Seminar or event series

Sir Michael Howard, an official historian of WW2 intelligence, wrote in 1985: ‘So far as official government policy is concerned, the British security and intelligence services do not exist. Enemy agents are found under gooseberry bushes and intelligence is brought by the storks.’

Even the existence of SIS (MI6) was not officially admitted until 1992. Intelligence is still missing from much modern historiography. Even when present, the interpretation often suffers from Historical Attention-Span Deficit Disorder (HASDD). Edward Snowden’s sensational revelations of UKUSA signals intelligence SIGINT operations had a far smaller impact on 21st-century British government policy and public opinion than mid-19th-century revelations of the official interception of Mazzini’s correspondence. 


The Seminar will convene this year through a mixture of online and hybrid events; some weeks will feature events organized by the Cambridge Centre for Geopolitics, with whom the Seminar is increasing its collaboration.

In order to attend those events available online, you must be subscribed to our mailing list.
The Zoom link will be distributed in advance of the session.
To subscribe, please email Dr Dan Larsen  with a brief indication of your affiliation or interest in the Seminar.
On any technical queries, please email Dr Dan Larsen.

Except where specifically indicated, seminars are not recorded.


Lent 2024


5-30 pm GMT, Friday 26 January (Online Only):

Sam Lebovic (George Mason University), ‘State of Silence: The Espionage Act and the Rise of America’s Secrecy Regime’

The Espionage Act is one of the most controversial laws in U.S. history, having been used not only to punish spies, but also to prosecute dissidents during World War I and leakers of classified information today (plus a certain ex-president). Drawing on his new book, Sam Lebovic traces the surprising evolution of this confusing law over more than a century, this talk will reveal a fundamental shift in the way that the national security state has sought to police debate in American democracy: where once the state used the Espionage Act to censor speech, today it uses the same law to keep secrets. The resulting secrecy regime – improvised, sprawling, flawed –  poses real threats to American democracy, and is in dire need of reform.

Sam Lebovic is Professor of History at George Mason University, and the author of the award-winning Free-Speech and Unfree News (2016), A Righteous Smokescreen (2022) and State of Silence (2023) as well as numerous articles and essays on U.S. politics, media, civil liberties, and foreign relations.  This year he is also serving as a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.



Centre for Geopolitics Event (in partnership with Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, with the support of the Cambridge Union and Cambridge University Ukrainian Society):

5-30 GMT, Friday 2 February, The Cambridge Union, 9A Bridge Street (Videotaped In-Person Event):

Oleksandra Matviichuk: ‘Normalisation of Evil: How to Defend Humanity and Human Rights in the 21st Century?’

Booking Not Required for In-Person Attendance (Video Available Here Sometime After Event)

Named one of the Top 25 Most Influential Women in the World by the Financial Times, Oleksandra Matviichuk is a renowned Ukrainian human rights lawyer leading the Center for Civil Liberties in Kyiv. In 2022, Oleksandra and her team were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize - the first Ukrainian citizens ever to receive any Nobel Prize. 

The Center for Civil Liberties has been defending human rights since 2007. Their work has included documenting cases of unlawful imprisonment in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics and war crimes against civilian populations perpetrated by Russian soldiers in the occupied areas of Ukraine.

Ms Matviichuk will deliver the Annual Stasiuk Lecture at the Cambridge Union at 5:30 pm on February 2, 2024. Marking the second anniversary of the full-scale invasion and the tenth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, Ms Matviichuk will speak on Ukraine and the defence of human rights in the 21st century. The lecture is open to everyone and will be  followed by a Q&A session.



5-30 pm GMT, 9 February (Online Only):

Mark Stout (Johns Hopkins), ‘Modern American Intelligence and the First World War’

Ask an American intelligence officer to tell you when the country started doing modern intelligence and you will probably hear something about the Office of Strategic Services in World War II or the National Security Act of 1947 and the formation of the Central Intelligence Agency. What you almost certainly will not hear is anything about World War I. In his new book World War I and the Foundations of American Intelligence (University Press of Kansas, 2023), Mark Stout establishes that, in fact, World War I led to the creation of a robust American intelligence effort.  It would shrink but survive during the interwar period and thus provide a solid intelligence foundation from which to expand to meet the needs of another global hot war and the Cold War that followed.

