30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on 26 February 2013
Empire of Secrets is a most absorbing book. The material, mightily researched, is carefully presented in a clear, coherent and structured manner which makes exceptionally engaging reading. Calder Walton has most certainly selected a most interesting subject in an arena that has almost exclusively been overshadowed by the intelligence aspects of the more direct Cold War confrontation between the Superpowers. I am particularly intrigued by his historical comparisons with current events, which offer another view of the past and there are most certainly lessons which keep being relearned.
I have though, three observations. First, the consistent, irritating and inappropriate use of the words back to, actually, himself, itself and outfits, detract from the otherwise eloquent flow of the manuscript. Secondly, there are several errors of fact, which whilst not interrupting the thrust of his arguments make one wonder whether there might be others that do. This point lucidly illustrates that with a study of this size and scope, a competent multi-disciplinary team is essential in ensuring accuracy. Thirdly, the author's personal ethics subtly creep into the narrative, an issue compounded by his propensity to analyse some issues through the legal perspective of the 21st Century rather than the period. In this respect, Calder Walton has not quite made the transition from court lawyer to intelligence historian.
These observations aside, Calder Walton is to be highly commended for bringing to life a forgotten component of our recent history, in a thoroughly focused manner. I am sure that this very significant study will lay the foundations for future research in this fascinating area, especially as more material is released into the public domain. I thoroughly recommend his book to those who are interested in Cold War intelligence operations and the British withdrawal from Empire.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 26 March 2013
Other reviewers have given this book a low rating and made various criticisms, but Walton's book deserves better. He has uncovered a shameful set of episodes in British history, effectively debunking the 'we were so nice to the natives, unlike those nasty Belgians & French' myth. Those who say that times have changed and that the author is viewing events through modern 'liberal lefty' focus fail to understand why it has taken so long to uncover this story - it's because those responsible for the torture policy knew that they were doing wrong and wanted to cover it up. Walton has done a pretty good job in bringing this story to light. As Walton shows, British intelligence outfits in WWII resisted attempts to use torture of captured German and other Axis prisoners. People knew then that torture was morally wrong as well as ineffective in gaining reliable intelligence.
Apart from the gut-wrenching accounts of torture, Walton demonstrates how an failed strategy of repression was enthusiastically enforced time and again and always with the same failed outcome. Walton also draws attention to occasions when alternative approaches were pursued.
I do have one minor criticism regarding his misunderstanding of the nature of Ultra intelligence in WWII which he states, incorrectly, was synonymous with Enigma decrypts. He fails to mention and indeed seems unaware of the Lorenz/Geheimschreiber decrypts which provided the strategic intelligence within the Ultra classification. Similarly his comment on Alan Turing's theoretical work, which he relates to the Bombe used to help in Engima decrypts, is dubious. But, such minor errors do not affect the overall value of this most important book on the end of empire in the last decade and more.
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on 11 February 2013
There is much of interest in this book. The author has obviously spent much time in researching prime sources and has a done a good job in presenting his subject in a readable and informative fashion. It is a pity that to arrive at an absorbing narrative he has felt it necessary to look at his object through a liberal-left tinted lens of fifty years of hindsight. One cannot really apply modern views on civil and human rights to actions taking place in earlier days when hanging, flogging and detention were approved legal measures. He bewails the Government decision not to open the archives after 1965 - the obvious good reason is that a lot of which they contain is still live, and could prejudice current policy or operations, although one has sympathy for the view that historians as well as official "weeders" should be involved in the decision whether or not to grant access. It is also a pity that his style is jarred by his too frequent habit of referring to organisations and units as "outfits" - hardly an elegant term. The author's sterling research efforts would have benefited from a more concise, independent and less censorious treatment but the facts it contains, and its breadth of coverage commend this book to the serious historian and casual reader alike.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 4 April 2013
Walton deserves four stars for putting together two well known topics - espionage and end of empire, and coming up with a new take on both. Many of the sources (official documents) are new, making the book feel fresh. I liked his argument that intelligence links were an effective - and cheap - way of prolonging British influence in the former empire. And that many of Britain's end of empire failures were intelligence failures - particularly failing to predict or infiltrate anti-colonial movements, in Cyprus, Kenya etc, or learn lessons from past failures. There is a short, but informative, history of British intelligence, and a straightforward country by country (Palestine, Cyprus, Malaya, Suez etc) account of events, which is easy to follow and allows comparisons.
