Gordon Corera

MI6 the art of betrayal
The Art of Betrayal: The Secret History of MI6: Life and Death in the British Secret Service

A former MI6 officer, one of the few to have risen to become ‘C’ or Chief of the Service, takes pleasure in recounting a story. Framed by a collection of John le Carré’s novels on the bookshelves behind him, he tells it with a boyish smile and a playful twinkle in the eye which suggests a mischievousness not entirely lost to age. The story concerns a young officer making his way to a hut somewhere in Africa.

It was the first contact MI6 had made with a local tribal chief whose assistance was required in some escapade whose exact details have long since been lost in the retelling. The officer was unsure of what welcome he would find and how receptive the chief might be to his request.

He did not even know whether the chief could speak a word of English. But the officer’s cautious introduction was met by a wide smile. It turned out the chief knew three words. ‘Hello, Mr Bond,’ he said, before offering his hand and his help. ‘I doubt if he would have received such a warm welcome if he’d been from the Belgian Secret Service,’ the former spymaster explains with a touch of pride and with no particular disrespect meant to Belgium or its spies.

True or not – and as with most stories about spies you have to be careful – the tale illustrates how the mythology of the British Secret Service has been spread far and wide and how fact and fiction have commingled to the point where the two have sometimes become indistinguishable in the public mind (and sometimes in that of the practitioner as well). That process has been aided by the cloak of secrecy which has shrouded British intelligence for much of its hundred-year history.

Intelligence over nearly seventy years

The task of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) – or to use its more popular name MI6 – is to steal the secrets of others. But it has fiercely protected its own. For most of its existence, secrecy was so prized that MI6 did not even exist. At least not officially. Those in power were trained never to utter a word about it. In the corridors of Whitehall, the head of the service might be referred to as ‘C’ in hushed tones and a few might occasionally see a note with his distinctive green ink scrawled on it. But the outside world never knew his name.

That era has passed. The modern world, and the threats posed by it, demands greater transparency and accountability. And so, gingerly, the Secret Service has begun to edge out of the shadows, even inviting an official history of its first forty years from 1909 to 1949. This book offers an unprecedented insight into the following years, from the end of the Second World War to the present, a glimpse beneath the covers into the danger, the drama, the intrigue, the moral ambiguities and the absurdities that sometimes come with working for British intelligence.

The story centres on Britain’s overseas intelligence service, MI6, but some of the characters find their homes in its sister service, the domestic security agency MI5, its weighty transatlantic cousin, the CIA, and its deadly rival, the KGB. This is emphatically not an authorised or comprehensive history which aspires to tell the complete story of British intelligence over nearly seventy years.

The history

Such a work is impossible while access to the files remains closed. It is not the history, rather it is a history – an attempt to understand the wider issues surrounding intelligence and the evolution of a particularly British organisation through a narrow lens which focuses on a relatively small number of individuals and episodes. The grand dramas of the Cold War and after – the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the 11 September 2001 attacks and the Iraq war – are the backdrop for the human stories of our selected spies. But some of the individuals featured here, in turn, helped shape the course of those events.

At the heart of this book lie the personal accounts of the men and women who have been associated with intelligence work since 1945 in different ways and in different countries. All memories are faulty and spies, in particular, are trained to deceive, and so while this book is, in part, based on first-hand testimony and the memoirs of participants, those stories have been cross-checked against original documents, archives and secondary sources. Through their eyes, this book traces the triumphs and disasters as MI6 has undergone a dramatic transformation from a gung-ho amateurish service into its modern, at times equally controversial, incarnation.

We act within our own law – British Law

Through its hundred-year history, the enemies the British Secret Service has fought have come in many guises. But in its essential form the work of a British spy has barely changed. It involves persuading someone to betray secrets, a deeply personal, even intimate act, and one fraught with risks.

More often than not this involves betrayal, sometimes of a country, sometimes of a friendship. It involves working with the complexities of human motivation and especially its darker paths and traversing a fine line between right and wrong. It also involves breaking laws. ‘We act within our own law – British law,’ one man who has been chief of MI6 once commented to me. ‘Our relationship with other people’s laws is’ – he paused for a moment before continuing – ‘interesting.’

Does spying exist not just beyond other people’s laws but also beyond traditional precepts of morality? Some have argued that it does, a few even that it should. Asking someone else to act illegally and, perhaps, unethically by providing secrets also frequently involves asking them to take huge risks, often with their lives. For what purpose? To ‘betray something that needs betraying’, as one former MI6 Chief puts it. 

