The Impact of Intelligence on Policy

Anthony Glees
The Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies, University of Buckingham, U.K.


To research, for oneself and at one's very own desk, some of the most compelling archival evidence of Britain's wartime intelligence-led policies will extend exponentially the opportunities for exploring intelligence history at both postgraduate and undergraduate levels. Even a decade ago the very idea would have been unthinkable. Intelligence (as it is defined in the U.K.) is always secret information, secretly obtained and secretly exploited. Successive British governments had done their best to keep it that way (at any rate until the turn of the twenty-first century).

Now, Secret Files from World Wars to Cold War makes it possible for students to see, precisely, how intelligence shaped Second World War and Cold War policy and even make new discoveries that could reframe our understanding of this most critical period in twentieth-century history.

The academic study of intelligence

The academic study of intelligence during this period, and of its role in Britain's national and international policymaking, is a relatively new field. It relied initially on a very few official histories, most notably the five volumes by F. H. Hinsley and others, published in 1979, 1981, 1984, 1988 and 1990 (but often not easy to penetrate); on unofficial histories mostly written by ex-officers (accounts which governments had usually tried to suppress); on what was initially very scant documentary evidence of intelligence in The National Archives, U.K. (included occasionally in files of non-secret institutions); and, finally, of course, on witness testimony of secret activity (with all the problems of reliability that accompany this particular resource).

Yet authentic flashes of new information were few and far between even if they were sometimes dramatic. One study written by an ex-MI5 officer and Oxford academic in 1972 described the role played by MI5 (Security Service) in uncovering all the German agents operating against Britain and turning them into double-agents for Britain, to be used with success against Germany; another in 1974, F. W. Winterbotham, a former RAF officer, revealed the then closely guarded secret of Bletchley Park and some of its codebreaking work. Slowly but surely progress was being made to reveal what was more than once referred to as the "missing dimension" to government policy (the phrase was Sir Alec Cadogan's; he had been a senior diplomat during the war and he had used it to explain how knowing the intelligence input into a policy could make it intelligible to the skeptical historian). In 1987 the former MI5 officer, Peter Wright, published his memoir of counter-espionage work against Communist infiltration in Britain. His work also broke new ground.

The study of intelligence today

The landscape is rather different today.

In 1989 for the first time the government acknowledged the existence of a Security Service (MI5); in 1994 it did the same in respect of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) also known as MI6 and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Today not only have more documents been released into The National Archives (and from there into this collection) but two of Britain's three most important secret agencies, MI5 and MI6 (or SIS) have published authorized (but not official) histories of themselves. We also now have an official history of the Joint Intelligence Committee (the JIC) and a book of selected JIC documents. GCHQ still lacks an authorized history, however, and seems unlikely to receive one for some considerable time.

However, all these histories, valuable though they are in their own ways, are authored narratives (in the case of the authorized histories of MI5 and MI6 they are single authored). They reflect the concerns of those who wrote them and all have their lacunae and flaws. Details, perhaps of great significance, will have been excluded; authors may have chased their own particular concerns. In short, whilst many large issues may get an airing, minor ones remain unexplored or unreported, and out of minor questions, whole new interpretations could emerge. Easy access to these files will address many of the problems associated with such histories. Intelligence inputs are quite different from diplomatic inputs: they are snapshots, always (in the U.K.) derived from secret sources, secretly obtained and secretly exploited. As such, the documentary trail left by intelligence can be very short and unlike diplomacy in this respect too. Now, students of this period will not only be able to explore the intelligence details associated with the "known unknowns" but also search for previously "unknown unknowns."

The period that these files cover sees Britain seeking at first to coexist with Nazi territorial ambitions (which generated the policy of appeasement) and then changing tack entirely and deciding it was necessary to confront the menace of Germany and Italy, ultimately taking this country and the world into the Second World War. Intelligence and its assessments played a central role in virtually every single state of this transition: from hoping the German generals might overthrow Hitler and his cronies (FO 1093/84, FO 1093/88, FO 1093/288), to providing accurate analyses of Germany's intentions (FO 1093/200–202, FO 1093/219) towards the great democracies and its increasing capabilities of waging war. It was intelligence, too, that guided the conduct of the war (FO 1093/92, FO 1093/104, FO 1093/105), and informed Whitehall reliably about the economic restructuring taking place all over Nazi-dominated Europe showing how ruthless plundering of the resources of a terrorized continent increased the might of the German war-machine (FO 1093/125, FO 1093/156, FO 1093/240–244, FO 1093/246, FO 1093/294–303).

