11 February 2016

British Intelligence, Counterinsurgency, and the Colonies

February 9, 2016

H-Diplo Roundtable XVII, 12 on Confronting the Colonies: British Intelligence and Counterinsurgency [1 February 2016]

H-Diplo Roundtable Review
Volume XVII, No. 12 (2016)
1 February 2016

Roundtable Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Roundtable and Web Production Editor: George Fujii
Introduction by Michael Goodman

Rory Cormac. Confronting the Colonies: British Intelligence and Counterinsurgency. London: Hurst and Company, 2013. ISBN: 9780199354436 (hardcover, $50.00).


Introduction by Michael Goodman, King’s College London

Rory Cormac’s book on Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee and the Cold War in the colonies is a timely addition to the existing literature. Intelligence continues to grow as an academic subject and, increasingly, is finding its way into broader surveys of international history. Most books on the subject have dealt with the more traditional confines of the Cold War; the battle between East and West, of capitalism versus communism. As Cormac makes clear, for Britain the situation was far more complicated. There were questions about its relationship to the United States and the complications that arose over Britain’s colonies; the Soviet aspect was different, too, given Britain’s role within Europe and its proximity to Russia. In short, Britain found itself trying to play a role between the responsibilities for its grand Cold War position, its European allies, and its commitment to the Commonwealth and decolonisation. The underlying foundation to all of these was Britain’s intelligence network. 

Cormac’s approach is to consider how the central intelligence apparatus in London approached and tackled what was going on in the colonies, taking into account the changing climate of the Cold War. The three reviewers bring a significant expertise to their task in reviewing Cormac’s book. Martin Thomas of Exeter University, one of Britain’s leading academics on colonial matters, intelligence and security, has published a vast amount on related topics. Karl Hack, an expert in empire, counter-insurgency and the Cold War at the Open University, has published a number of important works that border upon Cormac’s topic, particular in relation to Malaya. Danny Steed, formerly of Exeter University and now working in the Cabinet Office, has focussed on Britain’s Cold War intelligence efforts in the Middle East. All three reviewers provide a level of expertise in their comments that underlines their knowledge and grasp of the subjects Cormac writes upon. Their judgements are balanced, and insightful, and serve to emphasise the importance of Cormac’s book.

For Cormac, to understand how Britain fought the intelligence war in its colonies is to view the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) as its beating heart. Created in 1936 to remedy the lack of co-ordination in Britain’s intelligence community, by the end of the Second World War the JIC had become absolutely integral not only to Britain’s intelligence efforts, but to its post-war planning and foreign policy. It is for this reason that Cormac precedes each detailed historical chapter with an examination of how the JIC changed over the period in question. Operating underneath the central, Whitehall-based JIC were a series of regional off-shoots. At the next level down the two regional organising structures – JIC(Far East) and JIC(Middle East) oversaw proceedings, whilst in the theatre more specific Local Intelligence Committees provided regular updates. One of Cormac’s great strengths is finding the archival documents that have enabled him to bridge the roles played by each of these. The result is that, for the first time, we can see how Britain’s intelligence umbrella network operated at home and overseas.

Cormac’s book is about more than just intelligence though. The clue is in the title – ‘Confronting the Colonies.’ This is no passive account of intelligence collection; rather it attempts to show how intelligence was acquired and analysed and, importantly, the role it played in policy formulation. In many ways this latter aspect, the relationship and impact of intelligence upon policy, is the hardest to discern. Archival records are often patchy, but even where there is evidence of intelligence assessments and policy production, there is usually little to suggest a connection between the two. This difficult situation is even more complicated when ‘policy’ is not perceived in the grand, strategic sense, but rather in terms of what is happening in London and in the theatre. To these tasks Cormac brings a refreshing approach, assisted by his uncanny knack of locating long-concealed archival gems.

Cormac focusses on four main case-studies in his book: Malaya (1948-51), Cyprus (1955-9), Aden (1962-7), and Oman (1968-75). Despite Malaya having been the subject of a great number of accounts, Cormac’s approach is novel because it skips most of the operational detail, instead concentrating on the relationship between intelligence and policy, between London and Malaya itself. The other three chapters tackle the subject matter in a similar way but are far more revealing because the subject matter has been far less written about.

The reviewers highlight not only the importance of the book in general, but some of the more specific and nuanced areas that it reveals. All the reviews identify Cormac’s expertise in archival research. Thomas calls the book “meticulous,” and his review highlights the difficulties in finding a documentary trail and the impressive manner in which Cormac has managed to resolve this. He emphasises the strength of Cormac’s book, particularly in dealing with the less obvious lessons that emerge. For instance, Thomas comments upon structural problems inherent to British intelligence in the late 1940s and the role played by the JIC in attempting to ameliorate these. The lesson, as both recognise, was in trying to assuring that the ‘dirty wars of empire’ did not rank lower in Whitehall thinking than the more conventional Cold War battles of the time. Thomas is complimentary of Cormac’s book, calling it a “sophisticated depiction” and agreeing with his overall verdict on the JIC.

In his review Hack comments on how the post-war JIC was more limited in membership and scope and, accordingly, focussed less on colonial matters. When Malaya erupted in 1948 it was, therefore, not particularly well-placed to comment on local matters, and so its value was derived from internationalising what was happening. Hack correctly identifies the lacunae between the local and specific intelligence and security organisation, the Malayan Security Service, and the regional and central JICs. He agrees with Cormac’s contention that the Cold-War emphasis in the late 1940s “distracted” it from what was happening peripherally, and suggests that actually it was not the JIC’s job to consider “local aspects.” Where the JIC did play a role, as both recognise, was in creating the intelligence structures that would resolve the crisis. This is an important part of the JIC’s work and one which is often overlooked in accounts that focus specifically on assessment; it provides vindication of Cormac’s detailed accounts of the JIC’s organisation. Hack is complimentary about the book, describing Cormac as “adept” and noting that it adds a ‘new focus’ to previously written work on the various conflicts.

