The Secret World: A History of Intelligence

DATE: 6pm-7pm, 26th June 2018
VENUE: 21-24 Millbank, Westminster, United Kingdom
SPEAKER: Professor Christopher Andrew
EVENT CHAIR: Dr Andrew Foxall, Director of Research and Director of the Russia and Eurasia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society

Dr Andrew Foxall: Good afternoon, or evening ladies and gentlemen, my name is Dr Andrew Foxall and I am both Director of Research and Director of the Russia and Eurasia Studies Centre here at the Henry Jackson Society, and I am absolutely thrilled that we have with us today Professor Christopher Andrew. Now, Christopher will be a name that I am sure is known to many of you, and he is somebody who has spent his whole career at Cambridge. He is currently an emeritus Professor of Modern and Contemporary History. He is somebody who, over the last 50 years has – perhaps more than anybody else – given an insight into this kind of murky, often misunderstood world of intelligence. He is the author, of course, of a series of books with the two Soviet defectors Vasili Mitrokhin and Oleg Gordievsky. You, Andrew, wrote five books with the two of them. And most recently – well between 2003 and 2010 – was the first and so far only official historian of MI5. You wrote the bestselling book that marked its centenary, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5, published in 2009. He is here today to speak about his new book The Secret World: A History of Intelligence, it is a weighty tone, but he tells me well worth reading.

Professor Christopher Andrew: Well for the first time in the history of this great society I shall go through the first 2,400 years in 30 seconds. You don’t believe it can be done, I’m not certain that it can be done but here we go. It goes from Moses to Putin. I mean, both were absolutely hopeless intelligence but at least Moses meant well. The first person in world history to emphasise the good intelligence was G-d who explained to Moses “There is no point in hanging around any longer, get into the land of Canaan.” That is my 30 seconds up, so I now wish to move on to the only proposition which covers the whole of the 3,000 years, and it’s this: why it is that we are in one sense worse now than we were before. There are ways in which we are better now than previously, but the way in which we are worse than we ever were before. The distinguishing intellectual vice of the late 20th Century and the early 21st Century is what I have called historical tensions and deficit disorder. The acronym is HASD. [inaudible] So, what’s the problems with HASD? [inaudible] It sort of degrades our understanding of anything that is worth understanding in the early 20th Century. But it happens to degrade our understanding of intelligence more than anything else. Now, that’s my proposition and I look forward to discussing it afterwards.

So, let me take an example – not entirely at random. This example that is not entirely at random is Boris Johnson. As everybody else is picking on Boris Johnson at the present, I propose to do so as well, catching him in a particularly vulnerable moment in his extraordinary career, when he’s on his way back from meeting a junior minister in Kabul with his back to the future sight of the third runway at Heathrow. So, I accept that he’s vulnerable. However, the point that I want to make is worth making. Nobody, I think, can fairly accuse Boris (though he can be accused of a number of things) of suffering from HASD – Historical Attention Span Deficit. I visited a school recently, a very good school where they use his history of the Roman Empire as a textbook. And, Boris’ book on Churchill has been – deservedly in some senses, completely undeservedly in another sense – a bestseller; I keep it on my kindle as a cautionary example of what goes wrong when you fail to understand the past. What is so extraordinary about the book is its whole point – so the author explains at the beginning – is to explain how we can improve performance in the present and future by understanding what Churchill did in the past. An extremely good proposition which is falsified by his complete failure to understand what Churchill was best at. If you mark undergraduate essays nowadays on Churchill in a number of universities including one of my own, what’s one of the points you expect them to make? He was better at understanding and using intelligence than anybody or policymaker in British history.

