Learning From the Secret Past

Title:                      Learning From the Secret Past

Author:                  Robert Dover

Dover, Robert(2011) and Michael R. Goodman, eds. Learning From the Secret Past: Cases in British Intelligence History. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press

LCCN:    2010051651

JN329.I6 L43 2011


Date Updated:  March 7, 2016

This review was written by Nigel West.[1]

In ten chapters a group of English academics have engaged in what must have been a real labor of love: selecting particular documents, declassified by the British intelligence community, and subjecting them to a detailed analysis. The topics range from Peter Gill’s study of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, through Richard Aldrich’s review of various inquiries conducted into the interrogation techniques used in Northern Ireland, Matthew Jones’s chronology of the Malaya Emergency, and Michael Goodman’s account of Douglas Nicoli’s famous paper on the postwar performance of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). Each is a fascinating vignette and a topic definitely worthy of the relevant author’s efforts.


Some may feel that Robert Dover’s look at the Scott Report concentrated too much on the nuances of British government policy in the export of defense materiel and rather too little on the iniquities of the Matrix-Churchill scandal. After all, the book’s subtitle Cases in British Intelligence History implies that the issues raised will have more to do with the behavior of MI5, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS-MI6), Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and any other relevant agencies, than with berating a particular administration about an alleged failure to fully inform the House of Commons about a rather subtle change in the Cabinet’s position regarding the supply of weapons to dubious regimes in the Middle East.

Such deliberations are made far above the pay-scale of any SIS Chief, but the cover-up, involving the ruthless discard of Paul Henderson, an agent thrown to the wolves of Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise prosecutors, is a worthy target. Dover does refer to Henderson, but in passing, and purely in the context of his explicit acknowledgment to the government’s export licensing branch that, quite obviously, British firms cannot control precisely how a declared purchaser behaves, especially if the end-user is a foreign regime. Unexplained is that Henderson was a veteran source for both MI5 and SIS who had often risked his life to collect information for both agencies. By selling his dual-use machine tools, with covert encouragement, Henderson gave the war planners the exact coordinates of every industrial site of value in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. His thanks was a prohibition placed on his counsel’s ability to adopt that line of defense when he was in the dock facing serious criminal charges over the legality of operations in which he had participated. The collapse of his trial, which brought about the public revelation of the ban and the truth regarding his clandestine role, was the catalyst for the Scott Enquiry. But Dover omits this essential background in favor of berating ministers who were more inclined to support British manufacturing than continue with the imposition of bureaucratic restrictions on the sale of arms overseas. Since the Cabinet entitlement to allow a shift in policy is not disputed, the issue appears to be limited to the polemic, which in itself is hardly an intelligence issue. Naturally, the whole subject of the international arms trade raises strong opinions, and perhaps some ethical questions, but what emerged from the Scott Enquiry surely boiled down to matters relating to the treatment and handling of valued agents.


Similarly, Mark Phythian’s chapter on the Butler Report seems preoccupied with the political dimension rather than the way in which the Joint Intelligence Committee was subverted in to producing a misleading pamphlet that was manipulated to persuade Members of Parliament of a non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) threat to Britain’s sovereign bases in Cyprus. Blame for this is described as only “possibly extending to the chairman of the JIC John Scarlett” who is said to have “succumbed to the pressure of politicization.” The real value in Phythian’s contribution is not so much his commentary, but the reproduction of the Butler Report’s Annex B which, line by line, traced the origin of every questionable assertion contained in the Tony Blair government’s two “dodgy dossiers,” and discredited them by presenting the forensic detail of each exaggeration, in parallel with the terms of the original JIC assessments which, characteristically, were far more cautious and qualified.


If Dover strayed from his brief, and Phythian pulled his punches, no such criticism can be made of Richard Aldrich, who chose a November 1971 memorandum written by the then Cabinet Intelligence Coordinator Sir Dick White on the highly controversial issue of prisoner interrogation in Northern Ireland. The context was a recent investigation completed by Sir Edmund Compton into allegations of the mistreatment of Ulster detainees. To the Prime Minister’s embarrassment, Compton’s findings were robust, and White had been asked to make recommendations regarding the five most sensitive techniques: wall-standing, “white noise,” hooding, sleep deprivation, thirst, and hunger. According to White, most of those procedures were desirable, and he even claimed that the hooding of suspects was simply to prevent the recognition of personnel and informants, rather than a method of sensory deprivation to disorient and break detainees. By today’s standards, White’s views seem anachronistic and were anyway superseded by a further judicial inquiry undertaken by Lord Justice Parker in March 1972. This was followed by a European Court decision that, although the techniques did not amount to torture, they were considered inhumane and degrading. Helpfully, Eunan O’Halpin’s essay is almost a companion to Aldrich’s, being the observations made by an SIS officer, Brian Stewart, during a JIC-sponsored inspection tour of the province in 1972. Although Stewart’s identity was redacted on the original declassification, O’Halpin has helped fill in the gaps.


