Conspiracy of Silence

Title:                  Conspiracy of Silence

Author:                  Barrie Penrose

Penrose, Barrie (1987, 1988) and Simon Freeman. Conspiracy of Silence: The Secret Life of Anthony Blunt. New York: Vintage Books

LCCN:    88040178

DA585.B58 P46 1987


Date Updated:  October 20, 2015

Sir Anthony Blunt, employee of MI5 (the British counterespionage service) during World War II, director of the Courtauld Institute, and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, confessed to being a Soviet spy in 1964. Not until 1979, however, did Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher reveal that fact before the House of Commons – a second “conspiracy of silence.” Simon Freeman and Barrie Penrose, staff writers for the London Sunday Times, spent several years researching and interviewing those who knew Blunt and his circle. Despite being often hampered by what they view as obsessive and excessive British official security, Penrose and Freeman produced an extensively documented, well-researched, interesting book.

As much a portrait of an era as of a man, Conspiracy Of Silence is especially fascinating when describing the political ferment of 1930’s Cambridge University. Charismatic leaders such as John Cornford, a brilliant scholar and Communist true-believer, inspired their idealistic fellow students. Belonging to the socialist or Communist student organizations was almost considered a fashionable thing to do. Virtually every member of the elite intellectual group the Apostles, to which Blunt belonged, at least dabbled in Communism. Somewhat coincidentally (since members tended to nominate friends), many Apostles were also homosexual. Blunt’s political, intellectual, and personal lives thus seem to have been greatly influenced by his time at Cambridge as a student and as a young don.

Numerous books and articles have been written about the Cambridge spies. One has, however, only to compare Peter Wright’s recent book, Spycatcher, in which Wright describes his interrogations of Blunt and his conclusions, with Conspiracy Of Silence to appreciate the clarity and reliability of Penrose and Freeman’s work. Much mystery still surrounds the Cambridge spies, but the authors have given a credible account of the life of Anthony Blunt without yielding to the temptation of wild speculation.

Reviewed by George C. Constantinides[1]

An expansion into book form of articles that Pearson, a British journalist, wrote for the magazine Penthouse. It purports to give the background of the Six-Day War of 1967 and of the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty. Much in this book is unreliable, and Pearson’s inability to produce respectable evidence further weakens his case. His source for the part on the war and the Liberty is stated to have been a British major, now dead. Charges that there was a U.S.-Israeli conspiracy to start the war, that CIA’s chief of counterintelligence passed nuclear secrets to the Israelis without the knowledge of his government, or that the Israelis betrayed an agreed master plan are examples of material without evidence or support. Added to these are incredible statements that CIA agreed to let the Israelis do the intelligence collecting in the Middle East (which cropped up again in Eveland’s Ropes of Sand[2]) or that CIA covertly assisted Biafra. Note too that the story of the alleged Polaris submarine’s presence and contact with the Liberty also appears in Deacon’s The Silent War[3]. Pearson’s frank admissions about the low ebb in his career at the time he undertook to write on the subject should also be noted.

Walk along Gloucester Place. (Benedict Arnold, the American hero-turned-traitor—or traitor-turned-hero, as some readers may prefer to think of him—spent his last years at No. 18.) At Portman Square, the best surviving townhouse by Robert Adam is on your left at the former Courtauld Institute of Art, 20 Portman Square. In 1946 Anthony Blunt came to work at the Courtauld Institute. We know from the way Soviet Intelligence operated that they wouldn’t have let him leave MI5 unless they could count on his continued availability and unless they had other assets within MI5. Blunt’s later explanation that he had resigned from service to the Soviets because he was “no longer interested” must have amused the dour crew at Moscow Centre. Much later, of course, he agreed with the assumption made by Western Intelligence: that he hadn’t left MI5 untended, as it were, when he left.

For almost three decades, Blunt occupied an elegant apartment overlooking Portman Square. He was a dynamic director; during his tenure (1947-74), the Courtauld became the pre-eminent institution of its type in Britain, He also did well for himself here. Free to pursue his chosen career, he gained fame, honours, deference. He became Surveyor of the King’s Pictures in 194S (Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures in 19S2), a Knight Commander of the Victorian Order in 1956, Adviser to the Queen’s Pictures and Drawings in 1972. He gained material comfort as well. Discouraging the Courtauld staff from working late, he had this entire 80-room mansion to himself after hours. I find it grotesque that he was so lavishly rewarded by the nation and society he was working so hard to destroy.

