Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Soldier Spy by Tom Marcus

This is reportedly the first biography to be penned by a former MI5 surveillance officer. It's been vetted by the Security Service who gave it their blessing, so I guess no secrets have been divulged. That said there's much here that in the context is surprising, the Security Service not always coming off well.

Tom (not his real name) was unusual in that he was recruited direct from army special forces - the unit is not divulged but one gets the impression that it was not the SAS but some type of surveillance unit. The Security Service has moved away from the tap on the shoulder to a more open recruitment process, jobs and careers advertised online and in recruitment brochures, and most of his colleagues had come via this route. Right from the off Tom describes feeling like an outsider, that his team were always suspicious of him. He's extremely honest about his part in this, in that he was headstrong and quite aggressive. On one training exercise he dislocated the shoulder of one of the trainers, while on a follow he risked compromise by venturing into a target's place of work to find out where they were heading to.

The bulk of the book is taken up by anecdotes of operations and many of these are eye opening. A good example is the time he was nearly abducted by a jihadi counter-surveillance team who had a flat prepared, complete with plastic sheeting and a video camera. Apparently they intended to behead one of the team and show the film on the internet. Another example is when they followed a jihadi who was found to have a trunk full of explosives and assault rifles, his intention to massacre school children. It all makes for thrilling stuff, but these stories are sometimes difficult to follow as he uses a lot of surveillance speech with little explanation for the lay reader.

There are numerous biographies now by former CIA spooks, and special forces veterans from both sides of the Atlantic, and the vetting can make for a rather odd reading experience. Soldier, Spy suffers from this also. Stories and anecdotes are often truncated or cut short, the reader left with the impression that there is much left unsaid. While I understand that this is necessary to protect secrets and operational methods, it can be incredibly frustrating when a story seems to end on a cliff-hanger.

With Soldier, Spy the best example of this is when Tom's mentor, the man who recruited him to MI5 from the army suddenly dies. Tom is told that it appears to have been suicide, to which Tom reacts sceptically. According to his telling, Tom was told not to ask questions and to leave well alone. As an avid crime fiction reader, this sounds to me like the setup for a conspiracy storyline, the protagonist investigating suspected foul play despite his bosses trying to stop him. Of course, this is a biography not fiction.  Tom left it and that was that. I'm not for a moment suggesting that there was a conspiracy of silence, or that Tom’s mentor was murdered. I’m sure it was as simple as a tragic suicide. But the way the book’s narrative just moves along left me with the impression, almost certainly unfair, that there was more to this story. As I say, I imagine this probably had to do with the restrictions he was under when writing the book, that for whatever reason, to protect the man’s identity or whatever, he just couldn’t write more. While understandable it makes for very disjointed reading.

Tom finally left the Security Service with PTSD, in part no doubt due to seeing another surveillance officer, a motorbike rider, accidentally killed in a traffic accident while following a suspect. This is one of the most moving passages of the book and one can't help but feel for the author. After leaving MI5 he of course could not tell future employers what he had been doing for the last few years and so was reduced to working in call centres and flipping burgers. This seems absurd, surely the Home Office could have provided him with fake references?

In conclusion, Tom Marcus was clearly a very brave and capable person who did much in the service of his country. His book Soldier, Spy is eye-opening and compelling but suffers much from the restrictions he was under when writing it. There is a hint at the end that he might have other writing projects in the works, who knows, perhaps a novel? If so I wish him well.

3 out of 5 stars 

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