Peter Wright
Peter Wright; drawing by David Levine


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?

To Margaret Thatcher this was irrelevant. For her moral questions are simple, and loyalty to your country, your colleagues, and your friends is a cardinal virtue. She had already vetoed several books on the intelligence services that were being written under official auspices and she was outraged by Wright’s treachery. She was determined to stop the publication of the book in Australia whatever the consequences and let it be known that if Wright dared set foot in England again he would be prosecuted. The consequences for British prestige, which Margaret Thatcher should have considered, were dire.

What followed in Australia is well-known. The presiding judge in Sydney, Mr. Justice Powell, gave the British government short shrift. The British press tried to picture him as a “pombasher,” when he was in fact as traditional a member of the Australian upper crust as could be. But Powell at once seized on the salient point in the defense. Why had not the British government prosecuted Chapman Pincher, Nigel West, and others who in writing of the security services had palpably received information from its members? He accepted the British denial that the government had conspired with Chapman Pincher to let the story about Hollis come out. But he found the British refusal to stop Pincher’s book “incredible.” He also objected to the inordinate delays of the British government in bringing the case to court, the prevarications and shifts of ground, and the lack of frankness. On page 269 of his judgment Powell referred to the maxim, “I apprehend that even the lowliest law student knows that he who comes to equity must come with clean hands.”1 He exonerated Wright from undue uncleanliness. But you can sense in reading his judgment that he thought it was not the defendant but the plaintiff whose hands needed washing, and at one point you expect him to quote that other maxim in the court of equity: “The dirty dog will get no dinner here.”

The man who deprived the British of their dinner was the young defense lawyer Malcolm Turnbull. He had already made his name as a well-connected whiz kid, employed by Kerry Packer, one of the roughest of Australian tycoons, who owned television stations and magazines among his many companies and who used Turnbull to brawl in the courtroom in defense of freedom of speech. The British establishment hates Packer for wrecking Australian Test Match cricket, and Turnbull’s cross-examination of the British official representing Mrs. Thatcher’s government was so exuberant that he seemed to them to be taking revenge for the physical damage inflicted by England’s fast bowlers on Australian batsmen in the body-line bowling controversy of 1934.

In fact Turnbull’s cross-examination was deadly but fair; he gave a marvelous performance that had Australia cheering. He seized on the fact that the secretary of the cabinet, Sir Robert Armstrong, who appeared in court as the British government’s chief witness, was briefed to give as little away as possible. After all, that was what the case was about—the preservation of secret material. But how does one preserve secrets when one has sworn on oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

At one point in cross-examination Turnbull began what was in effect a discussion about casuistry—would Armstrong ever tell an untruth to protect national security and so on—and eventually he forced Armstrong to admit that there were occasions when one had to be “economical with the truth.” (He and Armstrong, who once explained how three decisions were really one decision, had bandied about the names of Arius and Athanasius; but Armstrong on this occasion did not reveal that he was alluding to Aquinas.) Turnbull was irrepressible. What could be more delectable than to pillory this paladin as lying, deceitful, and devious? Was it not preposterous that under the name of security Armstrong would not let the name of MI6 pass his lips? And what was the court to make of Armstrong’s first saying that the decision not to prosecute Pincher was made by the attorney general and then later admitting that he had been misinformed and the attorney general had not been a party to the decision?

By now the issue of the freedom of the press had superseded the issue of national security. Those who loathed Margaret Thatcher had in hand a new stick labeled freedom of the press to thwack her with. Out of court Turnbull let loose a bag of dirty tricks. Over dinner he fed the British press, and over the phone the Labour party, the juiciest bits from Wright’s book. He found time during the trial even to brief Neil Kinnock. What better way of deflecting the attention of the court from Wright’s palpable breach of confidentiality than to turn the case into that of a bullying Conservative government gagging a decent man who was exposing a disgraceful attempt by Conservative supporters to overthrow a legitimately elected Labour government by putting the prime minister under surveillance?

