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What a New Study of British Spies Reveals About the CIA

September 1, 2018 in Blogs

By Rory Cormac, History News Network

The tables turned in the early 1960s.

Historians know a great deal about CIA history. The US government has acknowledged some 50 Cold War covert actions, from fiddling with Italian elections in the late 1940s to undermining Marxist influence in Yemen in the 1980s. Spy chiefs, practitioners, journalists, and academics have written enough books on the CIA to fill several libraries. Although debate still rages about the good or ill of the CIA, we know the major contours of its history.

There is a problem in this historiographical landscape, a problem that might give a distorted image of the CIA. Many of these histories are written in isolation. Books tell the American story of Langley; tales of brave/reckless (depending on one’s persuasion) American intelligence officers working across the world in furtherance of American interests.

This approach risks overplaying American agency and exaggerating the power of the hidden hand. Failure to consider the role of local actors or US allies can be distorting. This is particularly the case regarding the United Kingdom, with whom American intelligence has long enjoyed a supposedly “special” – but undeniably close – relationship. British fetishisation of secrecy hinders understanding not only of British secret history but of America’s too. For example, it was British intransigence which held up archival releases covering the Anglo-American coup in Iran back in 1953. 

Looking at the history of covert action through the eyes of MI6 therefore offers unexpected insight into the CIA. 

British covert action cannot be considered in isolation from US activity, but the reverse is also true. Since 1945, both sides have misled the other, manipulated the other, tried to recruit the other and restrained the other.

In trying to “rollback”the Soviet Union from Eastern Europe, the CIA has gained a reputation for being rather aggressive, especially in the early Cold War. Traditional narratives cast the UK as a responsible partner trying – with various degrees of success – to restrain American recklessness.

In reality, senior officials in the State Department warned that MI6 was acting too recklessly during the disastrous operation to liberate Albania from the late 1940s. Similarly, senior intelligence officers were …read more


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