One of the key words omitted by Boris was intelligence. And so that book, is just one example of a much larger phenomenon which distorts our understanding of present intelligence. No 20th Century profession was as ignorant of the history of its profession as the brilliant Bletchley Park group who broke Hitler’s most difficult cyphers. [inaudible]. Some of those at Bletchley were distinguished historian, and certainly one called Jack Plumridge for example. He wasn’t as distinguished as Harry Hinsley. They covered a considerable range of history both thematically and in time. Not a single one ever mentioned intelligence in their lectures. Now up until the mid-1970s they were unable to mention Bletchley Park, so we would get highly intelligent people who had been members of British intelligence at probably its greatest moment, which is one part of their life. Another part of their life is actually their job in which they never mention it. The thing is that, experience, intelligence experience, is very difficult to learn from because of course it has been more secret than any other type of experience. There are these people who were teaching the Napoleonic Wars who had been at Bletchley park who had not the slightest knowledge that their predecessors had broken Grand Chiffre which was the enigma cypher without a machine that they could achieve in those days. [inaudible]. They did not have the slightest idea that the last time Britain had a major invasion (and I leave out by the way King Philip as he was invited in and so that’s not a proper invasion), that their predecessors were breaking Philip II’s code. And those in the 16th Century, began in Venice. [inaudible]. So those people hadn’t the slightest idea that the huge breakthrough they thought they were making had actually been made in the House of Wisdom in 9th Century Bagdad by Al-Kindi. The consequences meant that these people, brilliant as they are, were just like economists who have never heard of the Industrial Revolution. If you don’t understand the basics of your past profession the idea that you are going to get it right in the present is as impossible as an economist being competent without knowledge of the industrial revolution. The longer term consequence is this: intelligence is learnt from experience less than any other profession because they had less idea than any other profession of what that experience consisted of. Additionally, intelligence history is not linear. What that means is you can be highly intelligent and be worse at using intelligence than less well-educated people 200 years earlier. It is not difficult to find examples of policy makers as such. The main anniversary of me living through is the anniversaries of various events in WWI, beginning with [inaudible]. Well nobody has hinted at, nor mentioned the fact that the chief policy makers in Britain and the US – highly intelligent well-educated people – actually were worse than their 18th Century predecessors. Now I don’t think of this in any way a provocative or even debatable statement. [inaudible] There is no evidence at all that Asquith believed a single [inaudible] Well he essentially passed the information on to his mistress who was 40 years younger than him. [inaudible] But she describes in one of the letters how they used to go down to Roehampton, down what was then Roehampton Lake, and he would show her the latest intelligence and he would show it to her, then tear it up, put it in a little paper ball, and flick it out the window. That’s something we don’t believe any other intelligence policymaker has done in British history. Then it all stopped a few days later when February came round, and they had a little cardboard box which they had [inaudible].

So, let me fast forward to the present, my view is that not only French history and British history and all other history look significantly different if one takes the forgotten intelligence into account. But so do the cause célèbre, so I’m going to grapple through with some of the cause célèbre. The most cause célèbre recently that got the attention of the Guardian was Snowden which I have not read. [inaudible]) The impact of Snowden was great but not remotely in the same league as the impact of the interception of Manzini’s correspondence in 1884, but that’s not a particularly remote [inaudible]. Because what happened? Well Manzini’s correspondence was intercepted, he was living in London and the Public and Parliamentary thrust over it was such that British cooperation for interception was stopped until WWI. It is thanks to Manzini that Britain for the first time since before the Armada did not have a pro-grating capacity when we entered WWI. The idea that anyone could begin to discuss Snowden without the historical parallels in the 20th Century and before, so as we can see, we are suffering from Historical Attention Span Deficit Disorder.

The other thing is counter-terrorism. The fact that there was a series of extraordinary successes between 2006 and 2016 when terrorism was rife. I’m not saying that there were no successes, just the idea! Here’s the problem. How come until the 1970s nobody would have explained Islamic Terrorism without looking at religious extremism. Well what happened in the 1980s, the 1990s is the fact that there was the secularisation of the world that we live in. We were worse than we were at understanding Nazism, we were worse than we were at understanding tragedy and this is because of our secular ideology. [inaudible] Nobody got into WWII intelligence without paying some attention to the [inaudible] Just the idea of people being involved in counter-terrorism, the most dangerous terrorist groups are being faced but without looking at their work as poets. Bin Laden used poetry to communicate yet none of his poetry has been translated into English to be studied, it is left out when people look at his work. Poetry is the way that they express their message. What’s missing with Putin is the longest official history with access to all documents, which doesn’t mean that it’s not cosmeticized, is actually, Putin was there as head of the FSB, is the 6-volume official history of the SVR all the way back to Ivan the Terrible. Putin has said repeatedly there are many glorious pages, including using [inaudible]. He first went up to KGB headquarters when it was in Leningrad at the age of 16, and asked to join, he was asked to come back a few years later and then he was let in. So just one example of those pictures [inaudible]. In the months after he was directly responsible for the assassination of [inaudible]. He was mocking us for the failure to realise. He cited some of the glorious pages personally. He stated in exceptional circumstances he will raise a glass of champagne and why is this? Because he is announcing that George [inaudible] is hero of Russia. He was the one who when he was in the United States penetrated the agency that was developing Polonium [inaudible] as the initiator of the first American atomic bomb and later the first Russian atomic bomb. So the idea that it is possible to understand what Putin without looking at the glorious past that he has spoken of [inaudible].