The Labour opposition made the most of it. The security services, they declared, are out of control. Presumably today they “bug and burgle” their way around London as Wright’s book declared. Presumably today they spy on Labour MPs and trade unionists. And was it not outrageous that, according to Wright, a Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson himself, had been the target of a destabilizing coup orchestrated within MI5 by no fewer than thirty of its officers? Perhaps the security service existed to make the Conservative party feel more secure. No doubt that was why Margaret Thatcher had insisted that two junior civil servants should be prosecuted under the act for disclosing information about foreign policy that embarrassed the government. Why did one of them go to prison for handing over to The Guardian Ministry of Defence papers on nuclear defense, when Lord Rothschild went scot-free? One Labour MP revived the story that Rothschild was the fifth man and another demanded he be prosecuted under the act for aiding and abetting the dissemination of state secrets.

When Rothschild publicly asked the prime minister to clear his name, she gave in Parliament the only response the security service allows any minister to make to an inquiry of this kind. She said there was no evidence to show that he had been guilty of any offense—or in the language of MI5 there was NT (no trace) against his name. Later on television she endorsed him handsomely and deplored attacks on such people’s good names. Nevertheless the Labour MPs pressed their case, and soon Rothschild found himself being interrogated for over ten hours by a chief superintendent from the Serious Crimes Squad of Scotland Yard to see if he had breached the Official Secrets Act. The inquiry found he had not. But like that other scientist, Goethe’s Faust, who believed in the existence of truth, he found he had struck a bargain with a Mephistopheles when he sent Wright an air ticket to London and helped put him in touch with Pincher. He had wanted the truth told about himself and found that the bargain entangled him in Wright’s treachery. He now suffered the misery of pursuit by the press and unbridled speculation about his motives.

Since then things have gone from bad to worse for the British government. The press has printed extracts from the American edition of Wright’s book, the government used injunctions to stop them, fearing that if they did not their case now being heard in the state appeal court in Sydney would be thrown out. The Law Lords by a majority of 3–2 upheld the injunctions and the press disregarded the decision and is challenging the government to prosecute them for contempt of court. These days aircraft from New York to London resemble those old ads for the Philadelphia Bulletin as the English settle down for the trip all reading Spycatcher.

What kind of a book is it, how much of it is true, and are the British security services out of control?


The historian R.W. Johnson and that pillar of the establishment, the former editor of The Times William Rees-Mogg, declare that the book shows that the British security services are out of control. Philip Knightley also considers that the book

reeks of authenticity…and gives a devastating picture of what happens to an officer who has spent his working life bugging, burglarising, manipulating, manoeuvring, deceiving and lying…. Those who read it will have any lingering confidence in the Security Services utterly destroyed. They will be forced to conclude that MI5 has behaved in a manner more suitable to an East European police state than to Great Britain.2

Certainly you feel the claustrophobia, you join in the interdepartmental rivalries, and you find yourself in the hall of mirrors wondering whether the reflections are of double or triple agents. It is a world in which MI6 is the first enemy, the Foreign Office the second, and the KGB only the third. In other words, though Knightley may not know it, it resembles a normal bureaucracy. And then reading between the lines you see that so far from the security services in Britain being out of control, they are circumscribed to a degree unknown by the CIA or the FBI.

What in a Greengrassian flight of fancy Spycatcher calls bugging and burglarizing “our way across London” is doing what all counterintelligence agencies do in their own capital: they use clandestine means to get information from certain specific foreign embassies. Those who raise their voices in horror against the security services are the first to protest when Khomeini’s and Qaddhafi’s agents murder Iranians and Libyans in London who have taken refuge from their bloodthirsty regimes. Wright describes the fun he had posing as a telephone repairman to install bugs in embassies, but fails to say that MI5 is not allowed to tap any telephone anywhere without authority from the Home Office. Nor does he say that each month the list of those being tapped is laid before that home secretary himself. Wright admits that the security services set limits to their own powers. When Dick White became head of MI6 he forbade any further wild assassination schemes such as Eden entertained for Nasser; alas, the ban also held good for Philby.

