The Magazine

War With Mirrors

Britain and its secretive service.

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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Such blunders inevitably led to suspicions that it was not incompetence or bureaucratic mishaps that had prevented the exposure of spies. For years, in the 1960s, MI5 was roiled by a spy hunt orchestrated by Peter Wright, a high-ranking officer who concluded that either Roger Hollis, head of MI5 during 1956-65, or his chief deputy had been a long-term Soviet penetration agent. The spectacle of an intelligence agency investigating its own head, although it did not become widely known until an embittered Wright went public in 1984, damaged morale and perturbed governments. Subsequent efforts by the British government to prevent publication of Wright's memoir on grounds that it violated the Official Secrets Act only fed the perception that the KGB had achieved a spy agency's fondest dream: recruiting the head of its enemy's counterespionage service. (One of Wright's journalistic allies, 95-year-old Chapman Pincher, just this year published yet another long indictment of Hollis.)

Although he does not directly confront the evidence that Hollis hid connections with several Communists, Andrew demonstrates that for many years in the 1930s and early '40s he was the most aggressive voice within MI5 for pursuing potential Communist spies. He concludes unequivocally that Hollis was innocent. MI5 did not realize it had identified all the Soviet moles because of some of the paranoiac charges of Soviet defector Anatoli Golitsin and an exaggerated belief in the foresightedness and sophistication of the KGB, which made its own share of errors and misjudgments--not the least of which was concluding during World War II that Philby and his colleagues were actually working for the British. Andrew's argument will hardly settle the Hollis case, but certainly will give pause to anyone who thinks that Peter Wright could be trusted to report honestly on his own agency's activities, much less those of the KGB.

Just as American intelligence agencies were deeply wounded by public revelations of their activities in the 1970s, MI5 faced unwelcome scrutiny in the 1980s. Public charges by ex-officers that it engaged in political surveillance caused an uproar. One member of parliament, Ian Mikardo, claimed Britain was becoming just as repressive as the Soviet Union. (Ironically, he himself had been a Soviet agent prior to 1967.) One of the most explosive of Peter Wright's claims was that a cabal of MI5 officers had mounted a plot to bring down Harold Wilson's government, convinced that he was a KGB asset. The truth, Andrew contends, was much less sensational. MI5 did have a file on Wilson since, as a private businessman, he had frequent trade contacts with the Soviet Union. There was also concern about several of his friends who were suspected of ties to the KGB. Wilson did countermand one warrant to bug a leftwing MP, later identified as a KGB agent, delaying his discovery by a decade; but there is no evidence that Wilson was ever recruited by the KGB or that there was any kind of plot against him. By the 1980s, in fact, as a result of the defection of such high-ranking KGB officers as Oleg Gordievsky and the expulsion of more than a hundred KGB officers in 1971, Soviet operations in Great Britain were severely compromised.

The long tradition that the MI5 was answerable only to the executive ended in the 1980s. Under pressure from the European Court of Human Rights, which required statutory laws to justify such practices as wiretapping, embarrassed by the Wright affair and its revelations, dogged by outrage from former prime ministers who had encouraged wiretapping of labor militants but now preferred to pretend that it had all occurred because of an overly aggressive security service, MI5 agreed to a legislative charter which, for the first time, defined its responsibilities. It became a more public institution, and its first female director general, Stella Rimington, became a media figure.

In the last few decades its chief preoccupation became counterterrorism. That had been its major focus immediately after World War II. One reason that MI5 was slow to focus on communism immediately after the defeat of Nazism was that its main focus during 1946-48 was Zionist extremism. As the fate of Palestine played out, the Stern Gang and the Irgun resorted to assassination and bombings in both the Middle East and Europe to pressure the British government. MI5 disrupted a number of plots; one bomb planted at Whitehall failed to detonate. One of its sources was Teddy Kollek, the future mayor of Jerusalem, who headed the Jewish Agency's Intelligence Department, which cooperated in efforts to prevent terrorism.

Counterterrorism again became a major preoccupation in the 1970s with the rise of the Irish Republican Army and its more lethal split-off, the Provisional IRA. MI5 developed clear evidence of extensive Libyan provision of weapons and money flowing to both groups. Despite success in identifying all of the Provisional IRA's leadership, most of its activists, and many of its planned operations, MI5 was unable to develop enough legally admissible evidence to support successful prosecutions of the bulk of those -responsible for the bombing campaigns.

By the turn of the century, transnational Islamic terrorism had replaced Irish extremism as MI5's chief problem. Like the Communist issue, combating it was complicated by a large domestic population sympathetic to some of the aims, if not the means, of the militants. And despite convicting dozens of would-be terrorists, MI5, like all Western counterintelligence agencies, faced the chilling thought that just one failure could mean horrific casualties--such as incurred in the July 2005 London subway bombings.

Harvey Klehr is the Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory and the author, most recently, of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.

