The best books to appreciate the history, personalities, and activities of intelligence services

Who am I?

My fascination with intelligence studies is tied to my previous experience as a practitioner. While serving as a military officer and CIA officer, I became curious about how two organizations with a shared history could be so different. Exploring the “why” of the CIA/DoD differences led me to the broader interplay of organizational cultures, individuals, and missions in influencing the evolution of intelligence, its purpose, and its role. These five books will provide the reader a broader appreciation of how intelligence was used to help policymakers understand reality and how intelligence organizations have been used to try to change reality. You will not merely learn something about intelligence but will be entertained and engaged while doing so. 


I wrote...

Subordinating Intelligence: The DoD/CIA Post-Cold War Relationship

By David P. Oakley,

Book cover of Subordinating Intelligence: The DoD/CIA Post-Cold War Relationship

What is my book about?

In the late eighties and early nineties, United States policymakers made intelligence support to the military the Intelligence Community's top priority. In response to this demand, the CIA and DoD instituted policy and organizational changes that altered their relationship with one another. While debates over the future of the Intelligence Community were occurring on Capitol Hill, the CIA and DoD were expanding their relationship in peacekeeping and nation-building operations in Somalia and the Balkans.

By the late 1990s, some policymakers and national security professionals became concerned that intelligence support to military operations had gone too far. In Subordinating Intelligence: The DoD/CIA Post–Cold War Relationship, David P. Oakley reveals that, despite these concerns, no major changes to national intelligence or its priorities were implemented.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Secret World: A History of Intelligence

David P. Oakley Why did I love this book?

This book, by one of the most recognizable names in intelligence studies, is a journey through thousands of years of intelligence history that is both an enjoyable read and a valuable reference. Christopher Andrew’s ability to provide a history of intelligence across centuries and continents is an impressive feat that provides the reader a solid appreciation of the purpose of intelligence and how it has evolved throughout history. This is a fantastic book for anyone looking for a foundational history of intelligence!

By Christopher Andrew,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Secret World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Almost every page includes a sizzling historical titbit ... captivating, insightful and masterly' (Edward Lucas, The Times)

The history of espionage is far older than any of today's intelligence agencies, yet the long history of intelligence operations has been largely forgotten. The first mention of espionage in world literature is in the Book of Exodus.'God sent out spies into the land of Canaan'. From there, Christopher Andrew traces the shift in the ancient world from divination to what we would recognize as attempts to gather real intelligence in the conduct of military operations, and considers how far ahead of the…


Book cover of The Black Door: Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers

David P. Oakley Why did I love this book?

I am fascinated by how different countries approach intelligence, both from how they organize intelligence activities and how intelligence informs policymaking. These various approaches highlight there is not a common approach to intelligence and help explain why simple definitions of intelligence are insufficient at capturing various intelligence activities and organizations. The Black Door looks at how British Prime Ministers have used intelligence and their relationships with intelligence organizations over the past century. A well-written account by two thoughtful and prolific scholars, the reader will appreciate how British Prime Ministers have used intelligence to not only understand the world but to also act.  

By Richard J. Aldrich, Rory Cormac,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Black Door as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Black Door explores the evolving relationship between successive British prime ministers and the intelligence agencies, from Asquith's Secret Service Bureau to Cameron's National Security Council.

Intelligence can do a prime minister's dirty work. For more than a century, secret wars have been waged directly from Number 10. They have staved off conflict, defeats and British decline through fancy footwork, often deceiving friend and foe alike. Yet as the birth of the modern British secret service in 1909, prime ministers were strangers to the secret world - sometimes with disastrous consequences. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill oversaw a…


Book cover of Spy Chiefs: Volume 1: Intelligence Leaders in the United States and United Kingdom

David P. Oakley Why did I love this book?

I think it is important to consider how leaders shape organizations and how the evolution of an organization might have been different under another person. To appreciate how/why intelligence organizations evolved we must appreciate the influence of intelligence leaders. For example, John Deutch and Stanfield Turner not only created tension within the CIA during their tenure, but their poor decisions affected the organization long after their departure. This edited volume looks at the personalities of U.S. and U.K. intelligence leaders and their influence on intelligence. Although the book touches on some of the more familiar names such as Wild Bill Donovan, its authors also explore lesser-known leaders whose influence on their organization and the broader community was significant. A must-read for anyone wanting to appreciate how individuals shape intelligence! I also encourage you to pick up volume 2 to learn about intelligence leaders throughout the world.

