Spence on Moran and Stout and Iordanou and Maddrell, 'Spy Chiefs: Intelligence Leaders in the United States and United Kingdom'

Author: 
Christopher Moran, Mark Stout, Ioanna Iordanou, Paul Maddrell, eds.
Reviewer: 
Richard Spence

Christopher Moran, Mark Stout, Ioanna Iordanou, Paul Maddrell, eds. Spy Chiefs: Intelligence Leaders in the United States and United Kingdom. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2018. Volume 1. 352 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62616-519-9.

Reviewed by Richard Spence (University of Idaho) Published on H-Diplo (August, 2018) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51890

Academic conferences beget panels, and academic panels frequently, maybe too frequently, beget books. Sometimes these volumes are superb, and occasionally they are lousy. Mostly they fall somewhere in between. Where does this one fall? We will save that for the end. Spy Chiefs “sprouted and budded” from a panel organized by Paul Maddrell at the 2014 International Studies Association conference in Toronto (p. xvii). This is volume 1, with volume 2 published in 2018 with the same editors. This one, as the title says, covers American and British intelligence chiefs; volume 2 covers Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Volume 1, as the title does not make plain, only covers spy chiefs since 1945. From the standpoint of the book, modern intelligence history begins with World War II. The historical focus is also heavily Cold War.

As a broth, Spy Chiefs has a lot of cooks. There are four editors, two of whom are also chapter authors, and thirteen other contributors. They are mostly academics in the fields of international studies and national and global security, but there are also Renaissance and German specialists, along with some past and present intelligence professionals and an independent researcher or two. The thirteen chapters are unequally divided between eight dealing with American and five with British chiefs. Furthermore, two of the chapters in the British section actually deal with fictional spy bosses in film, television, and popular literature. Why real and significant British intelligence figures such as Mansfield Smith-Cumming, Basil Thomson, or William Melville are ignored is a puzzle, except that they do not fit the post-World War II framework. The book is rounded out with a foreword, introduction, bibliography, short bios of contributors, index, and handy list of many abbreviations.

The basic aim of the volume is to explore what qualities make, or do not make, effective intelligence chiefs. The American chapters cover several of the “usual suspects,” such as “Wild Bill” Donovan, Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, and William Casey. Most concentrate on a particular, and presumably revealing, aspect or incident in their careers. For instance, Michael Graziano looks at staunch Roman Catholic Donovan’s cultivation of the Vatican as an intelligence asset and, more broadly, Donovan’s appreciation of religion as a force to be reckoned with and exploited. James Lockhart’s chapter on Dulles bores in on his obsession with unseating the leftist government of Guatemala and the part that played in shaping the Clandestine Service of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

However, other chapters take on lesser-known figures like John Grombach, Leslie Groves, and William Odom. Arguably, the most interesting selection is Mark Stout’s chapter on the pugnacious Grombach and his semi-private “Pond” organization, which briefly functioned as a rival to the much larger CIA. Also fascinating is Matthew Fay’s piece on “Atomic General” Groves. Besides overseeing the Manhattan Project, Groves tried to obtain an absolute monopoly over anything smacking of “atomic intelligence” in the postwar years. Fay faults Groves for creating a “culture of secrecy” that did more to harm than help effective intelligence gathering and analysis (p. 71). At the risk of nitpicking, the chapter inaccurately describes one of Groves’s key subordinates, Lieutenant Colonel Boris Pash, as a “Hungarian émigré” (p. 73). In fact, Pash was a White Russian, which gives some added weight to his concerns about Soviet penetration. Considering that the Manhattan Project became more or less riddled with Soviet spies, maybe Groves had good reason to be obsessive about compartmentalization and secrecy. There are also two chapters dealing with the oft-overlooked National Security Agency (NSA). Betsy Smoot and David Hatch provide an overview of NSA directors, and as their description makes clear, there have been a lot of them. Richard Aldrich focuses on one of them, “Intellectual Redneck” Lieutenant General Odom, who ran the agency from 1985 to 1988. Odom’s “dictatorial style” caused him to continually butt heads with NSA’s mostly civilian staff (p. 184).

