The Secret State
A History of Intelligence and Espionage
Col. John Hughes-Wilson
Pegasus Books, New York, 2017, 528 pages
Book Review published on: July 7, 2017
Fake news, alternative facts, and Russian propaganda. Read the papers following the 2016 presidential election and listen to statements coming out of Washington, D.C., and you will quickly become confused about what to believe and what not to believe; where should you go to get your news? It used to be that one could watch this or that cable news show and at least have one’s already entrenched beliefs reinforced. But now we do not even have that luxury—the self-satisfying pseudo news of our favorite network might be originating out of the propaganda mill of some foreign intelligence service after all. What lessons are intelligence services learning from this episode? Will we see more of this type of attack in the future?
To a certain degree, Col. John Hughes-Wilson addresses these important questions in The Secret State: A History of Intelligence and Espionage. Beginning with an overview of the history of intelligence, Hughes-Wilson takes the reader through insightful discussions of the intelligence cycle, requirements and collection, human intelligence, signals intelligence, counterintelligence, and other key aspects of the field, including the nefarious exploitation of cyber. Both with regard to the topics covered and the depth to which he does so, this is an impressive volume. He very effectively uses case studies such as the Tet offensive, the Yom Kippur War, Barbarossa, and Pearl Harbor to illustrate the challenges of getting intelligence right. Those chapters are very much worth a thorough read.
Unfortunately, Hughes-Wilson also gives equal time in The Secret State to cases best categorized as the stuff of conspiracy theorists. He relates, for example, with too much certainty that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pressured then President Bill Clinton in 1998 with audio tapes revealing the president’s affair with Monica Lewinsky; an ultimately unsuccessful effort to get Johnathan Pollard, a convicted spy for Israel, released from prison. Hughes-Wilson presents this story with language that suggests it is, without a doubt, true: “This was blackmail and an attempt at compromise at the very highest level.”
In another instance, the author rehashes “evidence” that unidentified conspirators must have known about the attacks of 11 September in advance, as wagers were made in the stock market against certain U.S. airlines in the days before the attack. Hughes-Wilson suggests that this sort of information might be useful to forecast important disruptions or opportunities, that is to say, attempts to manipulate the market might presage world events. It is an interesting observation but would have been bolstered more effectively by an example not already debunked by the 9/11 commission, among others.
His examination of a lethal Israeli attack against the USS Liberty signals intelligence collection vessel during the 1967 War stands as another example. In sum, Israel later claimed that it believed the ship was Egyptian, and panels of inquiry in both the United States and Israel appeared to support this conclusion. But Hughes-Wilson again provides “evidence” that this was all a cover up.
The problem with The Secret State is not that the author addresses these controversial intelligence issues or indeed that there might not be useful lessons to be learned from them. And frankly, I am not trying (at least not that hard) here to make an argument one way or the other about their veracity. But given Hughes-Wilson’s declarative language, it would seem to the otherwise naïve reader that these controversial matters represent settled truth and are not at all debatable. They are in fact contentious. It would have been useful for the author to have noted when matters were suspect or otherwise uncertain.
It would have also been useful for Hughes-Wilson to cite the sources for any of his reference material in the body of his work. He does provide a bibliography at the end, and qualifies therein that The Secret State is not a text book. But then he comments that “on a subject as vast as intelligence, it is only too easy to drown in the flood of authoritative—and some not so authoritative—sources and references from every quarter.”
Well, add The Secret State to that list. This is a shame, as the volume is otherwise an engaging read filled with important observations. But, much like our current state of confusion about where to look for the truth, this book offers assurances where it should not have. Perhaps a future edition of The Secret State will include some well-placed modifiers and detailed citations, supporting and moderating the author’s various assertions. Those changes would make this volume an important contribution to the study of intelligence.
Book Review written by: John G. Breen, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas