The Secret World
A History of Intelligence
Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 2018, 960 pages
Book Review published on: June 7, 2019
In the beginning of The Secret World: A History of Intelligence, Christopher Andrew declares that the “first major figure in world literature to emphasize the importance of good intelligence was God.”1 Clearly, this is an ambitious book. Over the next thirty chapters, Andrew walks the reader through several millennia of intelligence history, revealing that most hard-won lessons of intelligence work were often quickly forgotten. He persuasively argues that many of history’s intelligence blunders could have been mitigated if military commanders and government officials had been more aware of their predecessors’ experiences with intelligence. One of the reasons that so few seemed to learn from past intelligence history was that so little of it was accessible for study.2 Prior to the twentieth century, intelligence was largely an ad hoc business dominated by enthusiasts and dilettantes, and whether it was practiced well or at all depended on the personal inclinations and genius of individual leaders. Andrew’s book shows us that for much of the past three thousand years, most intelligence work was remarkably amateurish.
For centuries, explains Andrew, there was little consistency or continuity to intelligence tradecraft. In its earliest days, intelligence competed with divination as a source of actionable information. Thucydides never even mentioned intelligence. Roman military commanders were likely to give more credence to what they believed could be gleaned from chicken entrails than to reports from their scouts. Intelligence officials were typically preoccupied with monitoring domestic internal opposition rather than collecting and analyzing foreign intelligence. Whether intelligence contributed to strategy or policy depended almost entirely on the attitude of individual leaders, as well as the respective societies’ prevailing attitudes toward spies. Rarely were best practices analyzed and studied to determine effectiveness. There was no accepted doctrine or body of professional literature to turn to for guidance, and leading intelligence practitioners took their tradecraft secrets with them to the grave.
All that began to change in the twentieth century with the emergence of an intelligence profession. As part of that development, Andrew highlights the importance of a professional intelligence literature.3 After World War II, Office of Strategic Services veteran Sherman Kent and others recognized that intelligence had become a discipline worthy of professional study.4 One of the strengths of The Secret World is that Andrew’s narrative harks back to Kent and his legacies, even drawing some of his research from Studies in Intelligence, the professional journal Kent started at the CIA in 1955.5 Andrew also notes the work of Richards J. Heuer Jr., author of Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, which he wrote for the CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence.6
Another strength of Andrew’s book is that he effortlessly ties intelligence history to current events. He gently reminds us that so-called “fake news” allegedly sponsored by foreign intelligence agencies is not unique to today’s internet and social media. The Secret World provides examples that may surprise some readers, such as a German diplomat in 1915 New York City who was discovered with “documents detailing the planting of pro-German news stories in the American press” and “various secret schemes to influence US opinion.” Perhaps an even more surprising example is Benjamin Franklin, whose efforts in France to support the American Revolution extended to printing and distributing a “forged copy in 1782 of a Boston newspaper” that” that included bogus ads and stories falsely reporting British abuses, such as claims that British troops were paying their Native American allies for American scalps.7 Franklin’s forgery was so successful that British politicians opposed to the war cited it in Parliament, and the paper was not exposed as a fake until 1854.8
Andrew strives for a global approach, but his study leans toward the Western experience. His scope is reduced even further as the book continues, discussing intelligence largely from the European (primarily British) perspective. There are also bound to be some minor factual errors and omissions in any book that strives to cover such a vast subject as the global history of intelligence.9 Andrew includes U.S. intelligence history, tracing the roots of modern U.S. intelligence agencies back to some of the Founding Fathers. Curiously though, he entirely overlooks a major U.S. intelligence organization: the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Consequently, there is no mention at all of geospatial intelligence in The Secret World.
Andrew certainly does not dismiss the relevance of overhead imagery or mapping to the development of modern intelligence. He discusses at length the historical importance of maps to military commanders and provides an account of aerial reconnaissance and the development of imagery intelligence. However, there is more history here than Andrew provides, such as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s roots back to the Corps of Discovery led by Lewis and Clark.10 He does highlight other expeditions that were arguably relevant to geospatial intelligence history, such as the late nineteenth century British Survey of India.
