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Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5

Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5. By Christopher Andrew; published by Alfred A. Knopf,; 1,104 pages; $27.50.
To mark its centenary, the British Security Service embarked on an ambitious, unique, and commendable project: It opened its archives to Christopher Andrew, a Cambridge University historian, and allowed him to write an independent, warts-and-all history of this agency, better known as MI5, reflecting its early title, Military Intelligence, Section 5. The result is an engaging book that will appeal not only to security professionals and historians but also to anyone interested in the broader question of how intelligence agencies can balance operational exigencies with defending the core values of Western democracies.
Why MI5, whose principle mandate is countering domestic security threats, embarked on this project says as much about the agency as the environment in which Western intelligence agencies now operate. It reasoned that, unlike Cold War espionage and other previous threats, terrorism has a far greater direct impact on daily life and on the social fabric. To counter terrorism, MI5 concluded, a high level of public confidence built on openness is required.
“That openness, by supporting public confidence in us, helps us do our job of protecting national security,” Director-General Jonathan Evans writes in the foreword. This book, he notes, “is the most recent and in many ways the most ambitious demonstration…of a commitment to be as open as we can about what we do.”
What may be most effective in building this public confidence is the book’s examination of longstanding conspiracy theories that have damaged MI5’s standing in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. In one example, Andrew conclusively demonstrates that Harold Wilson, who served two terms as Prime Minister, first from 1964 to 1970 and again from 1974 to 1976, was not, as many on the British left believe, the target of an MI5 conspiracy. MI5 did have a file on Wilson but it was because of his dubious communist contacts.
Andrew pulls no punches. He describes MI5’s postwar policy against recruiting Jews as inexcusable. He is similarly and rightfully critical of its tardiness in appreciating the scale of the threat posed by Islamic terrorists, though, to be fair, the British agency was not alone in this. And he notes that when the Troubles erupted in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, MI5 was unprepared to meet the IRA threat.
On the positive side of the ledger, Andrew demonstrates MI5’s contribution to the development of modern counterinsurgency doctrine. In Malaysia in the 1950s, for example, MI5 fought communist guerrillas through a strategy that eschewed physical violence during interrogation. On the latter, an MI5 memo stated: “Moral consideration alone should suffice to prohibit it. Further, it is the purpose of interrogation to elicit valid intelligence, where­as extorted confessions are likely to be unreliable.”
MI5 also played a major role in what John Gannon, former chair of the U.S. National Intelligence Council, called the greatest intelligence success of the 20th Century: “Victory in a [cold war] without shots and explosions. The great war many feared…remained a cold war.”
Despite its successes, and there are many, MI5 faces a difficult reputational challenge: “The success of a security service is better judged by things that do not happen than by things that do.”
Unfortunately for MI5 and its sister intelligence agencies, what generally gets reported in the media are their failures and not their more numerous successes. This book makes an important contribution to balancing this situation.
Reviewer: Mario A. Possamai, CPP, CFE (Certified Fraud Examiner), CAMS (Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialist), is managing director of Forensic Financial Research and Consulting, Inc., in Toronto. He is a member of ASIS International’s Global Terrorism, Political Instability, and International Crime Council.