British Books That I’ll Probably Have to Buy

The new official history of MI-6 by Keith Jeffery has hit and (hardback and paperback).  The book will be out in September, except for the paperback edition which will be September 2011.  Unlike Christopher Andrew’s official history of MI-5, which goes more or less to the present day, Jeffery’s book only goes to 1949.  Still, that’s four more years into the Cold War intelligence history than the Brits normally talk about in an official capacity.  I met a retired senior MI-6 official at an IISS event a few weeks ago and he explained the difference between the time spans covered by MI-5’s book and MI-6’s as follows: the sensitive stuff that must be protected is usually information pertaining to recruited agents.  Recruiting agents is the core business of MI-6, but not so MI-5.  In fact, he indicated that for a long time such business was sort of a backwater within MI-5.

By the way, Prof. Jeffery is going to be the external examiner in my dissertation defense in a month, so I have a double interest in this book.  As my dissertation is about American intelligence during World War I, I’ll be particularly interested to see what he has to say about MI-6 activities during that war.  Previously, the main work on that subject that I’ve used is Andrew’s Her Majesty’s Secret Service which is an excellent book, but dates all the way back to 1987.

Englandspiel: The England Game : SOE’s Worst Wartime Disaster is another forthcoming book in the UK that sounds interesting.  The blurb about it on says:

The England Game – ‘Englandspiel’- was SOE’s most humiliating spy disaster of the Second World War and Germany’s most successful counter-espionage operation. German counter-intelligence penetrated the Dutch SOE network and fooled London into believing their agents were free and sending genuine radio messages in 1942-43, resulting in the deaths of 47 SOE agents and hundreds of civilian helpers, and the loss of 12 RAF aircraft on SOE missions. MI6 could easily have helped SOE prevent the disaster that unfolded in Holland by passing on and acting on the intelligence they received – but it wasn’t in their interests to do so.

This disaster sounds rather like Operation Berezino which the Soviets ran against the Germans during World War II and the early Cold War WiN operation that the Communist Polish service ran against the Brits and the Americans.  (See Robert Stephan’s, Stalin Secret War: Soviet Counterintelligence Against the Nazis, 1941-1945 for Berezino.  For WiN see Steven Dorril’s book on MI-6 as well as this website and this nascent website.)

Finally, and on a much more personal note, I’m intrigued to discover at a book entitled The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome.  The blurb about it says:

Arthur Ransome is best remembered as the author of the series of books that began with Swallows and Amazons and sold millions of copies around the world. But before he became the jolly Lakeland storyteller, offering idyllic images of brave children messing about in boats, Ransome had spent a decade in Russia and lived a very different life as a spokesman for authoritarianism and violence. He went there in 1913 as a struggling young freelance writer and made friends with leading Russian liberals, and wrote a fine book of tales based on Russian folk legends. But as the country sank into chaos and war, Ransome was caught up in the whirlwind of revolution. Always impressionable and eager to please, he gained the confidence of the Bolshevik leadership and became, for three crucial years, their main defender and propagandist in the West. His reports in the “Guardian” were uncritical and disingenuous. “MI6” considered him an agent of a foreign power; British officials argued that he should not be allowed to return to Britain. Yet at the same time, while Ransome was so intimate with the Communist leadership that he could get exclusive interviews with Lenin – who he portrayed as an avuncular, folksy, straight-talking politician – he was also offering to help elements of the British intelligence services with information about what was going on in Russia.

I spent my third grade year living in England and while I was there I discovered Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series of children’s books in their 1960s Puffin edition.  I was immediately enthralled.  In terms of books that captured my imagination as a young boy, there are the Swallows and Amazon series, The Chronicles of Narnia, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s works.  Everything else is a distant also-ran.  This series is on my living room bookshelves even as we speak.  The picture of Ransome on the back of the books showed him as an avuncular bald man with round glasses and an enormous white moustache that the most manly walrus would have to envy.  When I became a little older and more historically savvy, the fact that his bio blurb on the books said he had reported from places like Russia and China suggested to me that he probably had an interesting life and interesting politics, but nothing more.  I’m delighted to find a book that talks about his life and describes his interaction with World War I, the Russian Revolution, and British intelligence.  Judging from the introduction to the book, which will show you in part, the connection to British intelligence appears to have been Sir Basil Thomson, the head of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch.  If Ransome’s writings were as pro-Communist as the blurb suggests it will be interesting to judge whether his contributions to British intelligence outweighed the propaganda value to the bad guys of his writings.

Happy reading!


Two Books About World War I

Lest this blog be entirely about jihadism (though more is to come on that soon), I thought I’d turn to World War I today.  Being in a somewhat perverse yet still bibliophilic mood, I have decided to inflict upon you the 1919 opus, The Gates of Janus: An Epic Story of the World War.  This is a history of World War I…IN THE FORM OF AN EPIC POEM.  Yes, you read that right.  Name me another epic poem that has maps.  Come on, I dare you!

