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Secret Wars By: Lloyd Billingsley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, May 21, 2009

Secret agencies, especially those run by the British, don’t general volunteer information for open-book history. So it comes as no surprise that Secret Wars by Gordon Thomas doesn’t exactly start 100 years ago and deliver a linear narrative about MI5 and MI6, from the inside. This massive 430-page work, which defies easy analysis, makes up for it with wide-ranging material on wars not so secret.

Those include World War 11, World War III (the Cold War) and, more important, World War Four, the ongoing conflict with Islamic tyranny and imperialism. In all, Gordon goes behind the scenes as best he might, and it’s hard to think of an American writer with similar experience and such a vast cast of intelligence sources. Secret Wars serves as a veritable Spook Central for specialist and general reader alike.

Secret Wars confirms the key role of intelligence in the Allied victory in World War II, which was not exactly an achievement of the New Deal. Some of the Cold War account is familiar, jostling with Kim Philby and his fellow traitors, but virtually all readers will learn something they didn’t know. Here we learn, for example, that Lev Aleksandrovich Shulikov, a KGB official based at the Soviet embassy in Paris, was the killer of Bulgarian dissident Georgy Markov, who worked for the BBC. The weapon was ricin, injected in a pellet from the tip of an umbrella. That identity of the assassin came from Vitali Yurchenko, a KGB defector. 

In World War Three, the West gained from various “walk-ins,” Eastern Bloc officials and spies who turned against communism, defected, and volunteered their services to the forces of freedom. Thomas, author of many books including Gideon’s Spies, notes that “it was unusual for a defector from the Middle East to offer his services,” but it does happen. Here is the story of Iranian general Ali-Rez Asgari, who walked in with information on Iran’s nuclear program.

“In the long history of MI6 operations in Iran,” writes Thomas, “no double agent was better placed or more politically astute than Asgari,” who “displayed the cool nerve of the quintessential double agent of World War 11.”  He eventually had to be extracted but no such asset is forever. If there can be one Asgari there can be others. Of course, there can also be false walk-ins, sent to disinform. If past experience is any indication, this could be a problem in World War Four, along with “sleepers” waiting for instructions.

Those in the spook trade come to possess information of great value, to themselves and the other side. Some have a tendency to probe what the market will bear. Aldrich “Rick” Ames is but one example, and such actions have deadly consequences. It also emerges from Secret Wars that secrecy is no guarantee of expertise or success. Indeed, here is evidence that secrecy can serve as a shield for incompetence. The CIA and FBI, for example, do not exactly come across as competent in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, the non-prevention of 9/11, and the fight against terrorism in general.

Neither do politicians such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, whose wife is now Secretary of State. This story is a reminder that spooks are government employees climbing the career ladder, sometimes to their highest level of ineptitude, despite fancy titles and generous pensions. On the other hand, one gets the sense that many acts of heroism, far beyond the call of duty, will only emerge many years after the fact, or not at all.

For this reader, the least interesting parts of this book concern British spy bosses Eliza Manningham-Buller and Stella Rimington, names for Evelyn Waugh. Of greater interest is Gordon Thomas’ personal note at the end, in which he says of Osama Bin Laden: “His is a madness like no other: Hitler, Stalin, and all the other despots of the twentieth century undoubtedly murdered many more, but none possessed the same mental aberration that drives Bin Laden.”  As C.S. Lewis noted nobody will torment us more than the one whose hostile actions are tied to divine approval. 

“It’s a new kind of war for a new century,” says the lead character in Breaker Morant, holding forth on the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics of the Boer commandos. One could also say that about World War Four, which could involve biological agents, nerve gas, nuclear weapons, and further acts of terrorism, plus treason and incompetence. The conflict will doubtless be won or lost on the intelligence front, perhaps by some of the players in Secret Wars, or their successors.

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of From Mainline to Sideline, the Social Witness of the National Council of Churches, and Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s.

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