Boys are natural spies. Eager to perfect our crafty skills, we (my friends and I) always wanted to play the Indian—the wily Mohawk whistling a “bird” call signal from the forest depths beyond the campfire, or the silent Apache peering through a cleft rock at the unsuspecting trail riders below. Growing up on the edge of the Atlantic shore we shaded our evening lamps so the German U-boats we knew were out there could not see our cottages’ silhouettes.

We read Sherlock Holmes’s “Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans”—the designs for our side’s ultimate submarine, the most jealously guarded of all government secrets. At a boardwalk newsstand I discovered, for 35 cents, The Spy’s Bedside Book (1957), edited by Graham Greene, and his brother, Hugh. After reading Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901), about a boy spy in “The Great Game,” I felt my tradecraft was nearly complete.

Later, my Foreign Service Officer A-100 orientation class was titillated by the CIA briefer who told us he “wore two cloaks,” improbably one for operational, the other for analytical missions. Then came Orchids for Mother (1977), Aaron Latham’s roman à clef about James Jesus Angleton, the Agency’s Cold War counterintelligence maven whose Yale College literary bent gained the notice of Ezra Pound and provided Angleton with “The New Criticism” as a methodology for detecting any Soviet “mole” in the American intelligence system by “close reading” the evidence, stripped of all external theories.

At Yale I found spying-as-patriotism represented in the statue of Nathan Hale, hands bound, awaiting execution by the hated British (I was told a replica fronted CIA headquarters at Langley). Yale’s Robin Winks, a British Empire buff, explained the genealogy from Nathan Hale to James Jesus Angleton in Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939–1961 (1987). Yale men formed a core cadre in World War II’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which transmogrified into the CIA for the Cold War. It was an “old boy thing,” thrilling, romantic, and pursued in the shadows of world-historical events.

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Intelligence, we learn in Christopher Andrew’s monumental new book, The Secret World: A History of Intelligence, is entrenched in all we call history, and indeed in the human condition itself. Implicit throughout The Secret World’s hundreds of pages are four sets of questions:

What’s going on? This most obvious question is the most difficult to answer; strategy and policy flow from speculation about “what those guys are up to.” The answers offered are always varied and disputed. We can never be quite sure that we’ve got it right; but the attempt must be made.

What do they have or are trying to get—and how much does it matter? Where do they stand in the “race” to acquire an operational advantage? Despite great efforts to gain such knowledge, we are repeatedly surprised, as with the Soviet Sputnik or North Korea’s astonishing leap into long-range deliverable nuclear weapons.

Who is really in charge? What is the shifting internal political situation at the top? On this matter Americans often assume that the other party’s political contest is between “hardliners” and “moderates,” and that our task is to avoid acts that strengthen the former.

What is the intelligible field of study? Are we looking at a state or a “non-state actor”? An oligarchy? A family? If the area is large and long-in-place—a culture or a civilization—is there something to be learned from what Alexis de Tocqueville called the country’s point of departure?

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The Secret World provides an indispensable basis for recognizing intelligence as something far more than even aficionados of spy literature could imagine. Sun Tzu, unsurprisingly, opens the story. Andrew, who is emeritus professor of modern and contemporary history at the University of Cambridge, mentions the likelihood that The Art of War is an ancient forgery—precepts drawn together in the Warring States Period purporting to be of an earlier time in order to portray the military as not brutish but “Confucian.” The late Michael Handel of the U.S. Naval War College, in his study of enduring strategic principles, Masters of War (2000), concluded that Sun Tzu’s advice amounts to “Buy Low, Sell High”; students today adore Sun Tzu for his claim that wars can be won without fighting, and his advocacy of something like “soft power.” But the fundamental importance of The Art of War is its insistence on deception and intelligence.

The ancient world, Andrew shows, put in place the building blocks for any modern power’s understanding of intelligence gathering and operational consequences. But modern Western intelligence starts with Renaissance Venice’s innovative system of sending out resident ambassadors with diplomatic immunity and a closed diplomatic pouch through which they exchanged secret reports with the home office. Andrew reviews the significant national variations within this structure which, in large part, fed off and sought to manipulate the sudden flood of information produced by Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press technology. During the same period Russia developed its distinctive methods of state secrecy—notably strict compartmentalization so that no one agent would know what others were doing—a case study in how secrecy styles can emerge from a particular culture and then return to further shape that society’s character.

The world’s most sophisticated intelligence system, and the first to recruit agents among its most reviled ideological enemies, was created and directed by Queen Elizabeth I’s principal secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham. Walsingham established, between the English and the Dutch, the first international codebreaking alliance. Elizabeth’s great “Rainbow Portrait” vividly displays the primacy she attached to intelligence by the images on her robes of ears and eyes; their message was video et taceo, “I see but say nothing.” As Andrew concludes, “Nowhere in the world is there another portrait of a ruler that pays such tribute to the quality of the intelligence service.”

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At this point in The Secret World’s account of intelligence, the function becomes inseparable from international relations and foreign policy in general. Andrew’s vivid examples range from Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s addition of finance to the French state’s secret portfolio, to Britain’s intrigue-packed Jacobite uprising, at the end of which Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped “Over the Sea to Skye” through the machinations of an extensive Jacobite intelligence network. Intelligence and the American Revolution appear as well (though the secret diplomacy behind the Louisiana Purchase and the masked purposes of Lewis and Clark go unmentioned).