Why would someone write an epic poem about the Great War?  The author, an American reverend, explains:

“The author has felt that the Epic form of poetry, so long unused, is most admirably fitted for the narration of a War such as this—greater than any in all the world’s annals, rightly called: “The Great World War!”

He goes on, still referring to himself in the third person:

“He feels that, by such a form, the main events of the War will be better remembered by the people at large, better impressed, by them, upon their children, now, and better retold to other children afterward.”

Of course.

The copy that Google Books scanned came from the University of California library.  Perhaps tellingly, it was a gift from William Carter, the author.  One wonders if the library would have acquired it if Carter hadn’t donated a copy.

I hear you crying out for a sample.  This is how Carter introduces his recounting of the Battle of Belleau Wood:

Have you e’er heard of famous Belleau Woods?

And how Americans in strength withstood

The Germans, who were gathered there, en masse,

Set, not to let the hated “Yankees” pass?

Well, if you’ve not, let me, now tell the tale,

And, show the picture, as they there prevail,–

Fighting, with force, against amazing odds;

It is another “Battle of the gods!”

Because I’m sort of an intelligence geek, I’ll offer one more stanza, this one drawn from the section on the Battle of the Aisne.

The aero’s soon to play, in this great War,

Such part as weapons never played before.

Now thought it’s armed, its main part is to spy,

And tell its friends where weakest places lie.

Because your ears are probably bleeding, I’ll stop there.  In fact, as penance for savagely inflicting this upon you, I will offer one other book, the 1916 International Cartoons of the War.  In it, one will find such classics as the cartoon reproduced here.  (The reference is to the Manneken Pis, the symbol of Brussels.)

"Ah! The bugger! He's flooding my dry powder!"

Published in: on March 20, 2010 at 5:15 AM  Comments (1)  
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Jihadist Battlefield Miracles

I recently heard something fascinating that I wanted to share.  A couple days ago I gave a talk at the National Defense University on the Salafi jihadists (al Qaida and their ilk) and how they assessed themselves and the global struggle in which they are engaged. Part of my talk discussed how the jihadists believe that God is on the battlefield with them, not merely protecting them, but actively taking part in combat.  I mentioned that stories abound about God shooting down American fighter planes with lightning bolts, about God sending ravenous beasts to the battlefield to eat the enemy, and other such miraculous events.  At this point, a woman in the class raised her hand to talk about her experience in Iraq.  Unfortunately, I never got the chance to talk with her one-on-one, but she mentioned that while she’d been there, apparently in some sort of public affairs capacity, stories had circulated about some wolf-like creature that would roam the battlefields.  It or they were allies of the jihadist insurgents and its/their targets were Americans.   

I found it interesting that these stories, which obviously originated with the jihadists themselves, came to the attention of the U.S. military not through intelligence means or interrogations of captured jihadists, but rather through the Iraqi media.  As I mentioned, such stories are staples in the jihadist world, but this was the closest I’d ever personally come to them, and it really brought the whole issue home to me.  I’d be very interested in hearing from others, via email or the comments link below, who might have similar stories or know more about the event that this student mentioned to me.          

By way of background, Abdullah Azzam, the founder of the Maktab al-Khidemat and Osama bin Laden’s mentor wrote a book about miracles in the Afghan War.  In its English translation it runs to 80 pages.  Here is one story that will serve to give its general flavor:       

Arsalaan narrated to me:… The tanks attacked us and they were about 120 in number. They were assisted by a mortar and many aircrafts. Our provisions were exhausted.  We were convinced of being captured. We sought protection from Allaah by means of Du’a. All of a sudden, bullets and shells rained upon the communists from all directions. They were defeated. There was no one on the battlefield besides us. He said: They were the Malaa’ikah (Angels.)  

Prof. David Cook wrote an article several years ago about how some of these sorts of stories manifested themselves in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002.  He characterizes them as part of a “disconfirmation” process that the jihadists use to come to grips with their setbacks.

One, of course, should not believe that all Arabs or all Muslims believe this sort of story.  For instance, Abdelkader Tigha, the author of Contre-Espionnage Algerien: Notre Guerre Contres les Islamistes, which is about the authors experiences during the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, mentions that he and the other members of the Algerian counterespionage service would hear these stories when they filtered back home from Afghanistan and would laugh at them and anybody silly enough to believe they were actually true.  To me, this only makes more interesting the student’s story that the Iraqi media itself was promulgating this tale.  Tigha says that Algerian mosques would distribute glossy magazines containing tales from Afghanistan.  A loose translation of what he says (on p. 23) would be:         

Each story was more incredible than the last.  The young jihadists recounted the miracles they had seen.  One of them, full of imagination, invented the story of the dogs which, wandering upon the scene of an ambush, passing amongst the corpses, devoured only the bodies of the Russians but did not touch those of the mujahidin.  On another page, one could read the edifying story of the mujahid slaughtered by the Russians.  When the Russians approached him to take his weapon, our supermujahid sprang up and machine gunned the Russian soldiers, killing them all.  God could do anything, was the conclusion.  Make you die and bring you back to life….This propaganda was at the root of a massive departure of young Algerians to Pakistan.        

