Why Spy?

Why Spy?

The Art of Intelligence

Brian Stewart and Samantha Newbery

Hurst, London, 2015, 288 pages

Book Review published on: April 6, 2018

Why Spy? The Art of Intelligence is a brisk read, spending little time on laborious contextual stage setting; brevity, coupled with smooth writing, makes for an enjoyable narrative.

Brian Stewart retired from the British Foreign Service long ago, but he gained an array of profound field-work experiences in locations like Malaya, Northern Ireland, and China. After much time spent as a field operative, he served as secretary of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the British nexus for intelligence assessment derived from both domestic and international agencies as well as foreign counterparts.

Interestingly, Stewart frankly admits he would not have written this book were it not for an interview he granted his coauthor, Samantha Newbery, when she was working on her dissertation. As a bond developed between them, she encouraged him to assemble his collection of thoughts, insights, and anecdotes into a text; thus, this book represents the culmination of those recollections with editing by Newbery.

Stewart captivates the reader with fascinating tidbits concerning the uses and abuses of intelligence over the last seventy-five years. Using various case studies to include both successes and failures (many of which he had first-hand knowledge), he illuminates the utility and limitations of intelligence. He also offers pointed advice about how not to abuse or disregard “untidy” assessments that don’t fit neatly with the preconceived ideas of those in power, as he was charged with acting on the assessments of those in the intelligence business.

Why Spy? is divided into four parts. Part I deals with his up-close-and-personal recollections about three Asian experiences: the counterinsurgency in Malaya, his time in North Vietnam during the U.S. war there, and finally, his time on the ground in Mao’s China. The crisp writing and notable candor make it difficult to put the book down. Repeatedly, Stewart emphasizes how much intelligence can be gleaned from nonsecret sources, particularly if you speak the native tongue, or even just a bit of it.

Part II, “The Machinery and Methodology of Intelligence,” addresses the intelligence machine itself—the core activities of intelligence agencies: collecting and assessing. Of particular interest to this reader was his treatment of moral dilemmas surrounding interrogation. After succinctly identifying and defining the three major perspectives on the issue of interrogation, without tipping his hat to any of them, he says “… what is effective, and what is appropriate, depends upon many factors, including whether it is wartime or peacetime, and the background and nature of the people being interrogated.”1 In short, he doesn’t reflexively reject any of the perspectives; he argues it is always situationally dependent. He does note, though, that “kindness can pay” in many instances.

Part III, “Famous Cases of Intelligence in Practice,” is a clear-eyed look back at thoroughly examined case studies, the outcome of which rested on foundations of intelligence work (ours and the enemy’s)—Pearl Harbor, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Iraq (2002-2003). In the case of the Pearl Harbor debacle, he’s quick to note the blame is shared by many, not just the commanders on the scene. But he also notes another culprit—“the common tendency of operational staff to look down on the backroom intelligence staff.” Then, with an incriminating tone, he goes further. “[F]or intelligence to achieve its potential, it is not only the intelligence staff who needs to be good at their jobs but the consumers of intelligence too.” The two case studies grappling with Cuba emphasize the duel dangers always swirling around intelligence work: mirror imaging and wishful thinking. In the final case study, the run-up to the Iraq invasion, Stewart says reporting that seemed to confirm “received wisdom” was welcomed heartily, whereas absences of solid evidence were ignored. He is unsparing in his critique of the process leading to the decision to go forward with the invasion. “The job of intelligence is to discover the truth, however unpalatable, not to adjust the reporting to suit the customer.”

In Part IV, Stewart and Newbery all too briefly touch upon three important relationships between intelligence on one hand, and special operations, deception, and assassination, on the other. Indeed, one wishes he would have devoted more coverage to these interesting topics. When discussing special operations, Stewart is an unabashed realist, “We should retain some option between going to war and negotiation.” Next, in the deception segment, he demonstrates little patience for those wayward souls “who question the value of intelligence work,” saying they need only refer to Operation Fortitude.2 “Intelligence did in this case save millions of lives and shorten the war.” Lastly, in tackling the thorny issue of assassination, Stewart notes that despite public protestations against the use of assassinations, Western governments—for political and security reasons—have increasingly leveraged intelligence agencies to provide options—legal, practical, and moral objections aside—to address unconventional, asymmetric threats in a post-9/11 world.

Sprinkled throughout the work is an implicit, sometimes explicit, plea for agencies and decision-makers to tap a broader range of sources, many of which are open source, to widen the intelligence aperture. Simultaneously, he argues those in the business of intelligence gathering and analysis must do more to ensure recipients of their work understand not only the extent of their sources but also the quality/ilk/stripe of those sources to arrive at more nuanced evaluations and choices.

In closing, and of particular relevance to many readers (especially those in America), is his treatment of the British dossier produced by the Joint Intelligence Committee in 2002 as proof positive of the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.3 In his estimation, this was a case of circular logic, a logical fallacy; whereby, the reasoner begins with what he or she is trying to end with. It’s deceptively easy to fall prey to this fallacy as an onlooker. Similarly, it’s rather easy to create such a fallacy for consumption by others in support of an agenda. The individual arguments seem logically valid; if one presumes the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. Needless to say, in the case of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, we all know how that turned out.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. John H. Modinger, PhD, U.S. Air Force, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas


  1. Brian Stewart says Western views on interrogation fall constitute three points on a spectrum. On one extreme, the ethical absolutists who vehemently renounce any form of pressure to extract statements from prisoners. In the center, those who contend intelligence extracted via pressure is unreliable, since it’s likely the prisoner will say whatever is required to obtain freedom. On the other end, those who argue, based on their own experience, “that well-trained ‘hard’ individuals seldom succumb to kind words, cups of tea, or intellectual dominance.”
  2. The deception effort undertaken by the Allies in the run-up to the invasion of Normandy in 1944.
  3. Subsequently, this is used by advocates for U.S. military action in Iraq.