In week that saw an ex-CIA man hassled by the public and a visit by ex-MI5 head honcho, Stella Rimington, the circle of secrecy was completed today with the visit of MI6 historian, Keith Jeffery.
The Belfast boy agrees he is one of he luckiest biographers alive, or unluckiest depending how you look at it, to have been given access to the secretest of secret places in the UK: the archives of MI6, the UK’s international security service.
In his book, MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949, Jeffrey was given complete access to MI6 archives leading from its formation in 1909 up to 1949, but limited access to the archives afterwards unless they related. “I never have the time to read everything anyway,” he said. “There was just too much information, and have you seen the size of the book anyway?”
There was another reason why the book only goes up to 1949: “MI6 didn’t want people extrapolating things that happened in the past into current events. 1949 was long enough ago that it can be classed as ‘another time’.”
Makes sense, but as PR goes it certainly is a massive step forward for MI6 to allow a civilian into their building to read their paperwork. MI6, the organisation that once prided itself on not existing in the first place, is moving into the 21st Century with great strides but it has it critics. “We need intelligence services,” said Jeffrey. “Particularly with the foreign reach that the UK has these days.”
Now that he has had time to build a relationship with the organisation, Jeffery says: “I think I’m happy to say that the MI6 have done more good than bad over the years. Take the Enigma machine, for example, they were instrumental in the UK being able to get their hands on it.”
In the book, Jeffery has protected the names of those agents that were mentioned in the information he researched for obvious reasons. However, after World War II, there were a great many that outed themselves and those agents remained unchanged. Other than that, the story is as complete as it can be.
The book contains some of MI6’s more hilarious antics over the years, like their quest to find the perfect invisible ink. They discovered the best material to use was semen, which was eventually scrapped when the smell of the decaying substance became too much even for their hardened agents to bear.
On completion of his research, Jeffery is able to remark that while it is an unfortunate side effect of the job, “MI6 regularly have to break foreign laws. It’s quite simply the game they’re in.” But on the subject of assassination attempts, he said: “Assassinations are a comparatively poor weapon of war because basically it hardly ever works. It’s not off the agenda completely, but it’s not permanently on it either.”
Before he began work Jeffrey was understandably “vetted up to the eyeballs”. And when final clearance was given and he got the job, he was invited to a dinner with the Director General, who told him he could ask him any question he liked about what they were up to. “My answer was ridiculous in hindsight; I told him I didn’t want to know.”
For the sceptics, though, Jeffery left us with the following sobering thought: “Terrorists only have to get it right once, MI6 and the security services have to be right all the time.”