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.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

The Secret World: A History of Intelligence

By Christopher Andrew,

Book cover of The Secret World: A History of Intelligence

Why 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!


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

By Richard J. Aldrich, Rory Cormac,

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

Why 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.  


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

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

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

Why 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.


Statecraft by Stealth: Secret Intelligence and British Rule in Palestine

By Steven B. Wagner,

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

Why 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. 


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

By Loch K. Johnson,

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

Why 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.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in intelligence agency, international relations, and espionage?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about intelligence agency, international relations, and espionage.

Intelligence Agency Explore 78 books about intelligence agency
International Relations Explore 140 books about international relations
Espionage Explore 102 books about espionage

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Soviet Espionage, The Outsider, and Tomorrow to Be Brave if you like this list.