Digging for Moles

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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…

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