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Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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The bomb left in the Colonial Office was only detected after, by sheer luck, it had failed to go off because its timer broke. If it had successfully detonated, it would have caused carnage and chaos at the centre of Whitehall, probably on a similar scale to an attack that the other main militant group fighting the British in Palestine, the Irgun, had carried out in Jerusalem in July 1946, blowing up the King David Hotel and killing ninety-one people.

When the bomb at the Colonial Office was discovered, it led to an immediate Europe-wide search for the female Stern Gang agent, headed by MI5, SIS (MI6) and the London Special Branch. She was eventually apprehended in Belgium. MI5 also identified Irgun members operating in Britain, who were kept under surveillance or arrested. The head of the Irgun, however, remained at large, and continued to plan attacks against the British, in both Palestine and Europe. His name was Menachem Begin. He went on to become the sixth Prime Minister of the state of Israel, and the joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

This episode is just one among a vast number of remarkable, and mostly undisclosed, security operations that Britain’s intelligence services were involved in during the period immediately after the Second World War, when Britain began to lose its empire. It has only recently been revealed through declassified intelligence records, and it not only adds a new chapter to the history of the early Cold War, but also has a chilling contemporary resonance. In a striking parallel with the world today, it reveals that the infiltration and radicalisation of a terrorist minority from the Middle East was experienced in Britain more than half a century ago. In fact, as this book reveals, in the aftermath of the Second World War the main threat to British national security did not come from the Soviet Union, as we might expect, but from Middle Eastern terrorism. However, the terrorists then did not come from Palestinian and Islamist groups, as they would do in the late twentieth century, and do today, but from Jewish (or ‘Zionist’) extremists. As Niall Ferguson has argued, terrorism is the original sin of the Middle East.

This book tells the secret, largely untold, history of Britain’s end of empire – the largest empire in world history – and is the first study devoted to examining the involvement of British intelligence in that story. Like Britain’s secret services themselves, it offers a global perspective: the agency responsible for imperial security intelligence, MI5, was involved everywhere in the empire where British national security was threatened – which in the early Cold War included almost all of Britain’s territorial holdings. It provides a panoramic tour of Britain’s declining empire after 1945, and the clandestine activities of the British government as this occurred. Its subject matter ranges from wartime espionage campaigns waged in the deserts of North Africa to shady back-channel communications with African dictators; from violent counter-insurgencies (or ‘Emergencies’) in the jungles of Malaya and Kenya, and the hills of Cyprus, to urban warfare campaigns in Palestine and the Arabian Peninsula. It reveals CIA plots and covert activities in British colonies, KGB assassinations, and failed coups sponsored by the British and US governments in the Middle East, primarily intended to secure oil and other natural resources.

Intelligence is the ‘missing dimension’ of the history of Britain’s end of empire (or ‘decolonisation’, as it is known to historians), which took place largely in the two decades after 1945. The activities of Britain’s intelligence services are conspicuously missing from almost all histories of that period. Part of the reason for this is perfectly understandable. During Britain’s rapid retreat from empire, the British government unofficially acknowledged the existence of MI5, but did not officially recognise that of SIS or GCHQ. This meant that there were no officially-released intelligence records for historians to study – it was obviously impossible for government departments to release records if the departments themselves did not officially exist. Intelligence was, therefore, quietly and subtly airbrushed out of the history books.

But while historians in the past were crippled by a lack of official records relating to British intelligence and the end of empire, the same is not true today. Britain’s intelligence services have at last come in from the cold. In the late 1980s, the British government finally gave up its practice of denying the existence of its intelligence services, and placed them, for the first time, on a statutory basis – MI5 in 1989, and SIS and GCHQ in 1994. One of the consequences of this was that the intelligence services have, in recent years, at last removed themselves from the historical never-never land they previously occupied, and begun to acknowledge that they do actually have a past. In 1992 Whitehall departments began the so-called Waldegrave Initiative on Open Government, which for the first time brought independent historians into the review and declassification process of government records, including intelligence records. Since then, Britain’s intelligence services have begun to declassify records in earnest. This has meant that this book, and others like it, can finally place Britain’s secret departments in the historical position they deserve. In fact, the result of the government’s declassification process is that there are now almost too many intelligence records relating to the British empire to study.

Despite the unprecedented volume of records that have been crashing into archives in recent years, the overwhelming majority of historians of Britain’s end of empire have continued to ignore the role of Britain’s intelligence services. Even the best, and most recently published, histories of the period have a yawning gap when it comes to the role of the intelligence services. In the few books that do mention them, they usually appear as little more than an afterthought, in the footnotes of history. This omission is even more bizarre considering that almost every history of the Second World War now mentions the successes of Allied code-breakers at Bletchley Park in cracking the German Enigma code, known to the British as the ‘Ultra’ secret. However, hardly any currently available history of Britain’s end of empire (or for that matter of British activities in the Cold War) mentions Bletchley Park’s post-war successor, GCHQ. Judging from these books, we are supposed to believe that British code-breakers abruptly stopped operating in 1945. Unsurprisingly, this was not the case. Far from being a mere footnote to post-war history, in reality Britain’s intelligence services were as active in the years after 1945 as they were during wartime. In fact, since the early twentieth century they had been actively working behind the scenes, removed from public gaze, just as they continue to be today in many of the countries that formerly comprised the British empire. With this in mind, the basic proposition of this book can be summarised concisely: it argues that the current state of the history of Britain’s end of empire is in the same position that the history of the Second World War was in before the disclosure of the Ultra secret. By ignoring the role of intelligence, our understanding of the demise of the British empire is at best incomplete, and at worst fundamentally flawed.

It is impossible to understand how and why British intelligence was involved in Britain’s often violent retreat from empire after 1945 without first understanding the root causes of why Britain relinquished that empire. Readers should be warned that this is an enormous subject, with as many different interpretations as there are historians. Pinpointing an exact moment for the beginning of the end of the British empire is an archetypal brain-teaser, which historians are unable to agree on – some have argued that it began in the early twentieth century with the Second Boer War in South Africa, between 1899 and 1902, when it took Britain much longer than predicted, and 45,000 troops, to defeat rebellious farmers in the colony. Others date it to the Second World War, particularly with the Atlantic Charter in August 1941 and then the Lend Lease programme, by which the United States provided Britain with urgently needed war supplies, both of which meant that Washington could largely dictate the future of Britain and its empire after the war. Others believe the decisive moment was the advent of the new Labour government in 1945, committed to the reform of local government in British colonies. Still others believe that it occurred much later, with the disastrous Suez crisis in 1956. The reality is that it is probably impossible to pin down a single event that conclusively represents the end of Britain’s imperial power, though if I were forced to choose one, it would perhaps be the Suez crisis, which, for reasons we shall see in this book, represented a humiliating failure for Britain and revealed that it was no longer a major world power.