Steed’s review sees Cormac’s arguments as lying “not in revelations to each particular case study,” but rather in the “overall trajectory” of the JIC. He contends that Cormac “effectively” proves his argument about the evolution and success of the JIC as a model and of its relevance to policy making. Steed underlines the importance of Cormac’s book in tackling the JIC’s rise in the jungles of Whitehall, let alone those of the countries upon which he focusses. It was not just a Cold-War battle raging, but one between colonial, foreign, and domestic issues, for which the JIC, and Whitehall itself, had to position itself. One response was for the JIC to expand its remit to include colonial issues, but also a broadening of the de facto interpretation of intelligence: away from a purely military, battlefield-derived content.

At a broader level, as Cormac and the three reviewers identify, are a number of important issues. The first is the way in which intelligence was defined and approached in the first half of the Cold War; this was in the sense of military versus political reporting, but also in terms of strategic versus tactical and operational forecasting. Second is the manner in which intelligence targets changed, often at variance with policy concerns. This was particularly the case with the colonies and Commonwealth, for which there was varying political interest and where Anglo-American approaches were often at odds. Third, there is the vexatious question of the impact of intelligence on policy; or, to put it another way, was the effort worth the money and resources and what difference did it really make? These are often the most difficult questions to answer and Cormac provides an admirable job in tackling them.

Confronting the Colonies is a fantastic book. It is richly documented, nicely written, and provides a rounded view of the JIC, British intelligence, policy, and decolonisation. As the reviewers recognise, it is an important book on an important subject. It is an admirable exercise in the effort required to untangle Britain’s intelligence past but one which, when undertaken by suitably qualified individuals, can merit the rewards and accolades that this book deserves.


Rory Cormac is an Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Nottingham. Confronting the Colonies, reviewed here, is his first book. He is currently an AHRC Early Career Research Fellow exploring British approaches to covert action, 1945-1968.

Michael S Goodman is Professor of Intelligence and International Affairs in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He has published widely in the field of intelligence history, including most recently The Official History of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Volume I: From the Approach of the Second World War to the Suez Crisis (Routledge, 2014), which was chosen as one of The Spectator’s books of the year. It was the subject of a recent H-Diplo/ISSF roundtable, athttp://issforum.org/roundtables/8-2-joint-intelligence-committee.

Karl Hack is Senior Lecturer and Director of the Ferguson Centre for Asian and African Studies at The Open University, UK. He previously taught at the Nanyang Techological University, Singapore. He has published extensively on Southeast Asia, British imperialism, and counterinsurgency. His most recent book was (with Kevin Blackburn),War Memory and the Making of Malaysia and Singapore (Singapore: NUS Press, 2012), and he is currently writing a history of the Malayan emergency for Cambridge University Press.

Danny Steed is Lecturer in Strategy and Defence at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute. He is involved in the design and delivery of the MA in Applied Security Strategy, and has research interests in strategic theory, strategic history, intelligence, British defence policy, and cyber warfare.

Martin Thomas is Professor of Imperial History and a Director of the Centre for the Study of War, State, and Society at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on French international policy and colonial politics. His most recent book is Fight or Flight: Britain, France, and their Roads from Empire published with Oxford University Press in 2014.
Review by Karl Hack, The Open University, UK

When agreeing to review Rory Cormac’s book, my main and rather selfish questions were whether a history of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) in relation to decolonisation could tell me something new about the end of empire, and whether it would shed new light on individual insurgencies and counterinsurgencies.

At one level, the answer turned out to be that because of the changing nature of the committee, it depends on which period you are referring to, In the 1940s the JIC sat in the Chiefs of Staff committee structure, was dominated by military representatives under chairmanship of a Foreign Office official, and was therefore mainly geared to threat appreciations and collation related to conventional war. Its job was to ensure that military threats received inter-service and interdepartmental scrutiny so that intelligence became ‘strategic intelligence’ in a broader sense, and to ensure that its products reached the relevant consumers in Whitehall. It was assisted in this by regional bodies in the JIC (Middle East), JIC (Far East) and (later) JIC (Gulf). Again, however, these had regional and strategic foci, so much so that (as Cormac notes), the Head of the Malayan Security Service (MSS) was denied membership of the JIC (FE) since that would make the latter body too parochial. The JIC (FE)’s remit stretched from India to Japan.

Cormac convincingly traces a trajectory by which the JIC [and, something he is less detailed on, the JIC (FE)] gradually better integrated colonial interests, and also became more involved in appreciations of colonial situations. Hence a Colonial Office official was added to the JIC in London in late 1948, and in 1957 the JIC moved from the COS committee structure into the Cabinet Office, and Ministers were added to the circulation list (28). By 1964 the creation of the Ministry of Defence and reduction of the military membership further tilted the committee’s balance in favour of broader topics and situations. In addition, however, the real key was that the JIC was unlikely to have much to offer on the conflict itself and so the intelligence required was mainly local. By contrast, ‘all-source’ intelligence became more critical the more internationalised a conflict became.

Hence for Chapter 2 on Malaya 1948-51 Cormac stresses that the JIC could offer little added value on local events, and focussed instead, for instance, on the question of how far the Malayan communists were linked first to Soviet and then to Chinese communism. This is precisely what we would expect, for the JIC, and even the regional JIC (FE), had added value precisely when intelligence became more regional, international, or ‘strategic’, or when signals intelligence and GCHQ could add input on what foreign governments and militaries were doing. Furthermore, there were multiple channels and forms for assessments to flow to London. Information from the region went direct from Governors and High Commissioners to the Colonial Office (CO) and hence to the Cabinet Malaya Committee and upwards, often with little need for extra-regional or London input. It also went from the Singapore-based Security Intelligence Far East, and JIC (FE), through the Commissioner-General for Southeast Asia’s Office in which they were located, direct to either the CO or Foreign Office.

