Book Review: The Secret World

 

It is sometimes said spying is the second oldest profession. “The Secret World: A History of Intelligence,” by Christopher Andrew underscores the claim. It is a history of spying from the earliest days to the present.

Andrew starts with the first recorded accounts of spying, related in the Bible. He finished with the role of intelligence in the War on Terror. He attempts to cover all significant intelligence operations between those boundaries.

His goal was to create the first comprehensive history of espionage and intelligence gathering. He contends intelligence suffers from long-term historical amnesia because it fails to understand its own history. He shows how secrecy and compartmentalization forces intelligence gatherers to relearn the same historic lessons over and over again.

He shows repeated instances where disdain for intelligence lost wars and effective intelligence won wars that should have been lost. The examples he gives span history. He shows how the careful intelligence of the Israelites helped them gain their Promised Land. Roman reliance on augury and contempt for gathering information about German tribes cost Rome three legions — and Germania.

In more modern times, Queen Elizabeth I’s intelligence service allowed England to survive against Spain’s superior power. George Washington skilled use of intelligence helped the Continental Army avoid defeat and ultimately win over England. Intelligence failures cost Napoleon victory against Russia in 1812, leading to his ultimate defeat.

The technology of intelligence is also examined. Andrew reveals tools and techniques used by spies throughout history. He shows how codes and codebreaking emerged in ancient and medieval times, and evolved today. He shows how SIGINT (signal intelligence), HUMIT (human intelligence — eyes on the ground) and intelligence interpretation work together.

At nearly 1,000 pages, the book can serve as a doorstop. Despite its length, it is very readable. Those not ready to sit down with a book this length should treat it as three or four linked books: Ancient and Medieval World, Renaissance and Reformation, 18th and 19th centuries, and 20th century to Present. Reading it that way makes it digestible. “The Secret World” is far too good a book to miss.

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

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

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  1. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Christopher Andrew sounded familiar and found his MI5 book, which I have read. I’ll add this to my list of books on Kindle.

    • #1
  2. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    Nice review, by the way his book Sword and Shield is a an excellent read.

    • #2
  3. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    Thanks for the review.  I appreciate you calling my attention to books I’d want to read, but otherwise would have missed.

    • #3
  4. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Thanks, Seawriter.

    I’ve passed the link on to some of our eggheads up in our intel shop.

    I’ll read it, too.  Looks like a good professional development project.

    • #4
  5. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Thanks, Seawriter.

    I’ve passed the link on to some of our eggheads up in our intel shop.

    I’ll read it, too. Looks like a good professional development project.

    It is. It is an entertaining read for those who enjoy history, but it is really aimed at intelligence professionals.

    • #5
  6. Simon Templar Inactive
    Simon Templar
    @SimonTemplar

    I believe that our ‘spy masters’ preference to SigInt over HumInt is an ongoing national tragedy.  Additionally, don’t believe that our ‘spooks’ have gotten much right (during my lifetime if not longer) at anything above the tactical level and need to re-learn how to work with human beings. 

    The Camp Chapman suicide bomber/ attack on the CIA in 2009 is telling although I suppose that the hardcore feminists probably still proudly point to the fact that a mother of three was ‘allowed’ to die for her country.

    • #6
  7. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Simon Templar (View Comment):

    I believe that our ‘spy masters’ preference to SigInt over HumInt is an ongoing national tragedy. Additionally, don’t believe that our ‘spooks’ have gotten much right (during my lifetime if not longer) at anything above the tactical level and need to re-learn how to work with human beings.

    The Camp Chapman suicide bomber/ attack on the CIA in 2009 is telling although I suppose that the hardcore feminists probably still proudly point to the fact that a mother of three was ‘allowed’ to die for her country.

    No words…It seems this “long war” goes back one hey of a lot longer than I thought. (Maybe Hopkirk  previewed it for us?)  Did we ever know how to “work with human beings”? – not entirely a rhetorical question…

    • #7
  8. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Simon Templar (View Comment):
    I believe that our ‘spy masters’ preference to SigInt over HumInt is an ongoing national tragedy.

    Concur.

    SIGINT and HUMINT should redound off of and reinforce each other.  I hate buzzwords, but were there ever a case to be made for “synergy,” it’s the appropriate and adroit choreography between these two INTs.

    • #8
  9. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Simon Templar (View Comment):
    I believe that our ‘spy masters’ preference to SigInt over HumInt is an ongoing national tragedy.

    Concur.

    SIGINT and HUMINT should redound off of and reinforce each other. I hate buzzwords, but were there ever a case to be made for “synergy,” it’s the appropriate and adroit choreography between these to INTs.

    I hate buzzwords, but love acronyms.

     

    • #9
  10. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Does it take a “hot war” to make this work? (Thinking the OSS in WWII here.) Or can it work in “cold” conflicts, too?

    • #10
  11. Simon Templar Inactive
    Simon Templar
    @SimonTemplar

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Simon Templar (View Comment):
    I believe that our ‘spy masters’ preference to SigInt over HumInt is an ongoing national tragedy.

    Concur.

    SIGINT and HUMINT should redound off of and reinforce each other. I hate buzzwords, but were there ever a case to be made for “synergy,” it’s the appropriate and adroit choreography between these to INTs.

    Have to sleep and/ or sometimes ‘wrassle’ with the pigs to do HumInt.  Not glamorous and downright dangerous at times.  Clean, easy, and safe is SigInt and therefore so much better suited to our enlightened Ruling Class.  In Hoc Signo Vinces

    • #11
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