The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book review

The Second Oldest Profession

  • THE SECOND OLDEST PROFESSION: SPIES AND SPYING IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, by Phillip Knightley. New York: Penguin Books edition, 1988; xii, 436 pp., photographs and index, $7.95, ISBN 0-14-010655-3.

Reviewed by James J. Martin

People over-impressed by spies and espionage are fond of quoting the observation attributed to Napoleon that a spy “in the right place” is worth 20,000 soldiers on the battlefield. At Waterloo, Napoleon could have used 100,000 more armed men and five fewer spies. Even earlier, when he faced Imperial Russia as an adversary, Napoleon did not get anywhere near his money’s worth from spies, if anything at all, and they had the loveliest of situations for espionage agents: the Czar’s intelligence service transmitted its communications in the language of the enemy, the French Nevertheless, the catastrophe of 1812 was not averted. Apparently the failure to conquer Russia was another case of the spies not being in the “right place.”

These reflections have been inspired by contemplating some of the implications of Phillip Knightley’s new book on the occupation or enterprise of intelligence-gathering, though he has chosen to concentrate on the history of this endeavor for mainly the last 75 years. Those whose first encounter with the author was his book The First Casualty (1975), which.dealt so engagingly and informatively with the phenomenon we call the war correspondent, will find here the same genial style and feeling for narrative, the same sure competence in mustering his sources, and the same no-nonsense direct and unevasive judgments and conclusions.

We have long been entertained by a vast number of fictional yarns and allegedly “real” accounts about spies and intelligence operations in which the activity is enhanced by clever devices into an occupation of the highest exciting romantic nature. And its operatives invariably emerge as heroes and role models of the most stunning sort, the fictional ones maybe more glamorous than the “real life” figures; Ian Fleming’s James Bond, whose novels and films have entertained many millions, is probably the most memorable of a stream of such creations.

But a large number of the real life spies reported by Knightley are a sordid and commonplace lot, a surprisingly large number of them not very bright, few imaginative, and in the main surprisingly unproductive. If their supply of useful secret information about whomever they are supposed to report on were compared to the output of farmers, and was as crucial to human survival, the race would have died of starvation long ago. And what is specially depressing to those brought up on the glamor of film characters such as Double-O Seven and Matt Helm, as well as several other attractive sleuths in espionage in many war thrillers, the people Knightley parades by us lack most of the drama and mystery, let alone the good looks, one gets to expect of such actors. Even Mata Hari really comes down to a kind of humdrum-looking lass one can see many superior to on almost any afternoon at the shopping mall. If most of the characters populating The Second Oldest Profession had been recruited for what we call “show-biz,” one might think many suitable to play extras in the comedies of Ben Turpin or W. C. Fields, or as inept bit players in the short-subjects buffooneries of Clark & McCullough.

It appears to this reviewer that Knightley has two main points to make: 1) spies and spying have been gravely exaggerated over the last 75 years and the total record of their production has been extremely modest, if indeed measurable, in many instances, and 2) there is an inverse relationship between production and effectiveness on the one hand, and growth in an almost exponential manner in terms of money, personnel, budgets and spread of activity on the other, especially in the last 40 years, and increasingly so by the decade.

Knightley’s drastic assessment of the various intelligence establishments in the two World Wars will be of primary interest to Revisionists, no doubt. This will be especially true for those who long ago grew weary of the constant gasbags turning out the gee-what-a-great-job-we-did espionage books, either by self-serving memoir-production factories or by people who are hardly anything but promotional flacks seeking to gild the reputation of various administrative paradises, hopeful of sustaining expanding demands for more personnel and more money, usually to produce less of what they are hired to locate.

Knightley is convinced that espionage systems are becoming better than ever, however, in one department exposing and penetrating one another and reducing relative effectiveness to the point where they might as well stay home and use the national library facilities in a thorough manner, which might result in the accumulation of far more information of a useful sort about their adversaries than they ever accumulate through cloak-and-dagger adventures wandering about in one another’s country, let alone what can be learned right at home through electronic interception and surveillance systems and the ever-increasing efficiency of satellite photographic snooping operations.

