Michael Herman obituary photo

Michael Herman obituary

Intelligence expert and trailblazer in the study of his secretive profession

Saturday March 20 2021, 12.01am, The Times

Michael Herman obituary photo
Herman joined GCHQ in 1952

London and Washington built up an accurate picture of where Soviet and Chinese troops, weaponry, and naval vessels were, he said, greatly reducing the possibility of a Pearl Harbor-like surprise attack, and allowing some relaxation in western capitals of their trigger grip on the weapons of nuclear deterrence.

However, failures included the conclusion that the Soviet army had 170 divisions, but without realising that only about one third were combat-ready. The West also overestimated the number of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles. In reality the “missile gap” in favour of the Soviet Union never existed; the West had more long-range, nuclear missiles than the Soviets.

At the end of his 35-year career, mainly spent in signals intelligence at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, Herman attempted to put right the severe lack of literature for young people entering the service. He had risen to the top of GCHQ by learning from his mistakes and wanted to pass on a rulebook of sorts.

“We didn’t read books. For most of the time there was little serious intelligence literature,” he remarked in 2016 of his career at GCHQ, which was punctuated by a spell as secretary of the Joint Intelligence Committee in the early Seventies. “The prevailing attitude was that intelligence books were dangerous and discouraged.”

After all, the true purpose of GCHQ (to send and intercept intelligence signals) had first come to wider public attention only in 1982 during the trial of the KGB mole there, Geoffrey Prime. Until then, the term “going to the West Country” was met with a nod and a wink by cognoscenti in officialdom.

As a trailblazer in the academic study of intelligence, Herman cracked open his world, producing a number of trusted works as a fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford and the founder of the Oxford Intelligence Group (OIG).

Michael Herman was born an only child in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, in 1929 to Kitty and Carl Herman, who worked for the family bacon-processing business and was also an artist. Michael attended Scarborough High School. National Service from 1947 took him to Egypt as a junior officer in the Intelligence Corps and his first exposure to signals intelligence. In 1949 he went to The Queen’s College, Oxford, to read modern history, graduating with first-class honours.

His tutor was the medieval historian John Prestwich, who had spent the war in Hut 3 of Bletchley Park, decrypting signals and releasing them to commanders in the field.

Herman joined GCHQ in 1952 on Prestwich’s recommendation to Eric Jones, another veteran of Hut 3 who had recently taken over from Edward Travis as the head of GCHQ . Unhappy, Herman was poised to return to academia after a year and was persuaded to stay only after joining GCHQ’s rugby team.

Over the years he was put in charge of V Division, responsible for radar signals and other technical intelligence, and Z Division, responsible for intelligence policy and external relationships. The highlight of his time at GCHQ was running J Division in the late Seventies and early Eighties, which focused on the Soviet target. “I was running nearly 1,000 people in Cheltenham and half our collection resources worldwide, and with all the American and other foreign contacts this entailed: the sort of job you dream about.”

Between 1972 and 1975 Herman had been seconded to the Cabinet Office as secretary of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Much of his time there was spent on Northern Ireland; such was the threat to the British mainland that it was seen as an equal priority.

In the last year of service Herman worked in the Cabinet Office as adviser to the Chief of Defence Intelligence. All the while he collected material for his first book, overcoming fierce resistance in Whitehall with a mixture of doggedness and charm.

On retiring from GCHQ in 1987 he went to Nuffield College, Oxford, on a Gwilym Gibbon Research Fellowship. Nine years later Intelligence Power in Peace and War was published. Chatham House, which co-published the book with the Cambridge University Press, convened a panel of grizzled diplomatic veterans to look over the draft. Herman recalled the red pen of the “brilliant, but acerbic” Sir Reginald Hibbert, former UK ambassador to France, scribbled all over his prose.

He conceived the work as a “thoughtful textbook”. Anyone expecting the excitement of a spy thriller would be disappointed by the sober overview of his craft. What it did do was unpack a subject still considered out of bounds, arcane, increasingly technical and littered with acronyms, even in the days of more open government. It became a standard text

Herman began to lecture widely and wrote several more books. 11 September: Legitimizing Intelligence, produced after the 9-11 attacks in 2001, analysed the acceleration of a new intelligence paradigm: targeting “non-state”, “partial state” or “rogue state” entities and supporting multinational action.

Herman gave evidence to Lord Butler’s Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction in 2004. His recommendation to bolster the woefully inadequate technical expertise in the civil service (with many seconded from other departments to deal with intelligence matters) was taken seriously.

His lectures would tell the story of early postwar western surveillance techniques in the days before satellites with US and UK surveillance aircraft, manned and unmanned, being shot down by the Soviets, and how embassies, converted into something resembling medieval castles, became important listening posts around the world.

From the beginning the Soviets had a sophisticated intelligence apparatus, but they were defeated by Joseph Stalin’s increasing paranoia. As a result the Kremlin initially failed to use the information effectively because so much of the product captured by the KGB was viewed as western disinformation. However, Soviet moles burrowed deep into the heart of British intelligence. Herman had supervised Prime. After the latter’s treachery was exposed, he could not bear to hear his name.

Herman’s latest book, Intelligence Power in Practice, will be published this year. A collection of essays, it also contains recollections on the development of the Teufelsberg SIGINT station in Berlin, which had been built on a hill made from the rubble of bombed buildings and was a highly successful surveillance facility, logging, among other things, the mass exodus of Soviet soldiers at the end of each summer to help with the harvest in the motherland.

Another gripping tale in the book is the Soviet reaction to Nato’s Able Archer exercise in 1983, a large-scale war-gaming operation. Acting on intelligence from the KGB double agent Oleg Gordievsky, the West was alerted to the fact that the Soviets had taken the exercise so seriously that they had readied their nuclear warheads.

Herman married Ann Wedel in 1977. They had met at a sailing club near Cheltenham. In his eighties he would sail a single-handed catamaran. He was also a regular patron of the real tennis court in Oxford.

Before his death, Herman called for intelligence to be studied in a worldwide context, so that different approaches could be compared. “The modern challenge is for intelligence to support international co-operation,” he said, “while at the same time developing international ‘rules of the game’.”

Michael Herman, intelligence expert, was born on June 1, 1929. He died of frailty of old age on February 12, 2021, aged 91