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Digging for Moles

Popperfoto/Getty Images
Guy Burgess, a member of the Cambridge Five spy ring who passed information to the Soviets from the 1930s until his defection to the USSR in 1951, sunbathing on the shore of the Black Sea, 1956


In 1938, Roger Hollis joined MI5, the British internal security service, sister agency (not that sororal relations were always affectionate) to MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service: spy-catchers and spies respectively. He would serve with MI5 for twenty-seven years, rising to be deputy director-general in 1953, and director-general three years later. That was during the height of the cold war, years of acute drama and controversy when his agency was so buffeted by scandal that very dark suspicions were aroused. While Hollis was still head of MI5 a young diplomat called John Cornwell began publishing well-informed novels under the pen name John le Carré, and introduced the public to a shadowy land of betrayal, double agents, and moles. There was already ample evidence of Soviet penetration of the security services; might it have gone to the very top?

In some ways Hollis was an unlikely figure. Born in 1905, the son of a canon of Wells cathedral, and with another clergyman as maternal grandfather, he grew up in what his elder brother Christopher called “a sort of Trollopean world.” Chris went to Eton, Roger to Clifton, the Bristol public school to which he remained much attached, and then both went to Oxford, among what we are obliged to call the Brideshead generation: Chris and Evelyn Waugh became great friends (as well as fellow Catholic converts), and Waugh admiringly described young Roger as “a good bottle man.” After working briefly for a bank, Roger joined a newspaper in Hong Kong, before taking a job with a tobacco company that he served for eight years in China.

He joined MI5 after illness obliged him to return home. He was regarded in the agency as an authority on communism and Russian intelligence, an esoteric specialty during the war when most of the agency’s attention was naturally devoted to the German and Japanese foe, but far more important in the postwar years. Before long, tension was heightened across the Atlantic by the Alger Hiss case, the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—executed the year Hollis became deputy head—and the demagogic career of Joseph McCarthy.

Although the British atmosphere was less fervid, the cases were even more alarming. A series of trials of “atomic spies,” notably Alan Nunn May and Klaus Fuchs, had shown how far the most secret operations had been compromised, and had very gravely damaged Anglo-American relations. As if that weren’t enough, there was the melodramatic disappearance, in May 1951, of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who reappeared in Moscow several years later. In 1963, Kim Philby joined them there, despite having been previously declared innocent by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

By then, the Vassall, Blake, and Lonsdale cases—and that really is to name only a few—had led sensible observers to wonder whether the British intelligence services were uniquely incompetent or whether there was a more sinister explanation. If there was a third man, might not there be a fourth, or fifth, or more still? Some in those services were convinced that the enemy was within. One such was Peter Wright. Originally a scientific officer in MI5, he chaired a joint MI5–MI6 committee to investigate Soviet penetration, and decided that Hollis was an agent for the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service.

That committee began in 1964 but had not completed its inquiries when Hollis retired the following year; he died in 1973. Wright also left the service, embittered by a sordid little row over his pension, and began a lonely vendetta. Soon after Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979 she revealed that there was indeed a fourth Cambridge man, more astounding than any of the others: Sir Anthony Blunt, the art historian who had been Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. Later the name of John Cairncross was added, to make them the Cambridge Five. That only spurred on the hunt, and Wright published his now-it-can-be-told Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer (1987), which was severely dealt with in these pages by Noel Annan,1 although the attempt to suppress it brought the Thatcher government endless woe. That government also felt obliged to investigate Hollis posthumously; he was cleared, though in a manner that left some room for doubt.

But Wright had already collaborated with one of the best-known reporters of his age, a man who can now claim to have been following the story longer than anyone else alive. “After sixty years of investigating the massive Russian espionage assault on Great Britain and the United States,” Chapman Pincher announces at the beginning of Treachery, and 650 pages later he looks back “at the age of ninety-four and with near total recall.” After a scientific education and wartime army service, “Harry” Chapman Pincher joined the Daily Express and spent decades there when it was in some ways the dominant London newspaper, selling more than four million copies a day. He was in the Old Bailey to see Fuchs convicted in 1950 and in the Commons to hear a debate on intelligence in 1955. Treachery is an important addition to the literature in this field, and if nothing else, it’s unusual for a reviewer to be able to say that the book in hand would be formidable if it were the work of an author sixty-five years younger.

After he retired, Pincher was sought out by Wright in an arcane imbroglio involving Victor, Lord Rothschild, who had known the Cambridge gang, had come under suspicion, and was desperate to clear his name. The consequences proved lamentable for Rothschild, as Pincher describes in a narrative that defies summary, and it must be said that his very long book, though perfectly lucid, is sometimes episodic and convoluted.