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.

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.

Such blunders inevitably led to suspicions that it was not incompetence or bureaucratic mishaps that had prevented the exposure of spies. For years, in the 1960s, MI5 was roiled by a spy hunt orchestrated by Peter Wright, a high-ranking officer who concluded that either Roger Hollis, head of MI5 during 1956-65, or his chief deputy had been a long-term Soviet penetration agent. The spectacle of an intelligence agency investigating its own head, although it did not become widely known until an embittered Wright went public in 1984, damaged morale and perturbed governments. Subsequent efforts by the British government to prevent publication of Wright's memoir on grounds that it violated the Official Secrets Act only fed the perception that the KGB had achieved a spy agency's fondest dream: recruiting the head of its enemy's counterespionage service. (One of Wright's journalistic allies, 95-year-old Chapman Pincher, just this year published yet another long indictment of Hollis.)

Although he does not directly confront the evidence that Hollis hid connections with several Communists, Andrew demonstrates that for many years in the 1930s and early '40s he was the most aggressive voice within MI5 for pursuing potential Communist spies. He concludes unequivocally that Hollis was innocent. MI5 did not realize it had identified all the Soviet moles because of some of the paranoiac charges of Soviet defector Anatoli Golitsin and an exaggerated belief in the foresightedness and sophistication of the KGB, which made its own share of errors and misjudgments--not the least of which was concluding during World War II that Philby and his colleagues were actually working for the British. Andrew's argument will hardly settle the Hollis case, but certainly will give pause to anyone who thinks that Peter Wright could be trusted to report honestly on his own agency's activities, much less those of the KGB.

Just as American intelligence agencies were deeply wounded by public revelations of their activities in the 1970s, MI5 faced unwelcome scrutiny in the 1980s. Public charges by ex-officers that it engaged in political surveillance caused an uproar. One member of parliament, Ian Mikardo, claimed Britain was becoming just as repressive as the Soviet Union. (Ironically, he himself had been a Soviet agent prior to 1967.) One of the most explosive of Peter Wright's claims was that a cabal of MI5 officers had mounted a plot to bring down Harold Wilson's government, convinced that he was a KGB asset. The truth, Andrew contends, was much less sensational. MI5 did have a file on Wilson since, as a private businessman, he had frequent trade contacts with the Soviet Union. There was also concern about several of his friends who were suspected of ties to the KGB. Wilson did countermand one warrant to bug a leftwing MP, later identified as a KGB agent, delaying his discovery by a decade; but there is no evidence that Wilson was ever recruited by the KGB or that there was any kind of plot against him. By the 1980s, in fact, as a result of the defection of such high-ranking KGB officers as Oleg Gordievsky and the expulsion of more than a hundred KGB officers in 1971, Soviet operations in Great Britain were severely compromised.

The long tradition that the MI5 was answerable only to the executive ended in the 1980s. Under pressure from the European Court of Human Rights, which required statutory laws to justify such practices as wiretapping, embarrassed by the Wright affair and its revelations, dogged by outrage from former prime ministers who had encouraged wiretapping of labor militants but now preferred to pretend that it had all occurred because of an overly aggressive security service, MI5 agreed to a legislative charter which, for the first time, defined its responsibilities. It became a more public institution, and its first female director general, Stella Rimington, became a media figure.

In the last few decades its chief preoccupation became counterterrorism. That had been its major focus immediately after World War II. One reason that MI5 was slow to focus on communism immediately after the defeat of Nazism was that its main focus during 1946-48 was Zionist extremism. As the fate of Palestine played out, the Stern Gang and the Irgun resorted to assassination and bombings in both the Middle East and Europe to pressure the British government. MI5 disrupted a number of plots; one bomb planted at Whitehall failed to detonate. One of its sources was Teddy Kollek, the future mayor of Jerusalem, who headed the Jewish Agency's Intelligence Department, which cooperated in efforts to prevent terrorism.

Counterterrorism again became a major preoccupation in the 1970s with the rise of the Irish Republican Army and its more lethal split-off, the Provisional IRA. MI5 developed clear evidence of extensive Libyan provision of weapons and money flowing to both groups. Despite success in identifying all of the Provisional IRA's leadership, most of its activists, and many of its planned operations, MI5 was unable to develop enough legally admissible evidence to support successful prosecutions of the bulk of those -responsible for the bombing campaigns.

By the turn of the century, transnational Islamic terrorism had replaced Irish extremism as MI5's chief problem. Like the Communist issue, combating it was complicated by a large domestic population sympathetic to some of the aims, if not the means, of the militants. And despite convicting dozens of would-be terrorists, MI5, like all Western counterintelligence agencies, faced the chilling thought that just one failure could mean horrific casualties--such as incurred in the July 2005 London subway bombings.

Harvey Klehr is the Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory and the author, most recently, of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.