Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer
The Secrets of the Service
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.