Courtauld students were well aware that Blunt was “a Russian spy,” according to Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman in Conspiracy of Silence. For all his years here he was probably servicing dead-drops and acting as a cut-out: In 1954, for example, the Soviets used him to contact Philby. What happened was this: Yuri Modin, formerly Blunt’s controller, approached Blunt after a lecture here and asked his scholarly opinion about a picture on a postcard. On the back of (the postcard was Modin’s familiar handwriting telling Blunt to go to a certain pub the next evening. There Modin gave Blunt the details of a meeting he wanted with Philby. Blunt contacted Philby. Thus Modin and Philby hadn’t risked contact prior to their meeting, and long before reaching their rendezvous they would elude any surveillance. Neatly done.

MI5 interrogated Blunt immediately after his life-long friend, Guy Burgess, had fled to Moscow. Coolly and steadfastly Blunt told his interrogators nothing. They had no evidence and he knew it; only his own faltering or the testimony of his fellow-communists could damage him. He had a scare in 1959 when Burgess seemed eager to return to Britain to see his ageing mother. Blunt needn’t have worried. The government was even less interested than he was in seeing Burgess return; lacking evidence to bring Burgess to trial, the government would have been seriously embarrassed by his presence. What kept Burgess from returning? Did the Soviets veto the trip, fearing that Burgess would want to stay in London and would eventually tell MI5 all he knew? Or did HM Government thoughtfully warn Burgess that he might not be altogether safe in London—hinting at some misadventure, perhaps, at the hands of an indignant patriot? Chapman Pincher, in Their Trade Is Treachery[4], writes that it was Hollis (see Site 52, 18 Elsham Road, and Site 54, 6 Campden Hill Square) who was “determined .to dissuade Burgess from ever returning to Britain.” Here is Pincher’s thinking: “If Hollis was a spy”—and Pincher has little doubt that he was—and if Burgess had somehow learnt of this, perhaps from Maclean, then Hollis would have gone to any Iengths to spare Burgess an MI5 interrogation. And, adds Pincher, the Soviets would have gone to any lengths to spare Maclean the same, even putting Philby and Blunt at risk with Maclean’s defection (see Site 120 Clifford Chambers, 109 New Bond Street). Burgess never did return; he died in Moscow in 1963.

Just when Blunt could stop worrying over Burgess, another old comrade surfaced. Michael Straight, an American whom Blunt had recruited to Soviet Intelligence (see Site 95 The London School of Economics), wanted a prestigious appointment under President Kennedy. Worried that the customary FBI check would reveal his communist affiliations, Straight decided to confess. The FBI debriefed him and turned him over to MI5; in 1964 Straight told MI5 everything he knew about Blunt. And now Blunt confessed, calmly but unequivocally. Later in 1964 the two confronted each other here. Thirty years earlier, Blunt had been manipulative in the extreme, resorting to emotional blackmail against an unwilling Straight. Here at the Courtauld they supposedly discussed a painting.

MI5 began interrogating Blunt in April, 1964, in his living room overlooking the square. The interrogations continued for 12 years. How much useful information did Blunt impart? Your guess, gentle reader, is as good as mine—unless, gentle reader, you happen to have been with Moscow Centre. He revealed nothing about still-active spies; his excellent memory failed him whenever his debriefers asked about such persons.

