Book: A Genius for Deception

03.09.10 | 1 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

One of the few unclassified discussions of official U.S. policy on the use of “cover stories” to conceal classified activities and operations advised that “Cover stories must be believable.”  (1992 draft SAP Supplement [pdf], at p. 3-1-5).

But such pedestrian guidance would not have been needed by British military and intelligence officials during the past century because they had an almost instinctive gift for concealment and misdirection, writes Nicholas Rankin in “A Genius for Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars” (Oxford University Press, 2009).

From the emergence of camouflage (a word that entered the English language in 1917) to the development of modern propaganda to the strategic deceptions of World War II, the author treats familiar figures such as T.E. Lawrence and John Buchan (author of The 39 Steps) and many unfamiliar ones.

“A Genius for Deception” is surprisingly colorful, with an endless stream of strange, offbeat and sometimes appalling anecdotes that the author has culled from his extensive reading and research.

He quotes an enterprising British intelligence officer in World War I who discovered that the German officers’ latrines in an East Africa camp “were a good source of soiled documents and letters, yielding ‘filthy, though accurate information’.”

In a personal epilogue, Rankin observes that the calculated deception of an enemy is ethically distinct from and not to be confused with propaganda directed at one’s own people.