Book review: The Art of Betrayal: Life and Death in the British Secret Service

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The Art of Betrayal: Life and Death in the British Secret Service
Gordon Corera (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20, *£16.50)

As a security correspondent for BBC News, Gordon Corera has long had a professional interest in the workings and operations of the British intelligence services. He has now collected most of the best stories about the Secret Intelligence Service (better known as MI6) from the immediate post-Second World War period right through until the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ controversy linked to the start of the Iraq war in 2003, and the more recent accusations surrounding interrogation techniques.

Many of the stories are already familiar to the reading public and especially to anyone with a curiosity about these happenings-and almost the entire British nation has such a curiosity, fuelled by the novels of Graham Greene, Ian Fleming and John le Carré in particular. Indeed, it is one of the strengths of this book that the author explicitly explores the interplay between the real and imagined worlds of espionage, and how they impinge on each other. All the three authors mentioned above had their own experiences of intelligence work and brought something of these experiences to the tales they told (as did Somerset Maugham in an earlier-between the wars era).

Equally, the glamour attached to some of the individuals and incidents in the real world of special operations and spying owed something to the perceived daring and panache of James Bond, and the moral dilemmas of those involved in encouraging or using the treason of others owed something to the tortuous soul-searching of le Carré’s George Smiley. The real and imagined worlds held
a mirror to each other.

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Mr Corera starts his tale in the postwar Vienna of Graham Greene’s The Third Man, where kidnapping and violence were so prevalent that the city was known as ‘the shooting gallery’. He goes on to retell the story of ‘the Cambridge five’, the British establishment figures-including Philby and Blunt-who betrayed their country for the sake of their ideological commitment to Communism.

There is a long and detailed chapter about MI6’s efforts to avoid a Communist takeover in the Congo after its independence from Belgium in 1960; the heroine of this chapter is the formidable Daphne Park (later to be head of an Oxford college and a member of the House of Lords), who, when confronted in the night by a gang of Congolese thugs, leant out of her window and told them she was a witch and that if they didn’t push off, their extremities would fall off.

Other chapters recount the adventures of the various Russian defectors who were recruited by MI6, and there is a thrilling account of how one of these-Gordievsky-was smuggled out of the Soviet Union in the boot of a car, his protector’s wife changing her baby’s nappy on the lid of the boot to deter too close a KGB inspection.

The covert support to the mujahedin in their struggle against the Russians in Afghanistan and the accusations of MI6 getting too close to government in the aftermath of 9/11 are among the many other facets of intelligence activity recounted and analysed. The problem confronting any reviewer of this book is that, if he isn’t close to the world of espionage, he has no way of knowing how accurate many of the stories are (although their provenance is well documented by the author), and if he is close to the world of espionage, he is in no position to comment publicly.

Your own reviewer, although not a part of that world, served as an ordinary diplomat both in Russia and in the Congo in the immediate wake of Daphne Park’s adventures in those regions. He was intrigued then and still is. In fact, this book will intrigue anyone with a taste for adventure and an interest in the moral dilemmas of loyalty and disloyalty.

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