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Newspook

Too Secret Too Long

by Chapman Pincher
St. Martin’s, 638 pp., $19.95

Too long,” certainly; page after page after page, many laboring the same point—or allegation—and none relieved by fine writing. “Too secret”? Is it a secret that two British diplomats, Burgess and Maclean, defected to the Russians in 1951? That they had long served as KGB agents? That they had a collaborator, Kim Philby, who defected later? That they had all been at Cambridge together? That there were other Cambridge contemporaries who betrayed their country or were inclined to do so? That three members of the wartime nuclear research team, Fuchs, Pontecorvo, and Nunn May—German, Italian, and British by birth—also conveyed secrets to the Russians? That Sir Anthony Blunt, surveyor of the Queen’s pictures and a world expert on Poussin, was more recently revealed to have been a Russian agent and stripped of his knighthood? That there have been half a dozen other lesser British spy scandals over the years since 1945? If any of this remains hidden to anyone who may chance on Chapman Pincher’s new book, it will only be because he or she has spent the last thirty years on a desert island or reflexively turns to another section of the newspaper when the word “spy,” “missing diplomat,” “MI5,” or “MI6” catches his gaze.

In other words, not very secret at all, and certainly not since Chapman Pincher published his last book, Their Trade is Treachery, in Britain in 1981, in which the main allegation made in Too Secret Too Long was aired for the first time. That allegation is that the head of MI5, Sir Roger Hollis, had also been a long-serving Russian spy, and retired unmasked to a country cottage in which he remained, drawing his pension until his death in 1973.

MI5, for the benefit of American readers, stands for Military Intelligence Five, is also known as the Security Service, and serves as the counterespionage arm of the British government. MI6, also known as the Secret Intelligence Service, is the active intelligence-gathering arm. A third agency, Government Communications Headquarters, is the almost exact equivalent of the American National Security Agency, with which it works in the closest liaison; it encrypts sensitive government signals and attempts to decrypt those of foreign governments which are of interest to Britain. GCHQ has had an almost blemish-free record in the spy scandal business. Geoffrey Prime, the only GCHQ employee known to have worked for the Russians, belonged nowhere near the top of the organization. MI6 has the awful Philby case to live down; but, within that world, he seems to have been a lone wolf. Like a wolf, he operated with the greatest cunning, instinct for self-preservation, and devotion to the leader of the pack, in his case the head of the KGB. MI5, until the unmasking of Blunt, seemed to escape untainted altogether. It had apparently never been penetrated; and even the Blunt scandal scarcely tarnished its reputation since he had left its service to return to the art world at the end of the Second World War.

This touch of perspective is a necessary qualification, since the popular belief, enthusiastically fed by sensational journalists, is that the British intelligence system leaks secrets like a rusty scupper. A more judicious verdict would be that Fuchs, Philby, and Maclean were traitors of the most dangerous sort, who occupied positions where they were privy to information of the greatest value to the Russians. Fuchs undoubtedly advanced the date by which the Soviet Union managed to explode a fusion bomb. Philby nullified many espionage operations mounted by the Western nations against the Soviet Union. Maclean transmitted a great deal of nuclear and diplomatic information, much of it American as well as British, directly to his KGB controller. On the other hand, Fuchs committed his worst acts of treachery while on American soil. Philby chiefly damaged his own intelligence service and its informants abroad rather than his country’s larger strategic or diplomatic interests. Maclean belonged not to MI5 or MI6 but to the Foreign Office. Most of the other British spies were low-grade in rank or ineffectual in performance and—a point to be returned to—had numerous counterparts in the Soviet apparatus.

These qualifications fall to the ground, however, if Chapman Pincher’s allegation is correct, if, that is, Britain’s chief spy-catcher was an ideological convert to Soviet Communism who used his position to frustrate his country’s counterespionage efforts, to protect “moles” whose identity was suspected, and to disguise the presence of others perhaps never unmasked within the British government system. What is Pincher’s case?

In essence, it goes like this. Hollis, the son of a Church of England bishop and brother of the distinguished writer and politician Christopher Hollis—best remembered as a leading intellectual of the English Roman Catholic Church, to which he was converted in the 1930s—was the odd man out of his family. He was not an academic success at Oxford, left the university without taking a degree, and, by his own account “to get away from the church and the family,” went to China in 1927. There, among the expatriate community, he fell in with a number of Comintern agents, was recruited to the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU, and, on his return to Britain, joined MI5.

