New College of the Humanities

Intelligence Matters

The Black Door: Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers by Richard J. Aldrich and Rory Cormac
The Black Door: Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers
by Richard J. Aldrich and Rory Cormac 
William Collins 606pp £30

FOR WHITEHALL’S hottest reading matter, it must be hard to beat ‘Old Stripey’. This is the nickname for the blue and red striped box in which the Cabinet secretary collects the day’s most secret intelligence material for the prime minister to read. 

Despite some sceptics, Prime Ministers have taken increasing control over intelligence matters over the past century – to the extent that, under Tony Blair, MI6 used to seek advice from his communications chief Alastair Campbell about its own relations with the media. In 2010, on assuming office, David Cameron delivered on a pledge to establish a National Security Council as a powerful Cabinet committee working within the Downing Street network. Now Richard J. Aldrich and Rory Cormac have had the excellent idea of charting this gathering-in of the reins by prime ministers. 

Leading the way was Winston Churchill who, long before the Second World War, was receiving secret intelligence from Desmond Morton, a former MI6 officer. Once hostilities began, Morton became Churchill’s personal intelligence adviser. Aldrich and Cormac give the best introduction I have read to the 1930s turf wars between the various quasi-intelligence operations led by characters such as Morton, Joseph Ball and Robert Vansittart. 

During the Second World War, Churchill’s gung-ho but extremely effective approach to intelligence, particularly his use of encrypted ‘Ultra’ material from Bletchley Park, assured that relations between Downing Street and the security services could never be the same again.

Aldrich and Cormac retell many well-known stories, such as the backgrounds to operations Mincemeat and Fortitude. They are good at finding telling detail, even if their academic credentials look a trifle threadbare when they suggest that MI5 agent Dusko Popov’s code name (Tricycle) resulted from his predilection for three-in-a-bed sex romps. Like many aspects of Popov’s story, this was a postwar fantasy. Tricycle was so called because he had two sub-agents.   

More significant is that the authors record the extent to which Churchill had become tired and basically incapable by the end of the war, when ministers and officials were forced to keep dossiers from him. 

Nevertheless, immediate postwar prime ministers owed their understanding of the secret arts to Churchill: notably Attlee (who, in the early days of the Cold War, was more of an aficionado than is often warranted). 

Churchill had beefed up the role of the Joint Intelligence Committee as the coordinator of intelligence matters, but Eden disregarded it over Suez. Macmillan too was surprisingly unconvinced. He preferred special operations, particularly those in Yemen and Cyprus.

As the world became more integrated, Wilson did not really understand intelligence, becoming obsessed about the South African Bureau of State Security (BOSS). When Northern Ireland’s Troubles developed, however, he had the nous to appoint Dick White, former head of MI5 and MI6, as his official Security Coordinator.

Margaret Thatcher was fascinated by intelligence, but surprisingly wary of its practitioners. Concerned by subversion, she preferred to surround herself with freelance experts such as Brian Crozier. Her successor John Major was more relaxed, prepared to include security operations within the criteria of his commitment to open government. 

Blair gets a lambasting as ‘an incompetent intelligence consumer and a poor manager of secret service’, while Cameron had more across-the-board contacts with the intelligence agencies than any premier since Churchill. All this is set against a good summary of the consequences of operations in the Middle East and the rise of terrorism, though this was written before the Chilcott report.

Stepping back, the authors raise questions about the future of intelligence in a world of real-time social media and the Internet of things. In such circumstances they argue that one of the most important questions for a contemporary prime minister is finding the right balance between security and privacy.

 As academics, they are also interested in what this means for intelligence studies. They get in a ritual howl about a world in which GCHQ translators are prosecuted for revealing emails but Cabinet ministers can, with impunity, write memoirs quoting detailed intelligence material. They draw succour, however, from the extent to which information about intelligence matters can now be gleaned from public sources such as the PREM (Prime Minister’s Office) files in the National Archives.

Andrew Lycett

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