Part of the control is exercised impersonally by the clash of interests in Whitehall. The Foreign Office, intent on good relations with foreign powers, opposes any counterintelligence move that might disturb these relations. Wright tells how time and again MI5’s pleas to move against the KGB officers covered by diplomatic immunity were blocked by the Foreign Office on the grounds that a détente on arms control was just over the horizon. Only in 1972, when Martin Furnival Jones, a forceful director general, brought home to Heath the extent of the KGB offensive, and only because Alec Douglas-Home was the foreign secretary, was MI5 able to expel 105 KGB men and prevent them from being replaced.

For in fact another spy system operates in Whitehall—the spy system of the mandarins. The mandarins are the permanent secretaries who are at the head of each ministry. The spies are the young civil servants who are the private secretaries of the cabinet ministers. Every meeting a minister has is attended by his private secretary, who logs it; every conversation he makes on the phone is recorded; every appointment he makes in Whitehall is monitored. If a secretary of state starts to throw his weight about, or adopts a policy the civil servants regard as dangerous, the warning bells ring, and in an emergency the top civil servant of all, the secretary to the cabinet, will intervene with the prime minister. If a minister brings a political adviser into his ministry and the adviser does not toe the line, the mandarins cut off his information: he will appear at a meeting and discover that his rivals posess certain important memoranda that mysteriously have never reached his desk. He therefore appears to be badly briefed and loses credibility. Each Tuesday morning, before the mandarins meet in the cabinet offices, they are briefed by their spies to hear what is cooking. If you try to bend a minister’s ear in his office, what you say will be around the civil service within forty-eight hours: the only way is to catch him at dinner in the evening when his attendant nurse from the mental clinic, his private secretary, is no longer observing his patient.

The mandarins have long memories. When Furnival Jones was due to retire, they were determined to bring MI5 to heel. Had he not defeated the Foreign Office over the expulsion of the Soviet spies? The man to be appointed should be more amenable to Home Office pressure. What better choice than a senior Home Office civil servant—he may be a pedantic, desk-bound man, but after all he’s one of us. You don’t think he’s suitable? Well, hasn’t he had bad luck that there isn’t a permanent secretary post vacant at the moment? So let’s slip him into this senior post. The story Wright tells of how the ploy was foiled is rich entertainment. But the real point of the story (short of its embroidery, which is almost wholly false) is that it was done by employing countervailing forces within Whitehall.

Wright’s most sensational story is the existence of a plot by thirty officers in MI5 to destabilize Harold Wilson’s government by circulating stories that he was a security risk. Like Falstaff’s account of the fight at Gadshill in which the two rogues in buckram who let fly at him became eleven in the telling, the numbers in the version that was before the court in Sydney have swollen. Is it Greengrass who has given his imagination wings? Or perhaps Turnbull? The two officers whose names Wright leaked to the press deny they were concerned in any such plot. Well, they would deny the story, wouldn’t they? Yet Wright’s story is absurd. A conspiracy of thirty officers in an organization that scarcely had double that number could never have been hushed up in Whitehall. Nor would an astute politician like James Callaghan have missed his chance to discredit his opponents had it been true. When he was prime minister he refused to set up an inquiry and he has lent his voice today to those calling for one only under Kinnock’s pressure, late in the day and halfheartedly; while Harold Wilson, who leaked his fears to journalists on his retirement as prime minister, has hardly stirred.

