Was Mackintosh a Spy?
Might have been, reports Dr. Philip H.J. Davies.

One of the most persistent spheres of speculation in the Sandbaggers fan community is whether or not Sandbaggers creator and author Ian Mackintosh was ever a member of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). Actor Ray Lonnen recalls that the cast used to chase Mackintosh with this question. The most he would ever say was things like ‘might have been’

Most fans probably lean towards the conviction that Mackintosh had served with SIS, or at least somewhere in the UK intelligence community (IC). This is hard sentiment to avoid, especially as The Sandbaggers was perhaps the only televised or cinematic version of intelligence to get anywhere near the actual way in which the IC operates.

The programme has an authentic, downbeat and understated quality to it that reflects both the office-bound world of what David Cornwell (ex-SIS and MI 5) writing as John le Care has called ‘senior espiocrats’, and the ninety-nine percent boredom and one percent panic quality of life that characterises life in the defence and intelligence communities the world over. More importantly, and more compellingly, Mackintosh displays an eerily accurate sense of how intelligence operational planning and execution happen in the British government, and an apparently comprehensive grasp of how the UK IC is structured and operates.

This sense of inside knowledge is made more visibly noticeable dialogue of his stories is written in fluent ‘spookspeak’, intelligence jargon, and the peculiar blend of personal informality and bureaucratic alphabet-soup argot of the British Civil Service. A subtler sense of authenticity comes from the series’ complete freedom of any of the usual romantic conventions of spy-storytelling from John Buchan to Ian Flemming, and even the almost suicidally downbeat narrative style of le Carré. One might almost say the stories were written against those conventions, but the intricacy and internal consistency of the detail suggests that Mackintosh was thinking almost independently of the literary conventions, and only occasionally referring to James Bond ironically to highlight the gap between those literary and cinematic conventions and his more pointedly realistic tales.

To those who make a knowledge of the ‘real’ world of intelligence their business, especially their professional business, as do I, the Sandbaggers is a fascinating combination of accuracy and inaccuracy, in which the latter is often harder to explain than the former. There are essentially two explanations for how Mackintosh managed to achieve his high degree of authenticity: firstly, that he was, at least at some point involved in the intelligence world, and secondly that he simply did some very good research, and combined that with an intuition for gritty, realist narrative to create a semblance of reality.

Are You Digging, Willie?
In Sandbaggers jargon, the kind of research necessary to drive a narrative like the series might almost be considered a form of digging operation. Indeed, the natural assumption of most viewers is that one would have to be an insider to have a shred of understanding of how the British system operated anytime before the 1993 ‘Open Government’ initiative of the Major administration (or at least the 1983 Franks Report on the Falkland Islands War). However, during my own doctoral research on the organisation and management of the SIS (forthcoming as a book from Frank Cass Ltd later this year or early next) I was astonished to learn how much information was already in the public domain about intelligence for those with eyes to see as far back as the 1960s and 1970s , certainly before ‘intelligence studies’ took off as an academic discipline in the mid-1980s.

Mackintosh’s writing shows a strong command of the available intelligence literature. For example, Sir Geoffrey Wellingham’s account of reading ‘all twenty six volumes’ of the US Warren Commission report into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy--let alone his list of 210 ‘inconsistencies’ in It Couldn’t Happen Here. In the same episode, Burnside refers to embarrassing and unauthorised CIA ‘tell all’ memoirs, almost certainly an oblique reference to disaffected CIA officer Philip Agee’s controversial ‘CIA Diary: Inside the Company’ (Penguin, 1975). There are various sidelong allusions to new procedures for political oversight and control that were being installed at the time as a consequence of the Church and Pike enquiries of the mid-1970s, and the on-again-off-again President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (more an intelligence consultative think tank than the ‘watchdog committee’ Geoff Ross describes it as in the same episode).

Also, C’s references to Congressional testimony by Czech defectors Ladislav Bittman and Frantisek August are similarly accurate, and both officers wrote IC backed memoirs of their service, defection, and allegations of Soviet penetration and disinformation. Battle Order Mackintosh’s SIS order of battle conforms more closely to that of the CIA than the SIS, with directorates for Operations (DO in CIA usage), Intelligence (DI) and Administrative Services (DAS). Information on the CIA had been in broad circulation for nearly a decade by the time Mackintosh was writing.

The Warren Commission delved far and wide, often well beyond its Kennedy assassination brief, to include the CIA in its scrutiny. In the wake of the Warren Commission, journalists David Wise and Thomas B. Ross published their ‘Espionage Establishment’ (published in the UK by Jonathan Cape, 1968). This book includes a detailed picture of the US system, particularly the CIA. Their account of the UK system is both mainly historical and opaque at that. It is in Wise and Ross’ account that we find the use of the older CIA designation of Plans Division used rather than Operations Directorate for the CIA’s operational side.

Harvard political scientist Harry Howe Ransom published a 1970 book responding to Wise and Ross and trying to inject a measure of sobriety and realism into the discussion of intelligence. Ransom’s ‘The Intelligence Establishment’ even telegraphs it moderate and relatively bias-neutral political stance by echoing Wise and Ross’ title but substituting ‘Intelligence’ for ‘Espionage’. The former being preferred by IC professionals, the latter being the kind of pejorative language preferred by journalists and political activists. This book is rich in the kind of detail which features in the Sandbaggers. Ransom provides a thorough discussion of CIA order of battle as well as key concepts in ‘intelligence theory’. Ransom’s account of the UK IC is one of the earliest to provide a high level of detail dealing with SIS, MI 5 (the Security Service), the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Intelligence Staff, possibly the first reference to Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), as well as the Joint Intelligence Committee in the Cabinet Office. Ransom’s account of the UK IC is worth looking at in detail for its parallels apparently almost verbatim inclusions in Mackintosh’s universe.

More significantly, explains that ‘Like the CIA, the British Secret Service is organised into functional compartments. For example, one major section is devoted to the collection, evaluation, and analysis of intelligence information. Another major, if smaller, section is devoted to special operations, which may include dangerous espionage or underground foreign political action’ (page 187).

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