Book Discussion: <i>The Secret History of MI6</i> | Wilson Center

Book Discussion: <i>The Secret History of MI6</i>

Speakers: Author Keith Jeffery, Professor of British History, Queen's University, Belfast; Sir John Scarlett, Former Director General, British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)

Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (commonly referred to as MI6) marked its centenary anniversary this past year. To mark that milestone, Sir John Scarlett, then head of the service, commissioned an official history of the organization's first four decades to be written by "an independent historian of authority" with unrestricted access to MI6's closed archives. Sir John Scarlett stated that, in the modern era, MI6 faces a persistent tension between the necessity of secrecy and of explaining its mission to the public.

What emerged from Professor Jeffrey's multi-year research in the archives is a "warts-and-all" view of the world's oldest continuously active secret intelligence service. MI6's development into an effective organization came during World War I. It was during this seminal period that MI6 established close ties with the United States, which blossomed in the twentieth century into the collaborative relationship that remains vital to both countries. Jeffery recounted the important role played by Sir William Wiseman, who forged a close working relationship with Colonel Edward House, Woodrow Wilson's confidant and principal aide, during the period before America's entry into World War I.

Jeffery noted that MI6's primary mission during the period covered in this volume was the collection of information, not its analysis. Hence, though Nazi Germany was the organization's primary collection target in the 1930s, there was no analytic assessment by MI6 of Hitler's intentions in Europe. According to Jeffery, such work would have been carried out by the Foreign Office. As a consequence, "the outbreak of World War II caught MI6 off balance." This authorized history also covers MI6 blunders, including the so-called Venlo disaster, which was a costly Gestapo sting operation in 1939. But MI6 also had many great successes, Jeffery concluded, notably, the breaking of the Germans' Enigma codes by the Service's cryptographers at Bletchley Park, as well as obtaining important intelligence on Germany's V rockets and its scouting of D-Day landing sites. This official history also covers the critical post-World War II period dominated by the end of the British Empire and the advent of the Cold War.

By Robert Litwak, Director, International Security Studies