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Intelligence, Attlee and the Brook Report

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Sir Norman Brook’s report on the ‘Secret Intelligence and Security Services’ is an important document for understanding the state of Britain’s intelligence and security machinery at the start of the Cold War. Finished in 1951, this wide-ranging review of the intelligence community revealed that all was not well with Britain’s efforts to collect secret information on the Soviet Union. In contrast to the wartime successes of Bletchley Park and the Double Cross (XX) system, Britain’s Cold War spies faced an uphill struggle. Brook’s review tried to remedy this.

The origins of the review also reveal the importance of the relationship between No. 10 and the British intelligence community. Brook’s review resulted from long-term concerns about intelligence, and were sparked by the intervention of Britain’s Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. While the diplomat Sir Nicholas Henderson remarked that all Prime Ministers ‘love intelligence, because it’s a sort of weapon’, absence of intelligence can be frustrating for policymakers. At the start of the Cold War, Clement Attlee’s calm, workmanlike attitude to intelligence – while different from Winston Churchill’s avid interest in spies and secrets – marked the growing professionalization of the intelligence-policy interface.

Portrait of Clement Attlee
Clement Attlee, The National Archives, INF 14/19

Cold War Intelligence

The influence of intelligence on policymaking in the early Cold War can be found in government papers. While Attlee’s government remained committed to preserving cordial Anglo-Soviet relations, intelligence gave warnings of Moscow’s post-war policy and the expanding influence of Communist parties worldwide. Yet most of this information appears to have come from diplomatic or open sources. In early 1946, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) advised that the Soviets, while aiming to protect the security of the Eastern Bloc, would be ‘aggressive by all means short of war’. Another report warned Communism was a ‘serious menace to the interests of the British Commonwealth’. Ministers and officials read these reports with alarm. The Foreign Office responded with the Russia Committee to review Britain’s future policy. Ministers approved measures to review Communist activities at home and overseas, and to look for long-term counter-measures.

Lacking Intelligence?

Yet there remained significant intelligence gaps. In marked contrast to the successes enjoyed by British intelligence in wartime, the intelligence community had a hard time against the new Soviet threat. In March 1946, the JIC even admitted its reports were speculative given the ‘limited evidence’ on Soviet policy. Reports from Britain’s Embassy in Moscow formed the basis for these assessments. A report on intelligence written by Sir Douglas Evill in late 1947 pointed to the ‘very disturbing’ lack of information. The Foreign Office’s ban on wartime intelligence operations against Russia, the change to peacetime conditions and the effectiveness of Soviet security all played a part. The Secret Intelligence Service’s attempts to recruit spies in the Soviet Union proved difficult. Harold Caccia of the Foreign Office’s Services Liaison Department explained that SIS needed ‘patience, support and interest’ if it was to succeed. Even the newly named Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) had a hard time against high-level Soviet communications, though there were successes against low-grade traffic.
Ministers were aware of the problem, and not sympathetic. In January 1947, Attlee’s Minister of Defence A.V. Alexander told a meeting of Ministers that ‘intelligence on Russia is very limited, particularly regarding her inner political activities’. During a meeting of the Defence Committee two years later, Alexander openly questioned the value of intelligence (‘… what do we get from intelligence anyway?’) and later told the Joint Intelligence Bureau’s Kenneth Strong he ‘could not see the justification for heavy intelligence expenditure’. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, too, was critical. In July 1949, he mooted the prospect of a review into the ‘whole of our intelligence services’ with the Foreign Office’s Sir William Strang.

Attlee and Intelligence

Attlee had a different perspective - by the time he entered Downing Street he was already an experienced consumer of intelligence. In wartime, he had access to decrypts of Germany’s Enigma (ULTRA) and had become embroiled in the heated debates in Whitehall over the Special Operation Executive’s sabotage and subversion in German occupied Europe, especially after the penetration of SOE’s networks in Holland (Das Englandspiel or the ‘English Game’). In Downing Street, Attlee read the JIC’s Soviet assessments and shared a close working relationship with MI5’s Director-General, Sir Percy Sillitoe. This experience allowed him to raise concerns. In April 1950, writing to Lord Swinton, a friend and wartime colleague, Attlee revealed his doubts that Britain was getting ‘full value’ from the intelligence agencies. While there were significant problems (‘the iron curtain is very hard to penetrate’), Attlee proposed ‘an enquiry into the whole range of our security services conducted by a single individual’. The Prime Minister revealed his motives for the review to Cabinet Secretary Sir Norman Brook. Greater intelligence co-ordination and concerns that ‘value was being obtained for the money spent’ were at the forefront of his mind. Hastings ‘Pug’ Ismay – Churchill’s wartime link to the Chiefs of Staff and organiser for the 1951 Festival of Britain – was Attlee’s first choice for the review, but Ismay’s workload meant the responsibility fell to the austere, physically imposing Brook.

The Brook Review

Brook’s review was the most significant and wide-ranging of the early post-war period. Since 1945, the intelligence community had been subjected to single-issue reviews looking at sabotage and subversion, MI5 and military intelligence, but Brook’s – at Attlee’s instance, it seems – looked at the community as a whole. Effectiveness, funding and inter-agency cooperation were all under review. Brook’s report was completed in March 1951. Blaming the intelligence community for the lack of information on Russia was short-sighted, he argued. Post-war staffing levels, luck and tight Soviet security were significant problems. But there were also difficulties internally. SIS was found to be top-heavy in administration and based in antiquated buildings. In the field, operations were disappointing and there was need of a ‘lucky break’. GCHQ had similar staffing and financial issues, though consumers suggested they provided ‘90 per cent’ of all useful intelligence. MI5 was in a ‘healthy condition’, but being responsible to the Prime Minister not the Home Office they lacked the backing of a government department (similar to the SIS/GCHQ relationship with the Foreign Office), something Brook proposed to change. Other than suggestions for a joint SIS-MI5 headquarters (something that never happened) and minor internal changes, Brook’s review accelerated the intelligence community’s professionalization. A committee of Permanent Secretaries on Intelligence (PSIS) was formed to manage resources, while the JIC’s secretariat was to be strengthened. Funding for GCHQ’s infrastructure and equipment was accelerated and, significantly, MI5 would be responsible to the Home Secretary, though this wasn’t acted on until Attlee’s successor, Churchill, came to office.

Attlee’s doubts – and those of his Ministers – about the intelligence community led to reform. The close link between No. 10 and intelligence allowed for constructive criticism and improvement. While a completely different consumer from Churchill, Attlee’s stewardship continued a process that started in wartime: the increasing professionalization of British intelligence. This relationship between the Prime Minister, Ministers and the intelligence community is an essential one, something new archival releases have started to shed light on.

Dr. Dan Lomas is Lecturer in International History at the University of Salford, specialising in Cold War intelligence.

Further Reading

Intelligence, Security and the Attlee Governments (Manchester University Press, 2016).

The Black Door: Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers by Richard J. Aldrich and Rory Cormac (William Collins, 2016).

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