That said, I do see why some reviewers were less kind. I could have lived without strained analogies with 21st century torture and rendition (see Alastair Horne's 'A Savage War of Peace' about Algeria for a better condemnation of torture). This may grate on some readers. And he often seemed amazed that spies spy on people. By relying on written sources, mostly on MI5, the story sometimes feels dry, and incomplete (eg in comparison to Gordon Correra's 'The Art of Betrayal' on MI6 after WW2, full of first hand accounts and detail).
But the topic and thesis helped me overlook that, and I found it a fast and fascinating read that made me think a little differently about Britain's exit from empire.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
The author is good at making connections; he shows how the cypher school at Bletchley Park in a way evolves into the beginnings of what is become to days GCHQ since the end of the Second World War. It is clearly shown in declassified documents from 2011 show that the NSA and GCHQ agreed share certain amounts of information between them. The author investigations lead to what was intelligence for? What does this process generate in terms of evidence? With the generation of this evidence, how was this impacted upon by small group, which were hung up on their own obsessions and thus unable to see the bigger picture. It must be noted that the coverage of Empire of Secrets ends in the mid-1960s, not because the narrative ends there - but because the records going beyond this point have yet to be de-classified.
The author of this book has produced a good academic facts based history, which is also very readable. A tome that provides an enthralling background to the development of secret intelligence networks in Britain.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 21 May 2013
Guantanamo Bay, dirty tricks in Latin America (USA); the assassinations of Trotsky, President Yuschenko of Ukraine, former spy Litvinenko (ex USSR & present day Russia);the kidnappings of Eichmann, and the nuclear scientist Vanunu to stand trial (Israel). These are some brutal examples of secret services being used by nations to conduct war by other means. But Britain? Occasionally, relatives of victims of "small wars" make the headlines trying to obtain answers and compensation for past crimes. Surely that's nothing to do with the military, or is it?
Since the discovery of official "lost" colonial records in April 2012, at Hanslope Park, near Milton Keynes (and close to Bletchley), Calder Walton has been able to join the dots mapped by Christopher Andrew in his official history of the MI5 The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5and shed light onto secrets of the last days of the British Empire as FW Winterbotham The Ultra Secret.did in the early 1970s when he revealed the existence of Ultra, so changing thereafter the history of the Second World War.
A year before, the text of the UKUSA Agreement brokered between Britain and the USA through CGHQ and the NSA in 1946 was disclosed, which meant that British intelligence would work as a very junior partner with the US for the common good in the new Cold War crusade. It also meant that when Britain gave up its colonies beginning with the Indian sub continent in the 1940s it was laying the foundations of a pro US post-war system, something which the Soviets mouthing their ideology always maintained. This study takes us into the offices and minds of MI5 officers in our former colonies.
Before every handover they worked together with future political heads and officials offering guidance for future gathering and sharing intelligence. Unfortunately, it signified that should Britain later decide that it could not formally maintain the upkeep of listening bases, as it did in Cyprus after 1974, America would compel its partner to continue to bear the heavy costs (to date for a further 40 years) until other official arrangements were concluded with the sovereign state. For a country, like America, which formally disapproves of colonialism, this discovery underlines it has prolonged the age of decolonisation for Britain, and legitimised its own neo-imperialism.
It has meant that should locals choose to elect populist, revolutionary Marxist leaders to rule the colony on independence, such as described in British Guiana in the late 1950s and 60s, Britain could either be pressurised in cancelling elections, or refusing to accept the result, showing no concern if America interfered as it does in its "sphere" in Latin America in the country's internal affairs by promoting disorder, strikes, bombings, and out-right support for a more appeasing alternative. The US backed Burnham was pushed ahead of the popular Jagan, and once in power he changed the electoral system, got away with rigging elections, and tore the Guyanan economy apart for 20 years. Good for Guyana, Britain, or for the US?
As the documents stop in the 1960s, it would be interesting to know what was actually agreed to behind closed doors despite her strong public protests between Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan over the invasion of Grenada in October 1983, and if anyone listened in 1980 to the advice given by Ian Smith about promoting the educated Robert Mugabe as the people's choice for a black-run Zimbabwe.