Dr Andrew Foxall: Thank you for what was at times a very entertaining overview to the book – certainly a useful introduction to it.

Euan Grant, Institute of Statecraft: I’m old enough to remember an episode of that late 60s TV series The Time Tumblr and on that show the idea of what you said about Moses, I now understand why they set it not under Moses but instead Joshua at Jericho because that was successful. What are the differences which, perhaps are hinted at, of the successes? The differences between the English-speaking and the Continental, non-Russian, because I think a lot of the literature, and the debate now is very much in the Anglo sphere, and I wonder if there’s a gap developing culturally and intellectually in Continental Europe in the Democratic States?

Professor Christopher Andrew: Well, it’s an extremely good and huge question. So there are two main differences [inaudible]. So, just one example: the best, or the first code breaking agency 400 years ago is the French, the [inaudible], but the man who was head of it [inaudible], he is more honoured than any codebreaker has been in any country in any century since then. And he’s given such a big reward that he buys himself a chateau which is downtown 20 miles from Paris. But he is not only visited at the chateau by Cardinal Richelieu but also by Louis XIII and Louis XIV. At the end of the century a member of the Académie française founded by Cardinal Richelieu who produces a book on the 40 most illustrious men of the 17th Century, includes him. If you compare the way that Cardinal Richelieu and then look, as I did when I did my PhD at the way that French ministers were using [inaudible] before the First World War there is absolutely no comparison. The decline of France from world leadership to the wretched business before WWI where I have argued in this book, that it went so badly they would have been better off without it. What’s the main difference nowadays? We do something which all human beings and all professionals do. We collaborate and cooperate with other people in a bilateral way such as the bilateral way in which British intelligence cooperates with other intelligence services. The five eyes historically. And no intelligence service, which does not collaborate to that level can possibly be as good as them. But what we can forget we didn’t begin by collaborating with the Americans, we began by collaborating with the Dutch! And when we were fed up with the Dutch we began collaborating with Germany, Hanover. [inaudible]. He brought over some of the best code-breakers. The best collaboration that we had before the 20th Century was not with the Americans but on the contrary was in confrontation with the Americans. That’s the long answer, but only 1% of the answer I intend to give.

Unknown: The intelligence is useless the people who receive it use it in an intelligent way, and positions by the National [inaudible] are looking for confirmation bias and there is a tendency to reject information that they find uncomfortable, like Stalin’s warnings about the Dachau German attacks. I just wondered, currently we are living in a very strange world where everything is changing. The tectonic plates in the world are changing. Could this be bad news for the UK because could NATO break up? We have a very unique, strange man in the White House, and could the relationship between the UK and US break down as it did with the US and Iran in the Islamic Revolution?

