on 12 August 2011
I enjoyed this book much more than the previous reviewer.
It may not be an academic tome and may contain little that's new to a specialist audience but I suspect that's not the target market anyway. For a general reader like me it was accessible, well-researched and fluidly written.
I always value Gordon Corera's analysis of security issues on BBC News and have enjoyed his Radio 4 documentaries. This book was equally rewarding.
Written by a BBC journalist, this is a readable and gripping book about MI6 and the development of Britain's secret service. Though MI6 was born in 1909, this history effectively starts with the post-WW2 Cold War period, and the early chapters set in Vienna read like the novels of Graham Greene and John le Carré, both of whom worked for MI6.
The fall of Soviet Russia in 1991 changed the game, however, and the latter part of the book discusses MI6's search for a new role and identity in a post-Cold War world.
The book is especially good on tracking the involvement of MI6 in Afghanistan where, with the CIA, they helped arm, train and fund mujahideen against the communist government and later Soviet invasion in the 1980s, and there's a nice irony in quoting Thatcher's government on how Islamic groups "`were good terrorists so we supported them. The ANC were bad. That caused her [Thatcher] no problem at all,'".
The final chapter looks at the role of MI6 in the `weapons of mass destruction' debacle which led to the invasion of Iraq, and the impact that has had on the management, role and status of MI6.
Throughout Corera keeps this readable and involving, and maintains a fairly judicious and objective viewpoint. So this is very good political reportage which weaves the personal stories of spies, agents, handlers and bureaucrats together. In some ways, the story of MI6 is also the story of world politics, from the Cold War between global superpowers to international terrorism - and Corera tells it in an accessible and fluent way.
(This review is from an ARC courtesy of the publisher)
on 21 December 2013
Review of the Kindle version
Can this book be described as interesting? Definitely! "Truth is stranger than fiction" may be a cliche but it is a wholly attributable truism here. Its pages unleash a tsunami of plots, sub-plots, counter-plots, their myriads of characters replete with far from "normal" personalities - from the cricket-bat straight to the mind-boggling treacherous, slyly devious, and outlandishly dodgy.
That human beings can indulge in wheeling and dealing, double and triple crossing, cunning, trickery, and legerdemain - either as a lifelong habit or as a passing whim - at times beggars belief. For all their stunning subterfuge and chicanery, these individuals are often painted as being "quite ordinary" - which perhaps challenges the mental model of us lesser mortals then.
Putting the content together and making sense of it, however, at times resembles an exercise in lesser tradecraft - piecing together the loose fragments of story, anecdote, "official" versions, fairy tales, and apocrypha into a seamless picture becomes an exercise in patience, purpose, and sheer pertinacity.
Well, the one feature missing from the narrative is any hint or inkling of chapter structure. Each chapter is as dimly-lit as the post-war Vienna where the reader enters Mr Corera's murky world. There are no route maps, no landmarks, no signposts, and, unlike Vienna, definitely no lampposts. The terrain is completely featureless, devoid of focal point. The author has created an apparently never-ending script leading the reader from adventure to misadventure, with forays off right and off left into calamity and the occasional triumph.
In each chapter, you start at the beginning and work through a seemingly limitless series of tales. Like the spies in the text, you hope to find some connecting bridges (or at least doors) from one scenario to the next. If you stop to take stock (or come up for air) - you will be forced to retrace some of your steps to remind you how you arrived at your current unknown location.
Perhaps this is Mr Corera's intention - if it is difficult for a spy to make sense of a narrative then likewise for the humble reader. Perhaps spies are trained (well sometimes) to deal with tedium - unfortunately "average reader" is not. A few headings and sub-headings would not go amiss - especially in Chapter Ten.
Ah! Chapter Ten! Therein lies a tale! If ever you thought that politicians were a bunch of unprincipled, unethical, self-promoting, aggrandising thrill-seekers - the final chapter will remove any doubt. If ever you had doubts about going to war in Iraq or into just one of the many wars in Afghanistan, your unease and lack of certainty will be removed.
There is a quote in an earlier chapter that "...absolute morality, absolute ethics just does not exist in affairs of the state". As ordinary citizens, perhaps this is our mistake when judging politicians. However it is a very uncomfortable thought that "one law for them and one law for us" not only exists but is actively pursued as a matter of policy.
It's a cracking book. But, editors, please put in a few indicators and and switch on the lights from time to time!
on 12 August 2011
Fascinating - a really good look at MI6, full of info and surprises. Paints MI6 as a strange mix of the heroic and macho world of Ian Fleming's James Bond, and the secretive and dangerous world of le Carré. It's thought provoking and relates to events still very fresh - and possibly raw - in Britons' minds, such as Blair's decision to invade Iraq; however it also brings back memories of the Cold War and really emphasises how little we knew about what was actually going on (that hasn't changed, it seems). Really enjoyed it and would definitely recommend it - a superb read.
on 27 April 2014
There is a passage in Le Carre's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" where the traitor Bill Haydon tells George Smiley that the secret services are the only true expression of a nation's character. Corera's book relates how the secret service tried to preserve the nation's character from Moscow's attempts to subvert and undermine the British establishment through post 2nd WW classic tradecraft espionage until the arrival of multi facetted, and arguably more potent, threats from terrorism and proliferation heralded a whole new set of responses during the post Soviet era.
