Iraqi Kurdish soldiers and Syrian rebels join the battle against ISIS in Kobani, the search continues for missing students in Mexico, and the last U-S Marines pull out of a key base in Afghanistan: Please join us to discuss this week's top international stories
The authorized history of the world oldest and most storied foreign intelligence service.
- Keith Jeffery professor of British history, Queens University and author of 13 other books
MS. KATTY KAYThanks for joining us, I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is recovering from voice treatment. Former President Jimmy Carter was to have been our guest today, however his trip to Washington was cancelled after he became ill yesterday. We wish him good health. We're happy instead to have with us the author of the first authorized history of MI6. Keith Jeffery is a professor of British history at Queen's University, Belfast. He was granted access to documents never before seen by anyone outside Britain's secret intelligence service. They reveal the true story of the heroes, the villains and the techniques featured in thousands of novels and films. The book is "The Secret History of the MI6: 1909 to 1949." Keith Jeffery joins us from NPR in New York. Welcome to the show, Mr. Jeffrey.
MR. KEITH JEFFERYDelighted to be here.
KAYWe will be opening the phones, 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find us on Twitter and on Facebook, which I suspect they didn't have in MI6 in the early part of the last century.
JEFFERYI'm not sure they have it now and they wouldn't admit to it anyway.
KAYOh, I'm sure even they do. When we think of MI6, I think that everybody in this country certainly, immediately thinks of one James Bond and that's probably pretty much it.
JEFFERYYes, absolutely. James Bond is the most famous single fictional spy in the world and in his novels, he works for MI6, so it's a strong brand name, but I'm not sure that the reality is necessarily precisely the same as it is in the books and the films. I think, actually, the reality is better.
KAYBetter how, because it's more exciting?
JEFFERYBetter because it's real people. It's not some cartoon character with a get out of jail free card or get out of gizmo free card kind of thing. Although the novels, in some ways, portrayed some more nuanced kind of person and some of the more recent movies, certainly "Casino Royale" suggested human weaknesses as well as strengths. In the end, Bond is fiction. In the end, Fleming made it up and that's something that I as a historian can't do. What you get is the real deal in this book or as real as I can possibly make it.
KAYWhen you were given access to thousands of files by MI6, how much did they let you see and why did they let you see it?
JEFFERYWell, they let me see it because I'm the best and I'm more trusted than anything else. One of the problems with this engagement is that they, having decided to commission the history because of their centenary having been founded in 1909, in any successful organization, you know, likes to have its history written. They, quite bravely, I think from their point of view and I'm delighted to be able to help with this, decided to commission it from an independent historian. And that's one problem because although I've been selected through a perfectly, you know, reasonable selection process, people were assigned it out who knew something about the field. I -- my expertise lies in military and some intelligence history and the first half of the 20th century, so I was one of the people who knew something about it. I had to submit written work to a committee, I was interviewed. I wasn't the only person interviewed, so the process was comparatively straight forward like applying for any job.
JEFFERYThe difference between this and any other job was, of course, the sensational, as it were, nature of the project, writing history at all. I mean, that's the big sort of surprise. And secondly, of course, this extraordinary offer for access to the holy grail of British archives. The SIS archives, the MI6 archive, is the one government departmental archive in Britain that is not open at all and they don't consider and they have no plans and they certainly don't deliver any of their documents to the National Archives.
JEFFERYSo access to that is just extraordinary.
KAYWas the picture of MI6, that you drew from access to those archives and from when it was founded back in 1909 all the way up through to the end of the Second World War, was it a very different organization from the one that much of the public might imagine?
JEFFERYWell, by the end of my 40 years, it has become a recognizably modern organization. It begins in a very ad hoc way. There are worries in 1909 about the threat from Germany in particular. And that -- those worries focus in on two levels. One is that Britain might be swarming -- there might be German spies swarming all over Britain. With curiously, they worry about German waiters in restaurants and German hair dressers, which was a bit of a surprise to me, that they're teams of German hair dressers, but running sort of hair salons and garrison tons and quizzing soldiers and that sort of thing. The other worry was that Germany was building up its navy. It was beginning to rival Britain in Europe and across the world and they worried about a surprise attack from Germany. A boat from the blue across the North Sea and so they needed to know about German capabilities and German intentions. And in 1909, they set up a secret service bureau with a home department, which turns into MI5, the domestic security agency roughly comparable to the FBI in the United States and a foreign department, which turns into MI6, which is the one I'm concerned with and roughly equivalent to the CIA.