Len Scott’s choice of documents is a JIC assessment on Cuba dated October 1962, and a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) memorandum of the interview of Oleg Penkovsky conducted jointly with a pair of SIS officers in London in April 1961. Both items are fascinating, even though JIC chairman Hugh Stephenson wholly endorsed the American interpretation of the Soviet adventure in Cuba. At stake now is the frequent claim that Penkovsky had a profound impact on the West’s reaction to Nikita Khrushchev’s deployment of offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba. According to Scott, this view is not borne out by the evidence. Although the GRU colonel gave the West a valuable insight into Moscow’s strategic rocketry, it was nothing more than background when the crucial issue at hand was the discovery of MRBMs and IRBMs near Havana. Stephenson’s assessment made two good points that have historically been shown to be correct: that the range of the missiles identified on the imagery then available was up to 2,200 miles, and that not a single nuclear warhead had been found. Now known, of course, is that short-range nuclear-tipped coastal defense missiles were indeed hidden in Cuban caves, but they went unreported at the time.

Scott’s second document, the CIA memo that was somewhat redacted, covers the first of two secret meetings with Penkovsky held in London. Although the SIS’s legendary Harold Shergold is named as one of those present, as is Joe Bulik, neither his colleague Harold Stokes nor the principal Russian-speaking interrogator, the CIA’s George Kisevalter, is mentioned. Nevertheless, redundant redaction apart, the partial transcription is of consummate interest to scholars of the Cold War.


These gems are part of a book that is essential reading for those concerned with “warning intelligence” and “surprise attacks.” Michael Goodman’s chapter on a very abbreviated version of Douglas Nicoli’s infamous 1982 internal study on the JIC’s past performance is hugely apposite. Why? Because only days after Nicoll, a career GCHQ analyst whose experience stretched back to Bletchley Park, had submitted his report to the JIC, Argentine forces seized and occupied the Falkland Islands, Whitehall having been caught completely off-guard. So, just as Nicoll was indulging in some self-congratulation, the JIC was missing the biggest political crisis in Margaret Thatcher’s entire career. The irony is not lost, least of all on Gill Bennett, whose section concentrates on a JIC threat assessment issued in the wake of the Suez debacle in 1956. Even then, the JIC had recognized the potential for conflict with Buenos Aires, but categorized the likelihood of an Argentinean resort to force as “unlikely” and “most unlikely.”

The most obvious examples of intelligence failure are aggression, bloodshed, and war. Here Learning from the Secret Past turns the spotlight on Britain’s postwar experience, mainly in Malaya and Northern Ireland. But perhaps, with the release of larger numbers of declassified documents, more historians will be encouraged to look at the security and intelligence aspects of the difficult campaigns fought in Aden, Borneo, Cyprus, Kenya, Oman, and Palestine.

In the meantime, the overall quality of intelligence analysis must be celebrated, and some valuable lessons learned, which is precisely the purpose of opening government archives to external scrutiny.

Review by John J. McGonagle.[2]

Learning from the Secret Past is an interesting read for those of us who have not been involved with either military or political intelligence. The book’s design is to take a particular event in British post World War II history, such as the organization of intelligence, or a critical issue, such as intelligence analysis, and approach it in two different ways. The first way is to provide an actual document, in some cases still redacted, for the reader. Then, an author discusses the implications of that document and the way in which British intelligence operated before, and responded to this event. Each of the analyses is provided by an expert and concludes with a “lessons learned” section in that chapter, which are all worth the read. And of course, the two editors have their own three-page overview of the “lessons learned” at the end.

Your reaction to the cases will in large part be determined by your own personal background. I found the documents to be interesting and the expert approaches to be fairly evenhanded. However, the editors to warn us that “intelligence is often a difficult subject from which to draw lessons” (p. 293). By exposing us to 11 different cases, covering four different topics (organization and oversight of Intelligence; political interference in intelligence; counterinsurgency and counterterrorism; and avoiding surprise) they have done their very best to avoid that difficulty by allowing us many perspectives and the dual approach of original documents coupled with historical retrospection.