For those unfamiliar with the author, it should be understood that Mr. Knightley is a British citizen residing in London, and that his book, like David Irving’s recent biography of Sir Winston Churchill is obviously directed first of all to citizens of the United Kingdom and other parts of the world populated by descendants of those who created the British Empire. Thus there is some neglect of various areas in the subject peculiar to American concerns, though there is compensation for this in the closing chapters, where much attention is directed to a percipient overview of the CIA and the intelligence history of the last four decades. Another area examined in considerable detail along with this, but probably never detailed enough for- Britons, is the astounding circumstances involving and surrounding the string of prominent British intelligence figures who have defected to the Soviet Union since the end of World War Two (most of chapters 12, 13 and 14).

Knightley might have made his book even more useful and informative if he had added two chapters, the first on the immensely complicated electronic intelligence communications involving half a dozen powers in the year and a half or so prior to the outbreak of general war in the Pacific in 1941 with the Pearl Harbor debacle (it would be very interesting to learn what Britain and Australia really knew about the entire Purple-Magic business, after all the hinting over the years), and the second on a totally neglected sector, the operations of Israel’s Mossad, with its worldwide spread of activities in half the countries of the world, it seems, in the last quarter of a century. And he should have spared us running by the Tricycle/Dusko Popov stuff and its fake omniscience concerning Japanese political and martial planning. Popov knew about as much about all that and the American situation in Hawaii as he knew about the traffic in contraband paprika on the Danube, though his German contacts knew less. Why major books on Pearl Harbor of the last dozen years even bother to mention him is a puzzler, though one or two have really dismantled him.

Knightley may also be quarreled with for his boosting Richard Sorge as an espionage giant. For a man who could not even read Japanese he surely was a strange character to head up such an important and sensitive station as Red intelligence in Tokyo in the critical period ending with the precipitation of the Pacific War.

Sorge’s fame rests on one key fortunate encounter: the liaison he made with the really significant figure in it all, Hotsumi Ozaki, the remarkable Japanese Communist who infiltrated right into the cabinet of the Japanese government. Without Ozaki, Sorge would have been lucky to report the changing of the seasons in Japan back to Moscow correctly.

The Second Oldest Profession gets off to a modestly paced start since there were no national intelligence organizations in existence even in vestigial shape before 1909, and that of the British, begun that year, was essentially little more than a shadow of what its innovators hoped would take shape. Intelligence in the First World War was primitive and probably comparable to what might have been recognizable a century before, except for the innovation of radio. Despite it all there were gargantuan reputations made in these times, but many were expert liars of several varieties, some of whom might have been more at home as vaudeville and circus performers, if one can believe their described idiosyncrasies. How most of them could ever have functioned as collectors of secret information useful to their home countries is not understandable. Knightley explodes a few of these pretentious frauds, and also does some puncturing of spy years involving cases which stubbornly remain as part of our cultural heritage regardless of what is done decade after decade to reduce them to proper dimensions.

The fakers of espionage drama and romance have always had a field day with Mata Hari, an alleged Javanese exotic dancer, but in actuality a passably attractive woman of Dutch ancestry named Margareta Gertruda Zelle, who had lived in Java a few years (Java was a Dutch colony in those times.) Forty-one years old at the time she was arrested in Paris by the French for allegedly spying for the Germans in 1917 (Knightley courteously concedes she was “far from beautiful"), she was tried and shot as a spy by the French (who demonstated some arrogance in executing a female civilian of a neutral country). But no one ever established that she ever found out anything for anyone; Knightley concludes after looking at all the important accounts of it all carefully, “there was not a shred of evidence that Mata Hari had ever given the Germans any information at all, a fact that the French finally admitted in 1932” (the French historian Paul Allard in 1933 declared he had read everything ever published about the case and admitted that not only did he not know in the slightest what she was supposed to have done but that he had never met another Frenchman who knew a thing about that business either).