JEFFERYAnd so this begins to systematize the thing, but it's a one man in an office sitting on his own right at the beginning. By 1949, it's professional, it's valued, it's a permanent part of the British governmental structure. It's, you know, recognizably what it becomes in the later Cold War years and indeed up to the present.
KAYYour book does not cover the Cold War period. Why not?
JEFFERYWell, it covers the beginning of the Cold War period, but the decision was made right from the beginning that the terminal date would be 1949, which is a sort of first 40 years is fine. It takes you in, as I say, to the first few years of the Cold War. Now, I fell on my knees every night and thanked the Lord I wasn't going beyond '49 because it was quite difficult to fit in in a single volume, that was another part of the brief, a single volume, the extraordinary full history that I wanted to write. But because of the sorts of things that MI6 do, which is so sensitive, it inevitably breaks laws. Now, it doesn't, I hope, break British laws, but it inevitably breaks foreign laws and by only going to '49, by stopping 60 years ago, it seems a long time, it isn't necessarily so, by stopping 60 years ago, it means that I could tell us a much more fuller story and as full as really possible up to that moment. Once you move into the '50's and the '60's, you've got these long running Cold War operations, which might indeed run right through to the end of the Cold War and that's another 40 years. That might take you to 1989 and that really is the day before yesterday (unintelligible).
KAYSo are you suggesting that MI6 might have found that period too sensitive to reveal quite yet?
JEFFERYWell, yes. I mean, I think sensitive for good kind of security reasons. Sensitive, too, because they were successes and failures as well in those years, but they allowed me and after, you know, some discussions to discuss the failures as well as the successes and it is as it was always intended to be a kind of war of all history, so it's quite an interesting engagement because one measure of how successful and resilient an organization is, is how it deals with failure. And I think that, you know, so it's worth sort of pausing on those as well. Now, there would be people in the organization might say, I don't want to talk about, you know, failures in the '50's, '60's, '70's if they exist, but again, stopping in '49 meant that the whole range of experience and the history of the organization could, as I say, be more thoroughly investigated.
KAYWe mentioned Ian Fleming, but you write in the book that there was a much wider connection between MI6 and novelists.
JEFFERYIndeed. I sometimes wonder whether the capacity for making things up, which novelists, of course, have to do and elegantly to present them and seamlessly to write their narratives, may make them good intelligence officers. I not absolutely sure because you need to not to make it up too much as well, but there is a...
KAYAnd I'm not sure novelists are very good at keeping secrets.
JEFFERYNo, exactly. And some of them, of course, told their secrets so much that Norm, who appears in the book, worked in the First World War as an intelligence agent, both for MI6 or it's forerunner and other organizations. And he wrote a series of short stories called, "The Ashenton Stories," which recounted his experience of this. Compton McKenzie, another novelist wrote his memoirs in the 1930s and got into terrific trouble with the organization because he was prosecuted for revealing such terrible secrets as the first chief of the organization was known by the single letter C, wrote in green ink and they also alleged that he cut off his own leg with a pen knife, which I think is more a part of the mythological way that stories grow that not and maybe that reflected his novelists take on history rather than a careful intelligence report.
KAYAnd then you also, of course, have Ian Fleming, who we mentioned earlier in the program and James Bond was an MI6. You suggest in this book that he was based on a real person.
JEFFERYWell, I'm -- not precisely based on a real person, but you find people who fit some of the James Bond models here and one of these is Wilfred Biffy Dunderdale.
JEFFERYWell, of course, it's a gift, the name's Dunderdale, Biffy Dunderdale. Well, it perhaps doesn't have quite the same ring, though he did, in November, 1940, go to Lisbon on a false passport to meet some of his old contacts from the Vischee French intelligence service or who had then become that and he took his passport and there's a picture of the passport and of Biffy and you can see he's a glamorous man, in the book, under the name John Green.
KAYOkay. In good Ian Fleming style, just to keep our listeners hanging onto this gripping spy story, we now have to take a break, but I want to come back to Biffy Dunderdale and the rest of MI6 after this quick break. We are listening to Keith Jeffrey talking about his book "The Secret History of MI6: 1909 to 1949." We'll be opening the phones later on in the program. Stay with us for the next installment.
