Learning from the Secret Past

Cases in British Intelligence History

Robert Dover and Michael S. Goodman, Editors

"This is a book that any serious student of British intelligence activity will want to read and read again."
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Identifying “lessons learned” is not new—the military has been doing it for decades. However, members of the worldwide intelligence community have been slow to extract wider lessons gathered from the past and apply them to contemporary challenges. Learning from the Secret Past is a collection of ten carefully selected cases from post-World War II British intelligence history. Some of the cases include the Malayan Emergency, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Northern Ireland, and the lead up to the Iraq War. Each case, accompanied by authentic documents, illuminates important lessons that today's intelligence officers and policymakers—in Britain and elsewhere—should heed.

Written by former and current intelligence officers, high-ranking government officials, and scholars, the case studies in this book detail intelligence successes and failures, discuss effective structuring of the intelligence community, examine the effective use of intelligence in counterinsurgency, explore the ethical dilemmas and practical gains of interrogation, and highlight the value of human intelligence and the dangers of the politicization of intelligence. The lessons learned from this book stress the value of past experience and point the way toward running effective intelligence agencies in a democratic society.

Scholars and professionals worldwide who specialize in intelligence, defense and security studies, and international relations will find this book to be extremely valuable.

Table of Contents


Learning from the Secret Past
David Omand

Part I: The Organization and Oversight of Intelligence

1. The Post-War Organization of Intelligence: The January 1945 Report to the Joint Intelligence Committee on “The Intelligence Machine”
Michael Herman
Document: The Intelligence Machine

2. “A Formidable Power to Cause Trouble for the Government”? Intelligence Oversight and the Creation of the UK Intelligence and Security Committee
Peter Gill
Document: Intelligence Services Bill

Part II: Political Interference in Intelligence

3. The Scott Report: Intelligence and the Arms Trade
Robert Dover
Document: Matrix Churchill Ltd: Export Licence Applications for Iraq, September 25, 1989

4. Political Interference in the Intelligence Process: The Case of Iraqi WMD
Mark Phythian
Document: The Butler Report: Annex B: Intelligence Assessment and Presentation: From March to September 2002

Part III: Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism

5. Intelligence and Counterinsurgency: The Malayan Experience
Matthew Jones
Document: “The Special Branch Charter,” Directive No. 21, Director of Operations, Malaya, 24th April 1952

6. “A Skeleton in Our Cupboard”: British Interrogation Procedures in Northern Ireland
Richard J. Aldrich
Document6: Prisoner Handling in Interrogation Centres in Northern Ireland: Report by the Intelligence Coordinator

7. The Value and Limits of Experience in the Early Years of the Northern Ireland Troubles, 1969–1972
Eunan O’Halpin
Document: Visit by Secretary JIC to Northern Ireland, January 10-12, 1972

Part IV: Avoiding Surprise

8. Suez and the Threat to UK Interests Overseas
Gill Bennett
Document: The Threat to United Kingdom Interests Overseas, October 18, 1956

9. Oleg Penkovsky, British Intelligence, and the Cuban Missile Crisis
Len Scott
Document: "Cuba: Threat Posed By Soviet Missiles," October 26, 1962
Document: CIA Memo: Meeting No. 1 (London) at Mount Royal Hotel, April 20, 1961

10. Avoiding Surprise: The Nicoll Report and Intelligence Analysis
Michael S. Goodman
Document: "The Joint Intelligence Committee and Warning of Aggression," November 1981

11. Lessons Learned: What the History of British Intelligence Can Tell Us about the Future
Robert Dover and Michael S. Goodman




"The range of documents throughout the volume is impressive, including a parliamentary debate, Joint Intelligence Committee reports, a transcription of a secret meeting between agents and a military directive. By integrating these fascinating sources with perceptive historical analysis, this book makes a strong case for the desirability of studying the past."—International Affairs

"This is a book that any serious student of British intelligence activity will want to read and read again."—British Politics Group Newsletter

"Dover and Goodman have made a substantial and timely contribution to the American and British intelligence communities on aspects of the importance of creating a process to identify lessons learned, similar to the process used by the military, in spite of the difficulty of drawing lessons from intelligence because most successes go unreported due to the nature of the trade, and failures are analyzed by outsiders who must judge what they are not allowed to observe."—International Journal of Intelligence Ethics

"The contributions are uniformly excellent and the editors have done a fine job of organizing the volume. . . . The book is smartly divided into short, deeply researched chapters, all of which take an offical document for a centre-piece."—Intelligence and National Security

"All professions, maybe especially the intelligence profession, must be aware of and learn from their history. British Intelligence has been a major player throughout the past one hundred years. There are important lessons to be drawn from their varied experiences as set down in this often thought-provoking study."—Sir John Scarlett, former chairman of the British Joint Intelligence Committee and former chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)

"Learning from the Secret Past is an admirably executed combination of important case studies, apt primary-source material, and illuminating analysis. Each example has clear contemporary relevance and I commend the book to policymakers and scholars, as well as to anyone interested in the myriad significant ways intelligence has impinged on modern British history and politics."—Keith Jeffery, Queen's University Belfast, and author of MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service, 1909-1949


Richard J. Aldrich Gill Bennett Robert Dover Peter Gill Michael S. Goodman Michael Herman Matthew Jones Eunan O’Halpin David Omand Mark Phythian Len Scott

Supplemental Materials


About the Author

Robert Dover is a senior lecturer in international relations at Loughborough University (UK) and the author of The Europeanization of British Defence Policy, 1997-2005.

Michael S. Goodman is a senior lecturer in the Department of War Studies at King's College London, official historian of the Joint Intelligence Committee (UK), and author of Spying on the Nuclear Bear: Anglo-American Intelligence and the Soviet Bomb.

336 pp., 6 x 9
1 table
Nov 2011

336 pp., 6 x 9
1 table
ISBN: 978-1-58901-770-2
Nov 2011

336 pp.
1 table
ISBN: 978-1-58901-795-5
Nov 2011

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