The art of Betrayal carries a price

The art of betrayal is one that many countries, particularly Britain, have long nurtured, but it carries a price. ‘I have been involved in death, yes,’ Daphne Park remarked of her line of work, before adding enigmatically, ‘but I can’t talk about that.’ It is the agent though, not normally the MI6 officer, who faces the greatest risk. For the agent who has been recruited to work for MI6, they are embarking on a dangerous double life, a world of brush contacts, dead-letter drops and clandestine meetings.

If they are lucky, there is the possibility of a new life, if not perhaps a bullet in the back of the head. So why spy? This book tries to answer that question by hearing from those who have chosen this path and exploring what drives those involved in espionage.

‘I’ve never found – within the service – people hung up in any way on literature,’ John Scarlett, a former C, has claimed. ‘It is more interesting doing the real thing.  But as our retired Chief at the start makes clear, even MI6 references itself, in part, by the fictional world, not least because many of the great British spy-thriller writers like Graham Greene, John le Carré and Ian Fleming were former intelligence officers themselves who, to varying degrees, drew on their own experiences.

At one extreme lies the lean, aggressive, morally certain and self-confident Bond with his insistence on doing things. At the other end is the podgy, donnish Smiley with his desire to understand things coupled with a keen awareness of the moral ambiguities of the world he inhabits.

Doers and Thinkers

The story of British intelligence since the Second World War can be understood, in part, as the evolving tension between these two poles, between the doers and the thinkers – those who sought to change the world and those who sought to understand it, or, to put it another way, between covert action and intelligence gathering. They are not mutually exclusive and to be successful any spy service needs both to jostle alongside each other in a creative tension.

But often one or other strand has been dominant, sometimes too dominant – with disastrous consequences. As our story begins in the early Cold War, working for His and then Her Majesty’s Secret Service was not so distant from the fictional life of Fleming’s Bond.

There may not have quite been a formal licence to kill, but stealing, breaking the law, overthrowing unfriendly governments and parachuting agents behind enemy lines was standard fare. But this was also a service which was clubby, amateurish, penetrated by its enemies and prone to mishap. Its secret wars were betrayed by its most painful traitor in the beguiling guise of Kim Philby.

Slowly a new professionalism surrounding the business of collecting intelligence emerged, epitomised by one officer, Harold Shergold, and one agent, Oleg Penkovsky. Out of their time together, the ‘Sov Bloc master race’ was born within MI6, a group who would transform the service.

Bureaucratic organisation

MI6 has slowly evolved from a self-selecting and self-perpetuating gentlemen’s club for members of the establishment with a naughty streak to something more like a professional, bureaucratic organisation no longer set apart from the rest of government.

The early days were marked by a macho culture in which women had their place – normally as secretaries, although even they undertook dangerous tasks on the front line. Only very few women, like Daphne Park – who made her mark in the Congo during one of the great crises of the Cold War – managed to run their own operations.

MI6 - Daphne Park
Daphne Park
Dubbed the Queen of Spies

Her story highlights not only the way in which the superpower rivalry intruded into the developing world with deadly effects but also the extent to which MI6 operations in more distant parts of the world offered an alternative tradition of building relationships and influencing events to the spycraft operating within the Soviet bloc.

Old-fashioned attitudes and rivalries once extended to relations with the domestic Security Service. MI5 thought their foreign counterparts were a bunch of cowboys, while MI6 thought their domestic equivalents were glorified policemen.

Now, they work closely together. The relationship with the American ‘cousins’ has also seen a reversal. For many years, some in Britain wanted to see themselves as the smarter, wiser Athens to the CIA’s Rome, educating the new arrivals in the ways of spying. But it did not take long before it was clear where the balance of power really lay, creating a complex relationship of trust and anxiety, intimacy and dependence much like that between the two countries as a whole.

The clandestine arm of government

The work of an intelligence service acting as the clandestine arm of government in pursuit of the national interest throws light not just on policy but also on the way in which a country – and particularly its elite — sees itself and its place in the world. For many years, Britain’s Secret Service was the keeper of the flame, the perpetuator of the illusion of Britain being a ‘great power’.

Particularly in the early Cold War, MI6 was seen as a means of preserving influence even as economic and military might dissipated, much in the way James Bond could save the world with only a little help from his American friends. The secret world and its mythology helped sustain and shape the illusions of power. And the more self-aware observers of their own world describe the British Secret Service as characterised by a mixture of outward bravado and inner insecurity, perhaps like Britain itself.


Thrillers reflect the anxieties and preoccupations of their age and while Bond harks back to a still powerful Britain, the bleaker, more inward-looking world of John le Carré’s Smiley is also rooted in a slice of the truth. British intelligence’s darkest hour came in the 1960s when both MI5 and MI6 discovered that they were riddled with traitors and embarked on painful ‘molehunts’ (a term adopted from fiction) as the services looked inwards and colleagues wondered whether the man sitting next to them might be a traitor.