The Soviets wanted Blunt to follow Burgess and Maclean to Moscow, but he refused to leave the pleasures of his London for the idiotic boredom of Moscow. Interestingly, the Soviets did not kidnap or murder him to silence him. Why not? Years earlier, a communist courier named Whittaker Chambers had faced a similar situation in America. He assembled some documents he was supposed to pass to the Soviets and he told his handlers that if anything happened to him the documents would become public (thereby exposing both his apparat and its government sources). These were the famous “Pumpkin Papers” of the 1948 Alger Hiss trial. Maybe Blunt did the same. Supporting my hunch is Blunt’s odd statement during his only press conference. He began, “I suppose he [Burgess] thought that if the thing got critical, they [the Soviets] might simply take me out, not reckoning on the fact that .. .” and then he stopped. John Costello reports this slip and observes that Blunt quickly changed the subject. What Blunt narrowly avoided saying, I think, was that he had entrusted some documents to a friend, with instructions to make the documents public should Blunt die mysteriously or disappear. I have no evidence to support this theory, but it seems likely, doesn’t it? It turns out that one of Blunt’s case-officers did exactly the same thing Chambers did (see Site 121 Imperial House, 80-86 Regent Street), and Blunt was certainly canny enough to replicate Orlov’s still-secret scheme or to copy Chambers’ well-publicized scheme.

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[5]

From Bond Street tube station, walk N on James Street into Mandeville Place. Turn R at Hinde Street, which leads into Bentinck Street. Edward Gibbon wrestled here with the Roman Empire. On your L is

Site 83: 5 Bentinck Street. Victor Rothschild owned most of this building during WWII. When he turned the place over to friends, they sublet several floors to Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess who, in turn, transformed it into what Penrose and Freeman in Conspiracy of Silence call “a cross between a high-class male brothel and a debating club for off-duty intelligence men, senior military figures, politicians and journalists.”

The incomparable Malcolm Muggeridge[6] has written superbly about this flat and about Burgess in it. “Etonian mudlark and sick toast of a sick society,” Burgess seemed “morally afflicted in some way. His very physical presence was, to me, malodorous and sinister; as though he had some consuming illness.” In this place with its distinguished group of “notabilities” (“a whole revolutionary Who’s Who,” writes Muggeridge), “there was not so much a conspiracy gathered round him as just decay and dissolution. It was the end of a class, of a way of life; something that would be written about in history books, like Gibbon on Heliogabalus, with wonder and perhaps hilarity, but still tinged with sadness, as all endings are.”

The basement was the scene of frantic nightly parties; as the bombs fell, guests chewed on rubber bones thoughtfully provided by their hosts. The first floor (or, as Americans say, the second floor) contained a kitchen and sitting room. The next level had Blunt’s (bedroom and bathroom at one end, Burgess’ at the other. Above them lived two young women (Rothschild’s friends) whose.home had been bombed out. A medical journal occupied the ground floor.

Burgess evidently used the house to advance his three passions in life: drink, sodomy and intelligence-gathering for the Soviet Union. He was producing talk-shows at nearby Broadcasting House, having left the Joint Broadcasting Committee to rejoin the BBC in 1941. But he couldn’t have been living within his salary since he was serving great quantities of hard-to-get (and therefore very expensive) whisky. The Soviets always got their money’s worth from Burgess; a defector commented that the “colossal” volume of material from Burgess sometimes “almost fully employed” the embassy’s cypher clerks; other urgent messages went to Moscow unencrypted in diplomatic bags.

In this house in 1940 Anthony Blunt was introduced to Guy Liddell (then head of counter-espionage at MIS), either through Victor Rothschild or Tomas Harris—opinions vary. At the end of a pleasant hour it was apparent that Blunt would soon be joining MIS. Before the year’s end he was Liddell’s personal assistant. Blunt did much to cultivate the easily flattered Liddell, even taking him on expeditions to buy artwork; Liddell was an avid collector. And Liddell, whose wife had scandalously run off to America with her half-brother, often relaxed here in the company of Blunt and Burgess and their odd collection of friends.

[1] Constantinides, George C. (1983). Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 357-358

[2] Eveland, Wilbur (1980). Ropes of Sand: America’s Failure in The Middle East. New York: W. W. Norton

[3] Deacon, Richard (1978). The Silent War: A History of Western Naval Intelligence. New York: Hippocrene Books

[4] Pincher, Chapman (1981). Their Trade is Treachery. London: Sidgwick & Jackson

[5] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 213-215

[6] Muggeridge, Malcolm (1973). The Infernal Grove. Chronicles Of Wasted Time, no. 2. London: Collins


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3 Responses to Conspiracy of Silence

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