More critically, intelligence transmittal, collation, and analysis presumed that the raw material was sound and sufficient in the first place. Whether or not London would get more forewarning of the Malayan Emergency in 1948 had everything to do with the cutting-edge collection of intelligence in Malaya and Singapore. My ongoing work for a new book on the Emergency, however, suggests that the key thing missing from regional intelligence was not something the JIC (FE) or London could have provided. MSS had in one respect done well. The High Commissioner of Malaya, Sir Edward Gent, knew by mid-1948 that the communists had launched a campaign to intimidate and kill labour opponents. By 15 June (the day before an Emergency was declared) he had already ungently asked London for additional deportation and Emergency powers.[1] The much vaunted 5 murders (3 of them European) the following day therefore merely hastened the inevitable, and were new only in concentration, not type. The MSS did not, however, give Gent the key he needed to unlock London’s earlier granting of additional powers. The CO did not want to be tarred as repressive, or prematurely force enemies underground. The thing MSS and so Malaya lacked, therefore, was the specific knowledge that these murders were not just part of a labour campaign, but rather an integral part of decisions made in March and May 1948 to prepare the ground for full revolutionary warfare by around August 1948. They missed the fact that the communists did indeed have a ‘plan,’ and that actual events from April were a preparatory stage. Without that information, it is doubtful anything or any committee could have moved London faster.[2]

Cormac argues that London’s subsequent focus on the wider Cold War aspect distracted it from local aspects. That is true, though it could also be argued that it was not so much distracted as properly focussed. The local aspects were not its main job, and were covered through other channels. For instance, it was right for the JIC (FE) and JIC to be interested in late 1948 in how far local events had been and were inspired by international communism, and they were right to deduce that there was a degree of discussion of the change in communist line worldwide within Malaya, even if MI5’s Percy Sillitoe did stray beyond the correct limitation that influence did not mean orders (45-7).

The JIC in London remained marginal to the Emergency, as Cormac acknowledges. This was mainly because there were few direct international impacts on that conflict, except in terms of international events raising local communist morale. The communists never received outside military help, ran only very small numbers back and forth to China in the 1950s, and did not directly follow China’s recommendations on policy until 1958. Cormac nevertheless shows that the JIC did help to instigate the setting up of Local Intelligence Committees (LICs) in individual colonial territories in 1948, as part of a move to greater if occasional interest in local structures. He also shows that occasionally it helped to source personnel for colonial intelligence structures in localities. But in terms of threat assessment, it naturally remained focussed on those issues where local events had wider ramifications. Hence it was one of many bodies looking at threat assessments for Southeast Asia in a ‘hot’ or conventional war. In this respect the whole thing repeated pre-1941 debates. The local military commanders insisted that should Indochina fall in hot or cold war, Thailand might crumble, and that if it did the only place from which Malaya could be quarantined would be a narrow neck of the Kra Isthmus in southern Thailand, as Cormac notes (53). Hence (something beyond Cormac’s remit) prewar plans for a pre-emptive invasion of southern Thailand to seize a ‘Songkhla’ position were resurrected by 1950, with all the pre-war sensitivities from the Foreign Office that this should never happen except in extremis. Those arguments had meant that in 1941 such an operation, poised for launch in December, had been left too late and eventually abandoned, leaving British forces scurrying backwards. What is surprising is that none of the military staffs or JICs seem to have pointed out this odd piece of déjà vu in planning.

Chapter 3 on Cyprus scarcely shows the JIC with any more influence. Cormac argues that the “Cold War” prism may have deflected JIC from taking EOKA more seriously early on (89-91, 100). Though, again, you could argue that focussing on the more international aspects was the JIC’s job. The key to missing EOKA’s explosive potential seems to be the quality of local intelligence (colonial and Foreign Office). With colonial and Foreign Office officials believing in 1955-56 that EOKA had limited potential unless Greek backing increased, the JIC was never going to have the inputs necessary to give earlier warning.[3] In contrast to Malaya, the Colonial Office was, however, now able to add a section to weekly reports (the ‘Grey book’) circulated in Whitehall, though again, Cormac acknowledges that this possibly added relatively little (101). More seriously, the wider JIC assessments on NATO, Greece, and the Arab-Israeli War seem to have been inadequately integrated with Colonial Office views, and at key points riven by error (89-98, notably over the likely impact of the Suez operation). Cormac largely sidesteps Suez as not strictly colonial, but in many ways it might provide the best mirror to dodgy dossiers prior to Iraq II, with erroneous assumptions about possible enemies, and Ministers’ ‘agenda-setting’ threatening to corrupt assessments.

Chapter 4 on Aden and the Federation of South Arabia in 1962-67 allows Cormac to show that JIC assessments took a more influential role (105-56). First, this was because this conflict was more tightly integrated with international and wider strategic concerns that fitted the JIC remit. The Federation was affected by the civil war between Republicans and Royalists in its neighbour, Yemen. The Republicans in that war in turn received extensive Egyptian help. So when the Governor of Aden and High Commissioner of the Federation called for greater assistance for Yemeni royalists, and greater reprisals for cross-border raids and weapons traffic, the JIC could bring assessment of Yemen and Egypt to play. At the least, they could remind people that Yemeni actions were in part a response to Royalists taking refuge in the Federation. Cormac also shows us, for the first time, signals intelligence (142, for instance on military units in the Yemen) really coming into play. The JIC’s ability to bring to bear wider perspectives and signals intelligence, he claims, allowed the JIC to help downplay the Royalists prospects, and moderate calls for action to support them or punish Yemen. Furthermore, the JIC Chairman also chaired the Joint Action Committee which from July 1964 oversaw limited covert action near the border (147-51). It is in this chapter that Cormac shows the JIC at its most active, partly because its nature and role had evolved considerably, and partly because of the internationally interpenetrated nature of the struggle.

By Chapter 5 on the struggle for the Dhofar region of the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman, the JIC had evolved further. Its JI Staff had been replaced by a more general Assessments Staff, and there was now a high level Intelligence Coordinator. Cormac claims that by this time the JIC was providing effective all-source intelligence disseminated to and used by key Whitehall players up to Prime Ministers Harold Wilson and Edward Heath, and underpinning discussions on issues such as how much aid to give the Sultan (182-5).