The truth is simpler. There are always wild men of the right as well as of the left. In 1968 Cecil King, who ran the Daily Mirror group of newspapers, and was then in his final stage of megalomania, suggested to Lord Mountbatten, the onetime chairman of the chiefs of staff, and Solly Zuckerman, chief scientific adviser to the government and a powerful man in Whitehall, that the time had come to topple Wilson. Zuckerman told him to get lost and told Mountbatten to have nothing to do with such nonsense. Again after 1974, when the miners’ union had paralyzed the country by using flying pickets and Heath lost the general election, there were some retired army officers who talked of organizing a volunteer force to counter the trade union pickets. Among those who rumbled and bumbled may have been some rogues in MI5. Some of the stories that circulated about Wilson may have come from them, and let us suppose for a moment that the thirty rogues in buckram let fly at Wilson. What happened? Nothing. Even Wright admits that as soon as he reported these discontents to the new head of MI5, Michael Hanley, Hanley did not hesitate to act as Zuckerman had. In fact Hanley denies Wright ever told him any such tale.

Prime ministers often choose personal friends who blanch the cheeks of the establishment. Churchill had his buccaneers, Beaverbrook, Bracken, and Morton; Margaret Thatcher has a penchant for handsome and dashing entrepreneurs; and Wilson had his circle of émigré businessmen. One of them, Joseph Kagan, who later landed in jail, was in touch with a KGB agent and was under MI5 surveillance. But if in tapping his phone MI5 intercepted a call he made to the prime minister, that is not the same as bugging the prime minister. There is all the difference in the world between hotheads who step out of line and use their expertise to burgle and bug without authorization and a concerted and clandestine attempt by a government agency to subvert the will of Parliament and the electorate. So far from MI5 pursuing its own course unchecked, it was forever having a snaffle put in its mouth by the Foreign Office and a curb by the Home Office.

There is another check on the operations of the security services: the establishment itself. Despite the pressure from Beaverbrook and others on the right, there was no McCarthy witch hunt in Britain. No dons were dismissed; no Angleton-inspired mole hunt within the security services that blighted many brilliant careers inside the CIA took place. Over the years only twenty-five civil servants were moved from their posts or—rarely—dismissed, whereas 25,000 in America were sacked or resigned. In Britain the common law maxim of guilt having to be proved prevailed. No Soviet defector was kept in prison for three years as Nossenko, suspected of being a plant, had been on Angleton’s orders.

If Wright inhabited the same fantastic world that James Angleton did, his capacity to run amok was checked. MI5 did not, on Wright’s own evidence, believe Angleton’s surmise that the KGB had poisoned Hugh Gaitskell to promote the sinister and allegedly pro-Soviet Wilson. In fact so pro-American was Wilson that his left wing was outraged by the stand he took on the Vietnam War. It is true that Wilson himself was alarmed at rumors he was being plotted against and sent George Weidenfeld to Washington to seek reassurance that the CIA was not up to any tricks. What was so odd in so kindly and intelligent a man as Wilson was that he lived in perpetual fear of conspiracies and plots against him. This one had probably just as much substance as the other rumors that he was to be supplanted by Callaghan or Roy Jenkins.

For the trouble is that whatever is true in Spycatcher floats in such a haze of inaccuracy that it becomes suspect. Greengrass makes Wright’s manuscript readable by inventing improbable conversations. All his characters speak in the same idiom, the vernacular of a television producer of the Eighties, regardless of the date when they are said to be speaking or whether they are civil servants or scientists. Everyone calls Wright by his first name within minutes of meeting him. Keen to show how matey he was with Victor Rothschild, Wright tells of being in Rothschild’s room in the cabinet offices when “Heath put his head round the door.” The prime minister does not drop in on his staff: when he wants something he sends for them. Nor does Margaret Thatcher tootle around to discuss intelligence at Rothschild’s apartment. Cabinet meetings are described that never took place. Some of the confessions from Blunt’s friends that Wright claims to have extorted are true, others phony. There is little doubt that Alister Watson, an Admiralty research scientist, had provided information at some time, knowing it was destined for the Soviet Union. On the other hand a top civil servant, Dennis Proctor, who was a friend of Guy Burgess and an uninhibited talker, almost as certainly was not a spy; and the account Wright gives of their meeting in France, which he was quoted as saying on television produced a “partial confession,” produced nothing of the sort.