The section on British spy chiefs is weaker both in the number of chapters and the subjects. Two of the chapters, Michael VanBlaricum’s exploration of the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s “M” and Joseph Oldham’s survey of fictional spy bosses in British fiction, television, and film are interesting but seem a lot like filler. To no real surprise, we eventually learn that the model for James Bond’s boss was Fleming’s wartime superior, Admiral John Godfrey. Oldham evokes fond memories of The Avengers (1961-69), Danger Man (Secret Agent to Americans) (1960-62, 1964-68), and Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68), which are low in realism and high in adolescent fantasy. John Le Carre’s gritty, grimly realistic novels and their film adaptations get short shrift. George Smiley deserves better. Oldham makes a good argument that fictional presentation of intelligence agencies and their “man behind the desk” have gradually shifted from “romantic” to more realistic portrayals (p. 283). He emphasizes the recent BBC series Spooks (MI5 in the US) (2002-11) as an example of the latter. Michael Goodman takes a look at Eric Welsh, a rough counterpart to Groves in the realm of atomic intelligence. Interestingly, Welsh believed that leaks in Groves’s organization were responsible for the Soviets getting the A-bomb. Like most of the figures in the book, Welsh had personal issues that impaired his effectiveness, in his case aloofness and alcoholism. By contrast, Danny Steed’s portrait of Patrick Dean, head of the little-known Joint Intelligence Committee, suggests a man who fundamentally lacked the backbone to assert himself or his agency. However, Rory Cormac’s examination of Winston Churchill’s MI6 spymaster, Sir Stewart Menzies, is a case study of a man who knew how to negotiate and exploit bureaucratic intrigue.

Maybe the biggest takeaway from the book is that since the Second World War, Anglo-American spy agencies and their leaders have been forced to adapt to increasing public visibility and scrutiny. This was a huge change from the days when agencies tried to avoid public exposure or, in the case of MI6, even tried to pretend that they did not exist. In the US, the turning point was the mid-1970s, when the CIA found itself under the congressional and media spotlight and when a former director, Richard Helms, was publicly convicted of lying to Congress. The result was that instead of trying to conceal the narrative, agencies focused on trying to control it. Or, as the editors argue in their conclusion, spy chiefs necessarily embraced “public engagement to promote a positive corporate image” (p. 302). Descending into jargon, they also conclude that spy chiefs must “construct and legitimize a sociopolitical context that is favorable to their vision and strategy” (p. 304). They further add, again to no great surprise, that “spy chiefs are only as successful as the relationships they build” (p. 305). As Andrew Hammond reveals in his selection, none of the spy chiefs discussed were more successful at managing this than Ronald Reagan’s CIA director William Casey.

However, another takeaway from this collection, which is never directly acknowledged, is the rampant egoism of most of its subjects. Throughout the book there is a heady mixture of guile, insecurity, and testosterone. If a single phrase is used to describe most of the men in these chapters, it would be “does not work well with others.” A short list of descriptors taken from various chapters include “combative and self-important,” “empire-builder,” “unwillingness to share,” “obsessively secretive,” “aggressive and divisive,” “acerbic and volatile,” and “adept at bureaucratic intrigue” (pp. 44, 80, 71, 113, 131, 185, 232). The uncharitable might argue that these add up to a pretty good portrait of a sociopath. Regardless, many of these spy chiefs spent as much time battling with domestic rivals as they did foreign enemies.

So we come back to the question presented at the start of this review: is this a great book or not? It is good but with limitations. First, the title is a bit misleading. The scope in terms of chronology and subject is not as large as one might expect. The coverage of the British end is weak. Many of the paths taken are well-trodden and there are no earth-shaking revelations about anything. The conclusions often seem quite obvious. All that said, the selections are well written and there are interesting details to be gleaned throughout. Anyone interested in modern intelligence history, especially Cold War history, will likely find the first volume of Spy Chiefs useful though not essential.

Citation: Richard Spence. Review of Moran, Christopher; Stout, Mark; Iordanou, Ioanna; Maddrell, Paul, eds., Spy Chiefs: Intelligence Leaders in the United States and United Kingdom. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. August, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51890

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