Reviewing The Secret History of the Five Eyes

BOOK REVIEW: The Secret History of the Five Eyes: The Untold Story of the International Spy Network

By Richard Kerbaj / Kings Road Publishing

Reviewed by Douglas H. Wise

The Reviewer — Douglas H. Wise served as Deputy Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from August 2014 until August 2016. Following 20 years of active duty in the Army where he served as an infantry and special operations officer, he spent the remainder of his career at CIA.

Disclaimer:  The reviewer was interviewed by the author in the course of writing the book.  The two have no personal relationship.

REVIEW — Writing about history is challenging but writing about secret history is challengingly impossible.  BAFTA Award winning producer/director and national security expert, Richard Kerbaj, has done the impossible in his book, recently published in the UK (and soon to be published in the US), titled:  The Secret History of the Five Eyes

The Five Eyes, an intentionally little-known institution since its inception in the aftermath of World War II, has played a distinctive role in international intelligence.  In the unilateral culture of the intelligence world, there are few multi-lateral relationships and fewer still, which have stood the test of time. 

The Five Eyes, borne out of the early days of the Cold War, broke the mold by having five member nations sharing their most intimate secrets – all with the goal of saving the lives of their citizens and taking clandestine paths with more than a fair amount of unity. 

The challenge in writing a history of a secret organization is an author’s sources are inexorably secret as well.  These shadowy sources of insight and perspective, more often than not, erode the authenticity of the book or article. 

Richard Kerbaj eschewed the traditional acceptance of anonymity and undertook a painstaking journey of interviews and primary source research to get insight from senior international figures who were direct participants in the Five Eyes collaboration.  This gave him a ring-side seat to the discussions, debates, arguments, agreements, disagreements, intrigue, and collaboration amongst those whose role would normally remain concealed for an eternity. 

Kerbaj brings us along on his labyrinth journey and offers us a seat as we learn (often for the first time) about Five Eyes’ successes and, yes, its failures.  Even for this reviewer, himself a career senior intelligence officer serving often not far from the Five Eyes process, had his two eyes opened by Kerbaj’s revelations such as the frequent pettiness, internal intrigue, national and service selfishness and the fractious early history of this remarkable institution.  All of this existed at various times during the history of The Five Eyes yet this was counterbalanced by courageous national collaboration to a remarkable degree.

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While fighter pilots’ stories generally begin with phrases like, “There I was…”  In the world of clandestine operations, our stories often begin with, “Dude, you’re not going to believe this…”  Kerbaj provides perspectives on both. While Hollywood has undeniably defined the image of the ‘spy’ in the public’s consciousness, it would have been easy for Kerbaj to have rehashed old operational tales and spy stories to entertain the reader.  Instead, he gives us a serious, strategic perspective on this shadowy world of clandestine operations and intelligence.  He answers the questions we’ve often asked ourselves like, “does all this really matter; isn’t lying and deceit ungentlemanly and what is the real value of all this skullduggery?”  Kerbaj also clearly shows us The Five Eyes isn’t just a private club with only comity, concord, and peace between allies.  Yes, he chronicles those moments in Five Eyes history, but he also delves deeply into the discord and the disingenuousness amongst Five Eyes partners over the last 75 years. 

Richard’s book does not fail to include the role – both good and bad – of national politicians and policy makers.  His interviews with senior policy makers give us the view from the “other side.”  These views are often conflicted because policy makers are at once beneficiaries of The Five Eyes construct, yet they have an inherent distrust of those in intelligence, particularly when the intelligence doesn’t conform to preconceived foreign policy decisions. 

Setting aside telling a story about The Five Eyes, Kerbaj also gives us exceptional insight into the intimate, fractious, yet critical, relationship between those who purvey intelligence and those who consume it.

It is important to keep in mind while reading, that the Five Eyes are executors of policy not the progenitors of policy.  Things are not always rosy and Kerbaj doesn’t shy away from shining a bright light on bad Five Eyes strategy or inexplicably poor operational decisions. 

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In the end, The Five Eyes is about the remarkable women and men, doing remarkable things out of a commitment to a principle of the common good.  

This book is a must have and must read for intelligence professionals, academicians, students of intelligence and interested global citizens.  It’s highly readable, fast-paced, and well-written. It isn’t so much a history as it is a story of life and nation-saving cooperation and collaboration. 

This reviewer had the honor and a privilege to have been an observer and minor participant in some of this history and in my eyes, the author told the story honestly, candidly, and very well. 

The Secret History of The Five Eyes earns a prestigious four out of four trench coats.



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