The Secret World: A History of Intelligence
by Christopher Andrew.
Yale University Press, 2018.
Hardcover, 960 pages, $40.

Reviewed by Michael J. Ard

“The further backwards you look, the further forward you can see.” This quote by Winston Churchill sums up the guiding philosophy of Christopher Andrew’s impressive The Secret World: A History of Intelligence. Andrew, eminent historian of intelligence services, gifts us with his lifetime of knowledge in the field. This book fills a great need and should interest any serious student of international affairs.

Andrew contends that intelligence has been neglected by serious historians of political affairs. Even the many biographies of Churchill—one of the heroic figures in this book—lack detailed treatments of the Prime Minister’s great respect and advocacy of the intelligence collection and operations that underpinned British power.

This neglect of intelligence’s role lies not just with historians, but also with many political leaders. “Long-term historical amnesia,” as Andrew calls it, has been a significant reason why intelligence as an instrument of statecraft has waxed and waned throughout the years. Leaders simply forget its importance in prior conflicts and let their states’ abilities lapse. Statesmen seeking state power need a strong understanding of intelligence, but true “strategic intelligence” as an instrument of statecraft is rare. Interestingly, the People of the Book may be the first who grasped it: beginning with Joshua at Jericho, the Old Testament details many examples of intelligence in the service of strategic objectives. After the Jewish prophets, Muhammad, the former itinerant trader, used intelligence extensively as a tool for conquest, as recorded in the Hadiths. For a time, the Muslims were world leaders in the field. Muhammad’s later follower, the Baghdad polymath Yaqub Ibn Ishaq al Kindi, pioneered the use of “frequency analysis,” of letters in the alphabet in decrypting ciphers.

Ancient kings were slow to give up divination or even extispicy, the examining of animal entrails, to predict a future course. As man began to embrace reason, more respect for intelligence gathering and tradecraft followed. The Romans of course practiced divination, but some of them, like Julius Caesar, were skilled at developing networks of informers and actively used ciphers for communication.

Andrew emphasizes throughout The Secret World the unappreciated importance of cryptanalysis, or codebreaking, and signals intelligence (SIGINT), intercepting enemy communications. Any country with serious mathematicians could find codebreaking talent. Perhaps more than traditional spying, cryptanalysis has played an underappreciated role in shaping world events.

Renaissance England was a world leader in cryptanalysis when it began its rise as a world power. In one of the first international partnerships, the English and the Dutch teamed up to break Spanish codes, intercepting the invading Armada’s operational plans in 1588. Intelligence, led by Foreign Secretary Francis Walsingham, was designed to protect the realm and fend off plots against Elizabeth I. Walsingham served as perhaps the world’s first professional intelligence officer and personally ran forty agents to preserve the embattled monarch’s throne. His management of codebreaking (and artful forging) helped convict rival Mary Queen of Scots for treason. Elizabeth’s famous “eyes and ears” portrait is an explicit tribute to the importance intelligence provided to her security.

Soon the French developed their own cryptanalysis capacity. One of the early heroes of this esoteric art was Francois Viète, a codebreaker for Henry IV, who united France after the Religious Wars. Later, Cardinal Richelieu established under the mathematician Antoine Rossignol a permanent codebreaking office forever known as the “Black Chamber.” France became a world leader in intelligence, coinciding, not accidentally, with its rise to world-power status.

Mere codebreaking skill alone doesn’t lead to great diplomatic or military prowess. Perhaps the best service at codebreaking before World War I was the Czar’s Okhrana intelligence service, which broke every great power’s diplomatic cables. In 1914 Russians knew all the terms of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia but couldn’t develop secure encryption for its own military. Notably, for all their technical and military accomplishments, the Germans often played the victims in the codebreaking game.

Churchill’s interest in cryptanalysis while First Lord of the Admiralty might have been a main cause for Britain’s twentieth-century dominance in this area. Great Britain had abandoned this skill in the 1850s after a public backlash because the government had been deciphering the famous Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini’s correspondence. Under Churchill’s sponsorship, the British established the famous codebreaking Room 40, the forerunner of the more famous Government Code & Cypher School at Bletchley Park and GCHQ, which broke the German code and in 1916 predicted the intentions of the Imperial Navy before the Battle of Jutland.

