The Magazine

War With Mirrors

Britain and its secretive service.

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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For most of its history, MI5 operated in a kind of legal limbo. Not authorized by statute, it first was a division of Military Intelligence and later reported to the Home Office and other cabinet departments (as the Security Service). Its very existence was never officially admitted, and its directors were not answerable to parliament. Many of its practices, like the ability to open private mail and to install wiretaps, were granted, not judicially, but by Home Office warrants, which for many years allowed agents to monitor the activities of suspicious persons, including not only suspected spies, but union leaders suspected of cooperating with the CPGB, aliens, and others. Surreptitious entries into the home of one undercover Communist official netted more than 50,000 documents. By 1952, it had identified more than 90 percent of the CPGB membership. It monitored Soviet payments to the Communist party. It checked on crypto-
Communists--Labour party backbenchers secretly allied with the party--and occasionally passed along information to Labour leaders anxious to purge them. In the 1970s it also monitored the Militant Tendency, a Trotskyist organization dedicated to infiltrating Labour.

Alongside its successes, however, MI5 badly bungled several of the most successful Soviet penetrations of the British government. Its small staff before World War II meant that it never followed up on Melita Norwood, whose name turned up in the Woolwich Arsenal case and whom an informant in the CPGB said was "a mysterious character" involved in underground work. Norwood continued her espionage activities, becoming the KGB's longest-serving British agent, providing vital information about Britain's atomic bomb project after she obtained a job as secretary to its director. Klaus Fuchs had undergone three separate security checks. Before he was hired to work on Britain's atomic bomb project after the war, counterintelligence officials concluded that evidence about his Communist ties was circumstantial.

Sometimes its recommendations were ignored. During the war it informed the government that 57 Communists had access to government secrets, including three working on the atomic bomb, and urged that they be fired or transferred to nonclassified work. While Winston Churchill agreed, his security advisers persuaded him that such a move was unwise, or might upset the Russians. Andrew does not provide their names but it is likely they included such spies as Allan Nunn May and Engelbert Broda.

MI5's most egregious blunder was to miss a number of clues pointing to the most destructive group of Soviet spies ever recruited in Britain. The Cambridge Five--Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross, and Anthony Blunt--were not unearthed until years after the war. First recruited in the 1930s, they occupied a variety of strategic positions from which they fed the KGB a steady stream of valuable intelligence. Philby directed SIS's Soviet counterintelligence section and was British intelligence liaison in Washington after World War II. Maclean held key positions in the Foreign Office, including second-in-command at the embassy in Washington. Cairncross was a cabinet secretary with access to atomic secrets. Blunt worked at MI5 itself during the war and handed over more than 1,700 documents. Burgess was employed at the BBC and at MI5. Muddled clues given by the Soviet defector Walter Krivitsky that, in hindsight, referred to Philby and Maclean were overlooked or misinterpreted.

Although Fuchs and Maclean were eventually exposed by Venona decryptions, it was American counterintelligence that first learned their identities from messages about their activities in the United States. The British were handicapped because there had been far fewer messages sent from London during World War II, since the government had allowed the Soviet embassy to radio messages to Moscow. Kim Philby's access to all the Venona material allowed him to warn Maclean, and he and Burgess fled to Moscow. Although convinced that Philby and Blunt had spied, the lack of hard evidence meant that they could not be prosecuted.

Andrew details how bureaucratic tangles and procedures handicapped investigators: Those with access to Venona material often kept it secret from others who might have put the pieces together. Nor was it just decrypted messages. British security officials working in the United States had evidence about physicist Bruno Pontecorvo's Communist ties but never transmitted it to London. He later fled to Moscow. Beginning in the mid-1950s the British largely abandoned work on Venona, erroneously concluding that not much more of value could be uncovered. Years later they discovered that it included information about a less damaging, but still significant, Oxford ring of spies.