REVIEW OF ‘ON INTELLIGENCE: THE HISTORY OF ESPIONAGE AND THE SECRET WORLD’ BY JOHN HUGHES-WILSON
PUBLISHED BY CONSTABLE £10.99 paperback
For anyone who has read my three-part series on The Paradoxes of Spying and would like a more in-depth overview of the intelligence world, you can do no better than pick up a copy of this good little book. On Intelligence is an easily accessible read and provides a comprehensive guide to the main themes and dilemmas that face those who work in the intelligence community, those who provide information to them and those who act on that information.
Beginning with a sweeping history of the world’s second oldest profession, Wilson goes on to briefly examine the ‘Intelligence Cycle’ which is the process whereby the requirements for intelligence of any agency, department or government is translated into hard intelligence.
The author then explores the various facets of intelligence work such as human intelligence (HUMINT), signals intelligence (SIGINT) and more recent developments in electronic and cyber intelligence (ELINT) and provides good examples of each.
But, as with all intelligence work, the book comes alive with the human element whether it be the spies such as John Vassal and the Cambridge Five or the appalling and shocking security breaches that allowed operatives like Aldrich Ames and Robert Hansen to wreak devastation on American Intelligence.
Probably the real highlight of the book are the chapters which vividly illustrate how first-rate intelligence about what the enemy was about to do was just simply not acted upon for a variety of reasons. These include being afraid to tell political masters about intelligence and information they don’t want to hear, grossly mistaken interpretation of the intelligence, failure to collate the information and, not least, agencies holding onto intelligence and not circulating it. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the Arab attack on Israel in 1973, the Japanese invasion of Peral Harbour and, most recently, 9/11, are all succinctly highlighted as instances where failure to act on intelligence led to disastrous and tragic consequences.
Espionage and intelligence by their nature lend themselves to conspiracy theory. It is to Wilson’s credit that he steers away from that seductive path and focuses on cock-up and the usual human weaknesses of pride, avarice, greed and rivalry as the main drivers for intelligence failures.
There is one glaring exception. And that is where Wilson lends credence to the theory that Martin Bormann, the head of Hitler’s Nazi Party Chancellery, was in fact a Soviet agent. There is not a shred of proof of this, despite extensive research on the subject.
Apart from that blemish, this is a really good read on intelligence. The examples and case studies cited are well written and highlight the points which Wilson wishes to get across much better than a drier academic approach could have achieved.
The collection of intelligence and successfully acting upon that information is much more nuanced and complicated than is ever given credit for in popular culture. Ironically, as this book demonstrates well, gaining good intelligence about an opponent is often a lot simpler than acting upon that information because of your own fragmentation, cock-ups, myopia, division and rivalries.
With intelligence, you can be your own worst enemy.