One officer, who walked down the winding paths that became known as the ‘wilderness of mirrors’, can still recall every step of following a colleague around London nearly half a century earlier, wondering if he was working for the other side. Paralysis ensued as clever men thought too much and the service did too little.

As the Cold War entered its final decade both faces of the service’s Janus-like personality were still evident. There was the cautious, careful intelligence gathering involved in running the enormously valuable agent Oleg Gordievsky, culminating in his daring but carefully planned escape from Moscow from under the watching eyes of the KGB.

And then there was the more vigorous campaign, reminiscent of the Great Game of Kipling’s day, in which teams infiltrated Afghanistan under cover to support the mujahedeen in their battle with the Soviets through the 1980s.

Oleg Gordievsky
Oleg Gordievsky


Another way of describing the dichotomy in the service’s personality was explained by one former officer who says that many of his colleagues could be divided into ‘Moscow Men’ – those who inhabited the shadows, glancing over their shoulder as they ran agents behind the Iron Curtain and carefully pieced together fragments of precious intelligence – and the ‘Camel Drivers’ – those whose preferred habitat was a tent out in the desert discussing with a sheikh, over tea, how stirring up the tribes and helping him in some small war might be of mutual benefit (an earthier description of this latter type was often deployed by in-house cynics which revolved around the officers doing something other than driving the camels). Like most stereotypes, it is truer in the abstract than in reality but still captures something of the two different sub-cultures within the service.

Critics would say there are good reasons why spies prefer to operate out of sight and feed off the reputation created by thrillers. A mystique has surrounded MI6. But is it justified? Beyond all the tales of derring-do and disguise, did it actually make any difference? Does dealing in deceit corrupt, and did it fuel mistrust during the Cold War? Or were the spies the final guarantor of peace during dangerous times?

In some cases, an individual spy has been crucial. Oleg Penkovsky’s intelligence contributed to defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis and Oleg Gordievsky helped London and Washington manage the end of the Cold War. But not everyone is convinced the reality matches the myth, and the end of the long struggle against Communism raised uncomfortable questions about whether the spies were really needed any more.

Moral hazards

The early 1990s saw a period of fundamental questioning of the need for the Secret Service of the past. And within its walls, those who favoured cautious intelligence gathering were challenged by modernisers who wanted a service which had impact and could show the rest of government its worth. After 11 September 2001, they would get their chance, but with results they could not have predicted.

The attack on the Twin Towers ended the debate about who the new enemy was and what intelligence was for, but it also thrust intelligence services on to difficult ethical terrain. Running agents inside terrorist networks involves all kinds of moral hazards, and so did working with allies, including one – the CIA – whose thirst for revenge led to it playing by different rules.

Justify a war

Protecting the public against terrorist attack made the work of intelligence agencies public in a manner never witnessed in the past, but what really opened up MI6 to controversy was the use of its intelligence to justify a war of choice. Iraq was the lowest moment for MI6 since the betrayal of Kim Philby. Its intelligence turned out to be wrong and the aftermath of the war a disaster. The myth came crashing against reality as MI6’s intelligence, on which a case for war was built, was shown to be dud.

A social compact of sorts once existed in which people accepted that it was best not to ask exactly what spies really got up to so long as it was understood they did not cross certain, largely unwritten lines.

But a willingness to accept that they might do bad or difficult things so that the rest of us purer souls could sleep easy in our beds at night has lost its hold.

Trust between the public and its spies is hard to earn

Modern notions of transparency and accountability now apply to spies, and revelations of past failures, whether in the early Cold War in the form of the traitors like Philby, or more recently with questions over intelligence on Iraq and allegations of complicity in torture, have eroded the willingness of the public to give spies a free pass.

Trust between the public and its spies is hard to earn but easy to lose at a time when the appetite for intelligence – whether on terrorist threats, nuclear proliferation or the actions of unpredictable states – remains as large as ever, as does the public’s fascination with the work of spies who produce it.

Realities of espionage

The stories of individuals – rather than institutions or the evolution of policy – lie at the heart of this book. The intention is to paint a picture of the realities of espionage by drawing on the first-hand accounts of those who have spied, lied and in some cases nearly died in service of the state, from the spymasters to the agents they ran and to their enemies.

By focusing on the interlocking narratives of a small number of individuals, the aim is to tease out the wider changes in British intelligence and also to explore the unique and personal relationships that lie behind human espionage – what Graham Greene called ‘the human factor’ – the motivations and loyalties that go to make up a spy or a traitor and the relationships that are coloured by their actions. And the truth is often more remarkable than the fiction. The story begins as our cast assembles among the ruins of Vienna after the war.

src. Gordon Corera’s “The Art of Betrayal” – an excellent read.

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