Intelligence, according to the historian and security services specialist Christopher Andrew, suffers more from short termism than any other line of work.
Indeed, speaking at the UEA Literary Festival, the emeritus professor of modern and contemporary history at the University of Cambridge compared intelligence officers to economists who had not heard of the industrial revolution.
Most of them, he indicated, had little or no knowledge of key episodes in the history of their profession. Because intelligence is secret, much of its history has been secret too, even to those who work in the field.
Andrew, though, has uncovered much of interest in the history of the security services for his numerous lengthy books, one of which is the official history of MI5.
Yet the 77-year-old, the first guest at the Autumn 2018 iteration of the festival, was not just talking history during his discussion with Professor Christopher Bigsby.
Instead, he began by giving his views on a present-day episode involving the security services: the attempt this year by operatives from Moscow to kill the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal.
As the media have reported in great detail, Skripal and his daughter Yulia fell ill after being poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury. They survived, but several months later a woman with no links to the case, Dawn Sturgess, was exposed to Novichok and died.
The apparent bungling of the attempt to kill Skripal – not only did he survive, but the Russian operatives sent to kill him were picked up countless times on CCTV – should not come as a surprise, according to Andrew.
He said that any look back through recent history showed that large intelligence organisations were less than able when it came to assassinations.
“Just about everybody in this hall will have heard stories about how incredibly inept the CIA was when it came to think about intelligence,” he said.
“They went through a brief period when they decided they wanted to assassinate [Fidel] Castro [the late former Cuban leader]. They were so inept.
“They got in touch with the mob because at least the mob could do assassinations. These were professionals; the CIA were rank amateurs.
“Why should it be so difficult to understand the KGB could be equally incompetent?”
Andrew described the two operatives sent to Salisbury as “professional assassins”, but not ones used to carrying out killings in Western Europe.
“They had just done it in areas that were easier to operate in – Afghanistan and places closer to the Soviet Union,” he said.
“The business of assassinating somebody in Salisbury is quite different to assassinating someone in Afghanistan.”
Andrew gave short shrift to the idea that this and other similar events – notably the 2006 killing of Alexander Litvinenko, which saw a trail of polonium left behind – had deliberately been made to look amateurish. He said there had been a decades-long history of bungling.
While Andrew saw much incompetence in the Russian and American intelligence services, one state that he said had always been good at carrying out targeted killings was Israel.
“The Israeli point of view is that … the only way that they, as a very small state, have been able to defend themselves is by assassinating terrorists. They’ve been astonishingly successful. They’re the professionals. The KGB was never in that class,” he said.
One broadly successful episode in the history of the British security services was the effort by codebreakers at Bletchley Park to intercept communications sent by the Axis Powers during the Second World War. Andrew, whose books include, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5, said that their contribution was nothing if not significant.
“It didn’t determine the outcome of the Second World War, but it sure as hell shortened it. If it hadn’t been shortened, the Americans would’ve used the first atomic bomb for the purposes they had intended: drop it on Berlin. But Berlin had already fallen,” he said.
Also on the subject of the Second World War, Andrew praised Boris Johnson’s book The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History for identifying Churchill’s ability to interpret information from by the security services.
“Churchill understood how to use intelligence, not perfectly, but better than anyone else in British history, or world history after World War II,” he said.