In summary, Cormac provides an interesting and surefooted ‘decolonisation’ side-path to the recent explosion in works on the JIC. These include Michael Goodman’s the Official History of the Joint Intelligence Committee: Volume 1: From the Approach to the Second World War to Suez (London: Routledge, 2014), and a documents collection that Cormac is a co-editor of with Richard Aldrich and Michael Goodman, namely, Spying on the World: The Declassified Documents of the Joint Intelligence Committee, 1936-2013 (Edinburgh University Press, 2014).[4] It is therefore no surprise that he is so adept at interweaving the story of JIC’s development, and at bringing out previous ‘dodgy dossier’ moments, such as an April 1964 request for an assessment to help rebut UN criticism of Royal Air Force (RAF) bombing of the Yemeni Fort of Harib (130-1). He is also adept at showing how weekly reviews of intelligence and overlapping roles on different committees infuse intelligence into policy-making. It adds a new focus, and for the later conflicts might even provoke minor adjustment of campaign histories. Occasionally the addition of lessons about intelligence in general look slightly awkwardly foisted onto local stories, but together the warnings about agenda-setting, cognitive closure (51-2), the need for all-source intelligence, and the inherent tensions in a Whitehall preference for consensus are well summarised for the non-intelligence expert. They also provoke a slightly more profound question, which is: how far does the very consensual nature of the Whitehall process and of JIC reports in particular, with their lack of dissenting footnotes (19), minority sections, or options, fuel potentially lethal uses of over-flattened assessments?
Review by Danny Steed, University of Exeter

In Confronting the Colonies Rory Cormac has produced a most welcome addition to the literature on intelligence that contributes much as well to the literature on counterinsurgency. Cormac’s declared intent was to explore “the responses of British intelligence to insurgencies in the period from 1948 to 1975” (3). The insurgencies of choice to be explored are the campaigns in Malaya, Cyprus, Aden, and Oman, in order to reflect Britain’s imperial and post-imperial contexts.

The book’s primary arguments lay not in revelations to each particular case study, but instead the overall trajectory of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) during this time between 1948-1972. As such this reviewer holds there to be four primary arguments that Cormac very effectively establishes: first, that the JIC is a case study of successful, if at times belated, evolution in the post-war world. The JIC had successfully evolved from a military-centric committee in the Second World War into a body that gradually took a more inclusive view of intelligence and threats to national security, thereby ensuring its continued relevance to British policy throughout the years of the Cold War and decolonisation. When compared to the other notable literature on the JIC, such an argument is most welcome. Former chairman of the JIC Percy Cradock’s history of the committee[5] took very much a case-by-case approach that, while detailing JIC activity, did little to inform readers about the trials and tribulations that the JIC underwent in its organisational evolution. Cormac’s book, along with Michael Goodman’s recent official history of the JIC,[6] serves as complimentary works establishing the evolutionary nature of the JIC. Confronting the Colonies is also essential in detailing the tensions that the JIC’s evolution caused within Whitehall itself, in particular the regular tensions with the Colonial Office that resulted throughout the campaigns in Malaya, Cyprus, and Aden, where competing analyses vied for political attention.

Second, as implied above, this evolution was necessary because the JIC had recognised that the scope of intelligence had broadened beyond battlefield and military concerns. Intelligence had to consider collection and analysis across the political, scientific, and economic fields in order to become a service of relevance to the British policy-making elite. Thirdly, by pursuing this broadened scope of intelligence that moved beyond military factors, the JIC developed and evolved a more inclusive perspective of risks and threats to national security that became more sensitive to the ideological grievances of local actors, as well as to possible international linkages. How risk was understood was fundamentally evolving, and Cormac makes a strong case for the JIC being at the forefront of developing such an inclusive perspective.

Finally, Cormac is exactly right to declare that counterinsurgency “is a strategic matter and therefore requires intelligence at the very top” (21). Cormac has targeted a gap in counterinsurgency thinking that has been prevalent, particularly in recent times during what Jason Burke labels “the 9/11 wars.”[7] This gap is that counterinsurgency thinking has neglected the role of strategic intelligence, focusing overwhelmingly instead on operational level intelligence and the mechanics of making intelligence work in theatres such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Cormac makes the point very well.

This last point on the role of strategic intelligence in counterinsurgency is a most timely contribution. It is indeed curious how academic consideration of the role that intelligence plays at the top of political decision-making in counterinsurgency has been neglected. This is particularly so for two reasons: first is the fact that Intelligence Studies as an area of inquiry devotes significant attention, especially theoretically, to establishing how and if intelligence actually affects and informs the policy development process.[8] Therefore it is interesting that during recent times when counterinsurgency has dominated the strategic attention of the West, little scholarly attention has focused on the role of strategic intelligence. Second, and even more telling, is the fact that this has not happened in Britain, given that several inquiries into the Iraq War have been held focusing on the role of intelligence. At a time, therefore, when, in Britain most certainly, lessons from the involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan are sought, Cormac has provided a healthy tonic that establishes the role strategic intelligence has played, as well as drawing out many of the lessons from Britain’s imperial past that should weigh on the minds of those considering intervention abroad.

Across the chosen case studies themselves, Cormac draws out some notable points of continuity that serve to reveal that, although on the whole the JIC was successful at change, the committee routinely encountered the same weaknesses and displayed the same mistakes throughout each campaign. The first weakness is that the JIC failed to provide adequate warning of escalating violence in all cases. Cormac’s contribution in this regard is not to simplistically label this as an intelligence failure, but to identify why this was the case. First and most importantly, in all case studies the local intelligence apparatus was in a state of disrepair at the outset. This resulted in the need for an urgent restructuring that in all cases except Oman the JIC took a lead role in managing. Despite being able to help establish more effective local intelligence partners, such changes were of little use in the initial stages when policy-makers expected some form of advanced warning; the JIC was hostage to the information it was fed from local agency. Second, Cormac also relates the expectations of the policy elite to confusion about the post-war role of the JIC, whereby the committee’s charter did not explicitly attribute a warning function, but policy consumers expected them to perform the function nevertheless. Although the JIC has since evolved a warning function into its parameters, the experience that Cormac traces indicates a problem of the management of expectation, whereby policy consumers were largely unaware of what task the JIC was mandated with.

