Christopher Andrew on the lost history of global intelligence

Christopher Andrew (middle) signing copies of his new book "The Secret World: A History of Intelligence" on which his lectures were based.
Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Christopher Andrew, Emeritus Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Cambridge and former Official Historian of British Security Service MI5, delivered this year’s Stimson Lectures on World Affairs, a series of three lectures that took place over the course of the first week in November at the MacMillan Center. Known for his scholarship on the history of intelligence, he addressed the topic “The Lost History of Global Intelligence—and Why It Matters.” 

Throughout the three lectures, Andrew stressed a few overarching themes. He noted that although the strategic importance of signal intelligence (SIGINT) is commonly accepted, there is a surprisingly poor understanding of its history. “No WWII or post-WWII profession was as ignorant of its own history as the intelligence community,” he said, attributing this ignorance to the inherently clandestine nature of espionage operations. Because of its ignorance of its history, the intelligence community is unable to learn from past mistakes. Andrew said, “intelligence history is not linear… it sometimes goes backwards.” He also expressed frustration at how modern SIGINT is commonly seen as more advanced than SIGINT in history, using as an example the code-breaking superiority under Queen Elizabeth I compared to that of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In the first lecture (view), titled “How the Lead Role in Strategic Intelligence Passed from Asia to the West,” Andrew told the story of SIGINT’s decline during Ottoman rule, its importance in the East India Company, and the influences of Sun Tzu on SIGINT to this day. In early modern Europe, European intelligence was far behind that of its Asian counterparts. For example, Venetian codebreakers in the 16th century “had no idea their crucial break-through—the frequency principle—had been made six hundred years before in the Baghdad House of Wisdom in the 9th century.” Andrew noted that though the Ottoman Empire was a great power, it “despised intellectual innovation” and allowed neither Arabic printing presses nor embassies abroad until the 18th century, which greatly outdated their intelligence system and contributed to their eventual decline.

Andrew then observed that “18th-century British Intelligence acquired a major Asian dimension—due less to the government than to the East India Company.” As a result, in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, “the best practitioners [of intelligence] had actually learned their trade in India.” Andrew estimated the 20th century as when the West finally caught up with Asia. Andrew called SIGINT “an area in which it takes the West two millennia to catch up with some of the key work of the Confucian era,” referring to the works of Sun Tzu. He noted that the man who eventually helped the West “catch up” is Sir Vernon Kell, who also happens to be the first Western intelligence officer to read The Art of War.

In the second lecture (view) titled “The Strange History of American-British Intelligence Relations: from George Washington to Donald J. Trump,” Andrew described the special relationship between American and British intelligence agencies, which became especially close during the Second World War. During the war, Churchill commanded British intelligence to give Americans unprecedented access to intelligence information. The special relationship endured even after the war, through the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War. 

Andrew called the 1946 UK-USA Agreement on Signal intelligence “the most important alliance in the history of intelligence” since the Second World War. Regarding the current intelligence relationship under the Trump administration, Andrew said it was a “short-term deviation which was unimaginable a few years ago.”

The third and final lecture (view) focused on “Russian Intelligence Operations and the West: from Tsar Nicholas II to Vladimir Putin.” Andrew described Russia’s superior SIGINT under Tzar Nicholas II, the failures of Lenin’s Cheka, the “culture of assassination” under Stalin and Dzerzhinsky, and Putin’s “obsession with Russian intelligence history.”

He also discussed Russian espionage operations abroad, including the “Magnificent Five,” a group of young University of Cambridge graduates recruited in the mid-1930s. During the same period, all 23 of the Russian students who attended MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, were reporting to Russian intelligence.

Andrew noted that Putin “likes to take us by surprise,” which sometimes includes information about Russian agents that was previously unknown. For example, in 2007 Putin posthumously gave the title of “Hero of Russia” to Zhorzh Koval, a Russian military intelligence agent that infiltrated the Manhattan project, a research and development undertaking during World War II that produced the first nuclear weapons. It was led by the United States with the support of the United Kingdom and Canada. Until then, Western scholars had no idea about the extent of Russian penetration into the project.

Regarding the possibility of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, Andrew said “broadly speaking, the KGB never saw an election it didn’t want to influence.” He pointed out that while Russian forgeries during the Reagan era had little impact on elections, the difference is now the presence of a “combination of a traditional Russian intelligence obsession combined with social media.”

Sponsored by the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale, the Stimson lectures are funded by an anonymous donor in honor of Henry L. Stimson, a Yale College alumnus and U.S. statesman who served as Secretary of War during World World II.   


Written by Julia Ding.