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LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The first official history of British overseas spying shows how an "Old Boys" network became a globally influential service of real but unsung intelligence professionals, its author said on Tuesday.
Speaking beside a display of early 20th century spy gear including miniature cameras disguised as matchboxes, historian Keith Jeffery told a news conference he had been privileged to comb "the Holy grail of British archives" to produce "MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS)."
"The story of human intelligence is not generally one of fiendishly clever master spies ... achieving fantastic war-winning intelligence coups," Jeffery says in the introduction to the book, which covers the years 1909-1949.
"It was more like a pointillist painting, containing tiny fragments of information gathered by many thousands of individual men and woman in circumstances fraught with danger which need to be collected together to provide the big picture."
The 800-page work authorized by SIS unveils the first official details of well-known operations against Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and also tells lesser-known stories of snooping on friends such as the United States and France.
Jeffery said at the core of the book was the transformation of an institution from "an Old Boys Club" drawn from the privately educated elite that included a "maverick contingent" of risk-takers into a more professional and modern organization.
A veil is also lifted on a sabotage plot against vessels carrying European Jews to Palestine in 1947.
The book portrays the venture, which targeted only empty boats in Italian ports and caused no casualties, as an attempt by colonial British officials worried by communal unrest in the territory to limit the growth of the Jewish community there and maintain a balance with the Arab population.
"I looked very hard for the bad stuff ... If there was no bad stuff I knew it would be implausible," Jeffery told reporters, referring to his attempt as an independent historian to find evidence of failures and abuses -- and a fabled but fictitious license to kill -- to balance stories of success.
Jeffery said he had been given unfettered access to files, but these were incomplete as they had been weeded over the decades to save space as the service moved its headquarters six times.
There was no evidence of a malicious bid to cover up abuses, he said. Such incompleteness was a fact of the historian's life.
SIS authorized the book as part of a policy of openness that is a big cultural shift for a service that 20 years ago was so secret officials would not publicly acknowledge its existence.
John Scarlett, a former SIS chief, said he hoped the book would dispel something of the myth of the fictional James Bond, the fast-living super-agent created by novelist Ian Fleming.
"The best way of putting myths to bed is to put facts on the table," he told reporters.
John Sawers, the current SIS chief, says in a foreword to the book that full details of the service's history after 1949 are still too sensitive to place in the public domain.
Editing by Paul Casciato