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Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer

by Peter Wright
Viking, 392 pp., $19.95

The Secrets of the Service

by Anthony Glees
Carroll and Graf, 447 pp., $22.95


Early in the Second World War a young, self-taught electronics engineer was taken on by the Admiralty to work on demagnetizing warships, to protect against magnetic mines, and he stayed on to work in the scientific civil service. One day in the early 1950s he was taken aside and told that both the British and American embassies in Moscow were being bugged. The Americans had found a specimen planted microphone but could not see how it worked. Would he help? This he did to the delight of the British counterintelligence officers, who needed something to redeem their credit after the defection of Burgess and Maclean. Sometime later it was put to the young engineer that he might care to leave the Admiralty and, after a six-month break to allay suspicions, join M15—the British counterintelligence bureau. What about his Admiralty pension? he asked. Could he transfer it? My dear fellow, he was told, do you think that we don’t know how to look after our friends?

Nearly twenty-five years later, disgruntled and bitter, the engineer, Peter Wright, retired from M15. His scientific flair had made him an expert in trailing Soviet KGB officers in London and he had other successes to his credit. But someone, so it seemed to him, always tipped off the Russians at the moment when it looked as if M15 were going to bring off a coup. When the KGB defector Golitsyn identified Philby in 1962, and Michael Straight identified Anthony Blunt, the pieces in the jigsaw puzzle began to fall into place. Golitsyn had spoken of a ring of five spies in high places. If Philby was the third and Blunt the fourth, who was the fifth? Wright began a long search back through the files for leads. He studied the interrogations of an earlier defector after the war, Gouzenko, who had pinpointed a spy known as Elli, who was working within counterintelligence. Wright became convinced that M15 was penetrated. If the Russians had planted Philby within M16, the bureau that runs spies, they could surely plant one in M15, the bureau that catches them. The case histories of M15’s failures narrowed the search for the spy to three men.

Wright’s circumstantial evidence was so compelling that the head of M15 from 1956 to 1965, Sir Roger Hollis, agreed to set up under Wright’s chairmanship what was called the Fluency Committee to solve this problem. Wright now demanded that Michael Hanley, the most junior of the three suspects, should be investigated. Hollis with reluctance agreed. When Hanley was cleared, he wanted Graham Mitchell, the deputy director of M15, to be the next put under scrutiny. Hollis was only persuaded to do so when his predecessor, Sir Dick White, now head of M16, intervened. Mitchell soon realized he was under suspicion and became haggard and distraught; yet in the end he too was declared to be in the clear. This left only Hollis. Hollis knew Wright believed him to be the fifth man. Just before he retired, he told him he was wrong, but Wright got his new chief to bring Hollis in from retirement for interrogation. The subsequent report, Dick White noted, seemed to be inspired by conspiracy theory rather than by an analysis of fact. Hollis admitted nothing, and the case was shelved.

By now Wright had his supporters in M16 as well as in M15. One of them pulled a string and voiced his suspicions to 10 Downing Street itself. Harold Wilson might have raised an eyebrow over an officer in M16 accusing a former head of M15 of espionage. But he did not. He was already suspicious of the security services, and in 1975 therefore asked Burke Trend, the most distinguished cabinet secretary and head of the civil service since the war, to break his retirement and investigate the charge. Trend worked for over a year and came to the conclusion that the case against Hollis was not proven.

An impartial observer might judge that, so far from there being a conspiracy to cover up, the authorities had gone to astonishing lengths to see if a spy like Philby lurked in M15. Many younger members of M15 thought Wright had done more than the Russians to disrupt the department and lower its morale. But to Wright the Trend inquiry was evidence of yet another device to stifle the truth. He was to suffer another blow. He learned that the oral promise about his Admiralty pension was not to be honored, and he was retired on a pittance. The iron entered into his soul. The service that had rejected the delicate filigree of evidence he had fashioned had now defrauded him. He wanted to breed horses and, if he emigrated to Australia, he could write a book, tell all, and be safe from British prosecution.

The British had been slow to realize the strength of the offensive that the KGB leveled against their country and the prodigality of resources in manpower and equipment that the Soviets deployed. As the numbers of spies unmasked rose it could be argued that M15 had been vigilant; or it could equally be argued that its officers had been lax, blind—and possibly betrayed by one of their own number. There were the atomic bomb spies, Fuchs, Nunn May, and Pontecorvo. There were Gordon Lonsdale and his accomplices; there were Wraight, Houghton, Gee, Vassall, and the appalling case of George Blake, a member of M16 who betrayed the secret of the Berlin Tunnel. Caught in 1961, he was sprung from prison by the KGB a few years later. In the case of Giuseppe Martelli, an atomic scientist suspected of espionage, the jury would not convict.