KAYWelcome back. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking to Keith Jeffery, he is the author of "The Secret History of MI6: 1909 to 1949." Before our break Biffy Dunderdale had hopped off to Lisbon on a false passport. He has echoes of James Bond, Keith. How?
JEFFERYYes, indeed. Dunderdale has an interesting background, interesting provenance. He comes from a family -- a British family who had settled in Russia working as marine architects and marine engineers in Odessa, in the Port of Odessa on the Black Sea. And, in fact, a very important source of recruits for the British Secret Service were these products of the -- what you might call the English or British commercial Diaspora of the late 19th and early 20th century. Biffy is brought up -- he's called Biffy, by the way, because he -- or apparently so because he was a celebrated amateur boxer and used to biff people, which was I suppose a good thing to do if you were an amateur boxer, but anyway he joined the service in 1919. He was educated and brought up in Russia. He spoke Russian like a native. Now, here is one of the differences between the real James Bond the real spy and James Bond. Bond in the books or the movies doesn't seem to have much of a facility for foreign languages, but you may be sure that the real operatives and officers, it's a very desirable requirement and Dunderdale has this fluent Russian.
JEFFERYAt the time, in 1919, when increasingly the intelligence focus has been placed on the newly find of Soviet Union, he rises in the ranks and by the early 1930s, becomes head of station in Paris, an absolutely crucial posting and not just because spying against the French, there's not very much of that. There's a little bit of that. What he mostly does is liaison with the French. But there are lots of white Russians and other nationalities swimming around in Paris and it's a good place to pick up stuff, agents and information. He has a penchant for pretty women and fast cars. He's a very glamorous man. He's a big man, but light on his feet as perhaps his boxing success suggested.
JEFFERYAnd one of the key things he does as the head of station is he builds up this very trusting and important liaison relationship with the French. And that pays off in unexpected ways because the French are working very hard on signals intelligence, on trying to crack the keys of the German Enigma machine. And they have a human agent in the German intelligence who gives them early vital information about the German Enigma machine, which is a enciphering machine. Uh, the Pols, too, who are close friends to the French and through the French with Biffy also are working on the Enigma machine and they bring this material to Britain in 1939 and 1940 and it provides one of the crucial early keys for cracking the Enigma code and all those chaps in Bletchley Park, which was under MI6 and who provide this fantastic intelligence.
JEFFERYSo what Dunderdale does is not so much sloop about shooting people and, you know, during these dramatic with one leap he's free kind of stuff and having all these amazing sort of gizmos, what Dunderdale does with great charm and great perception and great expertise is to cultivate human relationships and human sources and they pay off remarkably in the Second World War.
KAYAnd did you -- you write that he didn't have a license to kill, that this was a myth of...
JEFFERYYes. I mean, I looked very hard for fatalities in the, you know, directed kind of assassination -- targeted assassinations because that's what you expect to find. And although there's plenty of death, there are plenty of people who suffer with their lives for it, there's very little of the other. And there were two or three close occasions where examples of this certainly in the Second World War, at which I look at in some detail, but there's a scheme just before D-Day, which is raised as a possibility to have a systematic assassination campaign of German functionaries who are running things like transport and various communications infrastructure networks in France before D-Day. And if we have this coordinated assassination campaign, it will paralyze, you know, the whole German response to the invasion.
JEFFERYAnd it goes to SIS under MI6 and they say, what can you do to help? Now, in a way, it should've gone to SOE, who are the special operations organization, but it goes to SIS and Menzies the head of SIS said, yes, we can produce a list of names and we can probably help with this, but we need to think a little bit more carefully about whether it's useful or not or whether it is. And the response comes back about assassination on a number of levels. One thing that's observed is if it was so easy, people would be doing it all the time. And a second problem was when you run assassinations, you make mistakes. Inevitably, some of the wrong people are going to be killed and you're going to have to live with that. A third problem is we know from the Germans that if we start assassinating them, we knew from the assassination of Heidrich in Czechoslovakia a year or two before, that they reek terrible, terrible reprisals against this, so it's going to be costly and it's going to be costly on civilian grounds and a final...
KAYThat's very -- go ahead.
JEFFERYThere is a final and it's a very, very interesting reason. This is 1944 and they say, we're going to win the war. Actually, you know, now we knew we were going to win the war. We will have quasi military, quasi civilian officers in charge in Germany after the war and if we start assassinating them and all the Germans, our men in their turn will be targets for their assassins.