For the Survey of India, British officials recruited local natives (disguised as Buddhist pilgrims and equipped with concealed measuring equipment) to map areas that at the time were considered too risky for European travelers. He describes how one enterprising recruit spent three months in Lhasa, Tibet, and “gained an audience with the Dalai Lama, gathered intelligence about the city, and calculated its altitude and geographical position.”11 Andrew recognizes the relevance to intelligence history of cartography and collecting information on geography, social behavior, and knowledge of local conditions. However, it is unfortunate that he fails to connect the threads of that history to the development of the modern geospatial intelligence.
Despite these gaps, Andrew achieves his main objective of demonstrating the continuing relevance of the history of global intelligence to intelligence in the twenty-first century.12 He shows how the forgotten lessons of past intelligence operations come back to bedevil military commanders and policy makers. He also succeeds in dispelling some of the popular misconceptions of intelligence. Andrew laments that despite the importance of intelligence to today’s world, many people still get ideas of what intelligence work is all about from novels and popular movies.13 The Secret World is a major contribution toward adding a little more reality to the picture.
Book Review written by: Kevin Rousseau, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
- Christopher Andrew, The Secret World: A History of Intelligence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 2018, 13.
- Keith Neilson and B. J. C. McKercher, eds. Go Spy the Land: Military Intelligence in History (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger), 1992, ix-x. Christopher Andrew has long been a respected advocate for a more rigorous academic study of intelligence. He once offered three reasons that intelligence history was so long neglected. First, governments were reluctant to release documents on intelligence matters. Second, governments pretended their intelligence organizations did not even exist. Finally, professional historians simply were not interested. The third one at least appears to be no longer valid.
- Writing in 1955, Sherman Kent declared that “Intelligence today is not merely a profession, but like most professions it has taken on the aspects of a discipline: it has developed a recognized methodology; it has developed a body of theory and doctrine; it has elaborate and refined techniques. It now has a large professional following. What is lacks is a literature.” Sherman Kent, “The Need for an Intelligence Literature,” in Studies in Intelligence: 45th Anniversary Issue (Washington, DC: Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency [CIA], Fall 2000), 3.
- Kent’s passion for studying intelligence was shared with another Office of Strategic Services veteran whose name appears in Andrew’s sources, former CIA officer Walter Pforzheimer. The CIA entrusted Pforzheimer with officially collecting thousands of books on intelligence to help build a professional intelligence library. As he did so, he simultaneously used his personal funds to grow a private intelligence library of over twenty thousand volumes. He bequeathed his vast library to his alma mater, where it is now the Walter L. Pforzmeimer Collection on Intelligence Service at Yale University. For more on Pforzheimer, see Thomas Powers, “The Lives They Lived: The Literature of Secrets,” The New York Times Magazine, 28 December 2003, accessed 3 August 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/28/magazine/the-lives-they-lived-the-literature-of-secrets.html.
- Andrew, The Secret World, 9-10.
- Ibid., 745.
- Ibid., 308.
- Ibid., 668. See Sam Roberts, “Secret Grand Jury Testimony from Ethel Rosenberg’s Brother Is Released,” The New York Times, 15 July 2015, accessed 6 June 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/16/nyregion/david-greenglass-grand-jury-testimony-ethel-rosenberg.html. Minor factual errors, however, do not detract from the overall narrative. For example, Andrew misidentifies David Greenglass as Ethel Rosenberg’s brother-in-law; he was actually her younger brother.
- The Intelligence Legacy of Lewis and Clark (Springfield, VA: National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency [NGA], October 2014). This NGA pamphlet explains that Lewis and Clark’s “voyage of discovery also left geospatial legacies.” The Corps of Discovery from 1803 to 1806 “made a significant contribution to the evolution of geospatial understanding through cartography and surveying. These fundamental tradecrafts are still essential to the work of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.”
- Andrew, The Secret World, 417.
- Ibid., 11.
- “Even in the twenty-first century, public understanding of intelligence operations is frequently coloured—if not confused—by spy fiction.” Ibid., 2.