Dr Mark Stout is retired from Johns Hopkins University where for eight years he directed the M.A. in Global Security and for four directed the Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Intelligence. Previously he spent twenty-one years in the national security community, thirteen of those years in the Intelligence Community, and was also the Historian for the International Spy Museum for three years.  He has contributed chapters to several edited volumes and been published in journals such as Intelligence and National Security, Cold War History, the Journal of Strategic Studies, Studies in Intelligence, and others. He is the co-author or co-editor of several books in the intelligence, strategic studies, and military history fields. He is on the editorial board of Georgetown University Press’ Studies in Intelligence History series.  He was the founding President of the North American Society for Intelligence History and holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Leeds.


5-30 pm GMT, Friday 16 February, Jock Colville Hall, Churchill College, Cambridge (Hybrid Event):
Daniel Larsen (Glasgow) and John Thompson (Cambridge):

Paperback Book Launch of Plotting for Peace: American Peacemakers, British Codebreakers, and Britain at War, 1914-1917 by Daniel Larsen

Booking requested for in-person attendance

As British intelligence broke American codes and reading all U.S. telegrams from 1915, they discovered a wealth of material showing U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to negotiate an early end the First World War in 1916 and early 1917. The American leadership understood the power it wielded. Seeking to facilitate, and eventually to force, a peace settlement, the Americans pursued an adept diplomatic strategy. The success of their efforts depended fundamentally on European leaders’ comprehension of the clout this growing American leviathan could command. Not all, but some, in Britain were willing to understand. Past historians would have us dismiss these American mediation efforts as little more than an irritant to the belligerents, a mere “distraction of peace during war”.  But the United States in fact loomed far larger in British minds, and it fuelled the fires of British Cabinet politics—fires that raged down an American fault line.

With a launch event precluded by the pandemic when the hardback was released, this event will mark the paperback release by discussing the book and its reception. Plotting for Peace won the Tomlinson Prize for the best book in First World War studies, a Highly Distinguished Entry award in the TSA-CUP Book Prize in transatlantic studies, was selected as Book of the Week by The Times, and was named one of the “Best New History Books” by the Telegraph.

Daniel Larsen is Lecturer in Intelligence and War Studies at the University of Glasgow, and previously held a range of fixed-term posts within the University of Cambridge, including at the Department of Politics and International Studies and at Trinity College.

John Thompson is Reader Emeritus in American History at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of St. Catharine’s College. His most recent book is A Sense of Power: The Roots of America’s Global Role.


5-30 pm GMT, Friday, 23 February (Online Only): 

Jimmy Burns , ‘A Faithful Spy: Walter Bell (1909-2004)’ 

Based on his recently published book, this talk draws on previously undisclosed personal papers to offer a biography of the MI6 and MI5 officer Walter Bell, which gives a human dimension and insight into the working of British intelligence in the Special Relationship before, during, and after the Second World War, as well as the British retreat from Empire. Having liaised with wartime FBI and OSS, he served as private secretary to the post-war British ambassador in the US, Lord Inverchapel. Moving to MI5, he had postings in Kenya, India and the West Indies, playing a role in the passing of power to newly independent states and developing close ties with agents of influence at the highest levels in the former colonies, from journalists and judges to generals and independent heroes. Bell was part of a generation deeply affected by penetration by Russian intelligence. Acquainted with Philby, Burgess, and Maclean, as well as spy chiefs, Guy Liddell, Roger Hollis, and Dick White, he became intimately involved in limiting the reputational damage provoked by the media over the Cambridge Five affair and suspected KGB misinformation about further Soviet agents at the highest level of the British state. 

Jimmy Burns is an author and journalist. He served as a foreign correspondent and senior reporter covering security and intelligence. His previous books include The Land that Lost its Heroes (Bloomsbury) his prize-winning account of the Falklands War, and Papa Spy (Bloomsbury). He is current researching a book on Churchill & Spain. A Faithful Spy was selected as a readers’ choice by The Financial Times, and has received supportive endorsements and reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, with former MI6 Sir Richard Dearlove describing it as “important book which uniquely describes the many faceted career of an important cog in the UK’s intelligence and security machinery through key events of the 20th century.”

For a link please see above


At a glance

Lent Term
Fridays 5:30pm
See event for details
Professor Christopher Andrew (
Dr Dan Larsen (
Professor Brendan Simms, Director Centre for Geopolitics, (
Allen Packwood, Director Churchill College Archives Centre, (
Professor Simon Heffer
Dr Thomas Maguire
Dr John Ranelagh
Dr Daniela Richterova
Dr Calder Walton
Sir Richard Dearlove