KAYKeith, all of that is very interesting and I wonder whether it has implications for today's MI6 or today's CIA.
JEFFERYWell, I'm sure it does. Now, I'm not in a position to report on the current activities. Part of the deal (laugh) about going 1949 and having absolutely free run up to there is that there's a kind of Chinese Wall and I know nothing after (unintelligible) .
KAYBut certainly the kinds of objections...
JEFFERYYeah, (laugh) yes.
KAY...that were raised with assassination campaigns that you talk about before the Second World War, are the similar kinds of objections that you hear from intelligence officers today. It's interesting that the arguments are similar.
JEFFERYYeah, well, I would hope they were. On the grounds that -- you know, it just isn't as straight forward as that. It's a bit like -- we have this in Northern Ireland, sure, and the notion that you'd send in some special operations, you know, the SIS or someone and they would surgically -- this is the kind of cancer metaphor -- surgically cut out targeted assassination and this will, you know, cut out the cancer and it'll be all right. Now, if you want to follow that cancer metaphor -- in fact, the cancer is not always most readily treated by radical surgical measures and sometimes it makes it worse. There was an interesting comment in '44, when they were talking about assassination from the chairman of the JIC and he said, I'm not against killing Germans. I have a long list of Germans I would like to be killed, but actually, it's not that straightforward. And all, at least, on practical grounds, if not also moral grounds, you know, you hope there as well, is that people consider the consequences of actions of this sort because sometimes, the end doesn't always justify those particular means.
KAYYour book covers two big periods of war. The First World War, of course, and the Second World War when a lot of MI6's activity was focused on Germany and on the threat that came -- would've come to Britain from Europe. What do you think MI6's role was in shaping Europe in that period?
JEFFERYOne of its most important roles, and I've already sort of touched upon that, are its relations with resistance movements and the governments in exile. What six and also SOE and the other assistance, which London and Britain could offer to those occupied countries was a sense that the battle wasn't over, that the war was not lost, that there was more to be done and it was worth hanging on. The kind of thing that Churchill, of course, articulates so eloquently, you know, in his public speeches, but they're also able to do practical things that assist. They're able to give individuals in occupied Europe a role themselves in the war. Now, it's very hazardous, it can be very dangerous. You haven't got a kind of huge range of master spies, you know, men or women. What you've got are thousands upon thousands of individuals who are able to play their part. Sometimes at the terrific risk themselves, but it provided a kind of light, potential light, at the end of the tunnel and I think that was actually quite important.
KAYLet's go to the phones now to Brendon in Washington, D.C. Brendon, you have a question for Keith Jeffery.
BRENDONYes. I was curious. I know MI is probably Ministry of Information, but what is the significance of the number in the title of the department?
JEFFERYWell, MI is Military Intelligence, in fact.
JEFFERYAnd the significance of the number is that it has no significance, that's the point. In fact, in the First World War, there are a whole series of MIs, MI1, 2 and 3 were geographical areas, you know, north Europe, Mediterranean, rest of the world, MI4 was the map department, MI5 was the security department. MI6, in the First World War, was economic intelligence, which was quite important then. And so it went on. In the Second World War again...
KAYHow many MIs were there, Keith?
JEFFERYWell, there were up to about 18 in the second World War and they were just sort of added to the list as you had something else. MI9 was escape lines, MI14 was German order of battle and 6, by the Second World War, which is when the title is first used, is just simply an accommodation address. It's a post office box number and it's meant to give these guys who are in uniform a little bit of cover, I'm working for MI6, I can't tell you what it is, but it kind of has an existence, sufficient existence to pass them off, but not to indicate precisely what they do.
KAYIt's not a totally glorious history, is it? There were times when MI6 was engaged in operations that were -- went awry, if we can put it like that. Talk to me about Operation Embarrass.
JEFFERYWell, Embarrass might be regarded as a success and was by some, but from our perspective, it looks literally embarrassing. And it was both literally and figuratively an explosive story. The operation was MI5 -- or MI6's, sorry, contribution towards preventing and impeding Jewish -- immigration of Jews to Palestine in 1947. Britain is the governing authority for Palestine. They have made immigration -- they've limited the number of Jews who can go to the country and they've done this from the 1930s in order to, you know, prevent the communal balance from breaking down, but in '47, you've got these desperate -- thousands of desperate people trying to, having survived the disasters, the catastrophe of the holocaust in the Second World War, desperate to get to some place of safety, in their case, Israel or Palestine as Israel was to become.
