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Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5
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Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5

3.83  ·  Rating Details ·  599 Ratings  ·  77 Reviews
An unprecedented publishing event: to mark the centenary of its foundation, the British Security Service, MI5, has for the first time opened its archives to an independent historian. The book reveals the precise role of the Security Service in twentieth-century British history, from its foundation by Captain Kell of the British Army in October 1909, through two world wars, ...more
Hardcover, 1056 pages
Published November 3rd 2009 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2009)
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Feb 05, 2010 Joe rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The main problem with this book is that you don’t really know what’s been left out. The early history including the campaign against Germany up to 1945 is probably largely complete and it is an impressive story. The early Cold War is also very informative and the author convincingly undermines the Peter Wright conspiracy theories.

Perhaps not surprisingly the detail starts to fall away as the book approaches recent decades. I strongly suspect a lot of bad things went on vis-à-vis Northern Ireland
Aug 03, 2011 Edmole rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I BEAT YOU YOU BASTARD. 950 pages of small type. YES.

Anyway, it is a great book, loads of great details, lots of humour. You do respect the chaps of MI5 a lot afterwards, and it is further proof that conspiracies are bloody hard to pull off, which is why their aren't that many of them.
Jan 24, 2010 Brent rated it it was amazing
I was hooked from the first page. Christopher Andrew writes an engaging history of the British Security Service that helps you understand the intelligence community: its function and how its very presence enables us to go about our daily business. Even people who don't like James Bond are going to enjoy this book, because it's real and not full of cheesy spy bally-hoo.
Erik Graff
Feb 21, 2011 Erik Graff rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: espionage fans
Recommended to Erik by: Kelly Kingdon
Shelves: history
I have been reading the official histories of both MI6 (espionage) and MI5 (counter-espionage/terrorism) simultaneously. Of the two, this is the better study, both because it is more inclusively open and because it is better written. A sympathetic study, it still notes many of the failures and controversies which have marked the history of the service during the years covered, 1909-2009.
May 22, 2017 Victor rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Comprehensive and authoritative review of MI5 from its origins to the modern day. Worth reading for the many fascinating stories of internal security and counter-espionage. Learned quite a bit about human nature and the factors and foibles in various high-profile operations, such as the double-cross system and operations Fortitude and Mincemeat in WWII, the Cambridge Five and the efforts to uncover them. Didn't care too much for the coverage of "the troubles" in Northern Ireland and in the colon ...more
Dan Ledbetter
May 28, 2017 Dan Ledbetter rated it it was amazing
Lengthy and detailed. A great reference. Now onto something more light!
দীপাঞ্জন দাশ
The cloak-and-dagger world of espionage is generally well-hidden from the public eye. In fact, most nations are loath to allow their intelligence organizations to see the light of day. Considering this, the fact that MI5 commissioned an official history to mark its centenary is a remarkable fact indeed. Jonathan Evans, the MI5 Director, has done both scholars of history and interested amateurs a very good turn indeed. The fact that this commission went to Christopher M Andrew, who also wrote the ...more
Aug 16, 2013 Robert rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew is a monster of a book, clocking in at almost 900 pages in small type. I don't even want to consider how many words this book is. That being said, the book is very straightforward as a chronological history of MI5 for the past century. There were a couple of pros and cons to this book by taking that format but overall I did like reading the book.

The book's prose and extremely detailed nature is probably a bit dry for your aver
More of a survey of British history than a history of MI5.

Not as much about MI5 itself (nothing on training, structure, authorities, how it interacts with law enforcement, the military or other intelligence services).

The book was authorized by MI5, which gave the author probably more access
than other authors. For this reason, it is understandable that the author
would toe the party line, which is fine but the author reveals his bias
in a couple places. Specifically, the repeated debuniking of P
Aug 22, 2016 Julie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, non-fiction
I actually wasn't able to read the entire book, over 1000 fact-packed pages. This book is not readily available at US public libraries, and the college library from which I was able to get an inter-library loan only loaned it for 3 weeks, no renewals. That is simply not enough for this more or less academic book filled with history, names, events, anecdotes, organizational details, and so much more. So I read the sections from 1909 through WWI and WWII, and then the introductions to the other se ...more
Emmanuel Gustin
This book has the hallmarks of an official history: It frequently refers to official documents and meeting minutes, elaborates on the managerial culture of MI5, and contains organizational diagrams as an appendix. It also contains accounts of the most important counter-espionage and counter-terrorism cases in the history of MI5, and a large number of interesting background facts. Nevertheless, readers who are only looking for a gripping espionage story may be bored by the story of MI5 as an inst ...more
Sep 24, 2011 Ghoule rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Un autre livre qui a demandé beaucoup d'efforts à l'autre pour réunir un paquet de faits dans un ordre chronologique.