Another celebrated World War I espionage tale which has produced an immense literature concerned the Austrian soldier, Col. Alfred Redl, who allegedly supplied the Imperial Russian forces with much important information, which supposedly contributed heavily to Austrian military setbacks at Russian hands early in the war which began in August, 1914. Knightley’s re-study revealed nothing of the kind. He found that the chief of Austrian intelligence had flatly admitted that the lack of success stemmed entirely from “military deficiencies” of the Austrian forces, while the Russian Army High Command considered Col. Redl a liability instead of an asset, and had summarily categorized what information received from him as obsolete even before the war had started.

Of maior interest to those concerned primarily with the war of 1939-1945 are chapters 8 and 10, which deal respectively with the famed British electronic surveillance apparatus credited with deciphering the German Ultra code system, and the first American central intelligence system, the ancestor of the CIA organization, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Knightley finds the reputations of both grievously inflated, if not terminally bloated into unrecognisability. By the time he gets through with them, various of their claims are discounted drastically.

Part of Knightley’s interest in cutting the Ultra booster crowd down to size stems from the rise of a new historical industry within the Establishment, which originated about a dozen years ago after the publication of The Ultra Secret by Frederick Winterbotham in 1974 after it had been sat on officially for 30 years. This was followed by half a dozen other books, which, for the first time, exploited the concentrated enterprise based outside London at Bletchley Park. This operation became so attractive as a result of this now permitted publicity that a new kind of Establishment historical revisionism developed, characterized by the likes of Ronald Lewin’s Ultra Goes to War. The consequence of this and related revisions was that the military commanders, so glorified in past accounts, were downgraded and the special information supplied by the Ultra- crackers at Bletchley Park was not only credited with making success in the field possible, but elevated to the top height of glitter.

These accounts come out gravely reduced as a result of Knightley’s pursuit of this new round of glamorizing of intelligence-gathering in another form. He is inexact and not too clear in dealing with the analog of all this in the Pacific theater, but extremely cogent concerning the scene in Europe. Chapter 8 deserves slow and concentrated reading, and can hardly be more than outlined here. One of the persuasive lines of Ultra-pushers is that their work permitted British and American commanders (there is little if any evidence Ultra was shared with Stalin, though the Soviets may have had their own Ultra-crackers, as they were smart enough to break several British ciphers during the war) to have access to the most secret thoughts and plans of the Germans. In view of the number of spectacular disasters suffered from Dunkirk to Dieppe to North Africa to Arnhem to the Bulge the “Allied” leaders were not reading all this wondrous information too carefully, it would seem. But the whole yarn has little foundation anyway.

Knightley discovered that somewhere around 70% of German communications were not sent electronically in the first place. The use of teleprinters, special telephones, various surface cable systems, and other “landlines,” immune from electronic interception, let alone the use of motor vehicle and motorcycle couriers, regular telephone, even pigeons and dogs, scrambles the legend of electronic compromising of all German communications. Sometimes two different modes were used for the same message: the question might go by regular postal telegraph, the answer, intercepted in Britain, by radio. But — the interceptors only had the answer, and had not the slightest idea what the question was.

Knightley further makes hash out of the yarn that Churchill permitted the bombing of Coventry to take place in order to conceal from the Germans that the British had cracked Ultra (and deciphered it via the Enigma machine, the analogs respectively of Purple and the Magic machine in the Pacific theater.) And he further demonstrates that the Germans were not fooled by some intelligence strategy about the time and place of the Normandy landings in June, 1944. (What the Germans could not cope with was holding off the legions of Western — supplied Stalin in the East and those of Eisenhower and Montgomery in the West simultaneously.)