JEFFERYBut the British rule is, we're limiting the numbers coming in. And there are various levels in which they can do it. They have a blockade on the coast where the British Navy intercepts these ships and they go to SIS and said, well, what with your covert kind of expertise, what can you do to help? And they come back with an extraordinary operation, which on all levels, sort of almost exactly fits the kind of spy novel that the amateur observer of this kind of area might want to find. You've got frogmen with limpid minds off ports in France and Italy tasked to go in and disable the ships before the refugees arrive on them. And they're not sinking these ships at sea. They have specific instructions from the foreign office who knew about it. It has the highest political authority that, you're not to kill people to do this, but if you can blow the rudder off the ship while it's in harbor, then it'll never leave, they'll never get there. So that's a good one.
JEFFERYThey -- another part of it is trying to plant documents on the Russian intelligence services through a nightclub in Vienna, which we know they use. And the document was supposed to persuade the Russians -- there's no evidence that this worked -- but it was supposed to persuade the Russians that Jewish refugees coming out of eastern Europe were a very, very important and significant source of intelligence to the British and the American intelligence organizations, so you rather hoped by persuading the Russians of this, that they would stop the illegal immigration at their end. Another part of it was if the ships were damaged, who's going to claim responsibility for this? So when an Arab organization is invented, Arab friends of Palestine, which wrote letters claiming responsibility for the sabotage -- and these are posted -- typed on French typewriters and other continental typewriters posted on the continent to the prime minister, to the foreign secretary.
JEFFERYSo MI6 is writing letters on behalf of someone else to its own government claiming responsibility for this. Now, the prime minister and the foreign secretary knew about it, they knew about it. But the guys in their office receiving these letters certainly didn't know about it and weren't about to be told, so there's another thing. And if they got -- the frogmen and the yachts were caught, they were told to say they were working for an American organization with oil money behind it, an anti-communist one who wanted to stop on the grounds that the Jews going to Palestine a, were going to annoy the Arabs and that might interfere with oil. Is there an echo here of some more recent kinds of motivations?
JEFFERYAnd also that they were all communist anyway. And so it's a wonderfully many-layered thing, but one of the ships, if I may just finish with this, that they were going to disable but didn't was a ship called the President Warfield. And the President Warfield was in a French port and at the last moment, the guys were pulled off this and said, the French will sort this out. As it happens, the French didn't. This ship sailed and it became the Exodus, the most famous of all these refugee ships. And when it got to Palestine, it's intercepted by the British Navy, two or three people are killed. The poor desperate people are sent all the way back to Europe and it's a public relations disaster. And MI6 said afterwards, if we'd been able to disable this before it left, you'd have been saved all that bother and those lives might not have been lost. So what's the success or failure?
KAYI'm Katty Kay, you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to join us, please do call 1-800-433-8850 or send us an e-mail to email@example.com. We have an e-mail here from Morey Schaffer -- Schaffner who joins -- who writes to us from Florida saying, "I find it extraordinarily interesting, the real history of spy agencies. I would like to know what the author thinks about John le Carré novels, since when I personally think of spies, those novels come to mind and not the James Bond films, which I have to say, I like as very funny fantasies." Do you agree, Keith?
JEFFERYOh, yes, sorry. I'm just reading le Carré's new novel and it's absolutely terrific. Now, I shouldn't be here selling someone else's book, but it's both/and, not either/or. Yes. I think le Carré, who of course himself was a member of the service and he does give an extraordinary vivid picture of how it was in the '50s and '60s. I mean, the early novels are particularly resonant. And it's just that early period which I move into. And I think, yes, if you want something more of the real flavor of how it was in those, you know, dark, difficult, suspicion-filled Cold War years, I think le Carré's very good at that. But again, because it's a novel, because he's essentially, I mean, this sort of fictional truth, making it up, it is more vivid, perhaps, than the actual reality.
KAYWe will have more of our conversation with Keith Jeffery. He's a professor of British history at Queens University, Belfast. He has written many books. The latest is "The Secret History of MI6: 1909 to 1949." We'll be taking more of your questions and comments after this short break. The number here is 1-800-433-8850, the e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have questions for Keith Jeffery, give us a call.
