The Double Cross System by J C Masterman

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The Double Cross System by J C Masterman

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Leave reading West's introduction to the end and dive straight into Masterman's formal (but highly readable) report into the activities overseen by the XX Committee for intriguing insights into some of the real successes of WW2 ~ and some of the ideas that came to nothing. West's introduction makes much more sense reading it after you have some idea of what he's talking about. A fascinating historical document that still resonates with what might just be still going on today. Recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 189 Date: June 2013
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099578239

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This Vintage re-issue of Masterman's account of the work of the Twenty Committee is subtitled the classic account of World War Two Spy-Masters. That's a somewhat misleading tease. The book isn't really about the spy-masters, very little information is given about those recruiting, turning, running and protecting the spies. More information - but again relatively little - is given about the spies themselves.

The important word in Masterman's own original title is System. In reading the book, you have to fully understand its context. It is basically a report, written in 1945, assessing the value of using double agents and, having proven there is a value, how best to support the activity. It looks at the pros and cons of the system. In giving an overview of what actually happened from the interwar years through to the cessation of hostilities in 1945, Masterman seeks to set out for future reference, the lessons learned 'on the hoof' as the system developed and evolved.

He was possibly uniquely placed to do so. Masterman was an academic, a historian, trained in intellectual analysis. He had spent most of the Great War interned in Berlin, becoming fluent in German as a result. This was the main reason that when he was called up in March 1940, he was given a commission in the Intelligence Corps. He had no prior experience. After a stint at the War Office working on the official report on the improvised Dunkirk evacuation, he was transferred to the counter-espionage division of the Security Service.

In December of that year he was assigned the task of debriefing one Dusko Popov, a Serbian Abwehr Agent (Ivan) offering himself up to work for the British. As Tricycle he was to go on to be one of the most successful of the XX agents. In his introduction to this edition of the book Nigel West asserts that it was this encounter that led to the setting up of the Twenty Committee, but neither he nor Masterman indicate any direct cause for either the institution of the Committee or how it fell to Masterman to chair it: but chair it he did, every week for 226 weeks starting in 1941.

In his report, Masterman outlines the need for the committee. There were so many agencies operating in the general field of espionage and counter-espionage and what he broadly refers to as Deception: the War Office, the Wireless Board, Military Intelligence and the (sometimes helpful, often unwitting) general media, as well as the higher powers within central government, that it would be easy for the efforts of one branch to undermine (and blow sky-high) the efforts of another. Of particular concern was the potential absurdity of the demarcation between MI5 and MI6. Five was (is) responsible for counter-intelligence i.e. working on home ground, seeking out the enemy spies, and dealing with them. Six was (is) responsible for active spying in enemy territory. Who then controls the double-cross agent – MI5, since the agent is still (in a real as well as a notional sense) spying for the enemy and must be controlled, or MI6, because a large part of his work may be abroad actively spying for our side?

Clearly a system is required to co-ordinate the efforts, ensure that the 'need to know' is properly managed, and that a single system of approval for operations avoids any unnecessary bureaucracy and delay.

The Twenty Committee (the XX Committee) was set up to oversee precisely that joint working. It is unclear whether the committee was called the Twenty Committee but became known as the Double-cross Committee (XX in roman numerals) as West suggests, or that it was called the Twenty Committee because of double-X notation. The latter seems more donnish and therefore more likely to me. It also appears to be what Masterman himself suggests.

At the end of the war, the Committee was to be disbanded and all of its cases (i.e. agents) terminated. It's a wonderfully abstruse use of English, that hides what happened to many of the cases. No doubt for those who care to look a lot of the information may now have been declassified, but in 1945 it was still a matter of national security. It is known that some were simply free to get on with the rest of their lives. Some appear to have been helped to do so in far-away places. Others were imprisoned. Some were almost certainly executed. None of that is the subject of the text.

The text is a method-statement for running a double-cross agency.

Of course, you cannot produce an effective method statement without illustrating your point with case-studies, so some of the key activity, particularly the key successes of the work are explained.

Given when it was written, how did the book come to be published at all? Masterman (like any good intelligence officer) had kept an illicit copy of his manuscript. As the British secret service was taking something of a public hammering in the early 1960s, with the Blake, Phliby and Profumo affairs undermining any sense of their capability or efficiency, Masterman felt that a little redressing of the balance was in order. It seemed that some public faith might be restored by disclosure of the very real successes achieved during the war. He asked for the report to be declassified. Despite having friends and former pupils in very high places indeed, his request was denied.

His back-stop position was to send the manuscript to America where he was successful in securing a publishing contract. This left the government with the tricky choice of prosecuting him under the official secrets act – more adverse publicity it could ill afford – or negotiating redaction of some key references. Sensibly it took the latter option.