While the authors provide an introduction on the context for each of these cases, in some instances, the effort to draw the reader into the time and place also draws them too far “into the weeds.” Chapter 2, “‘A Formidable Power to Cause Trouble for the Government’? Intelligence Oversight and the Creation of the UK Intelligence and Security Committee,” is the worst offender, bringing the reader into the Parliamentary process too often and too deep. On the other hand, Chapter 5, “Intelligence and Counterinsurgency: The Malayan Experience,” is a gem. It expertly provides enough background on the situation for any reader to follow the narrative. In addition, the documentary focus of that chapter is itself an interesting read, which cannot be said of some other source items, in particular the document which is the focus of “Political Interference in the Intelligence Process: The Case of lraqi WMD.” While seeking to compare intelligence assessments and presentations during 2002, this 13 page, 4 column original document is almost impossible to read, in part because the copying for publication reduced the text to something around 6 points or less. To be fair, the clumsy format used to generate the original did not help.

From my personal perspective, I think Learning from the Secret Past could be a very interesting addition to basic courses dealing with political intelligence, as well as an interesting read for individuals not familiar with British intelligence in the post-World War II period.

Reviewed by Hayden Peake.[3]

Books on intelligence with contributions from practitioners and academics are generally of two types. The first is the “reader” with articles that cover a broad view of the profession. The second examines a narrower perspective. Learning from the Secret Past falls into this second category, and with a unique twist based on British experience. The editors preface the work by arguing that the “failure to appreciate historical lessons is a wide-spread problem … particularly within intelligence communities.” (p. xi) An introduction by David Omand —a former director of Britain’s GCHQ and onetime intelligence and security coordinator in the Cabinet Office—reviews the importance of considering history in analysis. Following are 11 contributions divided into four sections: “The Organization and Oversight of Intelligence,” “Political Interference in Intelligence,” “Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism,” and “Avoiding Surprise.” Each chapter in these sections is based on real-world cases, and each includes excerpts of relevant official documents.

The first chapter, by Michael Herman, a former secretary of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), deals with a January 1945 report, “The Intelligence Machine,” which made recommendations for the organization and functions of peacetime intelligence organizations. Herman discusses the report’s influence on today’s intelligence community and what might have been if some of its recommendations had not been rejected.

This is followed by a chapter on the Intelligence Services Act of 1994, which established a formal oversight mechanism and publicly acknowledged SIS, among other things. A section on political interference includes two chapters with examples. The section on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism has one chapter on the British experience in Malaya and two chapters on aspects of Northern Ireland. The final section has four chapters, the first of which addresses the Suez Crisis. The second examines Oleg Penkovsky’s contribution to the Cuban missile crisis, whether was he “an instrument of disinformation,” (p. 250) and the importance of communicating with decisionmakers. The third chapter discusses the 1980 Nicoll Report, commissioned by the JIC, which analyzed how well the intelligence services had done in predicting foreign acts of aggression—the report, submitted 29 days before Argentina surprised the British by invading the Falklands, highlighted various “analyst traps.” The final chapter, “Lessons Learned: What the History of British Intelligence Can Tell Us about the Future,” reemphasizes the importance of learning from history while recognizing that lessons don’t always apply directly to current situations.

This is a thoughtful, informative book that applies to the profession generally and makes a unique contribution in another way: it is the first book on British intelligence that does not mention the so-called Cambridge Spies.

[1] Nigel West. “Analyzing the UK’s Secret Activities, “in International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence (26,1, Spring 2013, pp. 211-214). Nigel West, one of the world’s most prolific commentators on intelligence matters, is also Professor at the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies, Alexandria, Virginia. The author of more than a dozen books on various aspects of intelligence; he has compiled several volumes of the Scarecrow Press series of Historical Dictionaries of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, including volumes on British counterintelligence, Cold War intelligence, World War II intelligence, and naval intelligence. His most recent book (co-authored with Madoc Roberts) is Snow: The Double Life of a World War II Spy.

[2] John J. McGonagle in Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (19, 1, Winter/Spring 2012, p. 98). John J. McGonagle is the Managing Partner of The Helicon Group, a competitive intelligence research and analysis firm. He is the author or co-author of numerous books on competitive intelligence, the latest of which is McGonagle, John J. (2012) and Carolyn M. Vella. Proactive Intelligence: The Successful Executive’s Guide to Intelligence. London; New York: Springer

[3] Hayden Peake is a frequent reviewer of books on intelligence and this review appeared in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (19, 1, Winter/Spring, 2013, pp. 124-125). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Di recto rate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found on line at http://www.cia.gov.



This entry was posted in British Intelligence and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s