KAYWelcome back. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm. I'm joined by Keith Jeffery, he is the author of "The Secret History of MI6: 1909 to 1949." We'll be taking more of your questions and comments. The phone number's 1-800-433-8850, the e-mail address is email@example.com. I wanted to read an e-mail to you, a question that comes to us from Dee, Keith, who writes, "my question is how deep were they spying on Germany during World War II and were they concerned about some of the members of the royal family's German connection?"
JEFFERYGermany is a very difficult in the Second World War. And in fact, most of the information that's coming out of Germany tends to be either gossip or from -- some gossip, though, from people close to the Nazi top brass are reporting some of this coming through Bucharest, in fact, in the Bulchons (sounds like) and also reports of visitors, like Swedes who are able to travel through and report back on the damage of the aerial bombing campaign, but really, Germany is a very, very hard nut to crack. And even towards the end of the war, when you're sending in agents in 1945 -- early '45, they reckon that the life of an agent in Germany is about three weeks, so it's really, really a problem.
JEFFERYAs for the royal family, there's not really much interest about that because the royal family are very important and everyone's interested in them in a kind of a decorative way, but frankly, they're irrelevant to the war effort. And that's why the Duke of Windsor is sent off to the West Indies where he's out of -- out of trouble. Within Britain, some of the Nazi sympathizers or people who are close to this are rounded up by MI5 and they give no trouble at all, so there's really very little of that sort of thing which is of concern to 6.
KAYLet's go to Robert in Tavares, Fla. Robert, you have a question for Keith Jeffery.
ROBERTGood morning, Kathy...
ROBERT...thank you for having -- Mr. Jeffery, that's a fascinating book, we're looking forward reading that. I have a question for you. To what extent were the British Intelligence involved with Operation Paperclip? And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.
JEFFERYWell, what MI6 provide for, you know, all these various operations and the disinformation ones as well is they provide the...
KAYFirst of all, Keith, tell us a little bit about Operation Paperclip.
JEFFERYI think what Robert will tell us what he thinks about Operation Paperclip so we're talking about the same operation.
KAYRobert's taking his answer off the air, so you fill us in.
JEFFERY(laugh) Right, well, I have -- well, Paperclip isn't an MI6 operation. I mean, I talk about some of these other ones, but where there's an overseas dimension in running things in neutral Spain and Liberia, for example, MI6 provides that backup. As for the specific Operation Paperclip, I -- you're going to have to look elsewhere than my book, I'm afraid.
KAY(laugh) Okay. There's an e-mail that comes to us from Alice in Frederick, Md. Alice writes, "in books and films, one always encounters gadgets. In your research, did you see evidence of such gadgets and if so, what were a couple of the most unusual or interesting?" Thank you, Alice, that's a very interesting question.
JEFFERYWell, from the beginning, the gadgets and sort of technological backup is absolutely essential and the first chief of the service is a techno-geek who loves this kind of stuff and disguise and what have you. One of the things they're urgently interested in is secret writing, invisible ink, right from the beginning and they've employ a scientist who's a fellow of the Royal Society, he's a very distinguished scientist who has a recipe for invisible ink which I've put in the book. Another discovery, though, they find is that apparently semen makes a very useful and useable invisible ink, which pleased greatly the chief of the service at the time, but is perhaps less welcome use to the people who had to use it out there.
JEFFERYThen there are concealing devises. There's an interesting story from the Second World War of a force horse penis being used in Italy to smuggle documents through enemy check points of one sort or another. You could also put over -- you could shave a sheep, put the documents on the sheep and then put your fleece back over it also to move things that way.
KAYAll, of course, in the interest of protecting the realm.
JEFFERYOh, precisely. That's right. And then communications. I mean, that's utterly fundamental and important to this and we assume that you can, as I say, use a cell phone to ring Australia -- call Australia, you know, any time of the day or night. No. In fact, the suitcase radio is the cutting edge of technology. Really important during the Second World War and an enormous advance on previous possibilities. It looks pretty primitive to us. It was jolly important then.
KAYLet's go to Nasheed in Cincinnati, Ohio. Nasheed, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."
NASHEEDYeah, I'm right here.
KAYYes. You have a question for Keith Jeffery.
NASHEEDThat's right. Yeah, Professor Jeffery, thank you very much for the opportunity. I had a question for you. What is -- you -- I'm sure you're aware of Operation Mockingbird here in the U.S. by the CI.
JEFFERYNo. Tell me about it.