If there is a discernible theme running through the narrative it's how the secret service became less elitist and insulated from mainstream political oversight and was compelled by global events and social change to be more transparent and accountable for its actions. Corera relates the history of these changes with lively anecdotes and commentary from many of the major practitioners who helped to bring the secret service out of the shadows. He cites the fallout from the "Cambridge Five" betrayals in the 1950s/1960s and the Iraq WMD fiasco of 2002/2003 as the two low points in the service's credibility to the British public. Although the book is entitled "MI6" there is a generous amount of material and first hand attribution from those more directly connected to its sister service "MI5".This didn't spoil my enjoyment of the book but perhaps a broader themed title may have been more appropriate to reflect the duality and interdependence of both agencies.
on 23 October 2012
I'm not really complaining, just warning any other people who buy a lot of books. I didn't realise this book was one I'd already bought in hardback. It was called: The Art of Betrayal: Life and Death in the British Secret Service. Now it's called MI6: etc.....I read a review of it in FT Weekend and bought it on Kindle. Once I started reading it, it seemed familiar, and sure enough, there it was on my bookshelves.
on 25 August 2011
This is a fascinating book written with great verve and aplomb. The history of the Secret Intelligence Service - MI6 as it is familiarly known today - has been charted by many, but few have possessed Corera's narrative style. Particularly enthralling are the sections about the 1950s and early 1960s, when Soviet moles seemed to be emerging with regularity and the KGB appeared all too often to be winning the intelligence war. But the story of perhaps MI6's greatest success from that era - that of the defector Oleg Penkovsky - is the most compelling of all, with Corera recreating with real authenticity the tense, taut discussion (interrogation) between MI6 (and the CIA) and Penkovsky in Room 360 of London's Mount Royal Hotel.
on 7 September 2011
The positives about this book are that it's very readable, has some entertaining anecdotes and, for anyone who is completely new to the subject, it provides a breezy overview of the British intelligence services from the end of the Second World War to the present day. The author's journalistic background means that he writes well, has interviewed some of the leading participants and references some of the key books (but very little of the Internet material).
There's decent coverage of the Cold War focusing on the well known figures of Philby and the Cambridge 5, as well as Penkovsky and Gordievsky with some interesting geographical case studies on the intelligence proxy wars in Vienna, the Congo and Afghanistan. The final chapters on the political pressure on the intelligence agencies in the run up to to the Iraq War are a very good summary based on the various reports and accounts of this. The book also weaves in a number of interesting references to writers of spy fiction who were involved in intelligence (Greene, Le Carre and Fleming).
The negatives are that it's much weaker on the 1990s which are pretty much ignored, there's little discussion of the Tomlinson and Shayler controversies for example, and there is practically no material on Northern Ireland which is a major omission given the levels of intelligence activities directed against republican and loyalist terrorism. The post Iraq material is pretty scant and there is no coverage of the Wikileaks revelations and the implications of the Internet for security organisations.
If you're a general reader looking for an exciting history of Britain's spooks, then this is well worth a read. For those wanting more academic or in-depth accounts, I suggest you look elsewhere.
BBC security correspondent, Gordon Corera’s book is a broad-brush summary of MI-6’s operations and internal struggles from 1949 and the intensification of the Cold War through to the modern War on Terror. Weighing in at over 400 pages, it’s a surprisingly quick read with Corera packing in a lot of information without ever bogging down or making it seem turgid.
The book begins with the initial post World War II espionage skirmishes in Vienna and moves on to the implications of the Burgess, Maclean and Philby treachery (particularly Philby, whose betrayal of Albanian missions led to the loss of many lives). I thought that the Philby sections were perhaps the most perfunctory in the book as they cover a lot of old ground particularly if you’ve watched the recent documentary: Kim Philby: His Most Intimate Betrayal, which is more interesting in terms of analysing the effect on Nicholas Elliott and his career.
More interesting to me was the chapter looking at British operations in the Congo, which I had not previously been aware of – especially the work of Daphne Park (the only female operative in the book and a woman who knew to take her closest secrets to the grave). Corera does well in summarising the political situation in the Congo at this time and the events that led to the coup and it was both fascinating and horrifying to see the role played by Britain and the USA in bringing events about. Also good were the chapters dealing with the running of Russian double-agents and the efforts made to bring them in once their activities were blown. Corera does well at showing the characters and egos in operation and in explaining the dark art of how to turn an agent and how to check and confirm the information they provide, especially in the increasing paranoia working within MI6 as a result of Philby et al.
I wanted more of the build up to events in Afghanistan and the Middle East, mainly because Corera’s summary of the history of CIA operations there and the strained relationship with Britain is so fascinating, as is the information failure that led to the invasion of Iraq.
Ultimately this isn’t an academic book but if you have an interest in espionage or the Cold War then there’s a lot here to learn and keep you entertained. I’d definitely check out Corera’s other work.
on 1 January 2013
This book I found as thrilling as any Le Carre spy novel - and that author as a once-agent, with Graham Greene and others, get several mentions - and it gets right to the core of the British Intelligence services. It seems to indicate that the Cambridge Five and other old school tie disasters in fact led to a toughening and professionalism that would make MI6 (and most likely its sister service MI5) the best there is - comparative to resources - or bangs for bucks - in the world today.
Wonderful look behind the scenes for all spy buffs.