Nevertheless, out of all the ink devoted over the years to understanding why Britain ‘scuttled’ its empire in the post-war years, it is possible to divide the explanations given by historians into four distinct categories. One is that given by nationalist historians, who argue (unsurprisingly) that anti-colonial ‘freedom fighters’ were responsible for forcibly ejecting the British from their colonies. A second explanation is economic necessity: Britain emerged from the Second World War essentially as a bankrupt state, facing a credit crunch of epic proportions, and was forced to slash its defence budget in the two decades after 1945, at precisely the time that its military commitments in its colonies abroad increased. As the historian Paul Kennedy has put it, Britain was overstretched in its imperial commitments in 1945, and was forced to relinquish control of its colonies because it could not afford to keep them on. A third interpretation is a failure of will: Britain won the war in 1945, but then proceeded to lose the peace, no longer desiring to maintain a colonial empire. A fourth interpretation is that of external pressures: after 1945, the British government was attacked on the international stage for its colonial empire, a repugnant anachronism in the post-war world, which was widely criticised by the United States and the Soviet Union alike.

It is tempting to suppose that there was a linear decline in Britain’s status in the post-war years, from a leading world power to a second-rate nation, but this was not the case. Even labelling British decolonisation a ‘process’ is misleading, because it implies that it was a planned programme. However, it only seems like a process when viewed in retrospect. The liquidation of the empire was never written down as a deliberate policy, by the Colonial Office or any other government department. It would be reading history backwards to suppose that Britain somehow marched triumphantly towards an enlightened, post-colonial future in the years after 1945. The fact is that few, if any, official British records dealing with anti-colonial movements in the late 1940s and early 1950s actually discuss ‘independence’. Instead, they refer to ‘self-government’, which meant that colonies would begin to take control of their own affairs, but with Britain usually retaining control over their security, defence and foreign affairs.

Self-government for colonies was not the same as full independence. When Clement Attlee’s Labour government came to power in 1945 it revised Britain’s former policies in the Middle East, largely to combat the encroachment of the Soviet Union in the region, away from military bases and autocracies to a commitment to more broadly-based popular regimes. As Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin memorably put it, Britain would throw its support behind peasants, not pashas. At first glance, this looks like a commitment to broadly-based democratic rule in the empire, which would inevitably mean eventual independence for colonies. However, Britain’s transfer of power in India in 1947 and its evacuation from Palestine in 1948 did not herald the empire falling apart under a tidal wave of democratic nationalism. Attlee’s government actually put the brakes on colonial emancipation whenever it could. Between 1948 and 1959 only three colonies gained independence from Britain – the Sudan (in 1956), the Gold Coast and Malaya (both in 1957) – and some British officials were dismissive of the idea of relinquishing greater control to colonies for much longer than we might imagine. The wartime Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, claimed that giving colonies self-government, let alone independence, would be like giving a ten-year-old child ‘a latch key, a bank account and a shot gun’, while others spoke, albeit rhetorically, of a revival and resurgence of empire, if only as a strategy for winning the Cold War. The great imperial historian Jack Gallagher pointed out that recruitment to the Colonial Office doubled in the decade after 1945. In this respect, in the post-war years the British empire was being reshaped and refurbished, not abandoned. MI5 approached its Cold War imperial responsibilities in a similar vein, vastly expanding them after 1945. It was only as events progressed that it became clear that its reforms to enhance imperial security were actually taking place as Britain was losing its empire.

Rather than following a planned programme, Britain’s exit from empire was actually a pragmatic response to events, in which the Colonial Office, assisted by MI5, attempted to negotiate the best possible outcome for the British government to events that were often beyond their control. Harold Macmillan, under whose Conservative premiership from 1957 to 1963 Britain rapidly withdrew from empire, famously quipped that political decisions were taken because of ‘Events, dear boy, events.’ As historians like to point out, there were two great periods during which events overtook Britain and accelerated its withdrawal from empire: from 1945 to 1948 and from 1959 to 1964. The main pressures on the British government in both periods were from the USA, the UN and the great anti-colonial empire in the East, the Soviet Union.

The pace of British decolonisation sped up when Macmillan appointed Iain Macleod as Colonial Secretary in October 1959, with a remit to ‘get on with it’. Within two years of taking his post, Macleod had effectively worked himself out of a job. Between 1960 and 1964 a total of seventeen British colonies gained independence, and as we shall see, MI5 was involved in many of these transfers of power. Macleod stated that he deliberately hastened the pace of withdrawal from colonies to avoid protracted violence and large-scale bloodshed of the kind seen in the Belgian Congo. The disintegration of Belgian rule in the Congo in 1960, with its ensuing chaos and carnage, was a visible warning for British policy-makers of how not to manage an exit from empire. One of Macleod’s successors as Colonial Secretary, Duncan Sandys, who between 1962 and 1964 became another great liquidator of empire, to borrow the phrase of the historian David Cannadine, stated in July 1964 that ‘we have no desire to prolong our colonial obligations for a day longer than is necessary’. This is the closest we can come to finding an official declaration by Macmillan’s government of the ‘end of empire’.

In the opinion of one of the most eminent historians of Britain’s end of empire, Ronald Hyam, it was the external pressures imposed on the British government by the United States, the United Nations and the Soviet Union, more than any other reason, that explain how and why Britain relinquished its empire. As Hyam and several others have shown, the geopolitical concerns of the Cold War formed the context, and dictated the manner, in which Britain scrambled out of its empire. It was also the Cold War context that lies at the heart of the involvement of British intelligence in British decolonisation. As almost every history of the period has shown, the Cold War was primarily an intelligence conflict, in which the intelligence services of Western governments and Eastern Bloc countries were pitted against each other, and fought at the front line. One veteran Whitehall intelligence official, Michael Herman, has rightly said that during the Cold War, Western and Eastern Bloc countries relied on intelligence assessments (of each other) to an extent that was unprecedented in peacetime. Given the connection that existed between Britain’s end of empire and the Cold War on the one hand, and the Cold War and intelligence on the other, it should come as little surprise to learn that Britain’s intelligence services played a significant role in British decolonisation.

This book offers a new chapter to the existing history of Britain’s last days of empire, as well as to our understanding of the Cold War and the history of international relations after 1945. Against the background of the Cold War, that is to say the rapid breakdown in relations between Western governments and the Soviet Union after 1945, and with the looming spectre of Soviet KGB-sponsored subversion in Britain’s dwindling colonial empire, British intelligence played a crucial role in the way that post-war British governments pulled out of the empire and passed power to independent national states across the globe. Britain’s clandestine services had to deal with a succession of insurgencies (or ‘Emergencies’) across the empire, but at the same time tried to maintain close links with the very groups that were often violently rejecting British rule. Given the geopolitical concerns of the Cold War, a main requirement for Britain and its allies was to prevent former British colonies being absorbed by the Soviet Union as satellite states. British colonial intelligence thus lay at the forefront of the Cold War, both for Britain and its main Western ally, the United States. The sequence of colonial insurgencies that Britain experienced in the death throes of its empire threatened at times to turn the Cold War into a hot war. In this context, the so-called ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the United States – much discussed, particularly on this side of the Atlantic, but also much misunderstood – was the linchpin and driving force for an enormous overhaul of colonial intelligence that Britain embarked on in the early Cold War. As successive spy scandals broke out in Britain, particularly the revelation of the ‘Cambridge spies’ in 1951, pressure from Washington forced London to enhance security standards not only at home, but across its colonial empire.