At any rate, Pincher too was sure of Hollis’s guilt, and said so in his 1981 book Their Trade Is Treachery. This new book is partly a reprise of that one, though with new detail. When Igor Gouzenko defected in 1945, he provided a great deal of information about Soviet spying, including an agent inside MI5 code-named “Elli.” Pincher thinks Elli was Hollis, and fits him into a larger picture. Agent “Sonia,” otherwise Ursula Hamburger, née Kuczynski, German Jewish by birth, became a Communist and a GRU agent while an exile in China. She made her way to England, and transmitted information from there to the USSR during the war using her own radio. It may have been from her that the Russians so quickly learned the details of the 1943 Anglo-Canadian-American Quebec Agreement on nuclear cooperation, and Pincher calls her “the most influential female secret agent of all time.” If Hollis was Elli, Pincher says, it would explain the way that Sonia was able to continue her work—as well as a good deal else besides about the way that so many spies went too long undetected—and confirm the accusations long leveled at Hollis.

Has Pincher made the conclusive case at last? Having heard it out attentively, this juror finds it very hard to say either “Guilty as charged” or “Not guilty”; maybe best would be the ambiguous old verdict in Scots law, “Not proven.” It may be said that history is not a courtroom, which must follow the great principles of Anglo-Saxon common law, with the presumption of innocence for the accused, the burden of proof on the prosecution, and the requirement to establish guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Nor is the historian a trial lawyer who has to remember the rules forbidding hearsay and other inadmissible evidence, and is liable to be interrupted by objections from the defense.

But Pincher does write like a prosecutor, and although he makes his case assiduously, not to say relentlessly, and at times almost persuasively, it is still not open and shut. It must be emphasized that ever since suspicion was first aroused, Hollis has divided opinion. Successive official investigations gave their own “not proven” verdicts rather than a clear acquittal. Some authorities share Pincher’s belief in Hollis’s guilt, but others don’t, and Pincher conducts a running skirmish with writers such as Anthony Glees who think the charges are false. Guilt could only be established beyond question by a confession, which is no longer possible, a direct accusation by an unimpeachable witness, or incontrovertible documentary evidence, which Pincher doesn’t provide.

Even the—unsatisfactory and partial—opening of the former Soviet archives leaves many gray areas, in this and other cases. While never having doubted that Hiss was guilty, my own instinct about I.F. Stone is that although that often admirable journalist at one time had Russian contacts, and was (as he later admitted) for too long a sentimental fellow traveler, he was not in any serious sense the Soviet agent he has been called. In both cases, ambiguous documentation from Moscow obscures as well as clarifies.

Not only is Pincher’s evidence circumstantial, he continually argues by supposition or implication. At Oxford, “Hollis may have become a Soviet sympathiser”; “coincidentally perhaps”—in a lecture on China to the Royal Central Asian Society in 1937—“Hollis was reflecting the Communist Party line”; “So if Hollis had been recruited [to the GRU] it would have been in keeping with standard Soviet practice”; “So it would seem inevitable that Hollis would soon have learned…”; “Hollis seems to fit all the requirements.” And so on.

Along with these logical swoops and swerves, Pincher makes free use of “how else are we to explain…?” It would be quite unfair to call him “McCarthyite,” a term that should anyway be used very sparingly, but his argument is on occasion reminiscent of Senator McCarthy’s denunciation of General George Marshall in 1951: “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy….”

But there are plenty of ways to explain failure other than “great conspiracies”: folly, vanity, stupidity, and arrogance come to mind. Much of what Pincher says about the gross failures of British intelligence is all too true, but the fact that “Sonia” was left to her malign work unhindered doesn’t prove that some high personage was protecting her, any more than the barely credible way in which the Cambridge gang got away with it for years means that they were all being surreptitiously covered up. The very fact that so many moles dug for so long in so many different agencies must weaken Pincher’s case. To put it another way, what makes this shadowy netherland so fascinating for writers like le Carré is also what makes it so difficult for historians to analyze objectively.


On either side of the Atlantic, the subject has long aroused rapt interest, but in almost comically different ways. Many Americans are even now haunted by McCarthyism, “red-baiting,” and the notion of witchhunts hounding imaginary spies. But in Europe, as Tony Judt has drily observed, even people on the left have been better than their American counterparts in recognizing “that there might really have existed a secret Communist underground.”

  1. 1

    Betrayal,” The New York Review, September 24, 1987.

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