It may be worth noting that similar stories circulate or have circulated in other societies.  A former colleague of mine wrote a book that dealt with similar phenomena in modern sub-Saharan Africa.  And, of course, then there are the “Angels of Mons.”  During 1914 and 1915 there were any number of British soldiers who said that they had seen (or that a friend of theirs had seen) a St. George and a host of angelic archers appear during the Battle of Mons and repel the Germans who were about to overrun the British Expeditionary Force.  It turned out that this story came from a short story called “The Bowmen” written by Arthur Machen a Welsh author of horror and fantasy fiction.  “The Bowmen” first appeared in late September 1914, a month after the battle, but that didn’t stop soldiers and citizens alike from believing it was all true and in fact, “remembering” the incident.  Machen recounts (pp. 11-12) how in the retelling, the story came to be circulated that German corpsed pierced by arrows had been found on the battlefield.  Machen had actually thought of including this thought in his story, but rejected the idea.  I can’t resist quoting him on this:

I rejected the idea as over-precipitous even for a mere fantasy.  I was therefore entertained when I found that what I had refused as too fantastical for fantasy was accepted in certain occult circles as hard fact.

Of course, that story of the Angels of Mons was current nearly 100 years ago and is remembered precisely because it was so anomalous…

Revoking the Citizenship of Americans Turned Enemy

In the wake of the recent revelation that procedures exist for the CIA to kill terrorists who are American citizens, the New York Times website had a fine roundup of reactions in the blogosphere.

One of the bloggers who made it into the NYT’s roundup was AllahPundit at HotAir.  He wrote:

I’m curious about how readers balance the idea of The One — or any president for that matter — enjoying the power to assassinate U.S. citizens with the fact that Awlaki’s evidently an extremely dangerous jihadist filthbag with murderous designs on U.S. citizens himself. …Should there be some sort of extra prophylactic procedural measure in the case of U.S. citizens to guarantee that they’re not wrongly targeted? One possibility would be to go to some sort of court and present evidence that the suspect has effectively revoked his citizenship by levying war against the U.S., but that would cause problems potentially in cases where the feds have to [act] quickly.

As a bit of historical perspective, it might be interesting to note that during World War I the United States Government actually did revoke the citizenship of some Americans that it suspected to be enemies.  The details were different, but it does suggest that there is at least a partial precedent for what AllahPundit mused about. 

Allow me to quote from a draft of a forthcoming work of mine.  The context is German espionage–or more correctly, suspected espionage here in the U.S.

It was not just non-citizens, of course, who were potential threats.  Often the security services found themselves pursuing miscreants who turned out to be Americans.  This was a problem because prosecuting Americans for crimes the evidence of which had been obtained through secret means, in a legal system characterized by often unsympathetic judges, numerous delays, technical loopholes, and the necessity of convincing twelve men chosen at random, was a tall order.  In those cases, however, where the suspect was a naturalized citizen, the services found a simpler way.  Courts could occasionally be persuaded to denaturalize a citizen if they determined that he had lied when he swore to the court that he would be loyal only to the United States.  Again, however, the War Department’s Military Intelligence Division was often frustrated that excessively ‘out-spoken’ people were allowed to retain their citizenship.

(Hopefully before too long this full work (with footnotes!) will see the light of day…)

I don’t know if present law allows for denaturalization under such circumstances, but if it does, such a policy might be something to consider.  On the other hand, only a few terrorists could even theoretically be denaturalized.  Anwar Awlaki, for instance, was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico and thus was never naturalized to begin with.


Published in: on February 6, 2010 at 6:24 PM  Comments (3)  
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Books and Articles That Caught My Eye

Just a miscellany today.

First off, the CIA has posted the unclassified items from the latest issue of its Studies in IntelligenceAs usual, it all looks very interesting.  However, three pieces struck as particularly noteworthy:

And yesterday I picked up a copy of Professor Alfred W. McCoy’s 2009 book, Policy America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State.  McCoy seems to have an extensive discussion of American intelligence operations in the context of the Spanish-American War and the Philippine War.  Based purely on a quick read of the introduction, McCoy seems to argue, like Joan Jensen, that what the United States learned in these conflicts about conducting surveillance and intelligence operations it took home and also applied elsewhere.  As I say, I haven’t read the book yet, but the History News Network had a positive review of it last fall.  Mind you, McCoy has done extensive work on the role of the CIA in the international narcotics trade, so I’m going to approach this work with caution.  We shall see.