The second point of continuity that Cormac establishes is the dynamic between the two dominating political contexts of the time, the Cold War and decolonisation. This is best examined in the case studies with consideration of the balance between the acceptance of the role of local agency, or a simplistic conflation with Cold-War dynamics. Cormac argues in the case of Malaya that there was a tendency to exaggerate the international aspect of the Emergency to the detriment of local agency, which he puts down to the aforementioned weakness in local intelligence to argue the case otherwise in London (51). This Cold-War dominance also asserted itself during the Cypriot insurgency, with strategic intelligence conceptualising Cyprus “as an international rather than colonial dispute.” (88) This dynamic reveals another point established by Cormac, that “JIC assessments are the product of their environment; they are shaped by the winds of Whitehall.” (14) The JIC struggled to maintain an effective balance in assessment across the campaigns explored because they were just as susceptible to the dominating political framework of the time in the Cold War. With the weaknesses in local intelligence that pervaded each campaign, it is only logical that exaggeration was encountered in conflating the troubles with the international Cold-War agenda. Cormac deftly handles this dynamic throughout the whole book and serves to warn about the risks carried with simply following the latest policy trend in Whitehall.

In the Oman case study however, Cormac identifies an interesting point of departure that carries implications for future JIC change. Cormac notes how the Omani context had shifted from imperial to post-imperial, with the JIC having to operate in an environment other than that of a British colony. The JIC had no established local apparatus, and had little hand in any reforms that took place as the impetus had shifted to the military, which commanded the jurisdiction (168). The intelligence management function that the JIC had developed in Malaya, Cyprus, and Aden, declined significantly in Oman due to this post-imperial context where Britain was no longer operating in a colony. Overall, the JIC contributed far less to the counterinsurgency campaign in Oman than it had in the other campaigns explored. This carries an underlying theme linked with Cormac’s argument that JIC change was generally reactionary (199). While the JIC was successful at evolution and adaptation, in all the case studies explored in the book change was slow at the outset, and the same problems of local agency and a tendency to misrepresent international issues over local ones persisted. By the time of Oman, when the JIC had built an established practice of strategic intelligence for counterinsurgency, the context had shifted and rendered much of its practice almost redundant.

The importance that this point carries for possible future changes in the intelligence machinery is clear. Intelligence services need to beware that yesterday’s adaptation may not be tomorrow’s solution; if the context becomes a radical departure from previous experience, new thinking will be required in order to reorient one’s service to retain relevance. This lesson was clearly lost in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where the litany of competing political narratives and frameworks can make the Cold War/decolonisation tussle explored by Cormac appear simple by comparison. Cormac does very well to highlight this dimension in its historical occurrence, but could certainly have further related its significance to contemporary issues. He does so elsewhere in the book, as the entire work opens with a discussion on the Iraq War and the place of intelligence. The lesson of contextual shifts aligned with organisational adaptation is something to be pursued further than the fine work that Cormac has done in his chosen cases.

There are, however, two critical points that need to be made of Cormac’s work. First is his strong implication throughout that it was the post-war counterinsurgency campaigns that provided the primary impetus for the broadening of the intelligence agenda. This betrays Cormac’s focus on counterinsurgency that, while generally doing very well to warn against the bias that a dominating narrative can produce, falls prey to one by leaving the impression that it was counterinsurgency that primarily drove the JIC to recognise that intelligence had moved beyond the battlefield. In fact, this realisation was also evolutionary within British intelligence, reflecting an acknowledgement dating back to the Second World War that consideration had to go beyond purely military affairs. The war years had proven to Britain that intelligence had to consider subversion, ideology, scientific technical intelligence, and economics.[9] This was a perspective noted in the JIC’s own history on the matter, when it stated that it had become apparent that “intelligence had spread increasingly into the political, economic and scientific fields.”[10] A more nuanced acceptance of this would have further reinforced Cormac’s central argument of JIC change being of an evolutionary nature that was spurred by many factors; it was many factors, including the experience of the Second World War, that informed the broadening scope of intelligence. The security threats of the counterinsurgency campaigns simply provided the most immediate outlets for the JIC to pursue its adaptation to operating towards those broadened requirements, rather than the underlying cause of them.

The second critical point relates to the learning practices of the JIC. While they are not the primary focus of the book, Cormac raises important points related to organisational learning that could perhaps have enjoyed further reflection. Cormac’s detailing of how the JIC struggled to learn adequately from campaign to campaign indicates a need for a deeper exploration of how organisations do, or do not learn from their experiences for future practice. Not only this, but Cormac also indicates the problem of speed in instigating change with his Oman case study. He establishes very well that by the time the JIC had effectively come full circle with the Omani insurgency in knowing what to do on a counterinsurgency campaign, it encountered in Oman a very different context where old colonial lessons did not apply so neatly in a non-colonial setting. The question must therefore be asked how an organisation reacts to a new context in time to be of relevance to the policy objectives. This is very important in current times, where we have seen relentless questioning of the intelligence machinery since the Iraq war. For the future, in what has been increasingly described as “an age of uncertainty”,[11] it must be strongly considered how the JIC can adapt to a security context that lacks easy – but by no means simplistic – bifurcation between Cold War and decolonisation. The current context instead operates in a manner much more akin to that of Emile Simpson’s ‘kaleidoscopic’[12] concept of constantly shifting contexts and parameters. Admittedly this is not Cormac’s objective, and his work does very well to point the way for other researchers who may pursue this avenue of inquiry. It would have been most welcome however, for Cormac to have some reflection on this strong undercurrent throughout his work, and as it stands the reader is left to infer from this fascinating area.