Before proceeding any further, it would be useful to say a few words on terminology. One of the difficulties in studying intelligence history is that, like the study of government departments more generally, sometimes ideas can get lost in an alphabet soup of acronyms, so getting some of the basic terminology that will appear in this book sorted out at this stage will be helpful. There are three main services that comprise the British intelligence community: MI5, GCHQ and SIS. The Security Service, also known as MI5, plays a central role in this book. It was not simply a ‘domestic’ intelligence service, as is sometimes thought, but was Britain’s imperial intelligence service, responsible for security intelligence matters (counter-espionage, counter-subversion and counter-sabotage) in all territories across Britain’s global empire. Then there is Britain’s largest, best-funded, and most secretive intelligence service: the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), which after 1945 was renamed the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). GC&CS was, and GCHQ remains, responsible for intercepting and decoding communications, known as signals intelligence (or SIGINT). Thirdly there is Britain’s foreign intelligence service, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), also known as MI6, which was, and remains, responsible for gathering human-based intelligence (known as ‘HUMINT’) from non-British territories all over the world. From the little information that can be discerned from publicly available sources, it appears that SIS’s espionage operations took place in a world less like that of James Bond, its most famous fictional officer, than like that from the pages of a John le Carré novel – less to do with licences to kill and high-tech gadgets, and more to do with grey-haired men in pipe-smoke-filled rooms, hunched over stacks of yellowing files, with matron-like women regularly bringing the tea trolley around.

The most senior body within the British intelligence community, then as now, was the Joint Intelligence Committee (or JIC). It was responsible for collating intelligence from all the different intelligence services (MI5, SIS and GCHQ), as well as military intelligence (army, navy and air force), assessing it and distributing it to high levels of the British government. The JIC was not an intelligence collection body, but an intelligence assessment outfit. In the first years after its establishment before the Second World War, it came solely under the control of the military Chiefs of Staff. However, as the Cold War set in after 1945, and particularly after the Suez crisis in 1956, the JIC moved out of the control of the military and became directly responsible to civilian cabinet ministers. As well as sitting at the peak of the domestic British intelligence community, the JIC was also positioned at the centre of a complicated web of imperial intelligence agencies and assessment bodies stretching across the empire. Reading some reports on how British imperial intelligence operated in the Cold War, one gets the impression that it was a finely-turned, well-oiled machine. In reality, however, it evolved haphazardly, and looked better on paper than it performed in reality. This was revealed by the repeated intelligence failures in British colonies after 1945, as intelligence chiefs spectacularly failed to detect outbreaks of anti-colonial insurgencies in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden.

In theory, at least, the British intelligence community formed a web across the empire through MI5. MI5’s representatives stationed in empire and Commonwealth countries were called Security Liason Officers (SLOs). Until recently their activities have been shrouded in secrecy, with their actions leaving hardly any traces in official British records. With the recent release of MI5 records, we can now see that SLOs operated from official British residencies in colonial and Commonwealth countries, sometimes openly and sometimes under cover, disguising their MI5 postings under titles such as ‘Second Secretary’ or ‘Cultural Attaché’. According to MI5’s Director-General’s charter, an SLO’s job with a colonial government was to provide ‘liaison, supply of external intelligence, training [and] operational advice’. They reported directly to MI5’s headquarters in London, and from there their reports, if deemed sufficiently serious, could be passed by MI5 all the way up to the JIC. SLOs also reported to regional MI5 liaison outfits, such as Security Intelligence Middle East (SIME), headquartered in Cairo, and Security Intelligence Far East (SIFE), headquartered in Singapore, whose function was to pool regional intelligence reports from MI5 as well as GCHQ and SIS, and pass the most important information back to the JIC in London. As the Cold War set in, MI5’s SLOs were also responsible for reporting to and liaising with Local Intelligence Committees (LICs), which sprung up (largely at MI5’s instigation) in a number of colonial territories and Commonwealth countries. High-ranking local officials sat on the LICs, and their meetings were often chaired by the colonial Governor himself, which meant that MI5’s SLOs had a direct channel of communication to all of the most important officials in British colonies. Again, reports from LICs were passed on to the JIC in London if deemed sufficiently serious. The problem was that often reports were not deemed sufficiently serious, and were merely passed up the hierarchy of the colonial intelligence apparatus, rather than to London. This lay at the heart of many of the failures that British intelligence experienced in successive colonies after 1945. Finally, it should be noted that the actual groundwork of intelligence-gathering in the British empire in the Cold War was performed by special branches established within colonial police forces. MI5 overhauled colonial special branches as the Cold War escalated after 1945.

This book is based on a wealth of previously classified intelligence records which have only recently been released to the public. The research for it, which took the best part of ten years to complete, is predominantly based on MI5 records, which makes sense considering that MI5 was Britain’s imperial intelligence service. This has involved reading literally hundreds of MI5 records and dossiers, many of them multi-volume, spanning thousands of pages. As well as MI5 records, JIC records have helped to provide an overview of what the British intelligence community considered as threats to Britain and its empire during the post-war years. These have proved particularly useful as, at present, SIS does not release records from its own archives, although Keith Jeffery’s recent official history of the first forty years of SIS, like Christopher Andrew’s official centenary history of MI5, does provide an insight into areas still hidden away from historians. In addition to drawing on intelligence records that until recently were still classified, kept under lock and key in secret Whitehall departments, I have consulted a range of private collections of papers from a number of archives. Together with interviews conducted with former intelligence officials, it has thus been possible to weave together a narrative of the history of British intelligence, the Cold War, and Britain’s twilight of empire.

During my doctorate at Cambridge, and then as a post-doctorate research Fellow also at Cambridge, I was given the exciting opportunity to be a research assistant on Christopher Andrew’s unprecedented official history of MI5. This position gave me privileged access to MI5 records, before their release. It was during my doctorate, and also in the research for Andrew’s authorised history of MI5, that I realised that the role of British intelligence was missing from the overwhelming majority of books on Britain’s end of empire. All of the records that this book is based on are now declassified, and are available at the National Archives in London. There are overlaps between this book and Andrew’s official history of MI5, but this book is more than a history of a single intelligence service, whether MI5, SIS or GCHQ. It is the first history, based on intelligence records, of the involvement of British intelligence as a whole, meaning all three of those services, in Britain’s twilight of empire during the Cold War.

This book also draws on a tranche of previously ‘lost’ Colonial Office records which were only made available to the public in April 2012, after a high-level court case forced the British government into admitting their existence. These supposedly ‘rediscovered’ records are said to contain some of the grimmest paperwork on the history of Britain’s end of empire, and the story of how they finally came to see the light of day is a shameful chapter in the history of British colonial rule, a cover-up of massive proportions.

In 2009 a group of elderly Kenyans instigated legal proceedings at the High Court in London against the British government for gross abuses allegedly committed on them while they were detained as Mau Mau suspects fifty years previously, during the colonial ‘Emergency’ in Kenya. As part of the proceedings of the case, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (the successor to the Colonial Office) was forced to reveal the existence of 8,800 files that colonial officials had secretly spirited away from thirty-seven different British colonies across the world, including Kenya, Cyprus, Aden, Palestine, Nigeria and Malaya, as the sun set on the empire. The official explanation for why these records were deliberately removed was that they might ‘embarrass’ Her Majesty’s government. In reality, it was because they contained some of the darkest secrets of the last days of empire.