Most of the volume is an examination of failures (possibly like no news is good news) in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, and in Aden, where intelligence organization was either poor or non-existent. There the British officials often sent out the military too hastily, carrying out plans without bothering to try out the "hearts and minds" lessons which emerged from emergencies in other areas of the globe. Consequently, any fears of trouble and uprisings provoked further violence and war. Conditions only started to be normalised when a better system of intelligence was effected. Among the operations included the setting up of detention centres, defined as "rehabilitation" camps -in Kenya they were compared to the Soviet Gulags; the forced resettlement of villages or "villagisation" to break the link between insurgents and supporters on the ground; the over-zealous use of reprisals and atrocities: the killing of 25 citizens by 2nd Bn of the Scots Guards in December 1948 at Batang Kal, in Selangor, has been compared with the My Lai massacre in Vietnam for the US; the use of "third degree" interrogation, with physical and mental violence, branding, even the threat of or actual executions, and should it have been necessary, as during the Second World War, the transfer of suspects to centres outside the area or the country - like those the US are currently using at Guantanomo Bay today, to effect further questioning by more trained, uncaring military professionals.
The author indicates that "sexing up" i.e. the abuse and misuse of intelligence by Prime Minister Blair alone, or together with spin doctor Campbell prior to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 on "weapons of mass destruction", was nothing unique or without a precedent in Britain's imperial post-war history. As it was known that the enemy could be around every corner, it was to Britain's advantage to dress every conflict in terms of the Cold War, and divert the US towards Britain's decolonising strategy. In 1953 Britain managed to persuade the US to intervene in Iran when the nationalist Premier Mossadeq announced the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil company, and to protect British interests they spun a false story that it was important to force regime change to halt the spread of Communism; instead, three years later, in October 1956, not being able to lure Eisenhower and the US to regime change by toppling President Nasser, and finding assassination with Bond-type gadgets too risky to accomplish, Eden was forced to go it more alone in collusion with France and Israel to invade Egypt.
Suez has since been considered the most embarrassing foreign incident in British history - Eisenhower and the US decided, stood up with the rest of the world and blow righteous wrath against an anachronism as colonialism, which in turn brought the resignation of Prime Minister Eden, the rise of Nasser; it cooled the Special relationship with the US, and had Macmillan not temporarily taken a more accommodating line it might have ended the relationship, as well as may have changed the ongoing peaceful transfer of intelligence in the colonies and the role of Britain as a major power even sooner.
Walton has explained that he and other historians will face many problems. The principal one is that many records were destroyed before independence, with the more sensitive documents re-written as dummy files so as not to arouse suspicion about missing records. The "originals" he was told were sent to Britain on the grounds of the general term of "national security", though there is no guarantee that what survived in the boxes at Hanslope Park were the real originals or copies of doctored versions. If someone was ordered to doctor history, who says it was not done again, and again. The is a whiff of Big Brother in little Britain.
As a historian and a teacher the author states that history can act as a guide for the present, as well as a warning for the future. Only when all the records are made public will people learn the lessons of the past, to prevent them being repeated. In reality, in a sense there is a feeling that he is pessimistic, as when that occurs it will only be a shadow or a partial vision of the past will be revealed. Besides, the further away from the period, the less certain individuals feel past lessons of colonial imperial times are relevant in a far more liberal, equal environment.
It is important to view life through the eyes of a very understanding forgiving protagonist, such as Nelson Mandela in South Africa, or of the mention things HM Queen Elizabeth has also addressed during her visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011. After admitting of costly past mistakes and sacrifices by all sides, it is vital for people and countries to remember to move forward. An open history of secrets of a past empire through Empire of Secrets will be illuminating in order to build something new; so even Walton's partial vision is a step towards a better understanding of something previously less or totally unknown. It should never be used as the seed of future hatreds, otherwise it is destructive, and to be avoided. This book then is a must for journalists in our instant 24 hour news society, demanding lively feedback in blogs, emails, and informal social network groups, the function in the past of political parties and institutionalised associations.
Finally, it is not as it is claimed in the inside flap reminiscent of a Le Carré novel. Calder Walton helps both historians and readers of spy-fiction to review John Le Carrè's novels better: to distinguish the historical fact from the fiction, which is the heart of Le Carré, and it is this which makes Walton's new work highly praiseworthy and well-recommended.
on 25 June 2014
This excellent book is based on ten years’ research into MI5 and Joint Intelligence Committee records, private papers, and interviews. Calder Walton, a London barrister, had access to the first 1,200 files released of the 8,800 files from 37 colonies that the Foreign Office had kept hidden for fifty years in its secret facility at Hanslope Park near Milton Keynes.
He writes, “Thanks to the Kenyan case presently before the High Court, we can now see that Hanslope Park acted as a depository for records detailing the most shameful acts and crimes committed in the last days of the British empire.”
