Was Mrs Thatcher Right about British Spooks?
If you’d like some light relief to marvel (or groan) at the way MI5 was formed with the help of a novelist and the Daily Mail, to boggle at the eccentricity of the British Intelligence service, and to see why – for example – Mrs Thatcher gave up on the spies, read this blog post by film-maker Adam Curtis, excerpted below.
In one of his many examples of how unintelligent – and in fact downright hopeless – the so-called ‘intelligence services’ have been, he points out the way in which, at the end of the eighties, none of them predicted the collapse of communism.We could predict it – just as many of us believe we could have predicted the outcome of the Iraq war – but not them. How on earth was this possible? Curtis writes:
Mrs Thatcher’s advisor – Charles Powell – summed up the extraordinary failure:
“The biggest single failure of intelligence of that era was the failure of almost everybody to foresee the end of communism. It caught us completely on the hop. All that intelligence about their war-fighting capabilities was all very well, but it didn’t tell us the one thing we needed to know – that it was all about to collapse.
It was a colossal failure of the whole Western system of intelligence assessment and political judgement.”
But the real reason that the intelligence agencies didn’t predict the collapse of the Soviet system was because many of the people at the top of the agencies couldn’t believe it was true.
Sir Percy Cradock was one of the most powerful figure in the British establishment. He was the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee – which co-ordinated the activities of MI5, MI6 and other intelligence groups. Even at the end of the eighties when everyone else was realising that the Soviet Union was collapsing, Sir Percy remained convinced that this was all a trick. That the Soviet Union was still aiming for communist domination of the world.
Cradock – along with a number of others high up in the intelligence agencies – really believed that Gorbachev’s reforms were just a cunning ruse to deceive the West. And – as Mark Urban has pointed out in his book UK Eyes Alpha – Sir Percy used his position to make sure that this view dominated the Joint Intelligence Committee.
But as Urban also points out – Sir Percy and his allies had no secret evidence for this. They relied on what was pompously called “analysing open source data”. Otherwise known as reading the newspapers and watching TV. Except they interpreted that data in a mad way – driven by their own fevered imaginings of a world completely possessed by infinite levels of deception.
Mrs Thatcher realised this was bonkers – and she finally gave up on the spies.
This is more about human nature than intelligence services, because it was cognitive dissonance. While British intelligence was having trouble believing that the Warsaw Pact was collapsing, the East German government was denying assessments from its own intelligence services that time was up. After spending two generations, or a career, working from a basic set of principles about the other side being really evil, it’s hard to accept that you were wrong. I suspect that there are still-unclassified assessments that say this was real, and that it was out of control of the Soviet Union. The problem with assessments isn’t usually the content or the analysis, it’s the person reading them.
I think the analysis of Gorbachev is a misrepresentation. The concern was that his plans would succeed, leading to an economically more effective, revitalized, and stable Soviet Union that would be more willing to throw its considerable military weight around. The alternative would be failure, and that might have led to the military option as the final throw of the dice, and people were concerned that the fall of the Warsaw Pact would be the precipitating event.
I worked at a research institute in West Berlin in the 1980s and visited East Berlin on many occasions. It was obvious to anybody who went into East Berlin that the system was not working, even in the showcase of Socialism things were bad. In the country, things were worse. The country was an armed camp and there was a very dirty secret war going on that got people killed. Investigators going through the East German files later found that they had so many people recruited in West Berlin that they could take over the city without a shot being fired, and the first thing most West Berliners would know about it would be the official at their door handing them their new identity papers.
It was a difficult and dangerous time, we had almost had a nuclear war in 1983. So perhaps we should be reluctant to criticize those not so willing to take things at face value.
Thank you Alec for your very thoughtful reply.I like Adam Curtis because he’s good at asking questions, and challenging the status quo. Whether his analysis is right or not is another matter!
The whole Soviet system was unsustainably top-heavy and most analysts could see this. They had so many of their population in communist party and secret service jobs living off an inefficient and unproductive economy that it was only a matter of time. If you have enough spies in a city to be able to take it over without a shot being fired you need an awful lot of resources to keep that system going and the Soviets didn’t have it – no-one could. Extrapolating from the present we can see that the USA is in a similar predicament, with defence spending outstripping the ability of the US economy to pay for it. The war today is about oil wealth and the US will go to great military lengths to protect their monopoly on trading currency. But that status quo is unsupportable and must fail sooner or later. We just don’t quite know when.
Just curious – as an American I always thought that MI-5 was more domestic – somewhat similar to our FBI and that MI-6 was international and more like the CIA. Is that not the case?
Hi Ron, as far as I know MI5 is for defensive intelligence – the reactive department. MI6 is for intelligence operations abroad – the proactive wing as it were!