What spies know about us - and what they really should

The Secret World by Hugh Trevor-Roper
The Secret World by Hugh Trevor-Roper
  • On Intelligence: The History Of Espionage And The Secret World by John Hughes-Wilson
  • Constable, £25
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John Hughes-Wilson writes with passion and authority on intelligence and recent military history. He is a Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute, and as an intelligence officer served in the Falkland Islands, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Middle East.

The first chapter, ‘A Little History’, is exactly that, and we romp through military intelligence in the Bible, ancient China, the Roman and Mongol empires, the Spanish Inquisition, Elizabethan England, the American War of Independence, the Crimean War to the Cold War in less than 40 pages.

He is at his best when dealing with individual cases and stories. There are nice vignettes on the turning of the IRA leader Joe Cahill and the ‘honey-trapped’ British diplomat John Vassall.

Less well known cases, such those of the American Jonathan Pollard and the Dutchman Avner Smit, who both spied for the Israelis, are introduced. There is new material on, for example, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden which is clear and apt, and the chapter on 9/11 illuminates both the lead up to the atrocity and the opportunities missed by the US security agencies that could have prevented it. The clarity and verve of the writing are particularly helpful when we get into the complex worlds of cyber intelligence and terrorism.

Hughes-Wilson always lets you know his opinions on the facts he presents: one chapter is entitled ‘Wikileaks and the Appalling Assange’, and another ‘Blair’s Dodgy Dossier, Iraq 2003’. A downside to this vigorous approach is his reluctance to outline his research and his sources. This is a hefty book, but there are no photographs. When so many new names are presented, mug shots would be helpful.

Some of the technical terms and acronyms are missing from the glossary and the proofreading leaves much to be desired, too. So far, John Hughes-Wilson’s writing career has seen his books being revised, and updated. It is to be hoped that a revision of On Intelligence might be with us before too long.