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Secrets And Lies

Angus Mitchell
The Defence of the Realm: The Authorised History of MI5, by Christopher Andrew, Allen Lane, 1,032 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-0713998856 MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949, by Keith Jeffery, Bloomsbury, 832 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-0747591832 “Truth-telling is not compatible with the defence of the realm,’ commented George Bernard Shaw in the preface to Heartbreak House, a play about British society drifting blithely towards destruction on the eve of the First World War. For most of the twentieth century, public knowledge of the role of secret service has persisted as the missing dimension of British history. Over the last three decades however, there has been a melting of the icecap regulating the climate of government secrecy. Intelligence history has appeared in many different shapes and guises: official and unofficial, informative and disinformative, conspiratorial and counter-conspiratorial accounts have been variously published, broadcast, leaked, rumoured, accepted and denied. Intelligence history is now a rich and provocative sub-discipline in the study of the contemporary world. On another level, it provides a platform for myth-making and fantasising among a largely uncritical public and an acquiescent press. The two authoritative volumes under review select and synthesise much of the new research into polished narratives. Their publication celebrates the foundation of the modern security services in 1909 and their continuing activities, in the case of MI5 to the present; the history of MI6 cuts out in 1949. Copyright of both volumes is not vested in the respective authors but in “the Crown”. Forewords to the volumes by John Sawers, the serving chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6), and Jonathan Evans, the director general of the Security Service (MI5) state the need for modern security services to be as “open and transparent as possible, within the constraints of what the law allows”. They are written in their own internal language of political correctness, protecting past agents in the interest of the somewhat nebulous concepts of “national security” and the “realm”. Reading these two volumes in late 2010, as news about the unauthorised release of an archive of documents by WikiLeaks began to reverberate within the inner circles of international relations, it was hard not to ponder and compare the wider considerations and some of the ethical issues behind state secrecy, then and now. In his letter to the US ambassador in London, the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, concluded that the failure of the US…

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