By Christopher Moran (editor), Mark Stout (editor), Ioanna Iordanou (editor) , Paul Maddrell (editor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Spy Chiefs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In literature and film the spy chief is an all-knowing, all-powerful figure who masterfully moves spies into action like pieces on a chessboard. How close to reality is that depiction, and what does it really take to be an effective leader in the world of intelligence? This first volume of Spy Chiefs broadens and deepens our understanding of the role of intelligence leaders in foreign affairs and national security in the United States and United Kingdom from the early 1940s to the present. The figures profiled range from famous spy chiefs such as William Donovan, Richard Helms, and Stewart Menzies…


Book cover of Statecraft by Stealth: Secret Intelligence and British Rule in Palestine

David P. Oakley Why did I love this book?

The relationship between intelligence and policy and how various countries employ intelligence organizations are two important topics that are not fully explored. Wagner’s book looks at the role played by British intelligence in Palestine during the interwar period---a role that went beyond what many consider intelligence functions. As Wagner explains, British intelligence not only informed policymakers’ thinking but was also involved in the execution of policy in the Palestinian territory during this period. This combined, no better yet intertwined, history of British policy and intelligence during this important period is something that intelligence and regional scholars should read. 

By Steven B. Wagner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Statecraft by Stealth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Britain relied upon secret intelligence operations to rule Mandatory Palestine. Statecraft by Stealth sheds light on a time in history when the murky triad of intelligence, policy, and security supported colonial governance. It emphasizes the role of the Anglo-Zionist partnership, which began during World War I and ended in 1939, when Britain imposed severe limits on Jewish immigration and settlement in Palestine.

Steven Wagner argues that although the British devoted considerable attention to intelligence gathering and analysis, they never managed to solve the basic contradiction of their rule: a dual commitment to democratic self-government and to the Jewish national home…


Book cover of Threat on the Horizon: An Inside Account of America's Search for Security After the Cold War

David P. Oakley Why did I love this book?

The decade between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the Global War of Terrorism was a decade of uncertainty for the U.S. intelligence community and an important part of intelligence history. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the reduction in national security budgets raised numerous questions about the purpose, focus, and funding of intelligence organizations during the 1990s. Loch Johnson’s book is an excellent and essential read to understand this period. One of the foremost intelligence scholars, Johnson also served on the Aspin-Brown Commission that considered the future of U.S. intelligence after the Cold War (he also previously served on the 1975 Church and Pike Commission). A commission covered extensively in this book.

By Loch K. Johnson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Threat on the Horizon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Aspin-Brown Commission of 1995-1996, led by former U.S. Defense Secretaries Les Aspin and Harold Brown, was a landmark inquiry into the activities of America's secret agencies. The purpose of the commission was to help the Central Intelligence Agency and other organizations in the U.S. intelligence community adapt to the quite different world that had emerged after the end of the Cold War in 1991.

In The Threat on the Horizon, eminent national security scholar Loch K. Johnson, who served as Aspin's assistant, offers a comprehensive insider's account of this inquiry. Based on a close sifting of government documents and…


You might also like...

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

Book cover of The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

Alexander Rose Author Of Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World

New book alert!

Who am I?

A long time ago, I was an early-aviation historian, but eventually realized that I knew only half the story—the part about airplanes. But what about airships? Initially, I assumed, like so many others, that they were a flash-in-the-pan, a ridiculous dead-end technology, but then I realized these wondrous giants had roamed and awed the world for nearly four decades. There was a bigger story here of an old rivalry between airplanes and airships, one that had since been forgotten, and Empires of the Sky was the result.

Alexander's book list on Zeppelin airships

What is my book about?

From the author of Washington’s Spies, the thrilling story of two rival secret agents — one Confederate, the other Union — sent to Britain during the Civil War.

The South’s James Bulloch, charming and devious, was ordered to acquire a clandestine fleet intended to break Lincoln’s blockade, sink Northern merchant vessels, and drown the U.S. Navy’s mightiest ships at sea. Opposing him was Thomas Dudley, an upright Quaker lawyer determined to stop Bulloch in a spy-versus-spy game of move and countermove, gambit and sacrifice, intrigue and betrayal.

Their battleground was the Dickensian port of Liverpool, whose dockyards built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined and whose merchant princes, said one observer, were “addicted to Southern proclivities, foreign slave trade, and domestic bribery.”

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Washington's Spies, the thrilling story of the Confederate spy who came to Britain to turn the tide of the Civil War-and the Union agent resolved to stop him.

"Entertaining and deeply researched...with a rich cast of spies, crooks, bent businessmen and drunken sailors...Rose relates the tale with gusto." -The New York Times

In 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, two secret agents-one a Confederate, the other his Union rival-were dispatched to neutral Britain, each entrusted with a vital mission.

The South's James Bulloch, charming and devious, was to acquire…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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