Where dictators or democratically elected governments rule, they need organisations dedicated to the gathering and evaluation of information, mainly concerning the intentions of other states that may not have their best wishes at heart. These are the intelligence services, and they have been in active operation for much longer than many students think.
Some historians insist that it was Queen Elizabeth I, with her faithful Walsingham and his ring of spies, who was the first absolute ruler to insist on full intelligence gathering. This is patently untrue. Alexander, son of Philip of Macedon, knew of plans made by his squires to assassinate him. Among the boys was the son of a man trusted by Alexander enough to be ruling Macedon as regent while Alexander was making war. When the squires were tried and executed for treason, messengers were sent on racing dromedaries to eliminate the father whether or not he could be proven guilty of complicity. This could never have happened if Alexander had not left paid informers in his capital ready to advise him.
The information gathered by intelligence services can be economic, political and/or military. It can relate to current trends, such as revolutionary movements, threat of strikes etc., or to specific groups such as terrorist bands, dangerous individuals or societies. If Louis XVI of France had paid more attention to information he actually received about revolutionary clubs like the Girondins and Jacobins, he might not have lost France and his head. He did not believe they were important enough to worry the ruler of France.
A great deal of intelligence is obtained from public sources, such as the police force and the magistrature, but extensive covert activities have become rife, with groups defending their covert operations in the name of national security. More, they have acquired functions in ‘counter-intelligence’, designed to safeguard their own operations, as well as to manipulate those of potential or actual adversaries. Thus we hear of the ‘double agent’ who, posing as a spy from country A, is actually working for country B. Likewise, the complicated ‘double double’ agent so popular with novelists.
In the United States spying (or the gathering of information) abroad is the job of the CIA, with publicized headquarters at Langley, Virginia, not too far away and not too close to the seat of power in Washington. In Britain, MI5 and MI6 are the (home) security service and the Secret Intelligence Service (or SIS). MI5 was founded in 1909 and combined internal security and counter-intelligence on British territory (which can of course include countries that are geographically speaking – abroad). MI6, founded in 1912 in time for the First World War, covers all areas outside the UK, just as the CIA considers the entire world its oyster.
During World War II, MI6’s successful cooperation with resistance movements abroad contributed greatly to the outcome of the war. But wars eventually grind to an end, and MI6 had to endure many years of unpopularity in the post-war period because of disclosures that many of its employees, especially those educated at Cambridge in the 30s, were actually spying for the Soviet Union. The best-known names to be remembered in this context are Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Anthony Blunt. The last-named Soviet spy had actually been the Queen’s advisor on fine art! The newspapers had a field day with these spies and others, but novelists who wrote about the intelligence services became very rich indeed. Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth to name but four.
Meanwhile, MI5 got up to all kinds of tricks during the Labour Party’s inept and negative years in government immediately after the War. Strong evidence emerged in the 1980s of MI5’s rather unconstitutionalrole from 1974 to 1979. It seemed only too obvious that MI5 was trying to destabilize not only the Socialist government, but anything connected with socialism, such as the Trade Unions.
The Official Secrets Act increased government powers against unlawful disclosures of official information. Then an astounding thing happened: a woman called Stella Rimington was put in control of MI5! She was Director-General from 1992 to 1995. She was the first security boss whose name was revealed. Later another woman, called Manningham-Butler, became director of MI6, incidentally leading to a change of sex for the big boss in the James Bond films. ‘M’, trousered, pipe-smoking, stiff-upper-lipped, became ‘M’ in the definitely feminine shape of fashionably-dressed Dame Judi Dench.
September II, 2001 caused an upheaval. Both MI5 and MI6 have given increased priority to fighting terrorism ever since this lethal outrage, which still resembles Hollywood special effects. In the US, the CIA was created by Congress in 1947 and enjoys a huge budget. It is directly responsible to the President through the National Security Council. It gathers and evaluates foreign intelligence, undertakes counter-intelligence operations overseas (especially it seems in the Caribbean, Central America and South America) and organizes secret political intervention in foreign states. The agency is not popular in the United States, and has been attacked by the Hollywood film industry in many important movies. Unpopularity may have been caused by the CIA’s immense power and influence, as well as its bottomless budget. It has been actively involved in covert or overt manoeuvres in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Colombia, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Not many of these moves have enjoyed happy endings. The CIA failed to anticipate the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in the financial district of Manhattan on September II. It was CIA ground work that led to the downfall of both Gaddafi and Bin Laden, however, though it must be said that the agency seems not to be too interested in Syria or its murderous President.
In Chile the Communist Allende was all but actually shot by CIA agents.
If anyone apart from Bush the Younger was responsible for the inaccurate assessment of Iraq’s ability to develop weapons of mass destruction, which led to war, invasion and a huge death toll, it must again be the CIA. The Langley agency has even been accused of complicity in the death of President Kennedy,
though the motives for such an act are unclear. Conspiracy addicts are fond of reminding others that all the witnesses who gave evidence at the inquiry into John Kennedy’s murder have themselves died since, not always from old age or illness.