One of the great triumphs in cryptanalysis history was Britain’s breaking of the Zimmerman telegram, a fantastic offer by Germany’s foreign ministry to tempt Mexico into the war by assisting its recapture of the southwestern United States. As part of the exploit, Britain deceived Washington that it hadn’t tapped America’s Transatlantic Cable. After President Woodrow Wilson decided to publish the cable’s contents, the stunned American people were ready for war.

Wilson himself knew little of intelligence or its importance, a common deficiency among U.S. presidents. In contrast to Europe, for America, intelligence played only an intermittent role in its rise. Andrew argues few U.S. leaders or presidents respected intelligence as much as George Washington, whose own counterintelligence operations successfully lured British forces away from his plans to move south and trap Lord Cornwallis’s army. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was an avid consumer of telegraphic dispatches from the battlefield and was fascinated by the promise of balloons providing imagery analysis, or IMINT. But this form of intelligence would not realize its full potential to change history until the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the U2 spy plane photographed Soviet missiles in San Cristobal.

After World War I, when the U.S. shifted to strict pacifism, influential figures such as Henry Stimson considered intercepting foreign communication unethical. Our successful SIGINT office was shut down, only to be revived again by a wiser Stimson during the 1930s, when international crises again loomed.

Before and during World War II, the Allies had superior intelligence to the Axis, but it wasn’t always exploited well. In 1936 under the direction of William Friedman, the U.S. broke the Japanese diplomatic code, codename MAGIC, but interservice rivalry and poor distribution kept key messages from President Roosevelt before Pearl Harbor. Later, SIGINT proved decisive before the Battle of Midway, when U.S. analysts determined the object of attack for Japanese Admiral Nagumo’s ill-fated aircraft carriers.

Britain, with the help of France and Poland, broke the German Luftwaffe and Naval ciphers, codename ULTRA, which stayed secret until 1973. Stalin, as much as Churchill, appreciated the value of SIGINT, but he didn’t heed his spy services. Stalin focused more on having his NKVD intelligence service track down Trotskyists than on understanding Hitler’s intentions, and completely missed the build-up for Germany’s Operation Barbarossa, the greatest invasion in world history.

Russian intelligence, for all its foreign codebreaking skills, concentrated on the internal threat. Ivan the Terrible in the sixeenth century founded the Oprichniki as the world’s first state surveillance system. Long before Andropov and Putin, intelligence operatives led Russia; prior to becoming czar Boris Godunov was an Oprichniki. After the Revolution, when the KGB forerunner Cheka was created, an intelligence agency became the main bulwark of the Soviet government. One of its great ruses, the Trust, rooted out Czarist opposition by flying the false flag of an opposition movement, which deceived the famous but inept Sidney Reilly, the “Ace of Spies,” and many White Russians. Arguably, the KGB successor SVR is still a key component of Russian governance.

Perhaps this dark side of history is why democracies sometimes flinch from the need for better and more sophisticated intelligence collection. Even after signing the National Security Act of 1947, which established the CIA, President Truman, who had known less about the atomic bomb than Stalin, still regarded intelligence as strictly a wartime activity. The Church Committee in the 1970s put the CIA under great scrutiny—more than the far more active KGB ever had been. In Britain, the SIS’s existence wasn’t acknowledged publicly until the Queen’s speech in 1992.

Democracies can overcome their hesitancy out of necessity. Andrew details how damaging Edward Snowden’s treason in 2013 was to U.S. collection against foreign adversaries like Afghanistan’s Taliban. But after the Snowden revelations, which publicized the NSA’s collection of civilian metadata, the U.S. Congress still balked at reining in its SIGINT capabilities.

Andrew does not shy from citing the many intelligence failures. Analysis, not collection, is the usual culprit, with political correctness and conspiracy theories often shaping perceptions. Western services missed the Iranian Revolution because no one in government in the 1970s could conceive of a revolution led by religious conservatives. We repeated the mistake two decades later by underestimating the appeal and competence of Al Qaeda. Failure of imagination and “short-termism”—a lack of historical perspective—ensure mistakes get repeated. Meanwhile, intelligence amnesia is being played out today, as President Trump denigrates the value of collection on a main U.S. adversary. The intelligence problem of telling “truth to power,” Andrew warns, never ceases to be a challenge.  

Michael J. Ard served on the National Intelligence Council and earned his PhD from the University of Virginia. He teaches international relations in the Master of Global Affairs program at Rice University.