Professor Christopher Andrew: Well you make some interesting points, but let me begin with the last one. Anybody who is optimistic about the future of either the US or British/American relations so long as Trump remains President really has not had significant contact with the world. But, let me give a few examples. What has happened at a series of moments in British/American history is that when the political relationship has not been so close that it could be described as a special relationship, that the intelligence services have continued to get on extremely well. Now, the one example is the 1956 Suez Crisis, well what do you need friends for? You need friends to tell you your mind which is what Eisenhower correctly told [inaudible] at the time. [inaudible]. So, I don’t think there is any evidence yet that Trump has done serious damage to the intelligence service special relationship. It is not too late for it to happen but my view, of which is extremely debatable, is the influence that Mike Pompeo is having on him, and if I were to pick somebody in the Trump regime who a) is extremely able and b) has some influence on him, it would surely be Pompeo, because Pompeo after all came from the back of a small family farm somewhere in the Midwest, and then he goes to WestPoint and out of 600 people in his year he passes out first. He’s best not merely at the fighting, but best also at the reading and writing. And then he goes to Harvard, where like Obama he becomes one of the editors of the Law School journal. I would just point to one thing, I may be wrong, but Trump’s behaviour is so bizarrely, outrageously, unpleasant that hardly anyone says, “Is it less outrageously, bizarrely unpleasant using someone’s [inaudible]” Well I shall give one example, that on the 20th of January last year – which was inauguration day as it always is – it happened to coincide with the beginning of the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar, and one of the things that we thought was bound to happen, he’d already said that the most impressive thing about being indoctrinated by the Presidency was being shown the nuclear football. This attaché case which is not carried far from any President so that they can [inaudible]. Now, it was entirely predictable, and we did predict that those who had paid the enormous amount of money that was required to get into the Winter White House Mar-a-Lago Luncheon Club would be invited to be photographed with the Nuclear Deterrent, and if you look on the web you will find one of the people who were at the Luncheon club who were Danish! But you will not find them in any by the end of February 2017. Now one of two things must have happened, that Trump decided to behave sensibly (I think we can exclude that one), or the other is that someone persuaded him to behave sensibly. There are very few people who can do that so that is why I regard the present situation as absolutely desperate, but I’m just glad that Pompeo is around. Otherwise the use of him is absolutely right. [inaudible]. I think this individual has access to the best copyright library in the history of the United Kingdom University library. So here is the difference between somebody with extraordinary access to extraordinary information and me giving them a low 2/2. However, so far as intelligence is concerned, policymakers, if they do it really badly, suffer from at least one or two things, and sometimes two both at the same time. 1) Narcissistic authoritarians – I mean we’ve already mentioned Stalin. The whole purpose of the intelligence analysis of Stalin was to tell Stalin what he wanted to hear and anyone who did not do so at the end of the 1930s and the end of the World War could have an impact on life expectancy as well. In the West, I think stupidity is the overriding problem and failure in more or less every area. And without mentioning names, but I’m sorely tempted to, I think we do have a problem with stupidity in policymakers in the present time.

Unknown: I’m sorry I’m approaching this as a slow learner, and it may be the heat but you talked about Historical Attention Span Deficit Disorder, and I’m puzzled as to quite how this disrupts the capacity of policy makers to use intelligence better because [inaudible] and so the specialists who work in intelligence can learn clever ways of doing things by example of [inaudible]. But all intelligence fundamentally gives you is a better insight into what the other chap may be doing.

Professor Christopher Andrew: Only if you understand the context.

Unknown: Absolutely, so you need to understand the context and you need to know what he’s doing. Then you’ve got an advantage over him. But thereafter there is no great lesson from intelligence – I mean clearly I need to read the book – but the fact that it’s [inaudible] implies to me that it is a long series of stories about people.

Professor Christopher Andrew: So, you wake up tomorrow morning and you (of course this won’t happen) realise you’ve had a bit of a turn because you see your GP or some consultant by the side of your bed. And the message is good news and bad news, the good news is that your physical balances are completely unaffected and you can go on winning tennis tournaments for years to come. And secondly, your intellectually capacity is completely unaffected, the problem your GP or some other consultant proclaims is your memory has forgotten your past experiences. Now you would know what you did in the present and the future, but anyone who thinks only their experience matters is somebody who should not be in that position of responsibility. So past experiences are so ill-perceived that you take it for granted. But in intelligence the experience is being less-likely to be passed on before which means that you really can get people, and I’ve given a few names, who are nowhere near as good at using it as less-clever people were 200 years before as they had access to experience. So, in the end, it comes down to: Does experience matter? Yes. Is it only one individual’s experience that matters? No!

Unknown: Following a similar thread almost, what can we learn from the history of intelligence about what artificial intelligence will discover?