Secret intelligence on German rearmament in the 1930s was as crucial to policymakers as was the secret intercept evidence gained in 1941 that, in the east of Europe, the Germans were embarking on a war of racial extermination that ran parallel to their aim of European and possibly world domination (FO 1093/188, FO 1093/338–339). This secret canvas of Germany's secrets and the secrets of its allies, most importantly Italy and Japan, provided Britain's leaders with a means of mapping out the best way of winning the war but also of securing the peace and shaping the post-war world which, it was hoped, would not only be better but provide for new ways of resolving conflicts and promoting peace. It was this aim that led to the establishment of the United Nations but also the Nuremberg Trials and the concept that humane lawfulness applied internationally and to all nations equally (FO 1093/340).

Contained within these files are revelations on the extraordinary flight to Britain of Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess, in 1941 (FO 1093/1–21); what its true aim was, and how (and whether) the British government could use Hess's presence in Britain to undermine the Nazis' hold on Germany (just suppose Attlee had flown to Berlin: it is easy to see what Goebbels would have done with it!). Secret information about the Duke of Windsor and his allegedly flakey allegiance to Britain is to be found here as well as further information of the intelligence use and the security aspects of the presence in the U.K. of considerable numbers of German refugees, including physicists who might be of use in the (secret) program to develop an atomic weapon (FO 1093/23, FO 1093/24, FO 1093/131).

These documents also illuminate the dangerous, difficult and always tense condition that followed on from victory in May 1945 of neither war nor peace: the Cold War. There is a medley of critical themes here, ranging from the discussion and decisions relating to the proposed treatment of Nazi war criminals who had participated in what Churchill had so chillingly described in August 1941 (betraying Bletchley's secret for a dangerous moment) as "the crime that has no name" to the perceived British need to prevent the emigration of Jews who had survived the Holocaust into Palestine (FO 1093/335–340, FO 1093/420). Papers also explore the role of Jewish paramilitary organizations there and will show how British thinking on the future of this area became increasingly complex and unsure (FO 1093/330). The analyses of Jewish terrorist activity in both Palestine and the U.K. (which did so much to make matters even more critical) will certainly make controversial reading but will also add illuminating aspects of the origin of a conflict under whose shadow we continue to live today.

Sources of intelligence

The intelligence that Britain collected and exploited on these matters was chiefly derived from the interception of electronically transmitted encoded signals but also, and significantly, from human agents, her spies. Frequently intelligence from one source was augmented from the other but there is no doubt that the former became far more important than the latter at a time when Britain was fighting for its life. Military strategy was more reliably informed by signals sent by the Germans to each other, especially when they had little idea they were being read in Bletchley Park. But spies were, at particular times, also of crucial importance, not least when it came to understanding the development and testing sites of the revolutionary V-1 and V-2 weapons and the existence of an anti-Nazi opposition inside the Third Reich. The need to know about all these things, and more, was as key to Britain's ultimate success as was the importance of protecting the knowledge that had been acquired. Within these papers there will be copious proof of the value placed on HUMINT (Human Intelligence) but also the increasingly core role played by SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) and the interception of wireless traffic emanating from Tokyo, neutral Portugal, and Finland and occupied Norway in particular, and how this rich source of intelligence could be further mined and extracted both from wireless signals and from telephone cables.

As far as the Cold War is concerned, that was, chiefly, an intelligence war and here the study of what was known by the opposing sides (and perhaps more tellingly what was not known) continues to inform academic debate today. These files record carefully Britain's monitoring of Communist activities throughout the world but also within the U.K. itself (FO 1093/87, FO 1093/173, FO 1093/186, FO 1093/410, FO 1093/537–545). They will allow a verdict to be reached on whether what was done was done well and was sufficient, and the extent to which its effectiveness was sabotaged by the agents of Stalin within Britain's intelligence community and civil service. Secret files on the Gouzenko revelations from 1945–46 and the Klaus Fuchs papers of 1950 will shed new light on what MI5 knew about Communist subversion and espionage and the aims and intentions of the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin (CAB 301/108, FO 1093/538–541).