Intelligence shifted its focus in the Age of Revolution, from state rivals to the danger of subversion and overthrow from within. Andrew highlights some gross missteps in intelligence analysis here. The 1814 Congress of Vienna, for example, at which Klemens von Metternich devised a system for a retrograde state legitimacy dedicated to monitoring and neutering revolution, focused unduly on gossip and back-stair rumor, allowing such “analytical” missteps to produce “alarmist intelligence assessments derived from a grotesque exaggeration of the threat of student revolution.”

Andrew’s final chapters merge the forces of revolution with the strategies of the Great Powers in the two world wars and the Cold War as states, empires, and subversives come into ever changing variations of confrontation and conflict. PURPLE, ULTRA, MAGIC—the famed encryptions all are here, with Andrew providing a new take on each with chilling anecdotes, such as the moment when Joseph Stalin’s and Alger Hiss’s eyes met across the table at Yalta. In sum, Andrew’s gargantuan work gives the perception that intelligence, originally an adjunct to warfare, has moved, propelled by the power of modernity itself, into the mainstream of governance and beyond that into a primary position in all big power matters of rivalry, war, and peace. As the pages turn, the subtitle, A History of Intelligence, seems to shimmer and shift into history as intelligence, with today’s cyber warfare worries exemplifying the transmogrification.

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In the end, we are left with the irreducible human factor. That Winston Churchill was fixated on intelligence and Franklin Roosevelt indifferent may have decided the shape of World War II. The CIA’s institutionalization in 1947—the first publicly created intelligence agency in history—was, as its name indicates, central to the Cold War cause. Yet at the same time the vast Soviet intelligence and surveillance empire kept the USSR in being well beyond its “natural longevity.” The great underlying issue across the pages of The Secret World takes us back to Sun Tzu: know the enemy, know yourself.

Neither of these is well understood at present. Area studies in today’s universities—the languages, history, culture, and religion of a place—is a spavined vestige of what the field was in the mid-20th century. America once led in such studies, but politicization has ravaged our ability to inform ourselves about the cultures and civilizations we must understand in order to make decisions about their purposes and intentions.

Probably no major power ever had to acquire as much intelligence on another great culture as did Britain, through the British East India Company in its 17th- to 19th-century encounters with India. In North America the British had a natural foothold among the colonists they governed; but nothing on the Ganges resembled anything on the Thames or the Potomac. Bernard S. Cohn’s Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (1996) and C.A. Bayly’s Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780–1870 (1996), ably detail the immense British struggle, in all its vicissitudes, to comprehend “the bazaar, temple, and mosque.” Such in-depth, country-specific studies of intelligence compliment Andrew’s sweeping history, by casting light on the importance, and great difficulty, of understanding and engaging foreign cultures.

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At the outset the East India Company sought to quantify its knowledge of India in order to make trade pay and produce “progress.” But its focus soon had to shift toward understanding India’s various languages and puzzling communications systems. Over time, the effort produced an appreciation for India’s ancient traditions of statecraft. Kipling’s Kim portrays these changes in the space of the novel’s four to five years: from school courses in trigonometry, to the languages of the Grand Trunk Road, to glimpses of the essence of the entire ecumene.

Britain’s own information network began to take shape between 1790 and 1820. Attempts to understand, accommodate, and administer Indian versions of law were followed by scholarly studies of Indian thought and art. As Bayly observes, “What emerged was a dual economy of knowledge: an ‘advanced’ section which used western forms of representation and communication subsisting within an attenuated but still massive hinterland employing older styles of information and debate.” These systems had begun to decay at the fringes as the craze for statistical knowledge edged out human intelligence after 1830. This sounds familiar.

The forms of British knowledge were not those of India, so the British reordered their Indian knowledge. By the mid-19th century it could be said that the British, while making unprecedented contributions to scholarship about the subcontinent and its past, had mainly created an imagined Indian version of Britain. Its failure in its “intelligence” objective was demonstrated by the East India Company’s inability before the 1857 Indian Mutiny to distinguish rumor from reality in the episode of the supposedly greased (with pig or cow fat) Enfield rifle cartridges (the first an abomination to Muslims, the second to Hindus). Equally disruptive to authorities were claims that chapattis (the common flatbread staple of the Indian diet) contained coded messages as they passed hand-to-hand from village to village. The result, writes Bayly, was “information panic” among the British.

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This excursion into India is not meant to take anything away from Professor Andrew’s indispensable The Secret World but to note what is available to be learned from one, or several, ultimately failed efforts to understand that particular tactical approaches to intelligence gathering need to cohere. There is no substitute for a comprehensive program for “knowing the country.”

Even more important than knowing the other country is knowing your own. Over the past half-century the U.S. has lost, or thrown away, its sources of self-knowledge: its Tocquevillian “point of departure” in colonial New England, its cultural coherence shaped by Revolutionary and Federalist ideas, the 19th-century “American Renaissance” in literature, the 1930s Depression-era works program to collect the myths, stories, and music of the heartland, and the Cold War pride in “Americanism.” Until these and other genealogies of nationhood are located anew and woven into secondary school and college education, the work of intelligence collection and analysis cannot hope to attain the levels of importance and understanding chronicled in Christopher Andrew’s The Secret World.