NASHEEDIt was basically that several probably dozens, maybe even more than that, authors, reporters were planted at some of the most important media outlets in the U.S. to basically, what's the word, manipulate the news or...
NASHEED...(word?) the news with a government agenda. Where there similar operations in Britain under the authority of MI6 and are such operations still in effect in Britain?
JEFFERYYes. Well, I can't possibly comment about the contemporary thing, but yes. A similar operation was run by MI6 targeting the United States in the Second World War. William Stevenson, a Canadian around the MI6 operation in North America during the Second World War out of the Rockefeller in Manhattan and one of the things he had to do was to manipulate propaganda and he ran a radio station, which is ostensibly independent, but it was pushing out pro-British, pro-allied anti-German propaganda. They got tame journalists, yes, to report it as well. So absolutely, that's part of the covert manipulation of information which an organization like this can do, yes.
KAYKeith, we talked a little bit before the break about Operation Embarrass, where the British Secret Service was employed to try and stop Jews from reaching what was then Palestine, but you also write in the book that the head of the MI6 station in Berlin before the Second World War actually saved a lot of Jews. What was that story?
JEFFERYYeah, the head of station in Berlin was a heroic figure called Frank Foley. Very, very good intelligence officer. And the cover that British MI6 officers had mostly across the world was as passport control officers, so these were the guys in the British embassies and consulates, wherever they might be, giving visas for people wanting to come to Britain and of course, by doing that, they were licensed to inquire about the people, so they had an intelligence gathering, overt intelligence gathering function. But as the 1930s progressed, as the persecution of Jews tightens and increases in -- particularly in Germany, those visa control mechanisms, those passport control officers come under increasing pressure.
JEFFERYAnd Frank Foley assists many thousands of Jews to leave Germany in those desperate, terrible years running up to the Second World War and he is a sort of righteous Gentile, he's a hero in the history of the Jewish thing, so, you know, they...
KAYAnd did he run into trouble -- problems with headquarters for doing that or was he -- was that sanctioned, his activities?
JEFFERYNo, he -- I -- he pushed the limits as far as he could go and he got some criticism from home for being a little too generous with handing out the visas because it was a very, very difficult period and you find that there were people at the London end who didn't want just to open the doors completely because people didn't realize what the alternative was. I mean, the actual threat under which Jews lay during the Second World War was imperfectly perceived in Germany, let alone in Britain. And that might have been one of the failures of British intelligence at the time, though Foley knew full well what the kinds of dangers were.
KAYHow long did MI6 manage to keep agents. You mentioned earlier that it was -- the lifespan towards the end of the war was reckoned to be only three weeks for a British or a foreign agent operating in Berlin, but how long at the beginning of the war did we manage to keep MI6 agents operative in the country inside Germany?
JEFFERYMI6 had a very bad start to the war. I mean, like most of the rest, the British sort of defense security machine, after all and there are no higher level agents in place...
KAYBecause they weren't prepared or why was it such a rocky beginning?
JEFFERYIt's a combination of -- it's a combination of the seriousness and the difficulty of the operating environment in Germany. I mean, the German security agencies are very, very good and when, for example, they try to pick up information about concentration camps just before the war, they find a guy in Switzerland, he says, well, I might be able to tell you something, but nobody wants to speak about it because they're afraid of being betrayed and even talking to the British is going to make life more dangerous. So that was one thing. The other thing is that the British never really worked in the same way as the Soviets in planting long-term penetration agents. Now, this had a great catastrophic result on the British end with people like Kim Philby, but the British practice perhaps a bit too late to appreciate the full dangers of Nazi Germany, but they weren't, as it were, planting agents in the 1920s and early 1930s who could then reach the top and pay off, so that was perhaps an error.
KAYI've got a couple of questions here who've come in, Keith, about Sydney Reilly. Christopher writes to us, "I greatly enjoyed the BBC series "Reilly: Ace of Spies" on Sydney Reilly, the first British superspy. Was he still active after 1909 and did he work for MI6 in the early days?" And Donald writes to us, "How dominant..." This is not a question, but how -- no -- Margaret writes to us, "Starting in 1909 with British worries about the Kaiser's fleet building, do you cover the work of Sydney Reilly?"
