Spy Scholarship

10 Apr

To help kick off the third annual Edinburgh Spy Week, I thought I’d offer some thoughts on great works of espionage, intelligence, and surveillance scholarship. Below are a half dozen books that I think are essential for the reader interested in the world of intelligence. This is a personal list, and as such focuses on the twentieth century UK, USA, and USSR. So, no Elizabethan skullduggery, Great Game goings on, on anything like that, I’m afraid.
Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain
, Christopher Moran, 2012

For anyone interested in the history of intersections between the British state, the media, the public, Chris Moran‘s Classified is a must read. The book takes a thematic approach, covering topics like the political memoirs, official histories of intelligence, and the groundbreaking work of Chapman Pincher. All of the themes covered are cleverly combined to offer a dynamic, comprehensive study of the multifaceted nature of secrecy in twentieth-century Britain.

Christopher Moran will be appearing at Spy Week 2016 talking about James Bond in fact and fiction.

GCHQGCHQ: The uncensored story of Britain’s most secret intelligence agency, Richard Aldrich, 2010

The most secretive of Britain’s secret services, GCHQ has – in recent years – been placed under an uncomfortable spotlight because of Edward Snowden’s revelations. It is therefore in the public interest that we know more about the workings and nature of this shadowy organisation. Richard Aldrich offers us just that in his detailed, well-researched, and immensely readable history of the UK’s signals intelligence operations.

Richard Aldrich will be appearing at Spy Week 2016 as part of our expert panel on the Secret State: Past, present, and future


CharlesHoover’s War on Gays: Exposing the FBI’s Sex Deviates Program, Douglas M Charles, 2015

The most remarkable thing about this recent book by Doug Charles is that his central sources – the FBI’s Sex Deviates files – were destroyed in the 1970s. Confronting an absence that would cause many historians to shake their heads and turn away, Charles has managed to reconstruct the FBI’s decades long programme of anti-homosexual persecution through intensive research and remarkable feats of documentary triangulation. The opening chapter – on the alleged homosexuality and transvestitism of J Edgar Hoover – is also a textbook example of how to address popular conspiracy theory in a scholarly manner.


GouzenkoHow the Cold War Began: The Igor Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies, Amy Knight, 2005

Before Elizabeth Bentley, the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss, and Kim Philby, came the Gouzenko Affair. In How the Cold War Began, Amy Knight skillfully draws together the threads of how a defecting Soviet cipher clerk helped to build the paranoia and mistrust that led to the Cold War. Of course, the origins of the Cold War are complex and multi-layered, going back to decades before 1946. However, this is still a fascinating tale of double-dealing, confusion, misperception, and international anxiety in a time of flux. Another very good work (I’ll have to admit, I’ve only dipped into it so far, but reviews back up my initial impressions) on the 1940s is Kathryn Olmsted‘s Red Spy Queen.


ISWTIn Spies We Trust: The Story of Western Intelligence, Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, 2013

This one should open with a caveat: the book’s title is slightly misleading, as it’s really about the US-UK intelligence relationship. That aside, In Spies We Trust is an immensely entertaining read. Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones has spent decades analysing the history of intelligence, and this shines through in the scholarly rigour, in-depth knowledge, and character studies.

Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones will be appearing at Spy Week 2016 as part of our expert panel on the Secret State: Past, present, and future


HaslamNear and Distant Neighbours: A New History of Soviet Intelligence, Jonathan Haslam, 2015

While many of us are familiar with the work of the CIA and SIS, the activities of Soviet intelligence during the Cold War and before are the subject of a much less extensive body of English-language scholarship. Jonathan Haslam‘s most recent book goes some way towards addressing this gap, offering a meticulously researched history of the USSR’s intelligence services from the Revolution of 1917 through to the era of Gorbachev and Glasnost. A book of immense historical sweep and scope.


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