MI6: Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, by Stephen Dorril

November 26, 2010 at 14:55 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Twentieth Century) (, , , , )


A history of bungling. Dorril writes like a fellow who expects every sentence to be challenged, meticulously footnoting and stuffing names, dates, names, sources, acronyms and names into each paragraph. Also acronyms and sources. Naturally, this makes his work (for the most part) about as thrilling as James Bond’s sock drawer, though admittedly Dorril is not going for the thrill factor.

His stories range from the unbelievable to the mundane, and his biggest factual lack is his assumption that his readers are intimately familiar with an awful lot of related history. Even Military Intelligence specific figures like Kim Philby and Guy Burgess are discussed only as they relate to certain historical MI misadventures, with the grist of their individual stories almost completely omitted. This is not an entry-level book, nor indeed is it really appropriate for anyone not already intimately acquainted with Cold War history.

There is a noticeable (and expected) drop off in the detail and comprehensiveness which Dorril presents towards the latter half of the book. Whereas it is clear that in his studies of earlier operations Dorril is providing the entire corpus of information he has access to, if the IRA and Desert Fox had been given a quarter the attention of 1950s Albania, this book would have been twice as long again.

There are several passages which simply fly by, and some extremely well-written accounts of some of the more daring exploits (read: stupid exploits) played out by our security services, mostly concerning the Middle East, when MI6 had a few very limited and short term successes.

Dorril’s lambasting of the security services for their short-sightedness and inability to focus where they ought comes as a bitter irony in light of his own dismissal of embassy-bomber Usama bin Laden (the book is published in 2000), and his patrician’s attitude when explaining that much of the terrrorism flap is simply created by intelligence services as scare-tactics. That said, he is equally scornful of conspiracy theories (openly mocking the MI6-killed-Diana claim), and manages despite his noticeable but materially small failings to walk a careful line between admitting the deceptions of the past, doubting the sincerity of the present and rubbishing the alarmist cries that Military Intelligence is some sort of Gestadtspolizei ogre plotting every war and behind every genocide.

And that is where Dorril’s real success lies. He collates an enormous amount of information, both secret and open-source, analyses a tremendous sixty or seventy years of history in great depth, and remains surprisingly aloof from his creation. While his scorn leaks through on several occasions, dealing with certain particularly idiotic situations, he neither writes MI6’s panegyric, nor does his book have an easily seen agenda against the security services. Therein is found his triumph, and the reason why this ridiculously hefty tome will last as a valid and brilliant history of MI6 in the twentieth century.


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