Cormac presents solid conclusions that are extremely well balanced and informed by the broad experience of British intelligence during these counterinsurgency campaigns. He identifies well the tensions that the JIC encountered with other players, notably the Colonial Office, during the time of decolonisation. He warns sagely against the oversimplification of a grand narrative in the Cold War that merely reflects the dominant focus of the time, thus robbing decision makers of the nuances required of local circumstance. Of course this warning is compounded by the weaknesses of local intelligence encountered, thereby stifling the ability to counter simplistic, yet dominant, arguments in Whitehall. He also traces very well the gradual evolution of the JIC from a body that could easily have found itself following the way of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and disbandment in a world that no longer needed it, into an adaptive – albeit slowly – organisation that accepted not only the changing world around it, but also the changing character of intelligence in order to broaden its eyes. The JIC, although needing to see the writing on the wall before changing, has consistently changed when needed, and maintained a position of increasing relevance to Whitehall. This is no small feat in the political jungle.
Review by Martin Thomas, University of Exeter

It is now more than a decade since the revelations about British governmental cherry-picking of British intelligence findings to facilitate the 2003 overthrow of Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein. The resulting cynicism about British political misuse of intelligence makes Rory Cormac’s meticulous reconstruction of how Whitehall’s senior strategic intelligence forum, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), responded to the challenge of anti-colonial insurgencies in the British Empire appears less startling than might otherwise have been the case. Sharply observed and keenly aware that intelligence material is liable to misinterpretation, Cormac’s book is, however, strongly resonant. The picture that emerges is one of a purportedly integrated civil-military intelligence system rarely at ease or of one voice in response to the rising currents of insurgent anti-colonialism after 1945. Solidly conventional military appointees were outflanked by politicians and colonial administrators who seized the opportunity to advance their particular interests through the supposedly authoritative pages of the JIC’s intelligence summaries. In what was becoming established practice, these summaries enjoyed wide circulation within British government even though, as Cormac readily concedes, it remains difficult to trace their precise impact on high policy decisions. Whether at the metropolitan centre of power or at the sharp edge of imperial counterinsurgency, Counterintelligence (COIN) practitioners found it difficult to do more than react to methods of unconventional warfare that imposed codes of silence or, at minimum, non-committal quiescence, on the civilian populations caught up in Britain’s last colonial wars. It is here that Cormac’s book takes flight. His story is as much about the struggle to secure any exploitable intelligence as it is about the differing interpretations applied to it.

Whether it be in Malaya, Cyprus, Aden, or Oman – the four regional case studies that he examines – Cormac finds time and again that the raw information supplied to colonial officials, and refined by intelligence analysts en route to its final destination on the JIC’s review agenda, was either too patchy, too meagre, or simply too banal to make for eye-opening policy assessments. Britain’s senior civil-military intelligence committee (which became more civilian and less military in composition over the course of the 1950s, a shift confirmed by relocation to the Cabinet Office in 1957) is thus represented, more or less, as making the best of some pretty slim intelligence pickings. So much so, particularly in relation to Cyprus and Aden, that one of the book’s most useful findings relates not to its declared subject, the JIC, but to a more abstract dilemma intrinsic to authoritarian, non-consensual government: how to acquire constant and reliable information from subject populations that are too hostile or too frightened to provide it. At a more mundane level, the problem of translating any such information obtained – and the leeway left for interpreters to impose their own views upon such material – reminds us of the often-decisive influence of the local intermediary or the local informant.[13] These first links in the intelligence cycle could be as decisive in shaping the intelligence received as the high officials of the JIC were in analysing it.

This last point is brought out neatly in Cormac’s assessment of JIC responses to the Malayan Emergency. At the outbreak of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) uprising in Malaya and for some considerable time after it, both the JIC and Britain’s security services more broadly struggled to understand what was going on. It was, of course, harder still to offer coherent analytical predictions of likely developments. The most basic intelligence problem is well known: colonial Malaya’s security forces lacked sufficient Chinese language speakers to connect with the migrant worker communities that were the bedrock of MCP support.[14] Network contacts were commensurately few, despite the earlier success of British efforts to ‘turn’ certain high-profile MCP figures. That being said, and as Cormac demonstrates smartly, there were deeper structural problems at the level of intelligence analysis. For one thing, the JIC, although theoretically at the apex of Whitehall’s intelligence pyramid, was still a rookie player in government. It was also schizoid in character. Its combined membership of service ministry directors of intelligence and the heads of Britain’s internal and external security services, MI5 and MI6, rarely shared the diplomatic concerns of the Foreign Office Under-Secretary who, by convention, served as committee chairman. Beholden to the service chiefs and yet headed by a Foreign Office official, the committee was also reliant on the quality of material submitted to it by another, lower tier of intelligence bureaucracy, the Joint Intelligence Staff, whose membership and conclusions tended to replicate the inter-departmental rivalries of the JIC itself.

During the first post-war decade, Colonial Office representation, let alone any voices from the empire hot-spots with which the JIC became concerned, were conspicuous by their absence. Hardly surprising, then, that, in Cormac’s telling, the JIC preferred to concern itself with the geo-politics of Cold War grand strategy rather than the grubby reality of low intensity warfare in the colonies. At one level, this was only to be expected: the JIC, after all, was created to provide high-level intelligence appreciations on a global scale. Its approach was state-centric and international, not empire-centric and transnational. And, as Cormac indicates, the analysts’ tendency to project state-centred thinking and Cold War presumptions onto the minds of Britain’s MCP opponents was sometimes too strong to resist. At another level though, the JIC was but part of a British governmental apparatus that remained as strongly imperial in character after 1945 as before it. The underlying truth here, which Cormac perhaps implicitly, if not quite explicitly, acknowledges, is that the dirty wars of empire always ranked lower in the scale of Whitehall thinking, not just geo-politically, but racially and culturally as well.

