The author is a genial guide to the great successes of the secret world, from Moses’ use of spies from the 12 tribes of Israel to case the promised land (and, if possible, to come back bearing grapes) to the cracking of the Zimmermann telegram in 1917, “the best-publicised decrypt in intelligence history”, which helped to bring the US into the first world war. He is also attentive to some of history’s more spectacular intelligence failures. The night before the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Lavrenti Beria (the head of Stalin’s notorious NKVD) wrote confidently that: “Hitler is not going to attack us in 1941.” I hadn’t known that the dodgy intelligence from a source codenamed Curveball, used by Colin Powell to sell the war on Iraq to the UN in 2003, was found by the Chilcot report to have been lifted in part from the 1996 film The Rock, starring Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery. Andrew’s narrative is often livened with moments of excitement and interest, though sometimes the detail overwhelms and chapters bulge at the seams like an overstuffed diplomatic bag.
Spies are a slippery lot. They lie, then lie about their lies. How do you write a history of a profession based on deception? No one is better equipped to sort through the subterfuge than Christopher Andrew. This is his magnum opus; he starts with Moses and ends with Putin. The message that emerges is that the history of intelligence is not linear; lessons are conveniently forgotten or hidden away. It’s rather like Groundhog Day: the skills of spies, being rather distasteful, have to be learnt again and again.
Andrew’s story is full of intriguing facts and pleasing anecdotes, though sometimes burdened with confusing detail. But he does not quite engage with the broader questions he himself raises. How much influence did intelligence really have on the course of history? How much do you distort the historical record if you omit the secret world? What are the perennial roots of intelligence failure?... Despite its length, The Secret World does not adequately tackle such matters of interpretation and judgment. It is not the book one hoped for: a chronicle rather than a critical history.