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HARDLY THE ROMANTIC HERO

INTELLIGENCE IN WAR: KNOWLEDGE OF THE ENEMY FROM NAPOLEON TO AI-QAEDA By John Keegan, Alfred A. Knopf, $ 30

Most people have a romantic image of intelligence agents, thanks to Hollywood and novelists like Ian Fleming. This book by John Keegan, an eminent military historian, sets out to demolish this image replace it with a more sober picture.

Intelligence has never been decisive in a war, says Keegan. Often, intelligence inputs (even from premier ones like the MI 6 or CIA) are confusing and contradictory. It is the analysis of this raw data that is more important. Thrillers have a stock situation in which a spy risks his life to acquire and pass on information about enemy activities, thereby saving the world from disaster. Keegan claims that it is impossible for any one person to acquire top secret information and to hoodwink counter-intelligence agents a la James Bond.

For example, the controversial Cambridge spy ring, says Keegan, was inconsequential in reality. He also contends that Kim Philby had no access to secret information. He also blows the myth about how Richard Sorge eavesdropped on a conversation between the Japanese and German ambassadors in Tokyo, and tipped off Churchill who, in turn, warned Stalin about the impending Nazi attack. According to Keegan, neither did Sorge have such information nor could he contact Churchill.

Rather, it is the scientists and engineers who are more useful in gathering intelligence. Take the Polish mathematicians who broke the coded messages from Enigma, the German encrypting device, and passed it on to the British when the Nazis overran Poland. This helped British intelligence to make the Ultra so that they could know what orders Hitler had sent his field commanders.

But, warns Keegan, knowing is not enough. In mid-1941, British intelligence knew how many German divisions were preparing to invade Crete. But the superior air power of the Luftwaffe and the professionalism of the German paratroopers led to the British defeat. The Allies too knew about the strength of the panzer divisions and their area of deployment in France. But, in the end, “blood and guts” was needed to fight the Nazis on the beaches of Normandy.

Modern security analysts are full of the “revolution” in intelligence-gathering, of how satellite and sensor technologies have changed the nature of war. But according to Keegan, human analysis is no less important — despite the best photo imagery equipment, analytical insight is needed to distinguish a cloud from an experimental nuclear explosion.

A recent study reveals that the CIA recruited scientists, sociologists and historians to collect and analyse data. Keegan avers that this is the case throughout history. The strategic and geographical information Herodotus compiled helped Alexander invade the Persian Empire.

For Keegan, spies are only flesh and blood. And neither rich nor famous. It is those who write spy thrillers who are that.

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