Malheureusement, le livre se résume à cette idée d'être une collection de faits, sautant à gauche et à droite sur des événements qui se sont déroulés au fil de l'histoire du MI5. Et puisqu'il s'agit d'une histoire officielle, l'auteur ne porte aucun regard critique et tente de préserver son objectivité, ce que j'ai trouvé particulièrement difficile.

En effet, on met dans le même pa
Sep 05, 2009 rabbitprincess rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: very perseverant spy history buffs
Recommended to rabbitprincess by: the Globe and Mail
At long last, I must concede defeat to the behemoth that is The Defence of the Realm. I first started in August 2010 when it came in for me at the library, didn't finish it, eventually bought the paperback in November because I figured then I could take as long as I wanted... and I've been reading it in fits and starts ever since. I've kept it out on my bedside table since January in hopes of finishing it eventually, but sadly I do not think that is likely. I'll put it back on the shelf and perh ...more
Mar 14, 2016 Karen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very thorough and very British review of the history of MI5. It is an interesting read to see how world events were viewed from a non U.S. point of view. It also provides a very good description of the push and pull between the goals of "protection" and "prosecution" and how both are sometimes not possible. I would have given it five stars except for two things. First, I could have done without the very detailed personal histories of the officers, especially from the early years. Quite frankly ...more
Nov 12, 2009 Nathan rated it did not like it
Christopher Andrew has scraped the barrel on MI5; the mass of information here is daunting. Given the secretive nature of the agency, such an amount of material commands respect. For the most part, though, the information isn't efficiently molded into a straightforward narrative. The organization is largely chronological, but the consequences of one period in relation to another aren't clearly examined. There are some notable exceptions, as when the clandestine machinations of British espionage ...more
Jul 10, 2013 GT rated it liked it
A comprehensive history covering 100 years of Britain's famed MI5, responsible for counter-espionage, counter subversion, and counter-terrorism. I found myself swinging back and forth from enjoying the detailed material to slogging through certain sections. Everything thing is here from WWII triumphs to mistakes and details on failed investigations and poor Directors (DGs).

I go with 3 Stars - ★★★

mfgavin's rating criteria:

★ = Horrid waste of time
★★ = May be enjoyable to some, but not me
★★★ = I am
Dull in parts, true. Not everything is interesting. Suggestions that this is uncritical are unfair -- there is a much criticism, notably with respect to counter-espionage in the Cold War period. There is also much shifting of blame. The idea that this must be baseless self-service because the work is an official history is a valid possibility, but that hardly makes it a conclusive vice.

Only for those with a close interest in these matters. Discussion of early interactions between MI5 and the pol
Dec 15, 2010 Heikki rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book shows us that not only is life in MI5 interesting, it is also fraught with danger to the individuals and to society as a whole.

The early part of the book is in my view more interesting than the final part, say, after the Cambridge Five have been discussed. This is not to say the IRA and post-9/11 times weren't interesting, it's just that the space allotted to narrating what happened is not sufficient and there's a cramped feeling to it.

But the First WOrld War and the 'German spies fo
Marc Colombina
Jan 04, 2015 Marc Colombina rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The book is well written and, presumably, well researched. As acknowledged by the author, much of the book could be affected by declassified materials. As well, the author's association with the Security Service leads to questions of objectivity, particularly in the later sections, where many of the events are still relevant to various stakeholders. Finally, much of the research for this book is done through personal interviews and the use of the Security Service Archives which makes it difficul ...more
Aug 07, 2012 Bethany rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
I enjoyed reading this book, although it was really too much information to take in. I learned a lot, but don't remember most of it. The British do have a penchant for using acronyms, don't they? DG, DDG, MP, ASU, SLO, JIC, RUC, just to name a few of the many used throughout the book. I liked reading about the Double-Cross System they employed during WWII. I had heard of it before, read a few references to it in other works, but never realized to what extent this system helped the Allies during ...more
Sep 21, 2010 John rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very comprehensive history. I think it will get more interesting as it approaches the present. I have trouble caring enough about the amazingly amateurish goings-on in the early days of the British security services. I remember hearing talks by the author about the more recent history of espionage at Leckhampton House in the late 1970s.