“Ultra made a significant contribution to the war effort in a few fields only, and little or none in others,” Knightley concludes, “it did not win the war and it is doubtful if it even shortened it.” He goes on to drive in the final spike: “The combination of a long-held wartime secret and the ability of articulate people to tell the story behind that secret once they were free to do so, has given Ultra an importance in intelligence history that it does not deserve.” And to make matters even more sober, Knightley quoted from another specialist on it all (p. 155), who declared bluntly, “for at least half the war poor British codes and ciphers probably gave away as much as was gained.”

[It is very probable that most code books are stolen, then copied and returned, (to prevent suspicion and thereupon rewriting or replacement), discovered in battlefield debris, salvaged from an adversary’s crashed aircraft or wrecked ship, or recovered from a sunken submarine. The real geniuses in electronic surveillance counter-intelligence are those who crack the ciphers in which coded messages are sent. Even people who should know better use the words “code” and “cipher” as though they were interchangeable or synonyms. The late Adm. Edwin T. Layton, chief intelligence officer of the U.S. Pacific Fleet for some time, once briefly distinguished between the two by summarizing it this way: encoding changes the text of a plain-language message by substituting “idea for idea,” and enciphering after encoding changes the message again by substituting “letter by letter."]

The chapter on the OSS is complicated, and deserves more than one reading because it deals with more than this subject. Included in it is an expert deflation of the entire “fifth column” fantasy which attributed German military success in Norway, Denmark and Holland in 1940 to traitorous behavior by their nationals and collaboration with a multitude of infiltrated German spies and saboteurs. In the course of his analysis Knightley also brings in on the subject such experts as the British and Dutch historians, A.J.P. Taylor and Louis de Jong, respectively, the former describing the fifth column hysteria as “the product of panic-stricken imaginations,” and the latter after much study concluding that it was aalmost entirely mythical.” (But even shortly after the whole lie was spread across the world 48 years ago, one of the major liars, the American journalist Leland Stowe, admitted in Sweden that he had made up much of what he had broadcast about it all. However, it survives in popular legend to this day and gets repeated regularly by the fairy-tale peddlers.)

The origins of the OSS as told here have been dealt with in five other books on the subject read by this reviewer, but there is in this account an expert analysis of the global strategy underlying its creation and what it was expected to accomplish which stands out. Obviously many military men were repelled and angered by the planting in their midst of a collection of untrained amateurs with no proven skills in intelligence work whatever, and in the middle of a war, to boot; Gen. MacArthur would not permit them to work in his sector of the Pacific theater of operations, for example.

But what was the quality of the recruits for British counter- intelligence? Knightley quotes the Establishment historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, himself in this service for a time, on the pre-1939 class: they “were by and large pretty stupid, and some of them very stupid” (p. 87), with the leaders being of remarkable stupidity” (p. 113). In the case of SOE (Special Operations Executive), the British World War Two apparatus which became entangled in a mixture of intelligence and “covert operations” (sabotage and “destabilization” capers of varying sorts), Knightley described “many” of its agents simply as “politically illiterate.” (This was the operation from which Ian Fleming, another wartime British intelligence chief himself, drew the material which later culminated in his James Bond creations.)

From the story of recruiting and training British agents emerges another engaging anecdote. What was to be done with those who failed to make the grade as agents and operatives? They obviously shared a great many secrets with the successful, and had to be kept silent. The chances of their becoming indiscreet, compromised or blackmailed into disastrous revelations had to be effectively blocked. A posh special detention center was created for them in Scotland, Knightley tells us, and a policy of lying was adopted, denying the detainees ever existed and concealing all traces of their whereabouts from everyone, including close relatives. In harmony with the institutional policy of “once in, never out,” they enjoyed the questionable limbo in which they were cast “for the duration.” But despite the close supervision of their overall confinement, the author reports that they passed the rest of the war “in considerable comfort.” Scraps of information as to this exotic event began to get around in the 1970s and the whole thing eventually became, among other things, the inspiration for one of television’s most successful and intelligent series, The Prisoner, starring the actor Patrick MacGoohan (even this writer, who generally charges a stiff fee for watching 99% of TV, confesses to haveing seen with great interest every episode of this show).

