MI6 began with a mistake. ―We went to the office and remained there all day but saw no one, nor was there anything to do‖. That was the verdict of Mansfield Cumming in 1909 after his first day at work as head of the foreign section of the new Secret Service Bureau, the agency that later became the Secret Intelligence Service (or MI6). For once there was simple explanation: Cumming had accidentally started work a week early.
That inauspicious start quickly gave way to serious victories. La Dame Blanche, the most successful intelligence network of the First World War, orchestrated 880 men and women working behind enemy lines. During the operation to penetrate occupied France and Germany in the Second World War, an agent’s average life expectancy was three weeks. An incalculable debt is owed to the bravery of those men and women.
But even armed with the evidence of this book, taking measure of MI6 is unusually difficult. First, although MI6 has opened up in recent years (it now has a more conventional recruitment process than the donnish tap on the shoulder) it remains much more secretive than its sister agency MI5. Second, Mr Jeffrey’s evidence covers only 1909- 1949 – perhaps because it stops just short of the most embarrassing era in MI6’s history. In 1951, a Cambridge spy ring was exposed, in which double agents such as Kim Philby had betrayed British state secrets in the service of the Soviet Union.
That MI6 was once so dominated by Oxbridge and the public schools exposes both the genius and the fault line in British intelligence. The British class and education system, by honing the ability to hide real feelings beneath charm and polish, made for natural spies. Charm, in Evelyn Waugh’s phrase, ―is the English disease‖. But the ability to say one thing while feeling another has practical benefits. ―For the British it could be said that the inclination to deceive is already available as a natural asset,‖ concluded one American intelligence chief. Indeed, the United States did not even have a secret service until 1942.
In recent decades, MI6 has been accused of being slow to adapt. The absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq undeniably tarnished its reputation. And MI6 was influenced by America’s overreliance on high-tech intercepts, rather than face-to-face human intelligence. But 9/11 showed that high-tech systems can only augment traditional intelligence, never replace it.
MI6 has continued to punch above its weight. Oleg Gordievsky’s defection was a Cold War triumph. And Libya’s decision to abandon its nuclear programme in 2003 owed much to MI6’s relationships, its agents’ ability to persuade. When it comes to human intelligence, it remains the case that nobody does it better.
Adapted from The Times, August 2010.