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SINGLE SPIES AND BATTALIONS
on 10 September 2013
What with Mr Assange, Mr Snowden and Mr/Ms Manning, spies are very much in the news in 2013, so this book ought to catch the tide. I found it absorbing, and I can recommend it from several standpoints. The author is an acknowledged academic expert with a thorough grasp of the history of espionage in America and the UK, he obviously enjoys a good story and he recounts some of the racier episodes very readably. He is also (to my own way of thinking) fair-minded although conservatives may sense some hauteur and distaste in his depiction of their icons such as Mr Reagan and Mr Bush of Baghdad. More significantly still, he can thread his way through the tangled and jealous relations between American and British intelligence establishments without letting either patriotism or undue deference to the other party confuse his judgment or his narrative. Another thing he is certainly able to do is keep a story uncomplicated, but I felt, all the same, that some episodes were hardly recognisable as the contentious issues I once knew after being stripped down to the ex-cathedra simplifications of Professor Jeffreys-Jones. Is this really all there was to the Valerie Plame episode, for instance? Why on earth did I find it unintelligible at the time, if so? To this day I have never straightened out in my mind what was the real intelligence supplied to Tony Blair that provided the ostensible pretext for the Iraq war of 2003. I don't blame myself for that, as I don't suppose for one moment that Mr Blair and Mr Campbell wanted me or anyone else to be clear about the matter. They knew how to arrange that, even down to the masterly selection of a bumbling old judge to conduct an interminable enquiry and produce a report that managed to divert the spotlight on to total but helpful irrelevancies. These days the summation `dodgy dossier' has stuck, and rightly so, as far as I can tell; but maybe we could have done with Professor Jeffreys-Jones to put all our minds right years ago with bolts of effortless insight.
Strangely, my main experience after reading this book was that I had to ask myself `What have I just been reading?' Like the British weather and the Post Office in some recent tv advertising, this book does lots of different things. It tells the separate stories of the British and American secret services: it describes their tortuous and constantly changing relationship: it goes beyond the topic of gathering and analysing intelligence into that of political action, and for the very good reason that so did the CIA with increasing frequency. At the end the author, very reasonably, extends his scope by discussing the attempts by the EU to create its own intelligence service, and he finds the activities of the EU police force inseparable from this. I don't quarrel with this last feature, because the main story earlier could never be restricted to the intelligence services strictly so-called either, but had to take account at times of military, naval and police assertion of their own interests in the area of intelligence and the uses they could put it to. Nor do I quarrel with the breadth of the author's agenda. What I do think is that he has bitten off more than he could really chew as an author and that the book needs drastic revision in a second edition.
I mean, where do we end up regarding the core topic of the relationship between the US and UK intelligence services? There have been plenty of insightful observations all the way through, but at the end it all rather peters out in a way that I found disappointing. I had wanted a summary, I needed generalisation, but nothing doing. Indeed, the book ends with a whimper after a rather half-hearted chapter on the current state of the European intelligence project, a discussion which was only a bit of an addendum anyway. The problem is not the amount of material nor even its breadth of scope, it is that this clever professor could have done with a more active and assertive editor to organise his thoughts and their presentation. There are a few errors that will doubtless be sorted out in a reprint before any substantial revision takes place - e.g. in 1971 Harold Wilson was leader of the opposition and Edward Heath was prime minister, not the other way about as was the case before the 1970 election, and was again in 1974. It may, indeed, be just the year that is wrong in the sentence in question. This is a valuable book, and a reader disposed to take good notes can put together a lot of the overall picture from the author's passing comments in the way I would have liked the author himself to have done for us. What the book really needs (and deserves) is a drastic rewrite, and I don't think that this is an outrageous or unreasonable suggestion. There must be some gifted ghost-writers out there who would relish the task and do it well. Indeed I almost think that if I were a bit younger I might offer to do the job myself.