The fact that Masterman seemed happy to go along with the requests is evidence enough that his motives in publishing were intended to the good. It does make for clumsy reading in some places as he refers to information from very secret sources. The current wisdom is that he was talking about Bletchley Park, which even at the time of publication in the early seventies was still shrouded in a secrecy almost hard to imagine today.

Or is it? I'm amused at those who believe that all of this stuff is ancient history. Of course it is. Very ancient. As Masterman himself says, spying and counter-spying and double-agency goes back to ancient Greece and Rome if not before. Why, then, would it suddenly have stopped in the late 20th century? It still goes on. Of course, Spooks and its ilk play to the entertainment factor, but in there is an essence of truth in there. We are still spying around the world, we are still being spied upon, and both they and we are operating the counter- and double-networks as well.

These are the kind of questions raised by reading the book in the context of the early 21st century, when the world that Masterman speaks of – a world of secret ink, and enigma machines, and parachute drops of money – seems more than one lifetime ago. The fact that those questions are raised, is reason enough to read the book.

It is fascinating in its own right. After all, this is the official report. This is what actually happened. And there's no denying the boy's own nature of it all: the famous Operation Mincemeat, the unbelievably successful deception in the run-up to D-Day that beyond-all-hopes continued to work after the main invasion, the significant sums of money that the Germans dropped into this country to pay their agents, many of whom were working for us, many more of whom didn't even exist (the exploits of Garbo being particularly stunning in terms of creating 'notional' agents). Masterman may not be too far adrift when he says that for most of the war we effectively controlled the Abwehr operation in this country.

Just in case you get to thinking that this is so much propaganda however, he is also quite clear that to a large extent 'we got lucky'. He outlines the factors that play into the hands of running a counter-network in war-time, and makes the point that in peace time the reverse probably holds true i.e. that it is easier to spy than counter-spy, when you don’t have the mechanics and controls of war backing you up.

It is also clear that part of the purpose of his report is to underline the amount of investment this kind of network requires. By examples he demonstrates how long you have to build up an agent, by supplying real information to the enemy, the risks you have to take in order to build the trust that makes a double-agent useful. The use, he explains, is as much in knowing what the enemy is asking about, as in being able to deceive him by false information. There is also the clear need not to give false info that is independently verifiably false, since that will simply shut down your agent double-quick.

Alongside the plans that were stunningly successful, he outlines the many more ideas that were never implemented or had to be abandoned.

Interestingly, he also talks about the psychology needed to be employed in running a double-agent. The need to understand his/her motives and play to them.

He is sanguine, that much of what we did at home, was almost certainly being done in reverse on the continent. He cites at length the advance warning given of Pearl Harbour as an invasion site. It was ignored. Possibly because the agent wasn't trusted? (Or maybe because the US wanted the excuse to enter the war – but that's a whole other debate). He doesn't mention Arnhem – but maybe our leaders weren't being obtuse in ignoring the intelligence there – maybe they were distrustful of the sources?

Finally, in the atmosphere of 1945 with a whole new class of weaponry just unleashed upon the planet and probably with knowledge of new communications technology that he barely alludes to, he makes the point that the only idea we have about how the next war will be fought is that it will be very different from this one. That, however, he asserts, will not change the basic requirements of a Double Cross system: namely: - To control the enemy espionage system on home ground - Use that network to contact and apprehend newly arriving spies - To understand the personality and working method of the enemy intelligence system - To gain access to their code & cipher systems (to which we might now add the art-state of their communications technology) - To understand their intentions (as disclosed by the questions they ask) - To influence those intentions by the provision of misinformation - To deceive them as to our own intentions.

To be able to do any of this there needs to be a central co-ordinating body with the ability to call on or limit the action of a multiplicity of agencies. There needs to be a general acceptance that there is a price to pay: a price in the damage of allowed sabotage, a price in lives lost to the passing of genuine information, a price in the pounds and pence of maintaining an inactive agent and under-deployed handlers possibly for years in preparation for an eventuality that may never arise.

It is an immensely readable little book (under 200 pages). For those with an interest in the secret services and/or the Second World War, it is highly engaging in terms of the detailed cases it explores, the questions it answers and the equal number of questions it leaves open to debate.

West's introduction brings the document into the modern day explaining the circumstances of its publication and giving some updates on the agents that Masterman only ever refers to by their British ciphers. The whole does still leave you with the idea that maybe there is a whole lot more that we're still not being told.

To which my other half responded Of course. When they declassify this stuff you know, they don't make a song and dance about it. They just quietly unlock the cabinet... unless anybody cares enough to go look, it might as well still be locked. Masterman cared enough to want at least some of it unlocked.

For more reality of the Second World War we'd recommend A Magnificent Disaster: The Failure of the Market Garden, the Arnhem Operation, September 1944 by David Bennett which shows what can happen when the intelligence is either wrong or not believed. For fictional spying you still can't beat John Le Carre - start at the beginning with Call for the Dead by John le Carre

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