Seen in this light, it makes sense to view the JIC’s generally closer engagement with the Cyprus Emergency of the late 1950s not just as evidence of a maturing intelligence bureaucracy, but as indicative of greater indulgence towards a Cypriot enemy – theEthniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston (National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters – or EOKA) that was, at once, more familiar and more readily respected. That is not to suggest that the JIC, or any arm of Britain’s security establishment, handled the Greek Cypriot community with kid gloves. Far from it: again, as in Malaya, intelligence collection was hampered by shortages of trained linguists and the diminishing number of Greek Cypriot police recruits once EOKA began targeting such ‘traitors’ for assassination. Again, the proclivity in extremis to extract information through torture undermined its value, not to mention the ethical standing of the entire British presence. Again, effective intelligence sharing between military commands, MI5 security service operatives, the Nicosia administration, and its Colonial Office masters was hampered by the jurisdictional rivalries between them. Cormac is surely right to stress the crucial importance of the “Report on Colonial Security” compiled in April 1955 by former Malaya Generalissimo, Sir Gerald Templer.[15]

Templer’s report was the precursor to the JIC’s move to the Cabinet Office, and thus to the Committee’s maturation with its roots at last buried close and deep at the centre of government. It also affirmed a basic point: the Colonial Office held prime responsibility for empire intelligence gathering. If this lent impetus to the Empire/Commonwealth intelligence culture so astutely identified by Philip Murphy, it also heralded an era of more fruitful co-operation between the JIC and those most directly responsible for administering Britain’s empire.[16] Cormac’s judgements in this context are solidly grounded. He identifies numerous shortcomings from the initial and misguided Cold War pre-occupation with repressing Cypriot Communists (perhaps the one credible local alternative to EOKA) to the perennial inter-departmental squabbling or, in his words, the ‘turf wars’ that tended to nullify JIC conclusions. Yet he discerns progress as well. First was the ability to look beyond the immediate concerns of tactical intelligence to pick out longer-term developments (although it bears emphasis that JIC insights were hardly earth-shattering and their likely policy impact was minimal). Second, and perhaps more significant, is committee members’ grudging recognition that their findings would stand or fall on the JIC’s ability to transcend the bickering between differing arms of government and security services.

Cormac’s book moves into the 1960s with discussion of the transition from civil breakdown to civil war and then internationalized proxy war in Aden and South Arabia (Yemen). It moves into the 1970s, and into its closing stages, with a shift in focus to the Persian Gulf and specifically what William Roger Louis termed the “British protected state” of Oman.[17] There, too, a left-leaning insurgent group, the Dhofar Liberation Front (DLF) drew succour from Yemeni example and from Egyptian and other Arab state backing. The resultant intelligence and security challenges were, in some ways, familiar: low-level urban terrorism, more extensive rural insurgency, and a paucity of police-generated intelligence about either. In other ways, though, the problems were much different. For once, fears of extending proxy war and Cold War escalation were justified. The British Empire was also not what it had been, decolonization substantially an accomplished fact geographically and politically, if not economically and culturally.

As Cormac stresses, the Labour government’s 1965 decision to prepare for withdrawal from Aden necessarily changed the context in which – and the purpose for which - JIC intelligence appreciations were made. The sense that the committee had by then come a long way from its late 1940s discomfort at the periphery of colonial intelligence-making to occupy a position firmly at its centre is confirmed by two factors. First, as Cormac shows, was the JIC’s care in evaluating the optimum moment strategically to publicize Labour’s withdrawal plan. Second was its well-justified caution about various schemes for covert British action in support of South Arabia’s Monarchists.[18] The advocates of such intervention, ranging from Britain’s maverick high commissioner, Kennedy Trevaskis, to the unrepentant diehards of the Conservative Party’s Suez Group, threatened to pitch Britain into proxy war. This, as the JIC wisely concluded, would become a quagmire.

Shifting from South Arabia to the Persian Gulf, by the time the DLF’s insurgency intensified from 1968 onwards, both the JIC and the imperial context in which it operated were much altered. The backroom Joint Intelligence Staff was supplanted by a more holistically oriented Cabinet Office Assessments Staff headed by former MI5 and SIS director Dick White. The JIC itself was sub-divided into two: JIC (A) retaining its focus on matters of international security; and JIC (B) concentrating on economic intelligence issues at Treasury behest. Sensibly enough, Cormac reads the impact of these changes against the backdrop of Britain’s imperial retrenchment, its protracted withdrawal from East of Suez, and the consequent rundown in Britain’s imperial intelligence-gathering capacity. Interestingly, the revamped JIC (A) emerges as altogether more sanguine, closer to the image of restraint and strategic savvy cultivated by its contemporary counterpart. It was relatively unperturbed by Yemeni, Egyptian and Soviet interference in Oman and cautious in its endorsement of formal military assistance to the Omani authorities. Indeed, the reinvented JIC emerges as a haven of consensual discussion. It remained impervious to the wilder proposals of on-the-spot military advisors and was seemingly immune to the political paranoia that afflicted Prime Minister Harold Wilson during his second term in office.

Cormac’s sophisticated depiction of the JIC’s post-war imperial journey thus ends with a better-integrated intelligence assessment structure at the heart of British government. His concluding review of the JIC’s overall policy impact is a fair one. On the one hand, the committee worked hard to collate intelligence material into coherent all-source appreciations for ministers and service chiefs, more successfully so after its initial reorganization in 1955-57. On the other hand, he reminds us that the JIC’s role was never to make policy recommendations. This leaves a fundamental question hanging nonetheless. Just what difference did the JIC make to the contested decolonization with which it was increasingly confronted? Cormac’s answer, perhaps, would be to remind us of the importance of nuance within the consensus-driven model of British governmental decision-making. But I must leave that to him.
Author’s Response by Rory Cormac, University of Nottingham

I would like to thank all three reviewers for taking the time to read my book, and engage with its arguments. I very much appreciate the warm words and am grateful for suggestions for development – it is frustrating that, by definition, such review feedback arrives only after publication!

