summer of 2010. This book was one of the Ten Worst Books On The Spying Game.
I read this book in 2010 shortly before going on a cruise and lecture tour with Nigel West. When I read the book I was satisfied with it – after all the reviews said:
“Two famous British institutions will celebrate their centenaries in 2009: the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI5 and MI6. They maintain an aura of secrecy, a touch of sophistication and a hint of melodrama even in this age of populist candor. Thomas (Descent into Danger), who enjoys justified respect as an authority on the intelligence world, has a broad spectrum of contacts and confidants in both services. He taps their memories and insights in this reconstruction of Britain’s intelligence operations from the Age of Empire through the cold war and into today’s constantly metamorphosing Islamic challenge. The emphasis on personal evidence at the expense of archival sources gives the work an anecdotal tone and a contemporary focus that makes the subtitle misleading. Both are compensated for by the immediacy of the material and the vividness of the narration, presenting a fascinating cast of moles and double agents, whistle-blowers and politicians. For the ambience of the closed world that inspired James Bond and George Smiley, this book is a winner.”