The first cache of the previously ‘lost’ records, only made publicly available in April 2012, revealed that the British government deliberately set about destroying, culling and then removing incriminating records from colonies as they approached independence in order to prevent them falling into the hands of post-independence governments. By destroying and removing these records, Britain was then able to inculcate a fictional history of its colonial benevolence, in which occasional abuses and violence may have been inflicted on local populations, but these were the exception, not the rule. The ‘lost’ Colonial Office records revealed such a claim to be nonsense. Burying the British empire was a far more bloody affair than has previously been acknowledged or supposed.

The records that were not deliberately destroyed by colonial officials in the last days of empire were transferred back to Britain, and were eventually housed at a top-secret Foreign Office facility at Hanslope Park, near Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, where they remained hidden for fifty years, until the High Court (assisted by a few Foreign Office officials determined that they should see the light of day) forced their release. Hanslope Park’s official title is curiously neutral-sounding: ‘Her Majesty’s Communications Centre’. To local inhabitants, however, it is known as ‘spook central’. The secret facility has a long history of involvement with Britain’s intelligence services: during the Second World War it was home to the Radio Security Service, a SIGINT outfit known as MI8 that was responsible for detecting German agents operating in Britain. The idea that the government could have ‘mislaid’ or ‘lost’ this archive is as shameful as it is preposterous. The records at Hanslope Park referring to Kenya alone were housed in three hundred boxes, occupying 110 feet of shelving. Thanks to the Kenyan case that went before the High Court, we can now see that Hanslope Park acted as a depository for records detailing the most shameful acts and crimes committed in the last days of the British empire.

In June 2013 the British government settled the Kenyan case out of court. Speaking on behalf of the government, the foreign secretary, William Hague, issued a public apology, for the first time admitting that ‘Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration.’ By settling the case before it went to full trial, the British government was probably attempting to avoid establishing what for it would be an unwanted legal precedent, which could be used by claimants in other former British colonies alleging torture and mistreatment at the hands of British forces. The result, however, may be precisely the opposite: the British government’s apology, and the £20 million compensation it gave to Kenyan victims, may open the flood gates to other claimants.

This is the first book to draw on that secret archive. At the time of writing, only the first wave of records has been released to the public, but more are to follow. This book is therefore necessarily the first word, not the final word, on the secrets contained at Hanslope Park. Even though only the first tranche of these records, amounting to about 1,200 files, is available at the time of writing, they still reveal a number of previously unknown horrific stories. They show that the ‘elimination of ranking terrorists’ was a repeated theme in secret monthly reports circulated by the director of intelligence in British-controlled Malaya in the 1950s, suggesting that Britain effectively operated a shoot-to-kill policy there. They also show that successive British governments hoodwinked Parliament and the public over the decision to give the US a military base on the small island in the Indian Ocean, Diego Garcia, and that in order to pave the way (literally) for this, Britain forcibly removed islanders from their homes. This sad story has a resonance closer to our own times: the same base on Diego Garcia has apparently been used as a transfer site by the US as part of its policy of ‘extraordinary rendition’ in the so-called ‘war on terror’.

As well as adding a new dimension to our understanding of both Britain’s last days of empire and the Cold War, this book reveals clear – and often alarming – parallels with the world today. Among other matters, it reveals how Western governments have both used and abused intelligence; it describes the practical limitations that were faced by under-resourced intelligence services, as well as the fine line that existed between safeguarding security and upholding civil liberties, a line that in some instances was crossed; it reveals a number of dramatic, unpublicised spy scandals; it shows that just over half a century ago the British government conspired with its allies to bring about ‘regime change’ in the Middle East, and ‘sexed up’ intelligence reports in order to do so; it demonstrates the difficulty of tracking down terrorist cells that are determined to cause death and destruction; and the central role that intelligence played in combating brutal guerrilla insurgencies. It also offers a new history of ‘rendition’, revealing that during the Second World War, German agents were captured in various parts of the British empire and then transported to top-secret interrogation facilities in Britain, despite MI5’s recognition of the dubious legality of doing so. It provides a haunting testimony to the fact that, in several post-war colonial ‘Emergencies’, British soldiers tortured detainees during interrogations – despite the belief of British intelligence that doing so was counter-productive and would not produce reliable intelligence. A central theme of this book is that a repetition of such catastrophic failures can only be avoided if we understand those that occurred previously; or as Winston Churchill put it, in order to understand the present, let alone the future, we must first look back at the past.

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Victoria’s Secrets: British Intelligence and Empire Before the Second World War (#ulink_45c63976-a182-5eb8-b54f-e67ce7e00f2d)

One advantage of the secret service is that it has no worrying audit. The service is ludicrously starved, of course, but the funds are administered by a few men who do not call for vouchers or present itemised accounts …

He considered the years to come when Kim would have been entered and made to the Great Game that never ceases day and night, throughout India.


Governments have conducted espionage and intelligence-gathering efforts for centuries. Indeed, intelligence-gathering – often said to be the world’s second oldest profession – is as old as governments themselves. In Britain, there was a ‘secret service’ operating at least since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in the sixteenth century, which under Sir Francis Walsingham was tasked to gather intelligence on the Spanish Armada and to uncover various Catholic intrigues and plots. However, it was not until the nineteenth century, and more importantly the early twentieth century, that the British government began to devote significant resources to intelligence, and turn it into a professional, bureaucratic enterprise. Despite Britain’s long history of clandestine espionage work, in fact it was not in the ‘domestic’ realm that its intelligence-gathering was to develop most rapidly. Instead, it was in the British empire, which in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries grew to become the greatest empire in world history, that intelligence found a particularly important role.

From the earliest days of the British intelligence community, which was established in the early twentieth century, there was a close connection between intelligence-gathering and empire. It is not an exaggeration to say that in its early years British intelligence was British imperial intelligence.This is not surprising when it is considered that intelligence played an essential role in the administration of the empire, which by the 1920s had grown to encompass one-quarter of the world’s territory and population. After 1918, as one geographer proudly commented, the empire reached its widest extent, covering ‘one continent, a hundred peninsulas, five hundred promontories, a thousand lakes, two thousand rivers, ten thousand islands’. The empire had four kinds of dependent territories: colonies, protectorates, protected states and trust territories. At one end of the spectrum, colonies were those territories, like Kenya, where the monarch of the United Kingdom had absolute sovereignty, while trust territories, at the other end of the spectrum, were those assigned to Great Britain for administration under a special mandate, like Palestine. There was often little practical difference between colonies and protectorates. The Colonial Office usually referred to territories under ‘traditional’ rulers, with a British resident, as ‘protected states’. The typology of these dependent states was incredibly confusing (sometimes even to the Colonial Office itself).

One reason for the importance of intelligence in the empire was the lack of sheer manpower required to cover such enormous territories. Even at its height, British rule in India was maintained through an incredibly small number of administrative officials, with the renowned Indian Civil Service in the Raj boasting a total of just 1,200 posts, at a time when the population of India was probably around 280 million. Before 1939 the Indian army of 200,000 men, together with a British garrison of 60,000, was responsible for keeping the peace on land from Egypt to Hong Kong – British territories ‘East of Suez’, to use the phrase from the time. With such meagre resources at its disposal, British rule in India required up-to-date and reliable information on its enemies, both imagined and real. This was acquired through networks of informants and agents, and from intercepted communications. It is little wonder that, as one study has termed it, the British empire in the nineteenth century was an ‘empire of information’.

