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Book Review - Declassified: 50 Top-Secret Documents That Changed History by Thomas B. Allen

Category Book Review Thomas B. Allen Declassified: 50 Top-Secret Documents That Changed History

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Secrets are the currency by which countries maintain control of their borders and war with other nations.  In the book Declassified: 50 Top-Secret Documents That Changed History, Thomas B. Allen lists 50 documents, once secret but now declassified, that had large impacts on people, countries, and the world.  Throughout, I kept wondering how many more documents are hidden that would have the same effect these days.  My guess is plenty...

Part 1 - Secrets of War: Spying on the Armada; Washington Finds a Spy; Benedict Arnold Becomes a Spy; The Lady Is a Spy; A Golden Export to Canada; T.R. Remembers the Maine; A Telegram's Special Delivery; The Man Who Started a War; Eavesdropping on Roosevelt and Churchill; Planning the "Final Solution"; Seeking Justice for Saboteurs; Stalin Approves a War; The Pentagon Papers' Legacy; 16 Troublesome Words
Part 2 - Double Agents, Turncoats, and Traitors: Captain Henry's $50,000 Letters; Lincoln's Double Agent; Whose Ace of Spies?; The Double Agent's Dog; The Spy in the Tunnel; The Pumpkin Papers
Part 3 - Counterintelligence - Spy vs. Spy; The Knight Was a Spy; The Million-Document Spy; The Soviets' Key Man; The Spy Drove a Jaguar; The FBI Mole
Part 4 - A Bodyguard of Lies: George Washington's Lies; The Trick That Won Midway; The Star of Double-Cross; "A Diversionary Maneuver"; "Mincemeat Swallowed Whole"; Broadcasting Believable Lies; The Game Against England
Part 5 - Espionage Incidents: Lee's Lost Order; Papers from a Corpse; The Hollow Nickel
Part 6 - In Defense of the Realm: The Beer Barrel Letters; A Map for the Mideast; An Ambassador's Doubts; Secret Notes at Yalta; A Package in the Snow
Part 7 - The Secret State: A Secret Request to Congress; An Enduring Lie; The Dreyfus Affair; The FBI and Trotsky; Tap, Tap, Tap; Bombs of a New Type; The Magic Messages; The Golden Age of Soviet Espionage; The Family Jewels; For the President's Eyes Only
Acknowledgments; Bibliography; Selected Internet Sites; Illustrations Credits; Index

Rather than try and restrict himself to a particular country or timeframe, Allen selects documents from a wide number of sources and time periods.  Two of the selections (Spying on the Armada and The Beer Barrel Letters) date from 1586 and center around the rule of Queen Elizabeth I.  On the other end of the spectrum, we have entries for 2000 and 2001 related to the forged Niger-Iraq uranium sale document (which started the Iraq war) and the 2001 briefing about Osama Bin Laden operatives planning a plane attack (fulfilled on 09/11/2001).  Reading through the chapters, you realize that information is a valuable commodity, and that it normally costs quite a bit to get it.  Perhaps it's monetary in nature to pay off the informant, or it could even be the life of the spy if they are caught in the act.  Whether driven by ideology or greed, there's always someone out there who is willing to trade information to "the other side".  

Each chapter tens to be around 3 to 5 pages long, starting off with a picture of the document/information being passed, a brief date/subject line to place it in context, and then a concise discussion of what transpired to produce the material as well as what impact it had on future events.  You could make a whole book out of most of these incidents, but this format is great for giving you an overview of why certain events in history may have transpired as they did.  I think my favorites were related to World War II and the efforts to break codes of the other side.  England had broken Germany's Enigma codes, and could in many cases anticipate the next action Germany would take.  The problem there is that if Germany thinks the codes are broken, they'll switch keys and England would be without their advantage any longer.  This dichotomy caused anguish, as England had to let some losses take place so as to keep Germany thinking that their communication encryption was still secure.  That's a hard decision to have to make time after time...

If you're at all interested in espionage, you'll likely enjoy this read...


Gravatar Image1 - Duff, what you mention about hiding the fact that you know something the other side thinks you don't is discussed (superbly) at length in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. It's an excellent read generally, but he really goes in-depth into encryption. Check it out (if you haven't already).

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Thomas "Duffbert" Duff

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