The Rise and Fall of Intelligence: An International Security History

  • Published

The Rise and Fall of Intelligence: An International Security History by Michael Warner. Georgetown University Press, 2014, 424 pp.

This is, self-admittedly, a book about “how the world changed intelligence and how intelligence changed the world” (p. 1). Modern states born of the Industrial Revolution required modern security and intelligence services. The type of security apparatus a state developed depended on the strategy, technology, and organization of each government (p. 5). As those apparatuses developed in the twentieth century, bureaucratic organization and technological development professionalized the spy trade while they raised the bar to entry. By the middle of the twentieth century, only the superpowers and select allies could afford to compete.

Rise and Fall can appear Eurocentric because it focuses on three principal actors—the US, United Kingdom (UK), and Soviet Union (SU)/Russia in the twentieth century. Warner acknowledges this from the outset and offers two reasonable explanations as to why.

First, the author places heavy emphasis on the US, UK, and the SU/Russia because they were the principal players. The British were innovative pioneers in both tactical and strategic signals intelligence and simultaneously maintained a formidable colonial human intelligence (HUMINT) network. The Americans spent the vast resources necessary to develop unimagined technology and rapidly learned tradecraft by forming an enduring partnership with the British. The Russians honed a domestic tradition of HUMINT into an unmatched foreign espionage system. Allies in their respective blocs may have provided benefit, augmentation, or even been capable in their own right as the East Germans were with their Secret Police. Yet, the influences of the big three are undeniable.

Crucial to Warner’s argument is his discussion of the costs associated with building and maintaining such services. More than just the financial expenditure—which was considerable—these were Herculean efforts that pushed the bounds of technology and political ideology in each society. The big three pushed the boundaries of what intelligence was capable of; the by product was a steep rise in the cost of entry. Other states simply could not afford to compete and sought arrangements within their bloc. Warner fairly concludes that this intelligence arms race contributed to the cohesion of each side throughout the Cold War (p. 156).

Second, as intelligence and security services matured, they generated more documents. Intelligence as we know it today evolved at a time when it could be recorded and cataloged en masse. Western governments were the first to adopt tools like punch cards and typewriters into their daily practices. These tools allowed for an explosion of official documents beginning in the late 1800’s that continues down to today. These primary sources form the core of Warner’s research supplemented by “reliable secondary sources based on primary sources” (p. 7). Because the US, UK, and Russia maintained the largest and most active intelligence services, they generated the largest troves of documents.

Transparency laws like the Freedom of Information Act and the end of the Cold War have brought to light previously classified documents. Other states like France, Germany, India, and China have not released comparable documentation.

As for the heavy focus on the twentieth century, it is as much a consequence of his argument as it is evidence in support of it. Without the ability to collect, process, and store massive quantities of information quickly, intelligence services could not exist. The technological and organizational ability to do so did not come into its own until the twentieth century.

Rise and Fall’s greatest strength is simultaneously its greatest weakness. In less than 400 pages, Warner covers a wide swathe of history in a tight, well-paced narrative. This allows the book to remain informative and accessible for new students and a general audience. For practitioners and seasoned scholars, there are dozens of anecdotes that inspire tantalizing flashes of new connections between well-known events. The story of how the US and the UK shared, and continue to share, intelligence was a particular standout. However, there are a myriad of others for each reader.

Yet, the same tight narrative that propels the reader through such a wide survey of history also means that there is little time or ink spent on a deep dive. Those with a deeper knowledge—or trying to develop one—may find this frustrating. Still, Rise and Fall succeeds in that it keeps readers interested and offers a cogent narrative that inspires innumerable ideas and starting points for future research.

Another success is the way Warner handles the inevitable drop-off in documentation as the narrative starts to catch up to our own time. Declassification timelines (at least in the US) are only now reaching the later parts of the Cold War. Warner smartly uses this as the opportunity to extrapolate identified trends in the context of modern concerns like counterterrorism, cyber operations, and privacy. Sadly, his writing ends before Edward Snowden leaked thousands of highly classified National Security Agency documents. This, combined with the exponential growth of digital documents in the information age, present an undeniable impetus for a second edition in the future.


Rise and Fall is a succinct, well-balanced, and engrossing read ideal for students of intelligence history or anyone interested in learning. It conveys an overarching context to the development of intelligence that can be used as a starting point for new students and veteran researchers alike. The gaps and biases that arise from its scope highlight opportunity for new scholarship. Its anecdotes peak curiosity and invite further exploration into each specific topic. Half a decade since its original publication, the time is ripe for Warner to revisit this successful volume and provide an additional update.

 Capt Lucas Thoma, USAN

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."