The Secret War Between The Wars

Title:                      The Secret War Between The Wars

Author:                  Kevin Quinlan

Quinlan, Kevin (2014). The Secret War Between The Wars: MI5 in The 1920s and 1930s. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK ; Rochester, NY: The Boydell Press,

LCCN:    2015301806

JN329.I6 Q56 2014


Date Updated:  February 21, 2017

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[2]

For more than 30 years, former students of Cambridge University professor Christopher Andrew have written books on intelligence history. No other program has done more to stimulate its study in academia and interest in the public at large. The latest contribution comes from an American at Cambridge, Kevin Quinlan, who argues that successful intelligence collection depends on the tradecraft employed. At the outset, Quinlan poses a paradox that confronts authors writing on intelligence and international relations. First he notes that sources and methods, and thus “the trade craft employed in intelligence operations that inform international relations, remain the most closely guarded secrets of intelligence services.” Then he adds that “tradecraft is commonly regarded as either scholarly antiquarianismor the stuff of movies. Almost no academic book on international relations considers it.” (p. xviii) Whether this omission is the unsurprising consequence of the secrecy involved or that the tradecraft details of collection are not as important to academics as the results produced, or both, is not discussed directly. Nor does he acknowledge that strict application of the “most closely guarded secrets” paradox would have prevented his research into the relationship between tradecraft and collection. Thus a relaxed or pragmatic understanding of tradecraft secrecy is necessary and that is implicit in The Secret War Between the Wars.

To make his point concerning the importance of tradecraft, Quinlan analyses a number of historical cases where some tradecraft data is now available from published case studies and various national archives. At the same time, he examines how tradecraft influenced and was influenced by the growing pains of Britain’s nascent Security Service (MI5) between the first and second world wars. By implication, Quinlan shows that these topics can’t logically be separated since successful tradecraft is a function of both organizational and individual competence.

The end of WWI left Britain with reduced manpower, a budget to match, and a growing threat from communist subversion. While it retained a relatively strong cryptographic capability and an effective mail surveillance system, Britain’s counterespionage program suffered because it was split between Scotland Yard-Special Branch and MI5. Quinlan shows how MI5 struggled to deal with agents of the so-called Red Menace while convincing its political masters more resources were required and organizational changes were necessary.

The seven chapters in the book cover six topics: official and non-official cover, countersubversion operations, agent recruitment and handling, penetration agents, and defectors. In each chapter, Quinlan discusses cases that illustrate organizational difficulties that MI5 overcame and the role played by tradecraft in the success or failure of selected operations. But readers expecting examples of clever implementation of tradecraft in their resolution will be disappointed. In the familiar 1920s cases of communist agents Wilfred Macartney and William Ewer, for example, Quinlan discusses their recruitment and handling. Macartney, a Lloyds broker, attempted to give classified military data to the Soviets. Turned in by a colleague, he was arrested and sent to prison. Ewer, a journalist, ran an agent network that provided political information to the Communist Party and thus the Soviets. Since no classified data were involved, he was allowed to emigrate to Poland. The tradecraft employed was rudimentary since neither had been well trained. Their Soviet masters did better. They penetrated Scotland Yard, learned their agents were under suspicion, and thus avoided involvement,

In his subsequent case studies, Quinlan shows how MI5 solidified its organizational structure and gradually improved the quality of its officers and their tradecraft. He devotes two chapters to the penetration operations of Maxwell Knight and another two to the debriefing of Walter Krivitsky, an NKVD defector. And while they show marked improvement in operational skills, they contain nothing new and have been covered in greater depth elsewhere.

Overall, The Secret War Between the Wars provides an unexceptional account of well-known cases and demonstrates how MI5 expanded between the wars to meet the Soviet and later the German threat while applying routine tradecraft techniques effectively. It fails, however, to establish that tradecraft, although important, was the dominant factor in solving cases, especially where international relations are at stake.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance — at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 2, Spring 2016, pp. ). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editons of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

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