If you’d like some light relief to marvel (or groan) at the way MI5 was formed with the help of a novelist and the Daily Mail, to boggle at the eccentricity of the British Intelligence service, and to see why – for example – Mrs Thatcher gave up on the spies, read this blog post by film-maker Adam Curtis, excerpted below.
In one of his many examples of how unintelligent – and in fact downright hopeless – the so-called ‘intelligence services’ have been, he points out the way in which, at the end of the eighties, none of them predicted the collapse of communism.We could predict it – just as many of us believe we could have predicted the outcome of the Iraq war – but not them. How on earth was this possible? Curtis writes:
Mrs Thatcher’s advisor – Charles Powell – summed up the extraordinary failure:
“The biggest single failure of intelligence of that era was the failure of almost everybody to foresee the end of communism. It caught us completely on the hop. All that intelligence about their war-fighting capabilities was all very well, but it didn’t tell us the one thing we needed to know – that it was all about to collapse.
It was a colossal failure of the whole Western system of intelligence assessment and political judgement.”
But the real reason that the intelligence agencies didn’t predict the collapse of the Soviet system was because many of the people at the top of the agencies couldn’t believe it was true.
Sir Percy Cradock was one of the most powerful figure in the British establishment. He was the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee – which co-ordinated the activities of MI5, MI6 and other intelligence groups. Even at the end of the eighties when everyone else was realising that the Soviet Union was collapsing, Sir Percy remained convinced that this was all a trick. That the Soviet Union was still aiming for communist domination of the world.
Cradock – along with a number of others high up in the intelligence agencies – really believed that Gorbachev’s reforms were just a cunning ruse to deceive the West. And – as Mark Urban has pointed out in his book UK Eyes Alpha – Sir Percy used his position to make sure that this view dominated the Joint Intelligence Committee.
But as Urban also points out – Sir Percy and his allies had no secret evidence for this. They relied on what was pompously called “analysing open source data”. Otherwise known as reading the newspapers and watching TV. Except they interpreted that data in a mad way – driven by their own fevered imaginings of a world completely possessed by infinite levels of deception.
Mrs Thatcher realised this was bonkers – and she finally gave up on the spies.