JEFFERYYes. Well, Reilly has this reputation, the ace of spies, and he was a very, very able man, a man with an Irish name but certainly not an Irish background. He was completely invented figure who came out of the kind of Eastern Europe -- European background and he is employed at an early stage after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 to penetrate Russia and he has quite good contacts and he produces some really good information, both from South Russia 'cause he starts off working for MI1Z as it was then as the predecessor of MI6 in the -- in this sort crimey (word?) and Caucaus area. Later, further north in Petrogrado, San Petersburg, as it's known, but Reilly is a crucial object lesson of a spy, an intelligence gatherer who dabbles in politics. And he saw it as his job -- one of the reasons he worked for the British is he wanted to bring down the Soviet regime.
JEFFERYHe was, you now, a fierce anti-Bolshevik, but he began working to that end. So not just gathering intelligence, but also dabbling in internal Russian politics and doing more than his brief was from MI6 and that conjunction of a kind of special operations and political obsession with him, maybe correct, maybe not, but that combination proved fatal for him in the end because it enabled the Soviets to lure him to his death in 1925. So he becomes less valuable as a spy the more he becomes a kind of anti-Bolshevik activist.
KAYI'm Katty Kay of BBC World News America and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, please do call 1-800-433-8850 or send us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's go to Kevin who is calling us from Washington, D.C. Kevin.
KEVINHi, good morning. I had the pleasure of meeting Keith Jeffery at a conference in Belfast last summer on the Churchills in Ireland and I was gonna ask a question about Churchill and his approach or his attitude towards MI6, this creation, this special operations executive and the competition between the two, but he brought up the Cambridge spy ring and I'd really like to ask what was he able to find out about the damage that Burgess and Maclean and Filby did to MI6?
JEFFERYOkay. Well, Kevin, great to hear from you. And, I mean, Churchill's very important. He's in love with intelligence. He likes the raw material, he likes the stuff and he certainly makes it a priority when he becomes prime minister, but he figures right from the beginning of the history of the organization. As for the Cambridge spy ring, Philby, of course, is the key man here. Now, I stop at the end of 1949 and I'm not supposed to know anything that happened after that, but I could not write about Philby as he was on the 31 of December, 1949, trusted, valued, able, you know, at the center in the highest management level towards the highest management level of the organization. I had to use the benefit of hindsight. And when you have that and you know that he's a baron (sounds like) and he's reporting stuff to the Soviet Union, it puts an extraordinary resonance on the documents which you read.
JEFFERYAnd you find, for example, in 1945, when the Korby case pops up in Canada where a cipher clerk defects from the Soviet Embassy and says there are atom spies, particularly fingering a guy called Allan Numay (sp?), who's an Englishman, and it comes back to Philby in the headquarters of MI6 in London. He's in charge of security? Ha. Yes, very good doing this and you can see Philby's footprints across this process trying to blunt the British response to this, trying to make sure that a less able interrogator is sent out to North America trying to keep the politicians out of it and you only know this, really, with the benefit of hindsight. He was MI6's worst traitor and, you know, it's an extraordinary story which, happily, I was able to tell from the inside.
KAYSo even then, you can look back and see where he was trying to dupe his superiors?
JEFFERYVery much so, very much so. There's another extraordinary moment when there's a communist sympathizer who's working for the organization then and communists worked for it in the Second World War, the Russians were after all allies then, but he wants to leave the organization in 1944 and go back to being a journalist or just at the end of war, '44, '45 and it goes again to Philby. Is he a communist agent? And Philby writes this note saying, he's got very dangerous and suspicious friends, but I think may be confident he's not a communist agent because having got into the organization, having got his feet under the table, as it were, the Soviets would not ever have let him leave. Now, Philby would know, wouldn't he?
KAY(laugh) He would have known. Keith, before we go, I just want a brief description. We’ve been talking about the history of MI6, of course. What's the organization like today?
JEFFERYThey're extraordinarily generous to an independent historian whose let in to look at its archives over the first 40 years and I thank them for that.
KAYAnd are they operating the same as they always have?
JEFFERYI hope they're better.
JEFFERYI hope they're thriving because they do important work of national importance, but it is also important that they're accountable and really, allowing people to write their history and to look independently at their history is a measure of that accountability and I think that's important, too.
KAYKeith Jeffery is professor of British history at Queens University, Belfast, his new book is "The Secret History of MI6: 1909 to 1949." Keith Jeffery, thank you so much for joining us.
JEFFERYIt's been a pleasure.
KAYI'm Katty Kay filling in for Diane Rehm. Thank you all so much for listening today.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, Podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is email@example.com and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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