Scribblings: Christopher Andrew

Photo courtesy of
‘MI5 Headquarters and Towers’
courtesy of ‘the grasshopper lies heavy’

This fall marks the 100 year anniversary of the founding of MI5, Britain’s counter-intelligence and security agency. As a celebration of the agency’s storied success since its inception at the turn of the 20th century, the service has authorized the publication of an official history by Professor Christopher Andrew of Cambridge University. This Thursday, November 12, the public is invited to meet with the author as he discusses his new book Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (here’s the Kindle link) at the International Spy Museum from noon to 1 p.m. Attendance is free.

Prof. Andrew reveals the precise role of MI5 in twentieth-century British history: from its foundation in 1909, through two world wars, and its present roles in counterespionage and counterterrorism. He describes how MI5 has been managed, what its relationship has been with government, where it has triumphed, and where it has failed. Defend the Realm also reveals the identities of previously unknown enemies of the United Kingdom whose activities have been uncovered by the agency and adds significantly to our knowledge of many celebrated events and notorious individuals while laying to rest a number of persistent myths.

A brief chat with Professor Andrew after the jump.

Photo courtesy of
‘Cabinet War Rooms’
courtesy of ‘avinashkunnath’

Your book has been billed as the “authorized history of MI5.” Did you really have unrestricted access?

While writing the book I was made a member of MI5. The jacket shows me entering MI5 HQ, the first such photo ever authorized. I was given unrestricted access to all the 20th century files I asked to see. Even when the contents could not be quoted, I was anxious to try to ensure that conclusions based on files which could be cited were not contradicted by files too sensitive to quote

The British government historically has not been very favorable toward the public transparency of its intelligence agencies. Is this book as a watershed event?

I think so. Until 1992 the British government refused to admit it had a foreign intelligence service (MI6). MI5 did not even begin releasing its WWI files until 1997.

One-hundred years creates a lot of paper. How did you manage this monumental task?

I had wonderful part-time researchers based in both MI5 HQ and at Cambridge. We were, I hope, able to identify the main priorities in the files–and to interview a large number of former MI5 staff

Were there any particular mysteries you set out to solve?

Lots! I think I’ve identified an MI5 agent who succeeded in an operation even James Bond wouldn’t have attempted. And I hope I’ve shown that some of MI5’s first double agents (one of the areas where it’s had greatest success) were American.

In this country when intelligence crisis or failures occur, the idea of creating an American MI5 emerges. What advice would you give us?

In Britain separating the police force from the security service (which has no power of arrest) is seen as important. But the US has a different constitution and what works for the UK isn’t necessarily the best solution for the USA. What is important is that the two intelligence communities continue to work closely together in the era of transnational islamist terrorism as during WWII and the Cold War. Few Americans, I think, realise that J Edgar Hoover was an honorary British knight (‘Sir J Edgar Hoover’, though as a US citizen he could never call himself that)!

Having lived in the DC area for ten years, Ben still loves to wander the city with his wife, shooting lots of photos and exploring all the latest exhibits and galleries. A certified hockey fanatic, he spends some time debating the Washington Capitals club with friends – but everyone knows of his three decade love affair with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A professional writer, gamer, photographer, and Lego enthusiast, Ben remains captivated by DC and doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon.

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