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How to uncover state secrets through archival research

Image by AJC1
Image by AJC1

Any academic researching intelligence has to rely on archives. In Britain, the primary repository is the National Archives in Kew, London – a wealth of hidden treasures nestled amongst its millions of records.

Unfortunately, researchers are faced with two problems: secrecy and fragmentation. The overwhelming majority of material on intelligence remains classified. The Secret Intelligence Service (or MI6) has not released any of its own records. The Security Service (MI5) and GCHQ have declassified some material but generally only up to the early 1950s. Issues of national security are exempt from the Public Records Act. Indeed, researchers will be all too familiar with the dreaded red stamp of exemption: “classified under article 3 section 4”. Government weeders can be very thorough, leaving whole documents covered in thick black redactions.

Researchers therefore have to rely on a fragmented archival record. We have to search for titbits of information tucked away inside broader files.

On the one hand this is a frustrating side of studying intelligence. On the other hand, it can be a fun intellectual challenge – to beat the system.

How can historians researching intelligence escape from the twin constraints of secrecy and fragmentation?

 1. Patience

As mentioned above, patiently wading through reams of dusty files can provide useful clues or pieces of a larger puzzle. It pays to know the labyrinthine archives well and to understand where gems may lie. I have found MI5 counter-terrorism files from as late as the 1970s in the Maritime and Transport Department of the Foreign Office. The first ever Joint Intelligence Committee paper was found in the India Office records.

 2. Freedom of Information

Tony Blair publicly regretted bringing in the Freedom of Information Act, describing himself as a ‘nincompoop’. It can be a useful tool for researchers if we know what to ask for and are able to make specific requests. Although I’ve had many rejections, I’ve had some successes too. A recent batch of documents sent to me from the Foreign Office about launching large-scale deniable operations and lying to parliament and the United Nations felt like Christmas!

 3. Interviews

These can take the intrepid researcher all over the world. They offer an exciting chance to meet some interesting characters and add vital flesh to the archival skeleton. My research has taken me from telephone calls with Chris de Burgh’s mother to visits to sprawling estates in the Scottish highlands; from Oxford colleges to dark basement offices in central London. Researching my first book, interviews provided insight into the personalities involved (the feuds, the sharp minds, and the weak links), alongside details on a shady organisation overseeing covert action.

4. More archives

Local archives are a fantastic resource containing the private papers of notable individuals from Prime Ministers to intelligence personnel. Rhodes House archives in Oxford, for example, possesses the diaries of one colonial High Commissioner who was unafraid to lambast Whitehall’s central intelligence assessors. He described officials in London who did not share his views on the threat to Aden as having an “old womanish” attitude. Similarly, the Julian Amery papers in Churchill College Archives in Cambridge give fascinating insight into a man who essentially became an unofficial minister for covert action, from inciting rebellion in Albania to secretly meeting opposition leaders in the South of France to plan the overthrow of the Egyptian government.

Intelligence is one of the few academic disciplines where the subject of study controls the sources. This creates a host of problems, but it also presents an exciting challenge.

Rory Cormac’s book on intelligence and counterinsurgency is out now. He is currently writing a history of British approaches to covert operations. You can follow Rory on Twitter @RoryCormac.

The Lakeside Arts Centre’s exhibition on Secret Intelligence and Hidden Evidence from the University’s archive is now open.

Published inIntelligenceSecret Intelligence and Covert Action

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