Bookshot #119: Defend The Realm

I tend to take a somewhat skeptical view of histories of the various intelligence agencies around the world. How much can one author really have access to? How much of it is really true? There's good reason to approach a lot of these books with a certain amount of trepidation- but Defend The Realm is different. MI-5 was founded in 1909 and for the occasion of their centenary in 2009, they actually commissioned a history of their first one hundred years- which means that this book is probably one of the few authorized histories of an espionage agency that I can recall coming across.

Christopher Andrew was probably the most obvious choice to tackle the work. The jacket cover describes him as being 'Britain's leading historian of Intelligence' and he's been on the history faculty of Cambridge University- but he's also actually the author of another book I own, The Mitrokhin Archive (which goes over the files smuggled out of KGB Headquarters and turned over to the British by Vasili Mitrokhin.) In other words, Andrew has tackled this kind of source material before and you can immediately tell that he brings a ton of expertise on the subject to his narrative about MI-5. There might have been another person out there who could have taken better advantage of the unprecedented access that Andrew was given to MI-5's files, but I doubt it.

Right off the bat, it's important to note that MI-5 isn't MI-6. No James Bond shenanigans here- in fact, the amount of historical detail about the camaraderie and the work culture actually makes it seem like a better place to work. SIS is described as being more centered around individual agents doing the work of intelligence, while MI-5 seems to have settled into a tradition of working as a team to tackle whatever the problem of the day was. (I also like how Andrew takes time to note the role of women in the workplace and how they advanced over the decades in the organization into officer ranks and eventually, in 1992 with the appointment of Dame Stella Rimington as Director General, to the top of MI-5 itself)

It's origins begin in the First World War where there was a preoccupation and worry about possible German subversion and catching spies. If there's one trend that continues throughout the decades it's that MI-5 operates in peaks and valleys-- German intelligence is at the forefront at first, but then the concern drops in between the wars and comes right back up again for the Second World War. After the war, MI-5 sort of shrank back down again, but soon found itself growing once more to face the Soviet threat. That preoccupation lasted until Operation Foot in the early 70s, before MI-5 pivoted to deal with the Troubles in Northern Ireland. There was another 'valley' at the end of the Cold War, which saw MI-5 briefly move toward tackling organized crime before pivoting again to face the rising threat of Islamist terrorism.

 What surprised me about this book? Well, how much of an overseas service MI-5 had before decolonization amped up and the Empire retreated. Their involvement in tracking and countering the widespread industrial subversion of the 1970s was also surprising. The book naturally touches on the infamous Wilson Plot, which turned out to be less sinister than I thought- there was some concern about some trips that Wilson took to the Soviet Union that MI-5 checked out, but he had moved away from any Soviet sympathies he may or may not have had by the time became Prime Minister. The unmasking of the Cambridge Five spy ring also takes up a significant chunk of the book, for obvious reasons-- but I didn't know about the Czech SVB and other Communist satellite intelligence agencies being so active in the spy game either.

Overall: It's a doorstop of a book, but the level of access is unprecedented and the author has the expertise to maximize it. It's everything you've ever wanted to know about MI-5 but were afraid to ask- and normally that might be a little bit of a daunting prospect, but what it turns out to be is a portrait of the 20th century history of the United Kingdom from an unique perspective: the people who saw more than you thought and did more than you knew. My Grade: **** out of ****.

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