Trading Secrets

Title:                      Trading Secrets

Author:                  Mark Huband

Huband, Mark (2013). Trading Secrets: Spies and Intelligence in an Age of Terror. London ; New York : I.B. Tauris

LCCN:    2012277434

JF1525.I6 H84 2013


  • Drawing on previously unseen material, unpublished letters and exclusive interviews, this title explores how the role and purpose of ‘intelligence’ has evolved from its origins in nineteenth-century Ireland to today’s fight against terrorism.


  • 1. “The craft of cheat and imposter” — 2. The first intelligence war — 3. Talking to terrorists — 4. Making spies — 5. Games without frontiers — 6. The Osama method — 7. The road to 9/11 — 8. Guantanamo days — 9. Prisoners — 10. Know your enemy — 11. “Hail the Chief” — 12. Shadow wars — Epilogue.


Date Posted:      April 11, 2016

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

Mark Huband became an “expert” on spies and intelligence agencies while serving as the Financial Times security correspondent between 2001 and 2003. In a statement that will astound those who remember the Church Committee era in the United States and the Peter Wright kerfuffle in the United Kingdom, he writes that, thanks to 9/11, “never before had the CIA, SIS, MIS and other intelligence services been under such scrutiny.” (P. 2) He then observes that “part of the trauma to the Americans and the wider world has lain in the realization that the ability to surprise has been lost to the other side.” (p. 3) Thus it follows from his line of thinking that gaining an intelligence advantage over al-Qaeda “necessitated an understanding of just how redundant the established practices of intelligence gathering had become.”(p. 9) Redundant is used here in the sense of “no longer needed.” He argues, but never really demonstrates, that “trading secrets” is an obsolete objective.

To make his point historically, he invokes a comparison with Irish nationalism since 1798. From then until 9/11, he argues, espionage had been based on “the ‘trade’ in secrets.” (pp. 6, 9) “As all intelligence agencies failed to learn of al-Qaeda’s most devastating attack until it was too late, so the British in Ireland failed to detect just how strong were the nationalist sentiments that in 1922 brought an end to centuries of occupation in all but six counties of what became Northern Ireland.” (pp. 40-41)

Huband devotes several chapters to the Irish precedent. Then he examines the Cold War practices of the CIA, with emphasis on Africa and to a lesser extent the Middle East, in order to show how the West failed for so long to see the “emerging. trends … as threatening Western interests.” (p. 95) This is followed by a summary of how Bin Laden operated and a review of CIA pre-9/11 attempts to deal with what some saw as a genuine threat. But, he adds, “even the best secret intelligence on al-Qaeda’s intentions might not have averted 9/11 … because it was al-Qaeda’s destiny.” (p. 118) Then, after a digression discussing the intelligence failures he claims preceded the most recent Iraq war, Huband assesses the post-9/11 rendition and prisoner interrogation issues. In each case he draws parallels with the Irish experience to show how traditional espionage-or “spying” as he calls it-was inadequate.

Trading Secrets doesn’t supply an unambiguous alternative to the “redundant” trading of secrets. He acknowledges that the “trade in secrets” is still practiced, but he argues, without evidence, that the secrets needed today are in the hands of those “who have no interest in selling what they know.” (p. 226) He concludes that “eavesdropping has taken the lead” and hints that private security firms staffed by former intelligence officers seeking personal gain have major roles to play. (p. 227) Huband’s suggestions point to the conclusion that he has not acquired sufficient understanding of the intelligence profession to be regarded as an expert.

[1] Peake, Hayden B. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (20, 2, Fall/Winter, 2013, pp. 125-126). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate 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 online at

This entry was posted in Intelligence Studies - General and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

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

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

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ 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 )


Connecting to %s