Intelligence-gathering also came to the forefront in Britain’s imperial military campaigns in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One of the most exhilarating theatres for intelligence operations, or spying, lay in India’s North-West Frontier – now the tribal borderlands of Pakistan – where Victorian Britain fought the ‘Great Game’ with Russia, a conflict memorably portrayed by Rudyard Kipling in Kim, arguably one of the greatest espionage novels of all time. In Kim, Kipling described the ‘Great Game’ as essentially an intelligence conflict, which ‘never ceases day or night’, with both Britain and Russia running spies and informants to discover the other’s intentions. However, the reality was that it was often not difficult for Russia to spot British imperial intelligence agents: they were often extremely amateurish and deployed flimsy covers, variously posing as butterfly collectors, archaeologists and ethnographers. That said, it was in the ‘Great Game’ that some distinctly more professional forms of intelligence-gathering were born, particularly in a process that would later become known as signals intelligence (SIGINT), the interception and decryption of communications, or ‘signals’. In 1844 the Indian army pioneered one of the first permanent code-breaking bureaus in the world, which gained notable successes in reading Russian communications long before any similar European SIGINT agency had done so. The British military also made innovative use of intelligence during its campaigns in Egypt in the 1880s, successfully deploying a series of agents and scouts to reconnoitre the location of Egyptian forces in the desert.

The very process of Britain’s colonial expansion in the Victorian period, especially during the so-called ‘scramble for Africa’ beginning in the 1880s, necessitated new forms of systematic intelligence-gathering, such as mapping and census-taking. In undertaking such activities, Britain was not acting differently from its imperial rivals at the time – France, Russia, Germany and Italy. Before any colonial power could dominate, control and exploit colonial populations, in Africa or elsewhere, it first had to map them. In practice, however, the process of mapping an empire often ignored its realities. Maps imposed European geometrical patterns on amorphous landscapes, drawing frontiers that cut through tribal communities as well as ethnic and linguistic groups. To this day, it is not difficult to spot the borders of those countries, particularly in Africa, which were drawn by European cartographers: many are arranged at right angles and slice through geographical features and ethnographic groupings. Sometimes European powers displaced and resettled colonial populations in order to make them reflect the ethnographic colonial maps. In the ‘white man’s burden’ of colonial rule, subtle realities did not matter.

Given all that, it is no coincidence that Britain’s first Directorate of Military Intelligence, established in 1887, grew from the Topographical and Statistical Department in the War Office, which was responsible for mapping much of the British empire. Moreover, it was a violent colonial ‘small war’ in an outpost of the British empire, the Second Anglo-Boer War in southern Africa, waged between 1899 and 1902, which first alerted the British government to the need for establishing a permanent intelligence service. The so-called Boer War exposed to Britain’s military leaders, the Chiefs of Staff in London, how fragile the nation’s colonial holdings were. It took the British military much longer than expected, three years, and also the deployment of some 45,000 troops, to defeat a group of rebellious Dutch Boer farmers in the Cape Colony (now South Africa) who harried the British Army through guerrilla warfare. In fighting the insurgency there, it has to be noted that the British military developed some ominous strategies, not least the establishment of ‘concentration camps’, or detention camps, where suspected insurgents were ‘concentrated’. This type of warfare, in which the distinction between combatants and non-combatant civilians was blurred, was to have horrific echoes in the twentieth century. As far as intelligence was concerned, the kind of irregular warfare that Britain faced in the Boer War, like that experienced by other European powers in their own colonial ‘small wars’ – literally guerrilla in Spanish – revealed the paramount need for effective intelligence-gathering. In fact, it was during the Boer War that a British officer, Lt. Col. David Henderson, wrote an influential paper for the War Office in London, ‘Field Intelligence: its principles and practice’, which became the basis of a manual, ‘Regulations for intelligence duties in the field’, published by the War Office in 1904. This manual became the inspiration for the British Army’s intelligence corps, founded ten years later, on the outbreak of the First World War.

Despite Britain’s long history of intelligence-gathering, a watershed occurred in the early twentieth century. Partly in response to fears of Britain’s colonial frailty, as revealed by the Boer War, but more specifically as a result of fears about the growing threat posed by the German empire, in October 1909 the British government took the momentous decision to establish a permanent, peacetime intelligence department. This decision was taken by the Committee of Imperial Defence – significantly, it was imperial defence that led to the setting up of Britain’s spook agencies. The department, known as the ‘Secret Service Bureau’, was divided into two branches. The ‘domestic’ branch, MO5(g), was responsible for security intelligence – counter-espionage, counter-sabotage and counter-subversion. During the First World War MO5(g) was renamed Military Intelligence 5, or ‘MI5’, and after the war it was again rechristened the Security Service – twin designations (the Security Service, MI5) that it keeps to the present day. Sir Vernon Kell, a retired officer from the South Staffordshire Regiment, served as Director-General of MI5 from 1909 to 1940, roughly one-third of its history to date, making him the longest-ever serving head of any British government department.

Meanwhile, the ‘foreign’ branch of the Secret Service Bureau, first known as MI1C, was renamed Military Intelligence 6, or ‘MI6’, during the First World War. Thereafter it became known as MI6 or the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) – again, twin designations that it retains to the present day. Its first head was Sir Mansfield Cumming, a Royal Navy officer who had taken early retirement due to ill-health. By all accounts he was a remarkable character. In the early stages of the First World War he lost a leg in a road traffic accident in France – as the story goes, he hacked his own leg off with a pocket penknife in order to drag himself to safety from the wreckage of his car. This accident caused him to use a wheelchair, and colleagues later recalled that he would terrorise the corridors of power in Whitehall, spinning at high speeds around corners.

In taking the decision to establish a professional intelligence department in 1909, the British government actually came late to the ‘intelligence game’ when compared to other European powers, most of which had already set up such bodies by the turn of the twentieth century. France had established code-breaking ‘black chambers’ (cabinets noirs) in the middle of the nineteenth century, while tsarist Russia had an infamous intelligence service (the Okhrana), and Germany had a specialised intelligence service (Nachrichtendienst) operating at least since the time of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. The reason for Britain’s late arrival into the world of espionage was due to strong opposition from some Victorian and Edwardian politicians, who decried ‘intelligence’ as an inherently un-English pursuit: gentlemen ‘did not read each other’s mail’, went the phrase, and ‘espionage’ was not even an English word, as some liked to point out. It was better to leave such sordid exploits to the Continental powers, where they belonged.