I am glad that the reviewers noted the contemporary resonance of certain ideas within the book. Whilst it is overly simplistic (and idealistic) to implore current practitioners to learn directly from the past, recent history does highlight certain debates or issues which need to be considered by policymakers today. Danny Steed, in particular, is right to highlight the importance of both learning as well as reacting to new security contexts in light of recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. These contemporary issues lie beyond the scope of my book, but offer fascinating avenues for other researchers. 

Martin Thomas and Karl Hack point to the importance of the first steps in the intelligence cycle. Sources (or lack thereof) inevitably shape the work of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). Thomas’s remark about “the abstract dilemma intrinsic to authoritarian, non-consensual government” is particularly fascinating and, I agree, warranted more explicit discussion in the book. Hack makes a fair point (and I look forward to reading his book) on the inability of the JIC, or anyone else, to make London move faster at the outbreak of the Malayan Emergency. The bigger point here for me though, as Steed picks up on, is about expectations on the JIC. The JIC were not in any position to warn about the outbreak of violence – but the Chiefs of Staff expected them to. Another point can also be made on the JIC’s role. It is true that the committee might naturally have been expected to broaden events. However, its job was not only to internationalise events, it was tasked with providing all-source intelligence about specific countries, regions, or broader international trends. Internationalisation was not therefore inevitable.

Before concluding by addressing Thomas’s question, I would like to turn briefly to another of his comments. The “dirty wars of empire” always ranked lower racially and culturally as well as geopolitically. It did not come across in my book, but when researching I was quite struck by the racial stereotyping and profiling present in the JIC (and other) files. There is plenty of material for future research into the impact of race in intelligence assessments. Finally then, what difference did the JIC make? It was never the intention of this book to re-write counterinsurgency campaigns. Instead I primarily sought to present an evolving JIC, its place within Whitehall, and its changing understandings of security and intelligence. Nonetheless, yes, the JIC remind us of the importance of nuance within consensus-based assessments but it is more than that. Like many of its Cold War assessments, the JIC offered a calming and relatively sanguine presence at the heart of Whitehall. In such turbulent times, this was a positive influence. Moreover, growing JIC involvement formed part of a broader centralisation of imperial security within London (MI5 forms another example). London increasingly turned to intelligence assets to compensate for diminishing power.


[1] Roger Arditti and Philip Davies argue, in “Rethinking the Rise and Fall of the Malayan Secvurity Service, 1946-48”, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 43, 2 (2015), 292-316, that MI5 played a major place in MSS’s replacement by August 1948 by Special Branches for Malaya and Singapore, and that MSS did better than many critics allow.

[2] Hence Arditti and Davies’s argument that MSS did provide warning needs amending. Their intelligence has been criticised not for missing the labour killing and strike plans or rising violence, but rather for giving mixed signals as to whether this would lead to a wider, planned revolt soon. The key problem was that the events of April to June were not a full scale revolt per se, but a deliberate preparation for such a revolt.

[3] David French, Fighting EOKA: The British Counter-insurgency campaign in Cyprus, 1955-1959 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 74-72, is the best recent account of the 1955-56 confusion about EOKA potentialities.

[4] Also Robert Dower and Michael Goodman, ed., Learning from the Secret Past: Cases in British Intelligence History (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011).

[5] Percy Cradock, Know Your Enemy: How the Joint Intelligence Committee Saw the World (London: John Murray, 2002).

[6] Michael S. Goodman, The Official History of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Volume I: From the Approach of the Second World War to the Suez Crisis (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014).

[7] Jason Burke, The 9/11 Wars (London: Penguin, 2012).

[8] One will find numerous works detailing these aspects, however two very worthy edited compilations dealing with these issues at length are Loch K. Johnson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of National Security Intelligence (Oxford: OUP, 2010), and Johnson (ed.), Strategic Intelligence, Volumes 1-5 (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2006).

[9] Jones’s work on the secret war pursued is arguably the standard reference point, although by no means an exclusive one, on how intelligence was broadening beyond the battlefield. R. V. Jones, Most Secret War (London: Penguin, 2009).

[10] History of the Joint Intelligence Organisation, JIC (57) 123, 29 November, 1957. 4, para. 22. Within CAB 163/50, The National Archives.

[11] HMSO, A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The National Security Strategy(London: HMSO, 2010), available athttp://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/joint-select/national-security-strategy/useful-links/

[12] Emile Simpson, War from the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics(London: Hurst and Company, 2013), p. 5.

[13] See, for instance, the contributions by Thomas McClendon and Ralph Austen in Benjamin N. Lawrance, Emily Lynn Osborn, and Richard L. Roberts (eds.), Intermediaries, Interpreters, and Clerks: African Employees in the Making of Colonial Africa (Madison, WI.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), 77-93, 159-79.

[14] For recent broader discussions, see Huw Bennett, ‘‘A very salutary effect’: the counter-terror strategy in the early Malayan Emergency, June 1948 to December 1949,”Journal of Strategic Studies, 32:3 (2009), 417-31; Karl Hack, “Everyone lived in fear: Malaya and the British way of counter-insurgency,” Small Wars & Insurgencies, 23:4/5 (2012), 671-99.

[15] Cormac has analyzed the significance of this Report in two key articles: ‘Organizing Intelligence: An Introduction to the 1955 Report on Colonial Security,’ Intelligence & National Security, 25:6 (2010), 800-22; “‘A Whitehall Showdown?”: Colonial Office-Joint Intelligence Committee Relations in the Mid-1950s,” Journal of Imperial & Commonwealth History, 39:2 (2011), 249-61.

[16] Philip Murphy, “Creating a Commonwealth Intelligence Culture: the View from Central Africa, 1945-1965,” Intelligence & National Security, 17:3 (2002), 131-62.

[17] William Roger Louis, “The British Withdrawal from the Gulf, 1967-71,” Journal of Imperial & Commonwealth History, 31:1 (2003), 83-108, at 85.

[18] Regarding the alarming extent of these schemes and the curious combination of individuals involved, see Clive Jones, ‘“Where the State Feared to Tread”: Britain, Britons, Covert Action and the Yemen Civil War, 1962-64,’ Intelligence & National Security, 21:5 (2006), 717-37.

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