I wrote the above in 2010. Since then I've taken to reading mostly on my Kindle and not gotten any further with this big heavy tome. I may go back to it later. F
Dec 29, 2014 Robert rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is the definitive history of Mi5 by the person who really made 'intelligence history' a big deal. This book is wrong about a few things (some to do with Ireland), and biased because Chris Andrew is strongly connected to the intelligence community through personal experience and years of work: he always wants to blame policy-makers.

Still, it's probably the single indispensable book if you want to understand the history of British intelligence, so you have to read it, even if Chris Andrew is
Nov 28, 2012 Superposition rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fic
Very readable though slightly tedious to get through (it is nearly 1000 pages long). The author could have expounded more on MI5's most recent activities in the post-2000 period. Though I do understand that the information from said period is still classified, I just thought this part in particular was slightly lacking especially in comparison with the previous and more well covered periods of history. Worth all the effort.
Jan 07, 2011 arjuna rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Readable but very dry - interesting subject, but narratively/tonally rather flat. A bit of a plod through very dense material, best taken in small doses.

Made me think a purely organisational (as opposed to operational) history might be very interesting, though - I'd quite like to see that, get a better sense of the way things worked, especially during the early years, and especially of the ground staff.
Feb 12, 2014 Steve rated it really liked it
This book covers the first 100 years of the British security service. First tasked with finding German spies before the First World War, the service has had to adapt over the years. While the dangers (Germany, USSR, PIRA and Islamic terrorists) have changed, the main task of the service has evolved from primarily counter-espionage to anti-terrorism. A very long read, but thorough and informative.
Apr 29, 2013 Edward marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
List of Illustrations
Foreword by the Director General of the Security Service

--The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5

Appendix 1: Directors and Director Generals, 1909-2009
Appendix 2: Security Service Strength, 1909-2009
Appendix 3: Nomenclature and Responsibilities of Security Service Branches/Divisions, 1914-1994
Nick Handler
Jun 14, 2013 Nick Handler rated it liked it
The first comprehensive history of MI-5, so it gets credit for that. it's also very readable. But ultimately this is an authorized history that got approval from the MI-5 censors--so it can be bland at points, and makes excuses for instances in which MI-5 was either too weak (Soviet espionage) or too forceful (Ireland). Ultimately, the main strength of the book is that Andrew has access to millions of files that are otherwise still classified. But that alone is enough to merit a read.
Larry Loftis
Nov 28, 2015 Larry Loftis rated it liked it
Enjoyed both of his books on British Intelligence (this one and his book on MI6 ("Secret Service"). He has a glaring error in this book, however, in an unfounded and uncited assertion that Dusko Popov was codenamed TRICYCLE for his "fondness for three-in-a-bed sex." [p. 253]. I'm still baffled how an Oxford scholar would make such a charge without a reference.

Contrary to Andrew's suggestion, Popov was given the code name TRICYCLE when he acquired two sub-agents, forming a net of three.
May 02, 2015 Matt rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
The last section on the Cold War and beyond was certainly better written than the rest of it I feel! I feel the book lacks depth on training, integration with other LEA's. It concentrates to much on individuals rather than the above noted topics, worth a read as it charts the political up turns of Britain and the changing role of the SiS, I wanted to score it more but found the authors writing style somewhat tedious in parts!
Steve Coughlan
Nov 10, 2009 Steve Coughlan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
What I learned... books written by historians are long; why Special Branch is special; and the special British mentality that enables them to have a "Constitution" without actually bothering to write one down extended to the intelligence services, who have spent most of their existence without actually existing. Hardly a page turner in the style of Clancy, it had a lot of pages to turn, with lots of details, interesting and boring.
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Christopher Maurice Andrew is an historian at the University of Cambridge with a special interest in international relations and in particular the history of intelligence services.
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