The formation of the two services that would later become known as MI5 and SIS represented a fundamental break with all British intelligence-gathering efforts up to that point. For the first time, the government had professional, dedicated peacetime intelligence services at its disposal. Operational distinctions between MI5 and SIS, particularly jurisdictional disputes over what constituted ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ territory, proved a thorny subject that would only be resolved over subsequent decades. Nevertheless, the crucial point is that, unlike all British intelligence-gathering efforts up to that point, after 1909 the government was equipped with independent intelligence bureaucracies, furnished with card-catalogue index registries, which brought together information from all available sources. Whereas previously the British military and various government departments, such as the India Office, had gathered intelligence and conducted espionage for their own purposes, often on an ad hoc basis, the services established in 1909 had two specific combined purposes: to gather and assess intelligence. They were also inter-departmental, that is to say they were meant to ‘service’ all British government departments with the intelligence they needed. Although MI5 and SIS grew out of Britain’s military intelligence department (MO5), they were different from the intelligence departments of the armed forces, which were not inter-departmental. All three of the armed services, the army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, would go on to maintain their own intelligence departments, but it is MI5 and SIS (and later GC&CS) that are usually understood to be Britain’s intelligence services, or, more amorphously, ‘British intelligence’. The establishment of MI5 and SIS also witnessed for the first time a distinction between various grades of classified information (or ‘intelligence’), such as ‘secret’ and ‘top secret’. Thus, while British government departments before 1909 had gathered intelligence, and would continue to do so thereafter, the breakthrough for the government was that after 1909 it had for the first time its own intelligence services.

To this day, MI5 and SIS retain many of the practices established in their earliest days. The Chiefs of SIS retain the designation ‘C’, a title that was first used by Sir Mansfield Cumming, which is variously understood to stand either for ‘Cumming’ or for ‘Chief’. Other SIS rituals established in its earliest times which continue to the present include a green light outside C’s room (indicating that C is busy), special green ink that is reserved for him alone to use, and the ubiquitous and sometimes pointless use of codenames. SIS reports are still referred to as ‘CX reports’, apparently meaning ‘C Exclusively’. Similar continuities also exist in MI5. The terms ‘Put Away’ (‘P/A’) and ‘Look Up’ (‘L/U’), for example, can be seen on the front of countless declassified MI5 records, indicating when a file has been looked up and then put away in a secure cabinet – both of which were terms used by Kell soon after his ‘Bureau’ was established. The same is true of ‘Nothing Recorded Against’ (‘NRA’), which refers to one of the most important, but least glamorous, activities that MI5 officers have undertaken since Kell’s time: when an MI5 officer has looked up an individual in the service’s central archive, but has found nothing incriminating.

Eccentric rituals and designations apart, MI5 and SIS also retain much more important legacies from their early history. From the outset of their operations it was established that neither would have any executive powers. In contrast to law-enforcement agencies such as London’s Special Branch at Scotland Yard, or the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), neither MI5 nor SIS has ever had any powers of arrest. Readers may be disappointed to learn that SIS officers have never had ‘licences to kill’. Instead, MI5 and SIS have always relied on police authorities in Britain, particularly Special Branch, to carry out arrests for them. This was a calculated strategy on the part of the Chiefs of Staff and the British government. By decoupling intelligence-gathering from law enforcement, policing, and executive action more generally, they hoped to avoid the establishment of a ‘police state’, which they feared would be created by providing the secret services with powers of arrest. They also seem to have concluded that policing is a very different activity from intelligence work, which is not necessarily concerned with either arrests or law enforcement. Intelligence-gathering involves acquiring information in an anticipatory, prophylactic manner – fragments of information from here or there which may or may not become important one day. This distinction between intelligence and policing continues to the present day, and in fact is one of the reasons why the FBI at the start of the twenty-first century is considered to be ill-equipped to deal with the threat of terrorism, which requires anticipatory intelligence, not policing.

Despite the notable continuities in MI5 and SIS’s history from 1909 onwards, it would be erroneous to suppose that in the years immediately after their foundation they were anything like the services they would later become. It is a myth that ever since the sixteenth century ‘British intelligence’, like the British empire itself, grew steadily in size and influence, spreading its tentacles across the world. This myth was mostly derived from Edwardian spy novelists like Erskine Childers, whose writings, such as Riddle of the Sands, depicted a powerful British intelligence service actively thwarting its enemies both at home and abroad. The reality could not have been further from such fictions. For years after their establishment, both MI5 and SIS remained desperately short of resources. The diary of MI5’s first and longest-serving head, Sir Vernon Kell, reveals how perilous the organisation’s existence was in its early days. In the years before the First World War, MI5 and SIS were both run on shoestring budgets. At the outbreak of war in 1914, MI5 had an entire staff of just fifteen – including the office’s caretaker. Staff numbers in SIS were similarly meagre. During his first week on the job in 1909, the first Chief of SIS, Sir Mansfield Cumming, noted rather miserably in his diary that he sat alone in his new office, without the telephone ringing, and with no one visiting him because the Bureau was too secret to be listed in a Whitehall telephone directory. This was very much a one-man-and-a-dog operation.

The First World War led to the massive expansion of the machinery of Britain’s secret state – just as it did in all other major belligerent European powers. In fact, it is fair to say that the war was the event that created the modern national security state. Every fighting nation built up unprecedented surveillance systems, and the strains of ‘total war’, in which all of a country’s resources were mobilised towards the war effort, necessitated an enormous increase in security and surveillance, both in Britain and across its empire. Total war required total surveillance. All of the warring governments were equipped with vastly increased new powers of detention and investigation, particularly through mail interception. MI5’s staff expanded dramatically after 1914, growing from a handful on the outbreak of war to reach 844 in 1918, of whom 133 were officers, as opposed to other ranks, while its central registry of people and organisations grew from 17,500 card indexes in 1914 to over 250,000 cards and 27,000 personal files in 1918. The Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), passed soon after the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, provided MI5 and other departments of the British secret state with enormously increased powers of surveillance. This is illustrated by the fact that at the start of the war the Post Office employed a single censor to intercept, open and analyse mail, but by its end the Censor’s Office had grown to employ over 2,000 officials, each of whom opened on average over 150 letters per day. It was also during the First World War that MI5 became more than just a ‘domestic’ intelligence service, as it is sometimes still mistakenly understood to be, and made a claim to be an imperial service, responsible for security intelligence in all British territories across the globe.

The First World War is often regarded as a European war, a view that is reinforced by the famous war poetry of the Western Front, which vividly captures the horrific realities of trench warfare, with thousands of men being sent to their deaths in conditions akin to hell on earth. In reality, however, from the outset it was a worldwide war. Contrary to what we might expect, the first shots fired by British forces on land in the war did not take place in Europe, but were fired on 12 August 1914 at a German wireless station in Togoland, and soon after the outbreak of hostilities it became a deliberate policy of the Prusso-German General Staff to incite revolution and subversion (termed Revolutionspolitik) in the colonial empires and ‘weak points’ of its enemies. In September 1914 the German Chancellor, Theobold von Bethmann Hollweg, told his Foreign Ministry: ‘England appears determined to wage war until the bitter end … Thus one of our main tasks is gradually to wear England down through unrest in India and Egypt.’ It is revealing that while the British used the term ‘Great War’, from the start the German military spoke of a ‘World War’ (Weltkrieg).

