A Brief History of The Spy

Title:                A Brief History of The Spy

Author:            Paul Simpson

Simpson, Paul A. (2013). A Brief History of The Spy: Modern Spying From The Cold War to the War on Terror. London: Constable & Robinson ; Philadelphia, PA: Running Press

LCCN:  2012944547

JF1525.I6 S56 2013


Date Posted:    April 14, 2016

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

Most books on intelligence history discuss a single agency, a war, or a geographic area. This one is different. It is a chronological narrative, beginning—the title notwithstanding—with a brief account of the events that led to the creation before WWI of Britain’s principal agencies, MI5 and MI6. It then turns to the interwar period and reviews the operations of MI5 and MI6 and the successful recruitment of British agents by the Soviet services. This is followed by a summary of WWII activities, bringing in Bletchley Park and the roles played by the Allied and Axis agencies.

The next 11 chapters, with an occasional digression into espionage and popular culture, are devoted to the Cold War and its major cases, which are well summarized. In his coverage, Simpson discusses principal officers, agents, defectors, and organizations from both sides of the war. The final two chapters cover intelligence and the “war on terror” up to 2013.

Despite the absence of source notes, there are relatively few errors, and most are minor. For example, Admiral Canaris, head of the German Abwehr, was hanged, not shot. (p. 9) Guy Burgess was not “the prime mover” who “set out to create his own ‘light blue ring of five.’“ Kim Philby was the first, and he had Burgess on his list. And Philby was not recruited by Teodor Maly in Vienna; that task was handled by Arnold Deutsch in London, after Philby had returned from Vienna. (p. 11) Finally, James Angleton’s tenure as chief of the Counterintelligence Staff ended in 1974, not 1975.

For a single book, Simpson has provided a very good introduction to modern intelligence.

[1] Peake, Hayden B. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (20, 2, Fall/Winter, 2013, pp. 127-128). 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 http://www.cia.gov.

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