The minor inaccuracies cascade in torrents. One expert in London compiled a dossier of such errors. For instance, Alister Watson is described as a failure who never got a fellowship at Cambridge; but he did, and he was later a success in the scientific civil service. Khrushchev on his visit to London is said to be preternaturally vain and is observed by clandestine means to spend many minutes combing his hair. Few men were ever balder. The Capitol building in Washington is credited with a golden dome and James Angleton is described as drinking Jack Daniels, whereas he was famous for drinking the driest of dry martinis. When I opened the book and read on the first page Wright’s description of his last day in the service, where he arrives at the familiar subway station at which he had got out hundreds of times, I was intrigued to see he got the name of the station wrong, and a few pages later he refers to a regiment as the Rifles Brigade. Wright also falls for a story Blunt told him: how Burgess was instructed by the KGB to marry Clarissa Churchill, Winston’s niece, and cut out James Pope-Hennessy, who was pursuing her. Burgess, according to Wright, was appalled because Clarissa “was scarcely better looking than her uncle.” Clarissa Churchill was then one of the most beautiful girls in London and James Pope-Hennessy, though her close friend, was a totally uninterested homosexual.

Was Roger Hollis a spy? Chapman Pincher in both his books, which were based on Wright’s material, declared that he was,3 and his analysis of the evidence is not to be dismissed out of hand. It failed to convince either Knightley or the latest writer to study the case, Anthony Glees, in The Secrets of the Service. Pincher admits that no firm evidence exists that at any time Hollis had Communist sympathies, but when he was in China before the war Hollis knew Comintern agents such as Agnes Smedley and Arthur Ewert, and the woman who published her memoirs as a Soviet spy under the name of Sonia. Glees shows why the evidence about Sonia will not stand up. Pincher claims that Hollis “fitted easily into a pattern of young people recruited for ideological reasons,” and that Sonia “might have recruited him.” Could not Sonia have been his control when Hollis was evacuated during the war with part of MI5 to the Duke of Marlborough’s country seat, Blenheim? Glees shows why she could not. Pincher alleges that Hollis failed to act on certain radio intercepts that could have proved Sonia a Communist agent. But it was not Hollis’s job to decode such intercepts, and if he had been a mole protecting Sonia, the first thing he would have done would have been to tell her to send messages through the Soviet embassy when, after June 22, 1941, they were monitored but not decoded.

Another of Pincher’s expert critics, Nigel Clive, has pointed out how so much of his case, which is Wright’s case, rests on the fantasies of the Soviet defector Golitsyn or on circumstantial evidence. Is it really relevant that Hollis wore his old Cliftonian tie with the same pride with which Burgess wore his old Etonian tie? Are we to believe that Hollis’s concern about the cricket scores was an elaborate piece of cover? Wright seems never to have heard of Murphy’s Law (if anything can go wrong it will go wrong). For him nothing can happen by chance; every event must have a logical cause. If the Soviet defector Oleg Penkovsky gave a lot of information to the West, it must be disinformation even though it led to Khrushchev’s humiliation over Cuba. If a lead peters out, someone is falsifying the evidence. In Wright’s world coincidence and chance do not exist.

Pincher claims that for a man who was responsible then for counterintelligence against Soviet Russia, Hollis does not seem to have had much success, to judge by the harvest of spies. For every one who slipped through the net the most likely informant, according to Pincher, was Hollis. He could be shown to have frustrated attempts to expose Communist sympathizers during the war. But Hollis was primarily an intelligence gatherer, not a strict counterintelligence operator. Glees, who has a feel for history that Pincher does not, reminds us how much the Anglo-Soviet alliance of 1941 changed attitudes and men’s fortunes. When Hollis tried to alert the Foreign Office to the communist danger during and just after the war, the OF officials wearily commented that MI5 was suffering from so many delusions that they would have to take its education in hand. The Foreign Office set up a committee of Russian studies under the future master of Balliol, Christopher Hill, who has never concealed his Communist sympathies.

