Defend the Realm

[BOOK REVIEW] Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5

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Defend the Realm Book Cover Defend the Realm
Christopher Andrew
Political Science
November 3, 2009

For over 100 years, the agents of MI5 have defended Britain against enemy subversion. Their work has remained shrouded in secrecy—until now. This first-ever authorized account reveals the British Security Service as never before: its inner workings, its clandestine operations, its failures and its triumphs. From the Trade Paperback edition.

Ahh, one of those sleeper books again.  Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 by Christopher M. Andrew was written to mark the centenary of the British Security Service, MI5, which is responsible for protecting British parliamentary democracy and economic interests, and counter terrorism and espionage within the UK.  Why did I say sleeper?  Because this is a great book to read prior to going to bed, read a few pages and you are off to dreamland.  In general, this is a boring book to read.  If you love history and espionage, you will learn a lot from this book though.  For almost a hundred years, MI5 (British Security Service) was a secret organization such that no one knew it even existed except for a few government officials.  Founded in 1909, MI5 became publicly known only in 1989.

The book details the triumphs and failures of MI5 in dealing with internal threats to the UK.  Christopher Andrew, an independent historian, was given access to MI5’s archives to come up with MI5’s history.  The book reveals the role of the British Security Service (MI5) in twentieth-century British history, from its foundation in 1909, through two world wars up to and including its present roles in counterespionage and counterterrorism.  The book describes how MI5 has been managed and what relationships it has with the UK government.

Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 adds to our knowledge of history paricularly with celebrated events and notorious individuals.

The main problem I found in Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 is that you will not know what was left out considering that there are still persisting issues related to national security.  The early history of MI5 up to 1945, particularly with its battles against German espionage is pretty interesting and appears to be complete.  The Cold War is very informative and details MI5’s battles with the Soviet Union’s spies.  I wrote an earlier review about Kim Philby, and this book details how the Cambridge Spy Ring was discovered.  The book also debunks the conspiracy theories sowed by Peter Wright (former MI5 officer) in his book, SpyCatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer (this is a subject for a future review).  The book starts to get really boring though on the parts from the late 80s to the present.  It could be because of operational details that need to be kept secret.  This is the part when you easily start to feel sleepy after a few pages.

defend the realm

If you love reading John le Carre novels, it is interesting to note though that this famous author started out with MI5 before moving on to MI6.  A lot of what John le Carre wrote was based on his experiences in MI5.

Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 is a book not for the casual reader.   You must be a lover of history to read this book.  Take for example me, I love nonfiction particularly histories and biographies because I learn from them.  Yes, they may be boring but they feed my brain.  And besides, they help me fall asleep.  This book is an interesting read but I must warn you that you may be tempted to skip some pages for lack of interest; I resisted that urge.