Polmar and Allen

Encyclopedic Hits and Misses


[From International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 11, no. 2 (Summer 1998): 239-242]

Polmar, Norman, and Thomas B. Allen. Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage. New York: Random House, 1997.

Encyclopedists must be either brave or foolhardy people. They are expected to cover the world -- or the slice they target -- in a manner approaching comprehensiveness. Yet, they know that specialists will find much to criticize in their work.

Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen sweep broadly across history, choosing among intelligence-related individuals, organizations, events, and tradecraft over "the almost 4,000 years since the first mention of spies in the Old Testament." (p. xi) In the process, they have produced a BIG book, with 616 pages of text and over 2,000 entries. This is a massive compilation job. Random House deserves credit for taking on the project and offering the book at a reasonable price. That does not mean, however, that perfection has been achieved; room remains for comment on both the selections made and the accuracy and completeness of individual entries.



Determining "comprehensiveness" is a slippery slope: One person's mandatory entry is another's trivia. Comparison with two earlier encyclopedic efforts, Ronald Seth's Encyclopedia of Espionage (1), produced in the 1970s, and Vincent Buranelli and Nan Buranelli's Spy/Counterspy (2), from the 1980s, supplies a tentative baseline. Under the letter "F," Seth covers 15 items and Buranelli 18, while Polmar and Allen have 70 entries. A win hands-down for Polmar and Allen, it seems. But, 10 of these entries are cross-references. In addition, Polmar and Allen provide 13 items that are basically definitional. "Fence," for example, is "Russian slang for the border with another country; the term is used in relation to both military and intelligence activities." Beyond that, there are three overly detailed references to military aircraft used in variant forms for intelligence purposes. In fact, the authors seem to be enamored of U.S. aircraft, with a six-page entry under "Aircraft" and descriptions of more than 20 aircraft spread throughout the book.

Even if cross-references, definitions, and airplanes are subtracted, 44 substantial entries remain under "F." Of these, Polmar and Allen overlap with both Seth and Buranelli on only five entries: John S. Farnsworth, FBI, Heinz Felfe, Alexander Foote, and Klaus Fuchs. All of these are worth mentioning, although Seth's devoting over seven pages to Farnsworth calls to mind Constantinides's comment that what Seth includes "seems to have been determined by the availability of material rather than the intrinsic importance of each item." (3)



What, then, has been added and what left out in Polmar and Allen's expanded coverage? Two individuals clearly warranting inclusion are shared with Buranelli: Ian Fleming and William Friedman (interestingly, Buranelli gives Elizebeth Friedman her own item). Additions that U.S. intelligence specialists can readily accept include Rudolph Fabian, the Family Jewels, Richard Fecteau (John Downey has a separate entry), "Fedora," Noel Field, Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), the Forty Committee, and Benjamin Franklin.

There are also entries of potentially broader interest, including 14 Intelligence Company, First U.S. Army Group (FUSAG), "Fish," Fluency Committee, "Fortitude," Charles Fraser-Smith, FSK (Russian Federal Security Service), and Martin Furnival Jones. An almost four-page survey on French intelligence is a solid introduction for the non-specialist. These are worthwhile and relatively noncontroversial additions.



Found in both Seth and Buranelli but missing from Polmar and Allen are Louis Fauche-Borel, Xan Fielding, Montagu Fox, Wolfgang Francks, and Takashi and Sachiko Furusawa. That the latter, a husband and wife team of purported Japanese spies in Los Angeles prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, are not mentioned in George O'Toole's excellent and more narrowly targeted Encyclopedia of American Intelligence and Espionage (4), is sufficient cause to accept their omission by Polmar and Allen. The others are at best tossups in terms of their importance in the overall scheme of intelligence history, and little is lost by their nonappearance.



Obviously, Polmar and Allen give the reader more than their predecessor encyclopedists. But just how well have the extensive and diverse entries been done? Here, the authors stumble. Their entry on the Foreign Broadcast Information Service is ill-informed and incomplete. Moreover, they don't mention that organization's translations of foreign newspapers, magazines, and military, economic, scientific, and technical journals.

The authors' wording of some articles, especially those dealing with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), at times takes on a polemical tone. This is seen in the entry on Aldrich Ames, where reference is made to "the incredible malfeasance of CIA officers" (p. 21); and in quoting Frank Snepp's characterization of Tom Polgar (p. 441), a view that even some critics of the Agency regard as too harsh. Their entries for MKULTRA and John Paisley both contain innuendo better left to the conspiracy theorists. That Polmar and Allen refer to A Man Called Intrepid and Intrepid's Last Case as sources on Sir William Stephenson without some warning about the suspect nature of these books is also bothersome.

More broadly, the authors' lack of source citations for many of their entries is disconcerting; and their general "Recommended Reading" list is no substitute for a full bibliography. In this regard, the item-by-item citation style used intermittently by Ronald Seth and consistently by the Buranellis and George O'Toole is a standard that others should emulate.

The intelligence reference shelf has been enhanced by the publication of Norman Polmar and Thomas Allen's encyclopedia. It brings together a great deal of diverse information on the intelligence world. But despite its bulk, this effort falls short of being a definitive encyclopedia of intelligence. Regrettably, the material is there for it to have been done better. As it stands, cautionary remarks are necessary before allowing students to use Spy Book as anything other than a quick reference tool.

(1) Ronald Seth, Encyclopedia of Espionage (London: New English Library, 1972; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974).

(2) Vincent Buranelli and Nan Buranelli, Spy/Counterspy: An Encyclopedia of Espionage (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982).

(3) George C. Constantinides, Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography (Boulder, CO.: Westview Press, 1983), p. 407.

(4) George J.A. O'Toole, The Encyclopedia of American Intelligence and Espionage: From the Revolutionary War to the Present (New York: Facts on File, 1988).

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