In those days it was not Communist sympathizers but anticommunists who fell under a cloud; the smart thing was to be receptive to Soviet aims and praise their heroic sacrifices. (Tolstoy in War and Peace describes just such a renversement des alliances. At Tilsit the young aide-de-camp Boris Dubretskoy says to his general that he would like to see the great man. “You mean Bonaparte?” says the general. “No, general,” says Boris, realizing he is being tested, “I mean the Emperor Napoleon.” “You will go far,” says the general, patting him on the shoulder.) But it was not just smart. The war was being fought against Hitler. SOE, the British agency that supported resistance movements, contained numbers of fellow travelers and Communists such as James Klugmann in Cairo, who worked to ensure that Communist rather than nationalist resistance groups got British support. But it is unhistorical to forget that SOE’s job was to tie down Nazi divisions in Europe; and if the Communist groups were best at doing this job, as they often were, we owed it to our Russian allies and our own troops preparing to invade Normandy and Italy to give these groups support.

Even Glees is not quite sound enough on this point. It was welcome news in those days to hear that men as intelligent as Anthony Blunt and Hugh Trevor-Roper had been recruited to MI5 and MI6 and that the Old Guard, who had only a few years previously preferred Hitler to Stalin, were on the defensive. He is wrong to criticize those who wanted to do their best to help Russia fight the Nazi armies. Russia was the one hope that the Anglo-Americans had of winning the war. The argument is much the same as the one that rages over Yalta.

Hollis was no Dubretskoy. His colleague Roger Fulford once said to him, “I think we spend too much time worrying about the Russians.” “I do not think I should think that if I were you,” was the reply. Glees shows that it was a civil servant, Edward Appleton, who overrode Hollis’s doubts about Klaus Fuchs on the grounds that Fuchs’s importance to the construction of the atomic bomb outweighed the danger of employing him. The diplomat Sir Patrick Reilly was adamant that it was a Foreign Office error that allowed Maclean to get away and that Philby, and not Hollis, tipped Maclean off; and Glees’s analysis of the evidence confirms him. Hollis was at one with Reilly and Dick White in believing Philby was guilty. To Wright the first priority was to unmask spies. To Hollis, when director general, it was to restore American confidence in MI5. But the clinching evidence came from Oleg Gordievsky, Britain’s mole within the KGB. When in 1985 he was called in from the cold, he said, “When the KGB saw the chaos caused by the allegations against Hollis, their laughter made Red Square shake.”

But Wright has further strings to his bow. His opponents had maintained that when Gouzenko identified the fifth man as serving in counterintelligence, he could have meant Section V, the counterintelligence section in MI6, in which Philby worked, rather than in MI5. Wright replies that the original intercept had been mistranslated; it could only mean MI5 and must point to Hollis. Again, although Hollis was sent after the war (on Philby’s suggestion) to interrogate Gouzenko, he did his best not to draw attention to Gouzenko’s references to the spy “Elli” in “five of MI5.”

Wright produces one more sinister piece of evidence. Guy Liddell, the flower of British counterintelligence, left behind him diaries when he died. In them he speculated who “Elli” could be. His secretary brought them to Wright because, so she said, Hollis had ordered that they be destroyed. Is that story true? Where are those diaries now? In the archives of MI5 or transcribed and in Wright’s hands? Will he write another book—or will that well-informed expert Chapman Pincher write it? Beavering researchers will uncover more leads from American records under the Freedom of Information Act. It is impossible to prove innocence and the Hollis case will rest as unproven unless further evidence surfaces. Rothschild once said how stunning the blow was that hit him when he was told that Blunt was a spy. Here was a man he had admired as much for his moral principles as for his intellect and humor. If Blunt was false, who was not? The file on all of us is never closed.


There is a scene in Troilus and Cressida in which Ulysses tells Achilles that it is known that he has been conducting an intrigue with one of Priam’s daughters. “Ha! known!” exclaims Achilles. “Is that a wonder?” replies that worldly-wise statesman. Ulysses then explains that every “watchful state” employs a secret service that “Does thoughts unveil in their dumb cradles.” He goes on to say:

There is a mystery—with whom relation
Durst never meddle—in the soul of state,
Which hath an operation more divine
Than breath or pen can give expres- sion to.
All the commerce that you have had with Troy
As perfectly is ours as yours, my lord.