In the course of Knightley’s recruitment discussion he relates a number of double-agent stories, but one in particular stands out. In the chapter “Cross and Double-Cross,” Knightley mentions a British intelligence attempt to recruit a waiter on the Taurus express train running between Istanbul and Baghdad who turned out to be a major in the Turkish army, already in the employ of four other countries besides his own.

Getting on to the matter of wartime “cooperation” of the Anglo-American intelligence systems, it is in view of Churchill’s conception of the European war and how “victory” might eventuate that we begin to understand how this American organization (OSS) was expected to work closely with prior-organized British agencies, and hopefully perform a vital function. An innovation in the structuring of the OSS, however, is critical, and of considerable impact as it evolved after the war into the CIA. As has been noted in another context (recruiting), the British always separated intelligence-gathering from “covert operations,” a euphemism covering assassinations, sabotage and other forms of expected destructive “destabilization” of the enemy’s countryside. The British intelligence and counter-intelligence operations MI5 and MI6 (SIS) did not engage in the latter excursions; for that purpose they had separate functionaries, SOE (Special Operations Executive.) The OSS was supposed to work with SOE, but as Knightley demonstates, they often worked at cross purposes in several areas and frequently against one another. Assigned both intelligence-gathering and sabotage objectives, the OSS mainly failed to achieve much of anything in either, in his view. (In-house official histories and accounts by their functionaries present a somewhat different picture of the OSS, of course, but they are tedious reading. In one of a set of two big sleep-producing volumes bearing introductions by their chief historian, Kermit Roosevelt, there is the revelation that they infiltrated an OSS agent into the prisoner population of the German concentration camp at Mauthausen, an interesting diversionary caper which apparently resulted in no exploitation of the achievement whatever.)

How the arts of sabotage via covert operations in cooperation with internal “resistance” elements on the Continent were supposed to be so effective in the war, as per Churchill’s idea of “setting Europe ablaze,” is succinctly stated by Knightley (p. 216):

… this was based upon the perception that Britain could not survive another war of attrition on the battle plains of Europe. Instead, Germany would be softened up by an economic blockade, strategic bombing, propaganda and subversive warfare. Then, at the right moment, resistance forces in the Occupied Countries, supplied and trained by Britain, would rise and attack the Germans as a prelude to an invasion, probably from the south, the soft underbelly of Europe.

Knightley described this Churchillian vision, to which the OSS became inescapably bound, as “almost totally illusory.” But the whole idea fit in well with the romantic notions of OSS first head and founding father, William J. Donovan, who luxuriated in the imagery of shadow warfare, secret missions, intrigue and the whole spectrum of covert cloak and dagger business. Despite the bulky productions of a platoon of flacks, it would be good to see some evidence of what conflagrations they caused in following Churchill’s exhortation “to set Europe ablaze.”

It would be hard to be less impressed by the “covert operations” aspect of Anglo-American intelligence than Knightley is; he thought the SOE-OSS actions largely ineffective and in many ways little better than imbecilic, utterly ignorant of European continental demographic, political and economic realities, and also, as a result of the two organizations' mutual jealousies and spite, mutually destructive (there are few books with a darker estimate of the futility of the “resistance” than this one, in many ways approximating the somber views of the late Captain Basil H. Liddell Hart on it all 40 years ago). Knightley cites another prominent British wartime intelligence officer, not a member of either the OSS or SOE, whose estimate of it from an intelligence point of view was fully as critical (p. 210): “The Americans had no intelligence service to speak of. OSS was an exact parallel of SOE, drawing on the ethnic dregs of America for skill in languages and knowledge of foreign countries. Their security was non-existent, but they were in constant liaison with SIS and SOE. Thus our security was bitched one remove."*

Knightley is simultaneously spellbound and appalled by the contemporary situation in the world international intelligence business, where he sees a new type of spy has emerged, one who spies on everybody. But more impressive is the immense scope of it all, in which an estimated million and a quarter people in spy organizations spend over $35 billion annually, producing a stock of information only trifling in value when ranged against the investment.