At the outbreak of the Second World War he was transferred with most of the others in MI5 from London to Oxford and set up house near someone he may have met in China, Sonia Beurton, nee Kuczynski, who served as his controller and radio operator. Hollis was soon made head of the section charged with surveillance of Communist subversion within the United Kingdom, and so was able to see that MI5 missed rather than hit its targets, when the targets were important. After the war Hollis remained in the service, when most able members left it, and was carried up the hierarchy by the normal processes of promotion. The transfer of his chief then brought him the directorship, which he held for the last nine years of his career. He was never much liked by his colleagues, who regarded him as an odd bird, and some of them formed the view while under his command that the failure of a number of their operations could only be explained by his having forewarned their targets or otherwise frustrated their work. After his retirement he was undoubtedly investigated by an official committee, but it found the case against him unproved. He stoutly protested his innocence throughout.

Why does Pincher refuse to accept his protestations? In part because he knows and trusts the group of doubters who sought to prove Hollis’s guilt, dedicated men who hold to their point of view. One of them, Peter Wright, who now lives in Australia beyond the reach of the Official Secrets Act, which would otherwise muzzle him, refuses to be silenced. But in larger measure, Pincher believes that the evidence he has amassed in this book amounts to grounds for a conviction. Readers will not know the anti-Hollis group. They must be convinced—or not—by Pincher’s evidence. How convincing is it?

Not convincing one way or the other is the only fair answer, because all of it is entirely circumstantial. It depends upon Hollis’s having been where he might have met certain people at a certain time, or where he might have been able to exchange information with them—had he ever met them—or where he could have transmitted warnings or frustrated inquiries had he been motivated so to do. The Oxford chapters give a fair flavor of Pincher’s technique, and are therefore worth examining in some detail.

Sonia, Hollis’s alleged controller, emigrated from Switzerland to Oxford at the exact time that Hollis moved from London to Blenheim Palace. She was soon living close to the lodgings Hollis had taken in North Oxford. Her father took lodgings in Oxford to do research work at the same time, her alleged reason for choosing the university city as her residence, though her father’s permanent base was in London and there is no record of his having been attached to any Oxford college. She regularly worked a radio transmitter and her transmissions were “almost certainly” intercepted; they should then have been deciphered at the behest of Hollis’s branch of MI5, but were not. Instructions received by Sonia were allegedly left for Hollis in a hiding place at St. Sepulchre’s, “the only graveyard” in central Oxford. This “drop” was identified by a postwar Soviet defector as the tombstone of someone called Brown. The graveyard is within a mile of both Hollis’s and Sonia’s lodgings in North Oxford. There is very much more of this “too long arm of coincidence,” as Pincher calls it.

Now, it may well be that Hollis was under Russian control. But absolutely nothing in the above paragraph can be used to prove whether he was or was not. We appear to have only Sonia’s word for it, for example, that she transmitted anything at all; and, since the word comes from memoirs she wrote after the war, that may very well be “disinformation” contrived by the KGB (there seems no doubt that she was a career agent). Her move from Switzerland to Oxford rather than to London is perfectly explicable if we accept that she wanted to be near her father; for London was being bombed at the time, families with young children were encouraged to leave the capital, and Oxford was a safer place. That her father had no apparent connection with a college proves nothing; he was a scientist, and so might easily have been accorded facilities at one of the university laboratories without joining any college.

As to the graveyard, St. Giles Church, equally close to Hollis’s and Sonia’s lodgings, has a graveyard. It is smaller but far more accessible than the one in which Pincher’s researcher found a grave marked “Browne.” The defector—in fact the notorious Igor Gouzenko—was scarcely plucking an unusual name out of the air in remembering that “Brown” was the name he had picked up in Moscow Center as the “drop” for the traitor in “MI5.”

Finally, while both St. Giles and St. Sepulchre’s graveyards are indeed each no more than a mile from the Hollis and Beurton lodgings in North Oxford, this proves nothing at all. North Oxford, built to accommodate Oxford dons’ families after they were allowed to marry in 1870, is a peninsula two miles long and one mile wide running between the flood plains of the Isis and the Cherwell rivers. Moreover, it is densely inhabited by some of the nosiest and most gossip-prone people in the world, Oxford’s academic wives and widows, ably abetted by platoons of retired dons and clergymen and some of the cleverest prep school children (from Summerfield and the Dragon) in the kingdom. As England was anyhow convulsed with spy mania at the time (“nuns in jackboots”), it is most unlikely that a Russian agent with an Oxford education would have risked acquiring a reputation, almost unavoidable in such an environment, as a man given to surreptitious visits to a particular grave in his local cemetery.