The difference today is that we no longer respect the divinity of our security services operations, and the press (“relation”) is determined to meddle. As Ulysses said, is that a wonder, after some of the revelations that emerged during the hearings in Congress on the CIA in the mid-1970s? Press and television regard the secret service as the ultimate challenge, the Mount Everest of journalism to be conquered simply because it is there. Since no Freedom of Information Act exists in Britain, the crags of silence on which the establishment sit have got to be scaled. But the mountaineers are not merely reporters and investigative journalists. There is a horde of experts who range from the scholarly Christopher Andrew at Cambridge to professional writers in search of a topical theme. Intelligence operations have become part of history: historians and political scientists hold seminars on one or another aspect. A dispassionate observer might conclude that after the Appeals Court of New South Wales issues its verdict the government will be forced to revise the Official Secrets Act.

He is likely to be disappointed. Margaret Thatcher shows not the faintest sign of admitting she was wrong—wrong not in being outraged by Wright’s treachery but wrong in recognizing that the legal advice she received was ill-judged. Her law officers should have told her, as lawyers often have to tell their clients, that although moral right is on her side and the laws may possibly be so too, the consequences of going to court are so fraught with uncertainty and danger that it is best to retire expressing contumely and contempt for your opponent. Possibly they were too frightened to tell her. More likely they gave her strict legal advice without any regard to the political consequences. The precedents are full of confusion. Sir John Masterman, irritated that there were so many unsung heroes (including himself) among the wartime intelligence services, defeated the system by publishing his book, Double Cross System, first in America. He got away with it. But then Masterman was head of an Oxford College, a fellow of Eton, and a club man, whom it would have been embarrassing to prosecute. When Turnbull quoted his case and that of Chapman Pincher, he suggested that the British government might settle by vetting Wright’s book and deleting offending passages. The request was turned down on the grounds that the book broke the rules of the disclosable so flagrantly that it would have to be emasculated. This was of course a device to uphold the principle that no routine officer of the security services may publish any book.

There are others to blame. One villain in this imbroglio is the obscure official in the pensions department who denied Wright justice. Wright’s pension from MI5 was appallingly small owing to the government’s inefficiency about recruitment into the foreign and security services after the war. It was in fact in line with what his colleagues received. One of them, after thirty-one years’ service, retired in 1967 at the age of fifty-five with a pension of £2,000 a year. Hardly princely, to say the least. The pension was index-linked for inflation, and by now would be worth £12,000, but Wright lost out on two counts: by emigrating to Australia he forewent the indexation, and by joining MI5 when he did, he was ineligible to transfer his Admiralty pension. Shortly after he joined the MI5, that rule was changed.

Government departments are unbelievably miserly about pensions. The officials, who stood on the legal technicality that Wright’s Admiralty pension could not be transferred, were mean and despicable. Even more so was the high official who looked into the case when Wright complained and ruled against him. Hugging themselves for having saved the state a few thousand pounds, they ought now to realize that they have landed the state with a bill for over a million pounds in legal expenses.

But the obscure officials are not alone to blame. Michael Hanley, the director general of MI5, can hardly be blamed for having no love for Wright: Had not Wright put him under interrogation as a suspect for the fifth man? Nevertheless, despite Wright’s unpopularity in the service, Hanley could have fished out of the funds at his disposal a lump sum of compensation. For if ever there was a security risk, it was this grumpy, vindictive, obsessed officer who knew a great many secrets and had become unhinged by injustice and his own form of megalomania.

