Intelligence in Recent Public Literature
Compiled and Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake
Jennet Conant, The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in
Wartime Washington (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008), 391
pp., endnotes, bibliography, photos, index.
During WW II, Royal Air Force (RAF)
fighter pilots attributed unexpected equipment malfunctions to 6 inch tall
“little men” they called gremlins.
The fanciful tales told about these mischievous creatures soon spread to the
public and in 1943 were collected in a 46 page book titled The Gremlins: A Royal Air Force
Story. Published by Walt Disney Productions, the book depicted gremlins with
red noses and two horns. The text describing their adventures was written by
RAF fighter pilot Roald Dahl, whose second book, Charlie and the Chocolate
made him famous as an author of children’s books. In The Irregulars, Jennet
Conant attempts to make him famous as a spy.
The book gets off to a wobbly start. In
the preface, Conant portrays Dahl as “caught up in the complex web of intrigue
masterminded by [William] Stephenson, the legendary Canadian spymaster, who
outmaneuvered the FBI and State Department and managed to create an elaborate
clandestine organization whose purpose was to weaken the isolationist forces in
America and influence U.S. policy in favor of Britain.” (xv) Each of these
assertions is inaccurate. Dahl had nothing to do with weakening isolationist
forces in America; he didn’t
arrive here until 1942, by which time the isolationists were not a factor in US foreign
policy. Furthermore, he wasn’t assigned to the BSC (British Security
Coordination) until 1944 when its value to British intelligence was marginal,
as Conant admits. As to outmaneuvering, Conant gives no examples. Stephenson
did support the creation of a US
foreign intelligence service, but he was not the originator of the idea, nor
would it have died had the British failed to support it. While both State and
the FBI initially cooperated with BSC, relations cooled in 1942, much sooner
than Conant suggests. When the BSC attempted to spread propaganda in the media,
contrary to its promise not to do so, it became obvious. And Conant doesn’t
even mention the TRICYCLE double agent case that displayed poor tradecraft by
BSC and resulted in TRICYCLE’s forced recall to Britain.
As to the BSC itself, there is no
evidence at all that Roosevelt used Stephenson as a “back channel” source to
Churchill or that Churchill had personally dispatched Stephenson on his mission
to the United States.
Likewise, contrary to her claims, neither Leslie Howard nor Ian Fleming were
recruited by or worked for Stephenson. Perhaps the most absurd historical
inaccuracy is Conant’s claim that the BSC designation “was a title created
arbitrarily by the American FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.” (28)
Unfortunately, similar problems exist
elsewhere in the book. Some of these are terminological, others are factual,
and all claims are undocumented. For example, Conant calls intelligence
officers “agents,” states that Philby defected with Maclean in 1951 (he
defected alone in 1963), and claims that Dahl had duties “along
counterintelligence lines” (293) though none are specified. In short, her
assessment that “spies are notoriously unreliable narrators,” (xix) applies to
her own research.
Is the book of any intelligence value at
all? Very little. For those interested in WW II Washington society and
politics, however, The Irregulars has much of significance and Dahl is the
centerpiece of attention. Conant describes him as a dashing, sometimes
charming, intensely self-centered, 6’6’’ former RAF fighter pilot assigned
first to the British embassy in Washington
as air attaché and later, after conflicts with the staff, to the BSC. Despite
her endeavors to make Dahl a spy, the closest she gets is to call him an
agent-of-influence and to describe his “espionage” as “stockpiling titillating
gossip.” (146) Here, far too much attention is devoted to Dahl’s social
connections with President Roosevelt, his wife Eleanor, Vice President Henry
Wallace, and the latter’s confidant Charles Marsh, a wealthy Texas
newspaperman, and the likes of Congresswomen Clare Booth Luce. None of the
anecdotes Dahl includes has anything to do with wartime intelligence in America.
Equally interesting, but irrelevant to
espionage, are Dahl’s literary efforts. Conant discusses them at some length
but doesn’t seem to find it unusual that Dahl “the spy” had so much time to
spare during the war. In the dust jacket blurb for this book, author Jon
Meacham notes that The Irregulars “is a terrific tale—and it’s all true.”
He may be right about the first part, but just a little fact checking makes it
vibrantly apparent that “all true” it is not. The facts available from books in
Conant’s own espionage bibliography make it clear that Roald Dahl was at best
only peripherally involved in the romantic world of espionage. (32)
[Top of page]
Stephen Twigge, Edward Hampshire, Graham
Macklin, British Intelligence: Secrets,
Spies and Sources (London:
National Archives, 2008), 248 pp., endnotes, bibliography, photos, index.