On internal evidence alone, therefore, Pincher’s case can be made to fall quite as easily as it can be made to stand up. But as Philip Knightley of the London Sunday Times showed in the issue of November 11, 1984, there is strong external evidence to suggest that the defector, Gouzenko, who originated the graveyard story, had simply mistaken the agency in which a British mole was at work. When interrogated after his defection, he confused MI5 with Section 5 of MI6, the importance of that confusion being that Section 5 of MI6 was the office run by Philby, of whose treachery there is absolutely no doubt. The chief suspicion against Hollis may, therefore, have arisen through error.

At this remove, we shall never know. But the issue of defection does bring us close to what may be the real value of this book. For as well as arousing a sort of compulsive interest, it gives us an arresting picture of what the world of intelligence is like from the inside. It is not the picture its inhabitants would like to project, or the one the rest of us generally have. For it shows a world which, far from concentrating on external realities, on the gathering and assessment of strategic and economic information, is obsessed principally with the doings and nature of other intelligence worlds. What the KGB wants to know most, it seems, is what the CIA is up to, and vice versa, and the same goes for MI6, SDECE, BOSS, and the rest of the “firms” and “companies” that, at great expense, modern states run to protect their interests.

The proof of this assertion lies in the overwhelming importance that intelligence services attach to the acquisition of defectors from the other side. Of these there have been a good number, in a two-way traffic. But what unites them is that the information they have to bring is almost exclusively about their own organizations. Philby’s value to the Russians was chiefly that he knew about MI6 and its workings. Gouzenko, rated the most important of the KGB defectors, brought with him an enormous amount of information, but most of it apparently about the KGB. What Blunt had to tell the Russians was largely about his work in MI5, while what Frolik and August, defectors to the British, revealed was inside knowledge of their own Czech services.

Naturally, such people betray their own and others’ agents, who are traitors to their own countries working inside government or industry. But, with few exceptions, most of those we can read about were employed in pathetically menial positions, with access to information of the most routine and mundane kind. No doubt, information in sufficient quantity can eventually be sifted to yield something of value. But one wonders if this repays all the effort. Michael Collins, chief of intelligence to Sinn Fein during its war against the British in 1918–1921, had an agent in Dublin Castle who typed the correspondence of the chief secretary and simply took another copy for herself when a document struck her as important. Menials of that status are, of course, beyond price. But she would have been caught by the sort of simple search of handbags that is now standard practice, and one suspects that the day of that sort of agent is over.

Indeed the one check that the layman can run on the value of what the espionage services call “Humint”—human intelligence, as opposed to intercepting electronic signals and other forms of intelligence—suggests that it was eclipsed long ago. That check is supplied by the volumes of British Intelligence in the Second World War, the official history compiled by Professor Harry Hinsley. They do not decry the value of Humint altogether. Indeed, Humint supplied rather better clues than Sigint (signal intelligence) to the Germans’ development of their pilotless weapons between 1940 and 1944. But throughout the entire war, day in, day out, at every level from the grand strategic to the minor tactical, it was Sigint rather than Humint that delivered the goods. Sigint produced intelligence wholesale, sometimes in quantities too large to handle, fresh from the teleprinters of the enemy and needing scarcely any interpretation to be bent to the Allies’ use. Above all, its authenticity was unchallengeable.

Sigint collected by the National Security Agency and Government Communications Headquarters continues to be the mainstay for assessing Soviet intentions and capacities. The Soviets, still lagging in communication and computer technology, apparently seek to compensate by making a greater effort in the Humint field. In the nature of the competition, machinery will outdo manpower. It is absolutely essential, nevertheless, that counter-Humint operations, in which Hollis was a key figure, should succeed. But what should really make us fear for our safety is not the suspicion that Hollis, or someone like him, was in the pay of the Russians, but hard evidence that a Soviet research team had beaten the West in the construction of a distinctly superior artificial intelligence computer. That could give an unchallengeable advantage to the side that can acquire one first. Fortunately the signs are that it will be the West rather than the Soviets who will win that race, if it can be won.

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