The growth industry in major intelligence departments of the super-powers in the last generation or so has been uncovering the penetration of their various services by agents or “moles” of their opposition. A large literature already exists on these excursions and they have become a standard theme for movies and TV shows. And a subsidiary activity has been the “defection game,” as Knightley titles his Chapter 13 on it, in which the British have been especially prominent The world has been regaled by one bestseller after another on the famed Burgess-Philby-Maclean-Blunt-Blake dramatis personae, and others, let alone further speculations of possible “moles” left behind still burrowed into the system somewhere, a nightmare which flashes past the consciousness of superiors in intelligence services everywhere. Those who may have read the two books by Chapman Pincher and that by Peter Wright and their views on the possibility of the late Sir Roger Hollis, former head of MI6, being the “fifth man” filling out the Burgess-Philby-Maclean-Blunt coterie of Comintern-recruited insiders, will note that Knightley has disagreements with both on this still undecided controversy. (Reference is to the reputed tactic of the Comintern to recruit cells of five persons among Communist helpers of Stalinism in other countries.)

He further has some disquieting observations about “double-agents” and the possibility of defectees really being undercover invaders of the espionage system of the land to which they are “defecting,” being on assignment seeking to learn from their newly adopted land of allegiance who their in-place men are in the falsely deserted former homeland. As Knightley goes on to say at various points, it all becomes an endless game carried on among the intelligence-espionage establishments aimed at one another, sopping up much of their energies and leaving leftover time and shreds of intellect to fulfill the job for which they were put to work on to start with.

The intelligence “community” loves to cooperate in narratives which purport to establish that the outcome of this or that war or campaign was fundamentally determined by the contribution of covert espionage and the divulgation of “secrets” enabling this or that success or insuring this or that failure as the case may be. What you get from Knightley is quite the reverse: that military success or failure derives from preponderance or deficiency in men, guns, machines, tanks, ships, planes, a substantial modicum of luck, and the proceeds from what might be called the steady evolution of the fortunes of war, and that the contribution of spying regardless of the diverse variations thereof which might be employed, is pretty modest, if at all measurable. As he concludes, “when not deep in their fantasy world, the intelligence community knows that open, published information, and that obtained through traditional diplomatic and other overt contacts, have proved this century by far the most useful source of military, political and economic intelligence for both sides,” ending up by quoting Harry Rositzke, a senior officer in the CIA’s Soviet block section at one time, as to where he would rank the role played by spying in the above categories, who frankly declared, “It’s way down there.”

The chances are high that those reading this book with care will find that their conceptions of spying and espionage will never ever be the same again. The famed writer of spy thrillers, John Le Carré, has recommended it to heads of state, but it is a chance for one and all as well, as Le Carré suggests to “discover what imbecilities are committed in the hallowed name of intelligence.”

* Among a considerable number of well-known events of this century which are brought up once more in this book, this time with special relationship to intelligence or counter-espionage considerations, is the famed flight of Rudolf Hess from Germany to Scotland in the spring of 1941, on which we all know there is an incredible literature. Knightley believes it worthy of rumination as to whether Hess was invited to come to Britain by a substantial faction interested in ending the war with the Germans, and the quarantine imposed on him by Churchill made imperative by the danger this visit presented to the Churchill regime’s policy and relationship with Stalinist Russia. Knightley notes that no British counter-intelligence officer whatever, regardless of rank, influence or prestige, was allowed anywhere near Hess, let alone be permitted to talk to him.

Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 359-369.