Publisher: Pegasus Books
Publication date: 1/8/2013
BBC journalist Gordon Corera describes a crowd of MI6 agents gathered at Westminster Abbey under a grey sky to bid farewell to one of their own, Daphne Park, a retired controller with the British Secret Service.
“There was a colourful account of the African upbringing of a child of Empire and the story of her passing secret messages to her Ambassador in Moscow in the 1950s on the dance floor.”
The scene might be reminiscent of the fictional funeral of “M” in the “007” film, Skyfall. Unlike the character played by Dame Judi Dench, Park retired as a top MI6 agent after four decades and then went on to serve in Parliament.
Corera writes about Park as well as other extraordinary British Secret Service agents in The Art of Betrayal: The Secret History of MI6. The book, which reads like a satisfying spy novel, grew out of a decade of Corera’s reporting on British and American intelligence for BBC Radio.
Corera sets aside the mythology surrounding storied double agents and masterminds for gripping accounts of the real-life men and women who performed intelligence work. He charts the history of MI6 back to post-war Vienna, where the career of Daphne Park began.
According to Corera, Park’s Field Intelligence Agency Technical (FIAT) was in charge of tracking down war criminals in refugee camps and extracting valuable scientists. She became one of the few women doing the routine work of espionage in Vienna. She witnessed both British and American attempts to keep rocket scientists and chemists out of the hands of the Russians.
Culture differences separated the two spy agencies, who distrusted each other.
“How the cash-strapped British Secret Service housed in the Broadway buildings by St James’s tube station, with its brown linoleum floors, grotty furnishings and bare lightbulbs, must have gazed in envy at the wealth of its younger, brasher cousin.”
After a turn in London as coordinating officer for MI6 agents in Germany, Park was posted to the Belgian Congo. She rejected a villa with a pool in the segregated diplomatic area patrolled by armed guards with Dobermans and opted for a house six miles out of Leopoldville, where Congolese nationalists would drop by to deliver rumors or borrow books.
“Only once did she feel threatened, when she heard robbers at the window. She bellowed out of the window that she was a witch and that their extremities would drop off if they continued to bother her.”
A crucial part of her work involved building trusted, confidential contacts among the Congolese and opportunities for back-channel talks far flung from the betrayal in John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
“For Park, Secret Service work was about trust, not betrayal. For that reason she had a deep loathing of the bleaker fictional portrayals of her world.”
Park won over the men of MI6 convincing them she was an effective operative who built good relationships. When the CIA began a covert coup to oust Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, Park maintained that the MI6 did not provide agents with a license to kill.
According to Corera, she was supplied with a store of gadgets by Q, the real-life Quartermaster for MI6, like a hollowed-out cricket ball or a bullet-shaped ‘rectal concealing device” for hiding or passing information.
After the 1961 execution of Lumumba, which was never linked to the CIA, Park left the Congo for Hanoi and supplied intelligence to the United States and the United Kingdom throughout the Cold War.
The Art of Betrayal by Gordon Corera is a highly worthwhile read about the men and women of the British Secret Service and its remarkable history.
Category: Nonfiction, History