Professor Christopher Andrew: Well, I mean, what we can learn is that with processing information, there is no point in [inaudible]. Of course there are other generations. When you think that Bletchley Park did a lot, but it was still possible for individuals to make rather limited use of the processing as concerned of the world’s first electronic computer. Now the problem I think is that people who have access to new and available technology think that there has been a conceptual change when there has not been a conceptual change. It is simply that the more information you have, the more you have to depend on artificial intelligence. I do have a grandson who does this kind of thing but he does algorithms and he does algorithms in mortgages and so the fundamental principal has not changed, it simply means that the more information you have the more you need routine awareness of doing the first cull. I think that’s fair, by my point. But the idea that someone has access to artificial intelligence is going to be better for understanding the world than someone with smaller amounts of information – I haven’t seen a single example against that [inaudible].

James: To what extent do you think disinformation, in particular organised disinformation campaigns are connected with the powerful rise in nationalist sentiment and far-right extremism.

Peter (Former Diplomat): I think you partially answered it but, this Historical Attention Deficit, is it British and Anglo-Saxon or is it a more general disease of intelligence communities and politicians. I mean not so much a Russian issue.

Professor Christopher Andrew: So much as disinformation is concerned, I can’t think of a historical period when there’s been no disinformation. What has changed so far as the Russians are concerned, I mean, they’ve never seen an election they don’t want to influence, and after all the whole making of the Soviet Bloc with no exception whatsoever will [inaudible]. I mean one of the statistics which has really impressed me is in 1946 Stalin only got a majority of 92.4. I know it’s difficult to believe! But, in 1984 just before Gorbachev came to power he moved up to a satisfactory 99.4. But so far as the West is concerned, their attempts to have a real influence were comic until the era of social media. So, it’s traditional Russian disinformation plus social media which is able to tap into the mind-boggling stupidity of the West in a way that – it really held the Russians back that they couldn’t tap into our Western stupidity in the way that they had thought desirable. Now so far as has concerned. Way worse than a number of other cultures well overall we’re not worse, but we have a bigger problem with religion than most other cultures, and a bigger problem than we used to have ourselves. [inaudible]. So the late 20th Century mechanism may or may not be right, but it sure has anything degraded our ability to understand other cultures.

Unknown: Historically, by and large intelligence and gained intelligence is [inaudible] Statecraft based on state-like actors. How do you see intelligence and the game being played and the rules of the game being changed where intelligence is like characters inter-posing?

Unknown: Perhaps inadvertently following on from that I come from a personal and professional background heavily linked to the Middle East [inaudible]. In what way does a lack of historical knowledge affect policies in the present, especially lately. Short of taking everyone in senior positions in the intelligence world and the foreign policy world out of their jobs and re-educating them, how would one reverse HASD or perhaps limit its influence.

Professor Christopher Andrew: Really by mocking their influence. The one thing that educated human beings tolerate least is ridicule. It has to be done extremely sensitively because if you do it insensitively you simply put people backs up. But the simple proposition that there is anything worth knowing in the 21st Century which can be understood outside a long-term perspective has the great advantage of being a) a very simple proposition b) 100% true and c) to which people bright enough to become CEOs that possibly accessible. Well, when [inaudible] I would say that this is one of the most feminist books I’ve ever read or written, but you must be the judge of that. But that building just down the way was actually a) the first intelligence agency anywhere in the world to have a female head. B) it was the first organisation in which a substantial minority of the female members were better educated than the gents and came from higher-up the social scale. So again, this is only something that could possibly be understood by reference to the past. What happened with the gents, and there were only 20 of them sitting around on the 4th of August 1914 [inaudible], one of them said – I’m paraphrasing slightly – “We need the best secretaries in British history”. And they realised it was easy, they just needed to get in touch with a couple of women’s colleges in Oxford and they did with Royal Holloway in London which was then a women’s college, and with Cheltenham Ladies College. And since women were not allowed to do anything particularly interesting, they couldn’t cope with the influx of talent. But again, it is a good example of the fact that if you want to explain how Stella Rimington or more impressively Eliza Manningham-Buller got the job, it’s not explicable in terms of present or the recent past or non-state actors. I think a lot of what I’ve said relates to that. Fortunately, Islamic State is a lot more stupid than Al-Qaeda so in my Sunday Times article, one of the points I mention is what happened to the Mosul. Now what really scared Muslim intelligence of course, though no one mentions it is [inaudible] was that Mosul University has a [inaudible] which had Cobalt 60 which makes a dirty bomb. A dirty bomb doesn’t cause a nuclear explosion but it sure as hell makes the centre of London inhabitable for quite some time. So, the close study of non-state actors is absolutely essential. My view is that the biggest problem with non-state actors is that non-state actors are beginning to do only what state actors used to be able to do, and mostly would not dream of doing now. The only two constants that I can think of in human history over the last ten years is 1) human nature, there is no evidence that it has changed, certainly not during recorded history. 2) and this works for the last 3,000 years is that all human inventions spread around the world, even without intention. [inaudible]. The idea that weapons of mass destruction are going to be the only human invention that will not spread around the world too, including non-state actors is a view of such baffling eccentricity that I cannot get my head around it.