In 1914 the German General Staff established a new department, the Intelligence Bureau for the East (Nachrichtenstelle für den Orient), attached to the Foreign Ministry, which was led by an aristocratic Prussian archaeologist and explorer, Max von Oppenheim. The exploits of Oppenheim’s Bureau read much like the fantastic accounts of dastardly German plots to stir up unrest in India found in John Buchan’s classic wartime espionage novel Greenmantle (1916). Buchan describes a fiendish plan by the Central Powers to incite revolt in the Middle East and India, which it falls to his heroes, Major Richard Hannay and his friend Sandy Arbuthnot, a master of foreign tongues and exotic disguises, to thwart. In fact, Buchan’s story was not as absurd as the author purposefully made it appear. Buchan served as a war correspondent and briefly as a military intelligence officer at British headquarters in France, where he would have had access to intelligence records. His novel was fictional in degree, but not in essence.

The reality was that before the war, Germany had been carefully cultivating links with Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries, which acted as the gateway to British India. Beginning in the 1890s, the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, had sponsored the construction of the Berlin–Baghdad railway, and during a trip to Damascus in 1898 he went so far as to declare himself the ‘protector’ of all Muslims – though it is unclear what reaction this received. Oppenheim’s new intelligence Bureau was responsible for inciting revolt among Germany’s enemies, and at various times during the war it sponsored French pacifists and Mexican nationalists, and most famously – or infamously, depending on one’s perspective – it helped a Russian émigré called Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, more popularly known by his pseudonym, Lenin, to return to Russia in April 1917 in a sealed bomb-proof train, with ample funds, shortly after which he successfully instigated a revolution against the temporary Russian government. There is no evidence that Lenin was a German agent per se, but he was certainly sponsored by Oppenheim’s Bureau – though presumably Lenin himself would have argued that it was he who was playing the German intelligence services, not the other way around. Nevertheless, in many ways the Bolshevik revolution was the greatest success of the wartime German intelligence services. Meanwhile, the main targets of Oppenheim’s Bureau in the British empire were Indian and Bengali nationals, Irish republicans and Arab jihadists.

On 5 November 1914, soon after the outbreak of hostilities, the Ottoman empire entered the war on Germany’s side, and largely as a result of pressure from the German government, the Turkish Caliphate issued fatwas ordering all Muslims to wage a holy war (jihad) against Britain and its allies. British War Office records reveal the extent to which the Chiefs of Staff in London were concerned about subversion in the Indian army, one-third of whose soldiers were Muslims. It was also not lost on the Chiefs of Staff, nor on MI5, that approximately half of the world’s then 270 million Muslims lived under either British, Russian or French rule.

At the beginning of the war, India was the only part of the British empire that MI5 was in direct contact with, communicating with the Director of Criminal Intelligence (DCI) in Delhi, Maj. John Wallinger. Previously, the main responsibility for dealing with Indian ‘seditionists’ or ‘revolutionaries’ (members of the Ghadr ‘revolt’ party) had fallen to the London Special Branch, but in the course of the war MI5 increasingly took a lead in dealing with Indian revolutionaries in Britain. After 1914 the German Foreign Ministry established an ‘Indian Committee’ in Berlin, which revolved around the exiled Indian academic and lawyer Virendaranath Chattopadhyaya, who had become a revolutionary while studying law at Middle Temple in London, and was a close confidant of the man who would later become the first leader of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru. One of the agents being run by Chattopadhyaya in wartime Britain, Harish Chandra, was identified by MI5 through intercepted communications and interrogated by MI5 officers in October 1915. They persuaded him to act as a double agent, and he duly passed over considerable amounts of information on German plots in India. Reassuringly for MI5 and the Chiefs of Staff, the intelligence produced by Chandra revealed that the German Foreign Ministry was making increasingly unrealistic and far-fetched plans for subversion in India. The intensive interception of the mail of 138,000 Indian troops serving on the Western Front likewise convinced MI5 and the War Office that there was no widespread support for revolutionaries or for pan-Islamism among those soldiers – though one censor did report a worrying trend among them to write poetry, which he considered ‘an ominous sign of mental disquietude’. It was judged that the best strategy was to let the German Foreign Ministry continue wasting time, money and energy on fruitless plans for subversion in India.

MI5’s main wartime expert on Indian affairs was Robert Nathan, who joined the organisation in November 1914, having spent twenty-six years in the Indian Civil Service and also serving as Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University before he was forced to resign due to ill-health. Within MI5, Nathan surrounded himself with a number of veterans of the Indian army, police and civil service. By 1917, MI5’s G-Branch, which was responsible for investigations, had a total of twenty-eight officers, eight of whom had previously served in India. This was an unusually large collection of Indian veterans for any British government department outside India itself. One of Nathan’s continual wartime concerns was possible political assassinations on British soil. In July 1909 an Indian Ghadr revolutionary had assassinated Sir William Curzon Wyllie, a former Indian Army officer and aide to the Secretary of State for India, on the steps of the India Office in London. Based in part on information provided by its double agent Chandra, MI5 feared that similar attempts might be made during the war. No such plot ever materialised, but MI5 continued to intercept and scrutinise the correspondence of known revolutionaries in London. In the spring of 1916 Nathan travelled to the USA, where his intelligence provided the US authorities with much of the evidence used at two major trials of the Ghadr movement, the first of which was held in Chicago in October 1916 and ended with the conviction of three militants. The second trial, held in San Francisco, came to a dramatic climax in April 1918 when one of the accused, Ram Singh, shot the Ghadr leader Ram Chandra Peshawari dead in the middle of the courtroom. The head of Special Branch in London, Basil Thomson, commented:

In the Western [United] States such incidents do not disturb the presence of mind of Assize Court officials: the deputy sheriff whipped an automatic from his pocket, and from his elevated place at the back of the court, aiming above and between intervening heads, shot the murderer dead.

The Indian National Congress – the political body that would later become the main vehicle for anti-colonial nationalism in India – does not seem to have attracted any significant attention from MI5 or any other section of the British intelligence community during the First World War. This was partly because Congress had no significant wartime German connection, but also because before 1914 it was little more than a middle-class debating society that met only sporadically. There was nothing to suggest that it would emerge from the war as a mass movement that would become a focus for resistance to the British Raj. The main transformation of Congress’s fortunes would be due to Mohandas Karamchand ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi, an English-educated barrister of Inner Temple, who more than anyone else would set in process the downfall of the British empire in India a generation later. Nevertheless, in retrospect it is clear that in the pre-war and wartime years, MI5 and British intelligence authorities in India showed a remarkable lack of interest in Gandhi. When he returned in 1915 to India from South Africa, where he developed the technique of satyagraha, or passive resistance, which he later used against the Raj, the Department of Criminal Intelligence in Delhi described him as ‘neither an anarchist nor a revolutionary’, but just as a ‘troublesome agitator whose enthusiasm had led him frequently to overstep the limits of South African laws relating to Asiatics’.

