The Magazine

War With Mirrors

Britain and its secretive service.

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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Defend the Realm

The Authorized History of MI5

by Christopher Andrew

Knopf, 1,056 pp., $40

This monumental history of Britain's MI5, published to mark the centennial of its founding, offers dozens of fascinating tales of successes and failures in counterespionage, countersubversion, and counterterrorism by an institution tasked to "defend the realm." Perhaps inevitably, as an authorized history, it includes a great many details about its bureaucratic intrigues and reorganizations that most general readers can safely skip while enjoying the details--many new--about the spies, saboteurs, and terrorists against whom MI5 has contended.

Christopher Andrew is Britain's foremost historian of espionage, the author of many works on intelligence, years ago selected to collaborate with KGB defectors like Oleg Gordievsky and Vassily Mitrokhin to produce illuminating tales of Soviet operations directed against the West. He was given extensive, but apparently not unfettered, access to MI5 files, with recent activities dealing with terrorism being most restricted. Andrew notes that, after extensive discussion, a limited number of details were excised on grounds of national security.

Both MI5, the Security Service, and SIS (MI6, the Secret Intelligence
Service) were created in 1909 originally as one organization within Military Intelligence. While SIS was designed to operate abroad, spying on other nations, MI5's major focus was on thwarting domestic espionage and sabotage. With relatively few resources, its first head, Vernon Kell, who served from its inception until 1940, parlayed close cooperation with local police and an extensive system of mail intercepts to disrupt totally the German espionage apparatus during World War I: Virtually all their agents were caught, and most executed at the Tower of London. German efforts to recruit members of the Irish Republican Army, Indians, and Egyptians living in Great Britain were likewise foiled.

Nor did the Germans fare any better during 1939-45. British code breakers enabled MI5 to identify every spy operating in the country, arrest them, execute some, and turn the others into double agents. Under the direction of John Masterman, MI5 ran 120 such agents in the famous "Double Cross" system. The decryptions demonstrated that the Germans enthusiastically accepted the disinformation they were being fed by such legendary and eccentric agents as Eddie Chapman, a career criminal, or by Lily Sergueiev, "Treasure," who went on strike to protest British refusal to bring her beloved dog from Gibraltar to England and then threatened to expose her activities to the Nazis after the pooch died in exile. (Nor were agents the only strange personalities; one of the intelligence officers involved in the deception operations was a transvestite briefly arrested in Madrid while dressed as a woman.)

Soviet espionage and the threat of Communist subversion presented a longer-lasting and more intractable problem. While domestic fascists were only an occasional nuisance, the Communist party of Great Britain (CPGB) played a significant role in sectors of the labor movement and, at various times, within the Labour party itself. Because the Communist International was actively engaged in efforts to foment industrial unrest, particularly in the 1920s and early '30s, MI5 faced a delicate balan-
cing act to convince Labour governments that some of their allies had ties to the Soviet Union. From Ramsay MacDonald to Harold Wilson, Labour prime ministers often questioned whether the Security Service was exaggerating the Communist threat. In fact, it rarely did.

MI5 developed extensive and often impeccable information about both the activities of the Communist party and Soviet espionage. One source was its long-term wiretapping of CPGB headquarters. Even though the party periodically conducted thorough searches, it never discovered the tap, which provided a continuing window on its activities and plans, enabling MI5 to identify union leaders cooperating with the CPGB and its plans to pressure or bring down governments through disruptive strikes. Particularly in the 1930s, Maxwell Knight, who directed MI5's
penetration agents, supervised infiltrators who reported on party activities and, in one case (Olga Gray), was selected by Percy Glading, a high-ranking party official, to assist him in operating a spy ring at the Woolwich Arsenal. One Spanish Civil War veteran recruited to spy by the KGB confessed but refused to name his subagents. After being released from prison, he visited CPGB headquarters and, unaware that it was bugged, named them to his party comrades--and to MI5.