As he points out, “The first cache of the previously ‘lost’ records, only made publicly available in April 2012, revealed that the British government deliberately set about destroying, culling and then removing incriminating records from colonies as they approached independence in order to prevent them falling into the hands of post-independence governments. By destroying and removing these documents, Britain was then able to inculcate a fictional history of its colonial benevolence, in which occasional abuses and violence may have been inflicted on local populations, but these were the exception, not the rule. The ‘lost’ Colonial Office records revealed such a claim to be nonsense. Burying the British Empire was a far more bloody affair than has previously been acknowledged or supposed.” As Walton comments, “Attlee’s government actually put the brakes on colonial emancipation wherever it could.”
He notes, “In several post-war colonial ‘Emergencies’, British soldiers tortured detainees during interrogations – despite the belief of British intelligence that doing so was counter-productive and would not produce reliable intelligence.” If it had produced reliable intelligence, would that have been fine?
In 1948, Malaya’s dollar earnings were worth more than Britain’s entire industrial output. In the war against Malaya, British forces killed ‘probably several thousand innocent (non-combatant) people’. “British security personnel effectively operated a shoot-to kill policy in Malaya.” Walton comments, “Malaya effectively became a police state”, just like Palestine and Kenya. The colonial government forced 1.2 million civilians, a seventh of the population, into concentration camps.
In Kenya in the 1950s, British forces killed 20,000 Kenyans and imprisoned 80,000. 32 settlers were killed and fewer than 200 British army and police personnel.
In the 1960s British Guiana, the CIA and Britain’s SIS covertly instigated riots that led to 200 deaths, to oust the elected government.
on 1 February 2014
Calder Walton has revealed a series of episodes on the winding up of the British Empire of which little was known publicly until recently.Those of us growing up during that time remember events being reported in the media as they unfolded, but now we can learn why things happened the way they did, and how the politicians of the day thought. Not since Richard Aldrich's book 'The Hidden Hand. Britain, America and Cold War Secret Intelligence', published in 2001 before the release of new material, has there been any serious study of this era. Now that some intriguing documents have been released by the British government we can see more clearly just what was really going on and just how much was due to the connivance of British Intelligence (MI5 and SIS) in countries such as India, Kenya, Cyprus, the Suez crisis, the Malayan insurgency, and little-known, less-documented areas such as Guyana, then British Guiana. Until recently, the history of these episodes was another example of what Christopher Andrew has referred to as the "missing dimension" in British history. Walton tackles each issue more or less chronologically as each country ceded from the Empire, although in some cases some episodes were happening concurrently. Only on the subject of Rhodesia and UDI did I feel that it was a bit thin, but this may be because of a lack of available documents. He had unique access to a variety of documents, many of which had been 'lost' in the Foreign Office archives at Hanslope Park or thought to have been conveniently weeded out. It is hoped that as more information comes to light we will learn more about these and other incidents which have remained a mystery and a matter of speculation. Walton had the advantage of being supervised by Christopher Andrew for his PhD thesis as well as being one of his researchers on the official history of MI5, both of which stand him in good stead for subsequent books he may write. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it any serious student or afficionado of intelligence studies.
on 12 May 2014
This book contains an interesting story. It is worth reading if unfamiliar with the break-up of the British Empire. It is in my view marred by hyperbole – breathlessly reiterating claims about previously unrevealed documents and untold stories. There were far fewer surprises than the author would have the reader believe.
I would have preferred to have formed my own opinions on events described rather than having the author’s own judgments forced upon me. The book also cries out for a good editor – not least to minimise repetitions. For example, in the discussion on Israel, the reader is several times reminded that various characters later became Prime Ministers. Elsewhere, the same information has frequently been presented in different ways in (almost) successive paragraphs – sometimes even on the same page (yes, I am aware of the irony!)
I seldom review the books I have read – but I feel strongly about this book. I bought this book on the basis of a newspaper review. I was disappointed.
on 27 February 2014
Mr Walton has written a very readable account of the British Empire's demise and the crucial part that Intelligence played in how each colonial possession gained independence. He clearly lays out both the successes and failures of intelligence and how they influenced the outcomes, for example disaster in Burma and smoother transitions in Nigeria and the Gold Coast. The structure and history of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ is neatly laid out with fascinating details of the different personalities involved and how they affected the decision-making processes. I have done a fair amount of reading on the subject of the British Empire, but very few books, in my opinion, lay bare the internal workings of Empire post-1945 so interestingly and concisely.