Intelligence at the End of Empire


Calder Walton, Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire, (New York: The Overlook Press, 2013).

The period of British decolonization and America’s present strategic situation are vastly different, of course, but in this way they are similar: they are both times of brushfire wars, terrorism, and political turmoil in which intelligence services have a major role to play. A new book makes the similarities very clear. Its author is Calder Walton, a promising young intelligence historian. He was a research assistant for Christopher Andrew while the latter was preparing his authorized history of Britain’s Security Service (MI5), Defend the Realm. This experience was doubtless excellent training for Walton to write his own book, Empire of Secrets. It views the process of decolonization during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s through the lens of British intelligence operations. Walton’s main message is that “one of the most important ways in which British governments prepared for, and smoothed, the end of colonial rule was with intelligence.” Throughout the book, however, the United States’ recent war on terror clearly looms large.

The main focus of the book is MI5, though various police Special Branches appear at important points, as well. MI5 is often described as Britain’s domestic intelligence agency. This was only partially true. Rather, it was the intelligence service responsible for covering the United Kingdom and its colonies on which for many years the sun literally never set. (See this interactive map of the British Empire over time). Therefore, while MI5 was best known for hunting Eastern Bloc spies, it was actually also deeply embroiled in counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and support to the political process of decolonization.

The book starts with a discussion of the early history of British intelligence and then its successes during World War II. This sets up a discussion of the Zionist terrorism that helped pave the way for the founding of the state of Israel. Walton makes clear that that at the end of WWII, MI5’s primary emphasis was not counterespionage but rather counterterrorism: fighting the terrorist activities of the Zionist groups the Irgun and the Lehi (also known as the Stern Gang). MI5 faced a problem that is familiar to American intelligence and law enforcement today. It was obliged to investigate Zionist terrorists without being perceived as investigating Jews (or even Zionists) generally. By and large, it seems to have succeeded.

Walton writes that MI5 had difficulty getting American support for the fight against the Irgun and Lehi. One of the only ways that MI5 could get substantial help from the FBI on the problem was by stressing the links that some senior Zionists had to communism and the Soviet Union. This tactic was ironic because it ran counter to MI5’s general view of the world. While many Western intelligence services have reputations these days of being reactionary organizations that see threats everywhere, MI5 was often a soothing voice. In particular, the period of decolonization was an era of surging communism in much of the developing world. As a result, it was all too easy to see the leaders of independence movements in the colonies as communists. However, time and again, MI5 was able to demonstrate that these leaders were not communists. Three such cases were Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, and Benjamin Azikiwe of Nigeria. In the cases of Nkrumah and Azikiwe, MI5 could be sure that they were not communists because it had tapped the phones of the Communist Party of Great Britain and thoroughly bugged its headquarters and thus were privy to the party’s disillusionment with the Africans. Whitehall didn’t always take MI5’s assurances to heart, however. In 1953, when much of the British government was convinced that Cheddi Jagan, the anti-colonial leader of British Guinea was a communist, MI5 stood firm in saying that he was not. The British government overthrew Jagan anyway. In general, however, these analyses probably prevented a slowing of the decolonization process and probably allowed for better relations between Britain and new post-colonial states.

MI5 had a presence in nearly all the colonies, created a common intelligence culture across much of the British Empire, and worked hard to create links to the leaders of the newly independent states. As a result, the agency was able to keep in place its security liaison officers (SLOs, in essence MI5 station chiefs) in almost all of the former colonies. The SLOs worked hard and usually successfully to create mutually beneficial intelligence relationships between the new governments and their former imperial overlords. On the negative side, Britain often left behind functioning security apparatuses that the new rulers sometimes used more to maintain their own power than to actually secure their societies.

In the various wars of decolonization, British security services, particularly the police Special Branches, made substantial use of “counter-gangs” or “pseudo-gangs” notably in Kenya, Palestine, Cyprus, and Malaya. These were enemy personnel who had been turned and formed into units and sent back into the field to gather intelligence and conduct raids. This tactic could be very effective but, as Walton notes, it also “produced an environment in which abuses could easily occur.” The repeated use of, and problems with, pseudo-gangs highlight another important point that Walton brings out: the British intelligence services, unlike the British military, had no mechanism for recording and promulgating lessons learned in the various wars of the period. Instead, MI5 and the Special Branches had to make it all up from scratch in each conflict with the inevitable inefficiencies, failures, and mistakes that happen in the steep part of the learning curve.

A strength of this book is that it does not shy away from showing that the British themselves were capable of conducting many of the same kind of aggressive operations that the United States has been criticized for since September 11. Walton notes that during WWII, for instance, British intelligence

… ran a top-secret process of detaining, interrogating and transporting enemy agents between various parts of the British empire.  At times this came close to being a form of state-sponsored kidnapping—closely resembling the process of “extraordinary rendition” employed by the US government.

He goes on to describe how suspected Nazi agents were interrogated at a place called Camp 020 where they were not physically tortured but they were “stripped, humiliated and disoriented…terrified by rows of barking dogs, confined to small solitary cells, [and] threatened with court-martial and execution.”  The British repeated this endeavor in Malaya and did even worse things in Kenya.

In fact, Empire of Secrets is the first book to draw on a vast trove of intelligence files that were smuggled away from 37 different British colonies “as the sun set on the empire” and hidden away at Hanslope Park, a Foreign Office facility in Buckinghamshire. The first 1,200 of some 8,800 files hidden there were only opened in April 2012. They contain some of the “darkest secrets of the last days of empire,” accounts of torture, shoot-to-kill policies, and the forcible relocation of peoples.

Walton sometimes tries to draw a distinction between the recent abusive actions carried out by American government agencies and the Cold War-era abuses of British entities. These arguments are ultimately not persuasive, as evidenced by the fact that the colonial authorities felt they needed to hide 8,800 files, not to mention the ones they destroyed before handing colonies over to their new rulers. Walton notes, for instance, that “enforcing discipline standards during interrogations, especially those conducted by personnel at the front line…was easier said than done.” This, of course, is precisely what the U.S. Department of Defense has said about the abuses at Abu Ghraib and on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Walton might have been on firmer ground in arguing that the British had their relevant experiences earlier than the Americans and thus could learn sooner, though, not that much sooner. As recently as the 1970s, Walton tells us, the British intelligence community approved a set of five techniques for use in interrogation of IRA suspects. They included stress positions and sleep deprivation and were only rescinded in the face of public uproar and an unfavorable ruling from the European Court of Human Rights.

The arguable double standard for American and British behaviors is not a serious objection to the book overall, however. Calder Walton has written a fine book from which students of intelligence, the Cold War, decolonization, and counterinsurgency can learn a great deal. He is now working as a barrister, but hopefully he will return to the field of intelligence history because this book is a real winner.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.


Photo credit: Brian Harrington Spier