HOW curious that the best recent book on American secret intelligence should be by a British scholar. Prof. Christopher Andrew of Cambridge University, who has previously studied the British secret service and the Soviet KGB, has now produced an absorbing and comprehensive narrative of American history in espionage back to George Washington.
His device is to tell the story in terms of how presidents interacted with intelligence agencies, often with profound effects on both. Thus, a distracted President Wilson was deceived into believing British disinformation about a German-Mexican conspiracy that hastened the United State's entry into World War I.
On the other hand, presidents like Eisenhower and Bush were wiser about the uses of intelligence, mainly because their previous experience enabled them to appreciate the marvels of technical intelligence.
It should be noted that throughout ''For the President's Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency From Washington to Bush,'' the author leaves little doubt of his predilection for technical intelligence, on which Britain and the US cooperated fruitfully, over human intelligence, important though it was. He cites countless examples of the exploits of SIGINT (signals intelligence, which is basically code-breaking) and IMINT (imagery intelligence, which is pictures from airplanes and, recently, orbiting satellites).
Andrew suggests that presidents who relied more on HUMINT (human intelligence) than SIGINT sometimes made disastrously wrong judgments. For example, had President Roosevelt heeded Japanese naval communications more and human reports less in 1941, he could have anticipated the attack on Pearl Harbor.