On an institutional level, this period saw the changes in the organization of Britain's intelligence machinery that may properly be seen as marking the key stage in the transition to what has been termed the "national security state" that we see about us today. These files will disclose the processes involved in setting up the Code and Cypher School from 1919–22, the forerunner of Bletchley Park (FO 1093/104). But important papers are here for analyzing the reshaping of MI5 after 1940 (the subject of Lord Hankey's Report, FO 1093/193, contained herein), Sir David Petrie's response in 1941 (CAB 301/25), and the Bland Report of 1944 (CAB 301/48) into the post-war organization of MI6/SIS. Here, too, one may read the full account of the government's thinking on the future of SOE (CAB 301/53, FO 1093/154), the Special Operations Executive, as an institution. Set up in 1940 by Churchill to "set Europe ablaze" it was in many senses a means of merging the expertise of MI6/SIS with special armed forces. Crucial evidence of SOE's actions in Poland in 1942 and 1943 will shed new light on how Britain tried to support the anti-Nazi resistance in eastern Europe as well as the West (CAB 301/66). The full text of Churchill's important discussion with Fitzroy Maclean in April 1944 will show how the prime minister saw the evolution of Russian influence in the Balkans after Hitler's defeat. Here, too, are judgements on SOE more generally (FO 1093/294, FO 1093/183). Seen by some as too dangerous a weapon for peacetime, the calls to disband it were compelling. But there was also a call to be made as to whether the increasing evidence of the Soviet Union's intention to remain an occupying military and political power in central and eastern Europe might not require the existence of a British anti-Communist subversive force, able to "roll back" Communism if required. These documents will explore how MI6/SIS took up this work, describing its special operations in 1946.

Conclusion: intelligence and national security

In tracing how Britain came to regard intelligence and the possession of secret information as providing the "global reach" critical if it was to continue to play a global role, these archives will prove invaluable. Britain still relies on its secret services and the secret information they provide to inform policy and help make this country safe. The brick wall of "official secrecy" continues to exist, despite all that has happened and governments continue to neither confirm nor deny secret activity on their part.

For a short period there was, indeed, a very radical departure from this line when in 2002 Tony Blair published a dossier entitled "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government." Blair stressed that this report was "based in large part on the work of the Joint Intelligence Committee," adding correctly that it was "unprecedented for the government to publish this kind of document." However, the damaging fallout when no stockpiles of weapons were found, both for Blair personally and for the British intelligence community, would seem to suggest that this experiment is unlikely, ever, to be repeated: it led to six inquiries into the intelligence that fed into the policy to attack Iraq in 2003.

Because this is so, and because we can only learn about the importance of secret activity today by examining its past, intelligence history continues to be one of the most important fields to research. This collection allows this work to be done more successfully than at any time previously.


Hinsley, F. H., E. E. Thomas., C. F. G. Ransom, and R. C. Knight. 1979. British Intelligence in the Second World War. Vol. 1. London: HMSO.

Hinsley, F. H., E. E. Thomas., C. F. G. Ransom, and R. C. Knight. 1981. British Intelligence in the Second World War. Vol. 2. London: HMSO.

Hinsley, F. H., C. F. G. Ransom, and R. C. Knight. 1984. British Intelligence in the Second World War. Vol. 3 Pt 1. London: HMSO.

Hinsley, F. H., E. E. Thomas., C. A. G. Simkins, and C. F. G. Ransom. 1988. British Intelligence in the Second World War. Vol. 3 Pt 2. London: HMSO.

Hinsley, F. H., and C. A. G. Simkins. 1990. British Intelligence in the Second World War. Vol. 4. London: HMSO.

Winterbotham, F. W. 1974. The Ultra Secret. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Wright, Peter. 1987. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer. New York: Viking Penguin.

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