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The Secret World Reviews

The Secret World by Christopher Andrew

The Secret World

A History of Intelligence

Christopher Andrew

3.50 out of 5

3 reviews

Imprint: Allen Lane
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publication date: 28 Jun 2018
ISBN: 9780713993660

The first mention of espionage in world literature is in the Book of Exodus.'God sent out spies into the land of Canaan'. From there, Christopher Andrew traces the shift in the ancient world from divination to what we would recognize as attempts to gather real intelligence in the conduct of military operations, and considers how far ahead of the West - at that time - China and India were.

  • The GuardianBook of the Day
3 stars out of 5
28 Dec 2018

"Andrew’s narrative is often livened with moments of excitement and interest, though sometimes the detail overwhelms"

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.

Reviews

  • The TimesBook of the Year
4 stars out of 5
Gerard DeGroot
1 Dec 2018

"no one is better equipped to sort through the subterfuge than Christopher Andrew"

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.

3 stars out of 5
30 Jun 2018

"Andrew’s story is full of intriguing facts and pleasing anecdotes, though sometimes burdened with confusing detail"

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.