Unknown: So can I just ask again; I think the point that I was getting at that looking historically and accurately at intelligence gathering was that state actors or state-like actors [inaudible].

Professor Christopher Andrew: Some of the non-state actors were responsible – partly-responsible – for the most rapid victory that the West had over the non-West at the beginning of the age of Empire, by which I obviously referring to the first of the Conquistador, and under Cortés who conquers the whole of the Aztec Empire probably about 100,000 extremely sophisticated [inaudible] who are the non-state actors? Slave-women. It is the slave-women who know a lot. It’s just the idea that as soon as people say non-state actor there’s this kind of subliminal reaction that non-state actors have only existed since the 20th and 21st Century. Tell that to the Quakers!

Dr Andrew Foxall: I’ll take our final question from our first female, the lady on my left please!

Unknown: I want to ask you about a conspiracy theory. You and I have battled with these things for many years. Do you think that your work in the early period, [inaudible] does it tell you anything about conspiracy theories that we didn’t know before?

Professor Christopher Andrew: Probably not, it’s simply that we [inaudible], we both know that there’s no total solution, and other solutions have not been tried. The solutions after all are simply education. You get people to explain their conspiracy theories out of politeness, you try not to[inaudible]. But the problem is, social media have non-mainstream media in it and they have popularised conspiracy theory to, after all, Trump during the campaign committed himself to the idea that 9/11 was actually a genuine conspiracy. But, no pattern of thought can be contested, can be dealt with and I think that’s the problem nowadays. People who regard the mainstream media as fundamentally wrong, are not open to rational debate and I think that’s would I say is a particular problem nowadays. [inaudible]. The majority of today’s conspiracy theories are not spread through mainstream media or traditional methods of communication, and I don’t myself know how they would be contested, other than by this simply revolutionary suggestion that I know will not come to anything: parent’s talking to children. I still believe that that would be helpful if parents would talk to children and then keeping them [inaudible], forensic ridicule, as no children like to appear ridiculous.

Dr Andrew Foxall: The lady here on the right please.

Jane Corbin: You’ve written this magnificent book on the history of intelligence but can we ask you to look forward, what would you advise the agencies in this time of budget cuts and everything else – although they have been given a lot more recently. Where would you advise them to put their man or woman power and their attention. Is it still the Islamist threat, is it still Isis and Al Qaeda? Is it the newly resurge of Russian Putin, or is it just such a broad waterfront that they’ve just got to cover everything? Where would you advise them to put their money right now?

Professor Christopher Andrew: Well, all of the above plus [inaudible]. It seems to me that anybody involved in threat assessment ought to pay serious attention to [inaudible] rather than what they are. The other point is that there has to be something by debate, and so in other words, anybody in England needs a mechanism by which they can connect with the broader debate about this serious issue. And the problem is this is no [inaudible]. The idea that you should say “Oh this weekend I shall have a look at the next terrorist threat [inaudible]”. There needs to be some [inaudible]. A simple thing is to recruit more historians.

Dr Andrew Foxall: Seems like a good point to finish. We started a few minutes late, and so are going to finish a few minutes later. I for one enjoyed your introduction and your responses to various interventions. I’m delighted that we had two female members make interventions. It just falls to me, again, to say thank you for thoughts and for sharing an hour or so of your time with us today.


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