[Top of page]
Dr. Stephen Twigge is the senior
historian in Britain’s
Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This book’s introduction explains that he and
his coauthors researched the intelligence files of the British National
Archives with particular attention to those recently released. They wrote
British Intelligence “to highlight the rich and diverse collection of
intelligence records” that they found there. (15) The book is needed, they
argue, because the “world of secret intelligence was for decades largely
neglected by historians” and public understanding of the topic was “shaped by a
steady stream of lurid novels, sensationalist journalism and memoirs written by
former practitioners and senior officials.” (7) Straight away this criticism
raises scholarly warning flags. First, it ignores the pioneering intelligence
histories written by Mildred Richings, Christopher Andrew, Nigel West, Stephen
Dorril, and Harry Hinsley, to name a few.
Second, it tips off to readers that close scrutiny of the work is warranted.
Specifically, the nine chapters of the
book seek “to shed light on some of the shadowy aspects of British history, and
to provide a framework and guide for all those interested in the history of
intelligence.” (15) The first seven chapters outline some well known domestic,
international, military, naval, air, scientific, and communications
intelligence cases. There is a separate chapter on the Special Operations
Executive, a WW II sabotage and resistance organization, and a final one that
looks at “intelligence in a changing world.”
A glance at the primary sources found in
the endnotes suggests that British Intelligence has accomplished its goal of
“shedding light” by using the National Archive’s files. A closer examination,
however, reveals that more than 100 facts mentioned in the narrative are either
not documented at all or not supported by the sources cited. The complete list
is unprintable here, but the few examples that follow should make the point.
In several cases National Archive file
numbers are cited to document erroneous statements. For example, the role of
the Twenty Committee in WW II was not, as claimed, made public in 1972 in the
book The Double Cross System. (41)
That distinction belongs to Ladislas Farago and his book, The Game of the Foxes.
Similarly, KGB agent and SIS officer George Blake was not an “MI6 double agent”
as stated. (45) The errors concerning the “Cambridge spy ring” are particularly
egregious, since no citations at all are provided and the truth has been
publicly known for years. Philby did not join the Communist Party of Great
Britain, nor was he, Cairncross, or Maclean, a member of the secret Apostles
Society as claimed. Furthermore, Yuri Modin was not the wartime handler of
Burges and Maclean (201)—he didn’t arrive in London until after the war. Cairncross died
in England not France. And the
broken codes that revealed Maclean’s treachery were the NKVD’s not diplomatic.
In this same undocumented category the
authors write that William Stephenson was a “trusted confidant” of Churchill
and that he had “the code name Intrepid,” assertions disproved by West among
others. (75) Likewise, they state that Igor Gouzenko, perhaps the most famous
of the early Soviet defectors, was a diplomat handled by Zabotin, when in fact
he was a code clerk handled by Motinov. (227) Even more surprising is the claim
that the Rosenberg
network was identified by the VENONA operation—the FBI solved that case. Also, the code name VENONA was assigned in
1954 not 1948. (258)
Regrettably, details dealing with the
later periods of intelligence history also contain inaccuracies. For example,
the statement that the codeword CORONA
was based on “the brand of typewriter on the desk of the CIA director running
the program” (163) is only one of two possible explanations for the naming of
that program. The other is that it was suggested by a planner who was smoking a
when the naming question arose.
Other facts about the early photo satellite programs are at variance with more
reliable sources, as for example, Richelson.
And anyone with access to the World Wide Web can verify that the “Open Source
Center,” created in 2005, is not “a division of the CIA,” it having been
plucked, bureaucratically speaking, out of CIA and placed under the office of
the Director of National Intelligence that year.
A summary assessment of British
Intelligence is that despite the authors’ access to the intelligence files in
the National Archives, their contribution to intelligence history is a flawed
Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
(New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), 163 pp. Copies of the first edition sell
today for as much as $15,000.00.
 Meacham is author of Franklin and
Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Relationship (New York: Random House, 2003).
 M. G. Richings, Espionage: The Story of
the Secret Service of the English Crown (London: Hutchinson, 1934); Christopher
Andrew, Her Majesty’s Secret Service (New York: Viking, 1986); Nigel West, Counterfeit
Spies (London: St. Ermin’s Press, 1998); Stephen Dorril, MI6 (New York: The
Free Press, 2000); F. H. Hinsley, et al., British Intelligence in the Second
World War (London: HMSO, 1986-1993), 6 volumes.
 Ladislas Farago, The Game of the Foxes
(New York: David McKay & Co., 1971).
 See Robert A. McDonald, CORONA: Between the Sun
& the Earth—The First NRO Reconnaissance Eye in Space (Bethesda, MD:
American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, 1997), 58, fn. 51.
 Jeffrey T. Richelson, America’s Secret
Eyes in Space (New York: Harper & Row, 1990).
[Top of page]
All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed in this article are those of the author. Nothing in the article should be construed as asserting or implying US government endorsement of an article’s factual statements and interpretations.