The popular culprit among the spy hunters is Britain’s class structure, responsible at once for the Cambridge spies and the secrecy that surrounds official life. In their book on the Blunt case, Conspiracy of Silence,4 Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman argue that Britain is a society of secret clubs and public life is so afflicted by the confidentiality of ingroups that lies become part of Whitehall’s existence. Britain did not merely produce Anthony Blunt: it deserved Blunt. This is simpliste. But whereas in the Fifties the intelligentsia and the establishment joined forces in opposing a purge on McCarthy’s lines, today the intelligentsia is at one with the populists in calling for investigations and overt political control of the security services. They point to the record of the CIA over the past thirty years and to the price that the British agencies pay for tagging along with the Angletons of this world, who tell them that their society has suffered a “massive penetration” by the KGB. Both left and right want to disembowel the establishment through an investigation of the security services: the right to reveal Soviet moles, the left to reveal that there are none—except those monstrously recruited to burrow within the trade union movement and destabilize Labour governments.

In this as in most other rows in British culture class differences float to the surface because they can serve as a guide to the way people behave. Richard Hall spells this out better than any other commentator in A Spy’s Revenge, when he says that Wright was in a double sense an outsider.5 That he was a minor public school boy who had never really been to a university, operating in an organization that was governed by those who believed in good form, might not in itself have been crucial: after all, his one-time chief, Sir Dick White, went to the same school. But he was a scientist, the only scientist in MI5, who had pushed himself by his abilities into the more sensitive post of a case officer. Hall draws a parallel between him and the hero of Nigel Balchin’s wartime novel, The Small Back Room, in which the gogetting, publicity-seeking scientists, who are adept at maneuvering in Whitehall and bamboozling ministers, defeat the decent, obscure “boffins”—scientists—who have the bright ideas and get no recognition.

Wright saw himself in this role. His long pursuit of Hollis was defeated by the wiles of an establishment that despised his expertise. In the same way, during his time in MI5 he had seen his scientific initiatives run up against ignoramuses who had never heard of Ohm’s law. Now Wright may have believed that when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister his hour at last had come. Was she not soon to be renowned for breaking with the old establishment? The Tory aristocrats were sent packing from her cabinet, the civil servants were sent away with a flea in their ear unless they proved to be “one of us.” Was she not too a grammar school child, from a country town like Wright’s? Did she not possess a science degree and have the heart of a boffin? Now at last the cover-up so skillfully performed by Lord Trend as secretary of the cabinet under former prime ministers would be exposed. But no: to his fury Margaret Thatcher demolished the illusion that he and his MI5 allies treasured—namely that Trend had left the question of Hollis’s guilt wide open. On the contrary, said the prime minister. Trend had been unconvinced by the circumstantial evidence. Outraged, Wright made a statement to the court in Sydney, half of which was censored. To him the penetration of the British security services by the Russians, Hall says, was secondary. All that mattered now was to revenge himself on the establishment and the service in which he had spent his life.

Wright’s old MI5 ally Arthur Martin has pleaded that Wright’s patriotism cannot be doubted. He has chosen so odd a way to display it that the only charitable conclusion is that he has become unhinged. No one should work for longer than ten years on counterintelligence. In Angleton’s case delusions led him to authorize opening the mail of nearly a quarter of a million American citizens and to expel numbers of excellent officers from the CIA on the surmise that they were moles. No doubt some will argue that Wright’s book will not harm a fly: Is not the whole world of spies ludicrous and not to be taken seriously by any intelligent person? Until, of course, you remember the IRA.

Did it not cross Wright’s mind that there is now not much to choose between him and Philip Agee—or Blunt? He is not a journalist, like Chapman Pincher, but a former official who has betrayed his colleagues. He has betrayed the mode of operations in MI5 to the KGB and given them the sort of circumstantial evidence that one security service longs to obtain about another. He has betrayed the American security officers with whom he worked and who regarded him as an ally. I suspect he has damaged American interests and sown mistrust between the services of the two countries. He pretends now like a repentant Magdalene that he is ashamed of having broken the law in MI5 and calls for an independent inquiry. That is hypocrisy. No one doubts that he did what he did for money. Those who have worked in intelligence will say Wright is a shit, and they will be right.

This Issue

September 24, 1987