Reflecting the worldwide nature of the war, that same year, 1915, the British Chiefs of Staff instructed MI5 to establish a department to deal with German-sponsored subversion in the British empire. This new department, D-Branch in MI5, led by an officer called Frank Hall, expanded rapidly, so that by 1917 it had nineteen full-time officers. For cover, D-Branch used the name ‘Special Central Intelligence Bureau’ when communicating with colonial and Commonwealth governments. According to a post-war report compiled on D-Branch, its responsibilities included undertaking visa checks on individuals travelling in the empire and providing colonial governments with information on known and suspected German agents. By 1916 D-Branch was in touch with ‘the authorities responsible for counter-espionage in almost every one of the colonies’. However, during the war MI5 did not actually station officers in British colonies or other dependent territories overseas. Instead, it operated as a ‘clearing house’ for security intelligence on German espionage and subversion by maintaining direct personal contacts with a number of colonial police forces, known as its ‘links’, and consolidating all the information it received from those links across the empire into a single registry, which contained around 45,000 records in 1917. By the end of the war MI5 could justifiably boast that it presided over a unique, empire-wide index of security intelligence information. One of the clearest manifestations of its dramatically increased responsibilities was its famous ‘Black Lists’ of German agents, which it circulated to all colonial and Commonwealth governments. These grew from a single volume in 1914 to a weighty twenty-one volumes in 1918, which included 13,524 names.

The most famous example of German attempts to sponsor subversion in the British empire involved British counter-measures orchestrated by the now-legendary figure T.E. Lawrence, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – Oxford historian, archaeologist, cartographer, linguist, intelligence officer and expert guerrilla fighter. Lawrence and his colleagues, a group of self-proclaimed ‘intrusives’, established the so-called Arab Bureau in Cairo in 1914, which pioneered the use of guerrilla warfare against Turkish forces fighting on the side of Germany and the Central Powers in Arabia. In many ways the efforts of Lawrence and British forces in the Middle East during the First World War represent the first modern intelligence war: Lawrence’s forces combined intelligence gained from human agents with intelligence from signals radio intercepts, processes which are now known as human intelligence (HUMINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT) respectively. The use of aerial reconnaissance, now known as image intelligence (IMINT), was also pioneered by the Royal Flying Corps in the clear skies over Arabia.

The most important success of the Arab Bureau in its four-year wartime existence was to convince the War Office in London not to send an expeditionary force to Arabia. Lawrence and others in the Arab Bureau argued that a permanent British force landed in the Hejaz, the rocky province bordering the Red Sea, would inevitably be regarded by Arabs as an invading Christian, ‘crusader’ force – with disastrous consequences. Instead, the Arab Bureau insisted that the British should forge an alliance with the local Hashemite dynasty, who could take primary responsibility for fighting the Central Powers in Arabia, with the British providing assistance through intelligence and irregular warfare. This is precisely what occurred. British forces, led by Lawrence, collaborated with the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali – who claimed to trace his descent back to Mohammed and Adam – and waged a series of spectacularly successful guerrilla attacks on Turkish and German forces in the Sinai Peninsula, conducting diversionary raids on railways and assaults on isolated garrisons in the Hejaz, through Aqaba to Amman and Damascus. In his famous self-dramatising account of his wartime exploits, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence emphasised that intelligence-gathering was the key to successful irregular warfare: ‘The first line of guerrilla warfare,’ he wrote, ‘is accurate intelligence.’ Lawrence’s wartime mission was to divert Turkish forces from Palestine to protect the Hejaz railway. Assisted by Lawrence’s diversionary actions in the Hejaz, the leader of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, General Edmund Allenby, won successive victories in Gaza and Beersheba, which ultimately led to the capture of the city of Jerusalem in December 1917. Allenby was joined by Lawrence in triumphantly entering the Holy City on foot – the first Christian soldiers to capture the city since the time of the Crusades.

As well as attempting to incite subversion against the British in India and the Middle East, the German military also sponsored unrest in one of Britain’s closest imperial possessions: Ireland. In fact, one of the most notorious cases that British intelligence was involved with in the entire First World War related to German attempts to forge an alliance with dissident Irish republicans. During the war, the signals department of the British Admiralty, codenamed ‘Room 40’, led by Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall, grew in importance and size, and successfully intercepted and read many German communications. As with the rest of the British intelligence community, the war transformed the scale and nature of the British SIGINT, institutionalising code-breaking in ways that had not previously existed in Britain. One of the most notorious wartime German communications intercepted and circulated by Room 40 was the so-called ‘Zimmermann telegram’ of January 1917, in which the German Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann, offered the Mexican government the chance to retake lost territories in the United States, including land in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, if it declared war on the United States. Although the Zimmermann telegram is commonly known to be one of the causes of the US government’s entry into the war, the role that Room 40 played in the episode is still generally not properly appreciated in most histories of the First World War, despite having been discussed by intelligence historians for over thirty years: Room 40 intercepted the notorious telegram and passed it on to US authorities, who then publicly exposed it, while keeping secret the role of British code-breakers.

In the two years after outbreak of war in 1914, Room 40 code-breakers decrypted at least thirty-two German cables relating to Irish nationalists. The most important related to the ‘Easter Rising’ of April 1916, and Germany’s support of an exiled Irish nationalist, Sir Roger Casement, to help carry out the uprising in Dublin. Room 40’s decryption efforts gave the British government foreknowledge of the uprising, and provided exact knowledge of Germany’s arms supplies to Ireland. On information provided by Room 40, in April 1916 the Royal Navy intercepted the U-boat carrying Casement to Ireland before he could carry out his mission. Casement was ultimately executed by the British in Dublin in August 1916. During his incarceration he begged the British authorities to allow him to communicate with the leaders of the uprising, and warn them to abandon their plans. However, it seems doubtful that even if he had made such an intervention it would have prevented the council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood from proceeding. Furthermore, we now know that the controversial ‘Casement Diaries’ – lurid details of which, including graphic descriptions of Casement’s homosexual exploits, were deliberately released by Blinker Hall to blacken Casement’s name during his trial – were not forgeries concocted by the British, as many Irish nationalists at the time and since have maintained, but were in fact genuine. The attempts by the German government to incite an anti-British ‘fifth column’ in Ireland, the ‘back door to England’, was a strategy that would be repeated by Hitler a generation later, in the Second World War.

While the British secret state expanded rapidly during the First World War, the years after the war saw an equally quick deterioration of its resources. MI5 and SIS both had their budgets slashed, and MI5’s staff shrunk from 844 in 1918 to just twenty-five officers in 1925. It should be stressed that the dwindling resources of the British secret state after 1918 lay in sharp contrast to many states in post-war Europe, which turned to various forms of bloody authoritarian rule. In Soviet Russia, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, secret police forces expanded rapidly, and their leaders applied security practices forged during the First World War, such as mass registration and detention, to their populations even in times of peace. While the British government had interned at least 32,000 ‘enemy aliens’ on security grounds, largely on MI5’s advice, between 1914 and 1918, such drastic methods were taken only as wartime ‘emergency measures’ in Britain. The ‘totalitarian’ states of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, however, which were effectively at war all the time, and mobilised their populations along wartime lines, applied wartime security practices even while at peace. The head of Germany’s intelligence service in the First World War, Walter Nicolai, summarised this view when he wrote that for Germany to become a world power again it had to behave as though it was at ‘war in peace’, and would have to gather intelligence on all its enemies, at home and abroad. By contrast, the resources of the British secret state were cut so dramatically in the post-war years that by 1925 MI5 had a total of only twenty-four mail and telephone interceptions operating in the whole of Britain. Its staff consisted of just sixteen officers by 1929, and as MI5’s in-house history noted, its resources were so inadequate in the 1920s that its operations ‘reduced to a minimum’. Between 1919 and 1931, MI5 was relegated to investigating subversion in the British armed forces.
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