But it was the Cambridge spies—Burgess, Maclean, and Philby—who caught the public imagination, and speculation raged about their motives, characters, and background. It reached a new pitch when at the end of 1979 Andrew Boyle in a remarkable piece of investigative journalism revealed what had been known to M15 for fifteen years—namely that Anthony Blunt had been in the Soviet spy ring. Why had these privileged sons of the professional class become not merely Marxists but spies for Soviet Russia? What was this secret and absurd Cambridge society, the Apostles, to which so many of Blunt’s and Burgess’s associates belonged in the Thirties? How many, recruited to serve the Comintern, belonged to that other secret mafia, the Homintern? What went on during the war at the flat in Bentinck Street where Burgess and Blunt lived? The flat had previously been rented from a medical journal, the Practitioner, by a friend of their undergraduate days, Victor Rothschild. Perhaps the fifth man, so one tabloid said, was “an hereditary peer.” The Spectator made things worse by then declaring, “Lord Rothschild is innocent.”

Victor Rothschild had served in M15 during the war and won the George Medal for bravery by defusing, among other things, a bomb concealed in a crate of onions from Spain. He had never lost touch with his old service, and when he was head of scientific research for Royal Dutch Shell he had met Peter Wright and arranged for a Shell laboratory to help Wright solve a problem. There was never any doubt about Rothschild’s integrity. Had there been it is inconceivable after the stringent investigations of those days that Heath would have appointed him head of his innovation in Whitehall, the Central Policy Review Staff or think tank. He was indignant at the way Wright had been treated over his pension and interceded for him but without success. In 1980, maddened by the innuendoes in the press, Rothschild sent Wright an air ticket in Australia and asked him to come to England and help him clear his name. He then learned that Wright and his supporters had already begun to leak their suspicions about Hollis, and that Wright was intending to write a book. How could he be dissuaded? He next heard that a Conservative MP, Jonathan Aitken, had already passed the Hollis story to a well-known journalist, Chapman Pincher. There seemed to be a simple solution. Why not have Wright meet Pincher?

Harry Chapman Pincher is renowned in Fleet Street for his scoops. A scientist who had worked on secret weapons and who liked fishing and shooting, Pincher was a man of the right, whose natural friends were serving officers. He has a nose for a story, and aggrieved generals and air marshals queue up to leak to him their discontents with their political masters. Pincher worked for Beaverbrook and shared some of his proprietor’s foibles. Beaverbrook hated the establishment and never lost the chance to discomfit its members—“cutting off the heads of the tall poppies,” he called it. Like Beaverbrook, Pincher disliked intellectuals and regarded the civil service as an ineffectual Fafnir, guarding secret treasure that should be plundered. And now, just as Aitken, Beaverbrook’s nephew, had told him, here was the source who could reveal the details of the biggest spy scandal yet. So Pincher struck a deal with Wright. Wright would tell Pincher what he knew about Hollis and would receive a fee from the publishers as a consultant.

Pincher’s book, Their Trade is Treachery, caused a sensation. By now the disaffected security officers were coming out of the woodwork. Wright was interviewed by Paul Greengrass on a well-known television program, and it dawned on Wright that there were more pickings to be had. He would publish a book under his own name. This time it would not be a book of a journalist’s scoop, full of knowing clauses like “I can state with certainty” or “recently I have been able to establish” or “I can clarify the situation.” It should be a book, suggested Greengrass, full of local color that conveys what it felt like to be in the security services. If it were published in Australia beyond British jurisdiction, it would make a lot of money. The prediction was accurate. Whatever its faults, the Wright-Greengrass book reads like a thriller that is not fiction but real life, and the British intelligentsia, when they can get hold of a copy, are reading it goggle-eyed.

In Britain everyone in government has to sign the Official Secrets Act, which governs security. Under Section 2 it is an offense to receive as well as give official information. You have broken it if you reveal or publish the number of cups of tea that are drunk by the messengers in a Whitehall ministry. No one now defends the act, and a few years ago the Conservative government tried to amend it; but its proposals were defeated in committee by those who thought they did not go far enough. Like McEnroe sulking at tennis after a ball has been given out, the government threw down its racket and refused to bring in a new bill. Except for ex-ministers like Richard Crossman, who disregarded the injunction, anyone serving in government who writes a book has to submit it to be vetted. This is the practice in the CIA. But in Britain no one in the security services may ever publish anything. This prohibition can be carried to grotesque lengths. Only the other day a former member of MI6, who as an army officer was parachuted into Greece with a radio during the war to report on German troop movements and dispositions, was refused permission to write a book about those days although the book revealed no secrets, made no criticism of his superiors and comrades, and referred to events that took place before he entered the service. Wright’s book, of course, was a flagrant breach of the act. It was also a flagrant breach of the added prohibition on ex-members of the security services. But was it feasible to prevent it being published outside the United Kingdom?

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