Have We Recreated the OSS?

Check out my blog posting over at the International Spy Museum’s site where I discuss what the killing of Osama Bin Laden tells us about the role of the CIA in warfighting.


Published in: on July 28, 2011 at 3:36 AM  Leave a Comment  
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A Jihadist Manual on Intelligence

I recently posted an item over at the International Spy Museum blog that readers of this blog might find interesting.

I quote here the first paragraph of that posting:

A manual on intelligence captured during the course of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Coalition Forces offers a unique take on intelligence from a jihadist perspective.  Coalition forces found copies of the 300-some page manual on intelligence at Al Qaeda-associated facilities, notably at the Kandahar home of Mohammed Atef (aka Abu Hafs al-Masri), Al Qaeda’s military chief until his death in November 2001.  This particular manual was written not by Al Qaeda but by a group that was once ideologically aligned with it, the Egyptian Islamic Group (EIG).  EIG has since renounced violence.  However, this document, which probably dates to the late 1980s or early 1990s remains behind as a snapshot of the views of elite Arab jihadists about the world of intelligence at the time. …

Published in: on January 31, 2011 at 12:15 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Intelligence is Cramping Al Qaida’s Style

The second issue of Inspire the English language magazine of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) popped up online on 11 October….It is striking how much the various authors featured in the magazine seem concerned about the threat posed by the intelligence and security services, both of the United States and of Arab countries.  They make clear that the security forces have tremendous advantages that impinge on virtually every part of the jihadists’ lives….

For the remainder of this posting, please go here to the website of the International Spy Museum where I am the Historian.

Published in: on October 22, 2010 at 3:09 PM  Leave a Comment  
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British Books That I’ll Probably Have to Buy

The new official history of MI-6 by Keith Jeffery has hit amazon.com and amazon.co.uk (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 amazon.com 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 amazon.co.uk 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 amazon.co.uk 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!

New Books Pertaining to Intelligence/Security Services and the Middle East

Three books that have caught my eye recently.

Routledge has an interesting sounding book coming out at the end of May under the somewhat awkward title of A History of the Egyptian Intelligence Service: A History of the Mukhabarat, 1910-2009.  It is written by Owen Sirrs, a former official of the Defense Intelligence Agency whose specialty there was Iran, so he doubtless brings a good professional approach to the work.  I’m very curious to see what he’s able to put together, as sources have got to be extremely scarce, at least for the post WWII era.  If this book is even half-way decent, it will be great progress toward filling an enormous gap.  Very very little has been written about modern Arab intelligence services.  Yaacov Caroz, a former senior official of the Mossad did write a book in the 1970s called The Arab Secret Services.  Caroz’s volume is OK for spy stories if you’re into that sort of thing, but it largely lacks an analytic perspective.  It’s also not very well organized.  Accordingly, I have high hopes for this new work.  As is usual the cost of this book is preposterous, $125, but I’m hoping that there will be a cheaper paperback edition as there usually is for Routledge books.

I have recently purchased Good Arabs: The Israeli Security Agencies and the Israeli Arabs, 1948-1967, though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.  Here is the publisher’s blurb about it:

Based on his reading of top-secret files of the Israeli police and the prime minister’s office, Hillel Cohen exposes the full extent of the crucial, and, until now, willfully hidden history of Palestinian collaboration with Israelis–and of the Arab resistance to it. Cohen’s previous book, the highly acclaimed Army of Shadows, told how this hidden history played out from 1917 to 1948, and now, in Good Arabs he focuses on the system of collaborators established by Israel in each and every Arab community after the 1948 war. Covering a broad spectrum of attitudes and behaviors, Cohen brings together the stories of activists, mukhtars, collaborators, teachers, and sheikhs, telling how Israeli security agencies penetrated Arab communities, how they obtained collaboration, how national activists fought them, and how deeply this activity influenced daily life. When this book was first published in Hebrew, it became a bestseller and has evoked bitter memories and intense discussions among Palestinians in Israel and prompted the reclassification of many of the hundreds of documents Cohen viewed to uncover a story that continues to unfold to this day.

As a result of my work on American intelligence during World War I, I have become quite interested in the use of intelligence and security services to surveil and control potentially hostile populations.  Now, many scholars look at this sort of issue, but they primarily approach it from a civil liberties perspective, often with the assumption that intelligence and security services are intrinsically bad.  (See, e.g. the work of Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones.)  I’m unwilling to call intelligence and security services evil or venal as a going-in assumption.  Rather, I think they tend to have the same moral value as the governments they serve.  I’m also interested in how these services think about domestic threats: are apparently oppressive security services that way because they have plausible concepts of potential threats to national security that require such measures?  Or are they truly motivated by all the class, racial, ethnic, and other sorts of considerations that scholars so often talk about?  I’m hoping that Good Arabs will stimulate my thinking on these topics.

Finally, on a different note, the legendary political scientist Robert Jervis has a book coming out entitled Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War.  Here is the publisher’s blurb on this book:

The U.S. government spends enormous resources each year on the gathering and analysis of intelligence, yet the history of American foreign policy is littered with missteps and misunderstandings that have resulted from intelligence failures. In Why Intelligence Fails,Robert Jervis examines the politics and psychology of two of the more spectacular intelligence failures in recent memory: the mistaken belief that the regime of the Shah in Iran was secure and stable in 1978, and the claim that Iraq had active WMD programs in 2002.

The Iran case is based on a recently declassified report Jervis was commissioned to undertake by CIA thirty years ago and includes memoranda written by CIA officials in response to Jervis’s findings. The Iraq case, also grounded in a review of the intelligence community’s performance, is based on close readings of both classified and declassified documents, though Jervis’s conclusions are entirely supported by evidence that has been declassified.

In both cases, Jervis finds not only that intelligence was badly flawed but also that later explanations analysts were bowing to political pressure and telling the White House what it wanted to hear or were willfully blind were also incorrect. Proponents of these explanations claimed that initial errors were compounded by groupthink, lack of coordination within the government, and failure to share information. Policy prescriptions, including the recent establishment of a Director of National Intelligence, were supposed to remedy the situation.

In Jervis’s estimation, neither the explanations nor the prescriptions are adequate. The inferences that intelligence drew were actually quite plausible given the information available. Errors arose, he concludes, from insufficient attention to the ways in which information should be gathered and interpreted, a lack of self-awareness about the factors that led to the judgments, and an organizational culture that failed to probe for weaknesses and explore alternatives. Evaluating the inherent tensions between the methods and aims of intelligence personnel and policymakers from a unique insider’s perspective, Jervis forcefully criticizes recent proposals for improving the performance of the intelligence community and discusses ways in which future analysis can be improved.

A couple years ago someone gave me a sweatshirt with the slogan on it: “So many books, so little time.”  Oh yeah.

Published in: on February 26, 2010 at 2:28 AM  Leave a Comment  
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