MI6: Life and Death in the British Secret Service by Gordon Corera

Posted on October 19, 2012 04:46 pm

I was in the bookshop three weeks ago and came across this book that caught my attention as it has been my interest to know why Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service has faired poorly since the end of second world war.The Art Of Betrayal is work of Gordon Corera unofficial publication of post-war history of MI6. As the BBC’s security correspondent,Corera seems to have enjoyed privileged access to key British spy players from the past few decades.He wrote this book in an engaging style and picks up the story of MI6 at the point where the official history comes to a halt after Second World War. He does offer an intelligent betrayal between the West and the former Soviet Union, focusing on well known notorious cases. The problem, as this book reveals, is that when the action men have the cultural ascendancy within MI6 events often go badly wrong through establishment incompetence. Corera clearly shows that sixties and seventies spies were filled with paranoia and sclerosis.While reading the book,I realized that MI6 seem to be an organization that seem not to learn from history.One would have expected that after debacle in Operation Gladio in Albania and toppling of Iran’s first democratic President Mossadeq in the 1950S could have provided important lessons for MI6 in its work in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya over the past two decades but the case was different.

Front cover of Life and Death in the British Secret Service by Gordon Corera

The author was not clear about Libya despite publicly-available information about MI6’s meddling in the Lockerbie case and the illegal assassination plot against Gaddafi in 1996 and the dirty, MI6-brokered oil deals of the past decade although the former Libyan dictator was killed last year.The final chapters explores the compromise of intelligence in justifying the Iraq war, describing how the actors pumped unverified and amateur intelligence from unproven, unqualified agents directly into the corridors of Whitehall and Washington.This jaw dropping book by BBC’s Security Correspondent details that the true story of Britain’s overseas intelligence service well known as Mi6.Corera works magic in untangling the convoluted doings of the organisation through the decades.He spectacularly uncovers the murder of Congolese activist Patrice Lumumba in 1960, he states, “It is clear that those who ordered the killing were close to the CIA and MI6 in the Congo.”Our decades on, he quotes an MI6 officer that “British intelligence facilitated the transfer” of Libyan opposition members to the jails of Colonel Gadaffi. Exploring the dud information supplied for the “dodgy dossier” on Iraq, he notes, “The impact on MI6’s reputation was calamitous.”MI6 may remain a secret service of sorts, but is it only too evident why Corera concludes by stressing the need for “a credible system of accountability”.The authors reveals how civil servants and middle-ranking spies questioned and doubted the information on Iraq and most them were told to shut up and follow orders and for those who follow current affairs and global politics I don’t need to tell you how tragic the outcomes was. Author does appreciate global reach that MI6 maintains Britain’s place in an exclusive club of world super powers.

One of the fascinating chapters in the book titled Into the shadows – Life and Death in Vienna

Fall of MI6 was spectacular because of the way Soviets penetrated its inner sanctum.MI6 landed a Soviet spy of their own Oleg Penkovsky who was later captured, tortured, given a show trial and then shot by firing squad.The book is well researched account of the MI6 and how the West gained a deeper understanding of Moscow’s weak points during the tumultuous events that led to the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989.Overall, the author also tells the story of how Britain’s secret service has changed since the end of World War II and by focusing on the people and the relationships that lie at the heart of espionage, revealing the danger, the drama, the intrigue, the moral ambiguities that comes with working for British intelligence. He chronicles the defining period of the early Cold War through to the modern day, Mi6 has undergone a dramatic transformation from amateurish organisation to its modern, no less controversial, incarnation. Corera reveals the triumphs and disasters along the way. The grand dramas of the Cold War and after – the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the 11 September 2001 attacks and the Iraq war among others as the backdrop for the human stories of the individual spies whose stories form the centrepiece of the narrative. Undoubtedly the reputation of Britain’s external Secret Intelligence Service has suffered badly in the post-war period and one of the most notable according to the author was allegations that Saddam Hussein’s regime was concealing stockpiles of weapon of mass destruction that the author reveals came from a disaffected Iraqi scientist, who cooped most of his information from the internet. That was the information former British Premier Tony Blair’s government used in its efforts to remove Saddam Hussein which was subsequently described as a sham and MI6 deserved the overall blame for allowing raw intelligence to be used politically.

Back cover of the book

Corera believes MI6 learnt its lesson, quoting one senior officer who says: “The vehicle of WMD as an argument for war was incapable of sustaining the weight put upon it, given that we didn’t have all the answers and we didn’t have the sources.” He and many other officers believe MI6 should withdraw once more into the shadows. During the Iraq crisis Sir Richard Dearlove moved in to No10 as intelligence officer and was placed at central plans meant for ousting Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi dictator. Sir Dearlove’s information has with time proved to be flaky.In my own analysis, it is clear that MI6 deserve most of the blame for the Iraqi failures and unjustified invasions and worse of them all for allowing unspecified intelligence to be politicised. After reading this book, I clearly know that MI6 facilitated the Iraq war and Corera claims British intelligence was trying to impress the Americans.But some of the individuals featured here, in turn, helped shape the course of those events. Corera draws on the first-hand accounts of those who have spied, lied and in some cases nearly died in service of the state. They range from the spymasters to the agents they ran to their sworn enemies. Many of these accounts are based on exclusive interviews and access. Ranging from Moscow to the Zaire,to the back streets of London, these are the voices of those who have worked on the front line of Britain’s secret wars and the truth is remarkably awesome.While I enjoyed tales of spymasters and their agents, this well researched unofficial chronology cannot help but end on a sour note and in light of all the grave mistakes, betrayals, credibility eroded, lessons ignored and deaths, I think MI6 seems to be a shadow of its former self and perhaps has outlived its worth.Let’s hope the current generation of spookies at Vauxhall have learnt from past mistakes of their predecessors.

Contador Harrison