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On Intelligence

John Hughes-Wilson

Constable, March 3 2016

It does not take many pages for the reader to sense that Hughes-Wilson is an author on top of his subject. Chapter One  (“A Little History”) is a useful canter through the intelligence aspects of tussles from the Bible onwards. His underlying premise is that “Good intelligence helped make good decisions [in the Cuban Missile crisis]. Bad intelligence invariably leads to disaster, both political and military.”

 

Many of the first chapters read like undergraduate tutorials. One almost expects a multiple choice questionnaire at the end of each, to test one’s comprehension!  

 

The scope of the book is broad, and sometimes one wishes Hughes-Wilson went  into a little more depth.  He notes, almost in passing that in 1917, Haig’s senior intelligence officer, one Brigadier Charteris systemically withheld key intelligence from his superior. One would want to know more. An irritating facet of this book is that there are no footnotes, and the bibliography is relatively brief, so it is  difficult to go further into such assertions. On some other occasion the author goes  into too much detail – he appears obsessed with the Yom Kippur war, for example.  And sometimes he strays way beyond an intelligence remit. Yet overall this is a fascinating and absorbing tome.  He affirms that Martin Bormann was a Soviet spy (again more would have been welcome). Another little nugget is about the effect of Osama bin Laden’s family background on his psychology. Hughes-Wilson gives layers of evidence that Stalin was a very nasty egomaniac, a Soviet leader who had no qualms about shedding the blood of his people. (Some things never change…).

 

There is a comprehensive review of the US intelligence failings that led to the disaster that was Pearl Harbour; and the same rigor is applied to the same failings in the run-up to 9/11. It is almost as if the US security agencies had failed to read messages in neon in Times Square telling them of an airborne attack on choice mainland targets… Atta, one of the ‘pilots’, had actually overstayed his tourist visa, was known to be associating with known terrorists, yet was not pulled in.

 

There is a similar degree of dispassionate criticism levelled at the US and UK for the Iraq wars. Hughes-Wilson says, one assumes, much of what Chilcot might conclude, if only the latter had the cojones to publish his report!

 

One of the final episodes reviewed in the book is the attack on USS Liberty in 1967 by the Israelis in which 34 American sailors were killed, and more than a hundred wounded. The attitude of the US Government – to do as little as possible about it, and to hush up the affair, is absolutely craven, and is a damning indictment of the effect of the pro-Israel lobby in the US.

 

Hughes-Wilson is sufficiently conscientious as to read original source material; I know this to be the case because of his description in one episode of certain facts that I too have investigated for my next book. Overall this is a very impressive tome, which adds greatly to the knowledge of amateurs such as this reviewer. I would even call it entertaining, were not many of the sagas depicted unremittingly depressing, and countless deaths involved.