The Circus

Title:                  The Circus

Author:                 Nigel West

West, Nigel (1983). The Circus: MI5 Operations, 1945-1972. New York: Stein and Day

LCCN:    82042928

UB251.G7 W48 1983



  • Previous ed. published as: A Matter of Trust. c1982.

Date Updated:  October 23, 2015

This book, entitled in the UK as Matter of Trust: MI5, 1945-72, has a history of MI5 from 1945 to 1973. MI5 is the secret agency that handles counter-espionage in British territories. MI6 handles espionage or “intelligence” in foreign countries. Chapter 1 tells about their operations in the last year of WW II. The Labor government, remembering the Zinoviev Letter, put a regular policeman in charge. Chapter 2 tells how an “autobiography” can be created and published for political purposes. And how decryption of Soviet messages pointed to spies, but this decryption had to be kept secret. New security checks were started for civil servants, and improved. The policy of American anti-imperialism in the 1950s annoyed the British. Chapter 3 tells how the defection of the Petrovs was used for advantage in the national election (p.89). Success came from secret wiretaps on Soviet cables. Pages 106-7 tell how information from Washington got a conviction in Britain! One of the greatest sources of information came from a KGB defector who identified MI6 traitors (Chapter 5). While MI5 had run the successful double-cross system against Germany, it was less successful against the Soviets. Did the KGB have agents there?

Chapter 6 tells how MI5 used Stephen Ward to supply girls, then abandoned him when he outlived his usefulness. This caused the Profumo Scandal and the fall of the MacMillan government. [Was there more to this story than given here?] The effects of other Soviet defectors are explained in Chapter 7. The KGB could reveal a spy when it suited their purposes. The leak about a defector was assumed to come from the KGB; but in fact it came from the CIA (p.189)! The hunt of Soviet moles is continued in Chapter 8. Better background investigations could have eliminated the spies. The unsuccessful search for a Soviet mole caused problems for MI5. In Chapter 9 new officials continued the hunt for a suspected traitor, going back to World War I when there was a large number of new people after the Bolshevik Revolution. One retired MI6 officer sold information to the Abwehr in the 1930s (p.229). Suspicion fell on a retired Deputy Director General, but no proof was found. There is the curious case where the KGB kidnapped a Soviet physicist in Britain (pp.269-270). One example of recruitment through blackmail is on page 271. The defection of Soviet military officers in 1968 was followed by the suicides of West German military officers (pp.273-274). Did Lord Mountbatten plan a coup d’état against the Wilson government (p.286)?

Chapter 10 ends this story, explaining the decisions in appointing a new Director-General of MI5 (p.297). The ‘D’ branch found most of its spies from defector’s stories, few from their investigations. {How does this compare to other services?] There were two types of spies. Those who were ideologically motivated had researchable connections. Opportunists for money are harder to find. The author contrasts Britain to the United States (pp.306-307). Other Western intelligence agencies had self-destructive mole hunts (p.309), but MI5 was reluctant to admit the possibility of a problem. A bureaucratic institution will hide its problems. The KGB are masters at decoy and deception to protect their valuable agents (pp.310-311).

In 1977 Nigel joined BBC TV’s General Features Department to make television documentaries, and he worked on the SPY! and ESCAPE! series. His first book, written with Richard Deacon, who specialized in both security and intelligence issues, was based on the first series and was entitled SPY! Thereafter he was commissioned to write a wartime history of the Security Service, MI5, which was published in 1981, and since then he has averaged one book of non-fiction a year, including The Secret War for the Falklands released in January 1997.

He has concentrated on security and intelligence issues and his controversial books invariably hit the headlines. He was told not to discuss secret matters by Britain’s Attorney-General in 1982 and was served a Public Interest Immunity Certificate signed by the Home Secretary in 1987. He was voted “The Experts’ Expert” by a panel of other spy writers in the Observer in November 1989 and The Sunday Times has commented:

“His information is so precise that many people believe he is the unofficial historian of the secret services. West’s sources are undoubtedly excellent. His books are peppered with deliberate clues to potential front-page stories.”

Nigel West often speaks at intelligence seminars and has lectured at both the KGB headquarters in Dzerzhinsky Square and at the CIA headquarters in Langley. He is now a member of the faculty at the Centre for Counterintelligence & Security Studies in Washington DC.

His greatest coup was tracking down the wartime double agent GARBO, who was reported to have died in Africa in 1949. In fact West traced him to Venezuela, and they collaborated on GARBO, published in 1985. He was also the first person to identify and interview the mistress of Admiral Canaris, the German intelligence chief, and he was responsible for the exposure of Leo Long and Edward Scott as Soviet spies.

His titles include The Crown Jewels, based on files made available to him by the KGB archives in Moscow; VENONA, which disclosed the existence of a GRU spy-ring operating in London throughout the war, headed by Professor J B S Haldane and the Hon. Ivor Montagu: and The Third Secret, an account of the CIA’s intervention in Afghanistan. In Mortal Crimes, published in September 2004, investigates the scale of Soviet espionage in the Manhattan Project, the Anglo-American development of an atomic bomb.

In 2005 he edited The Guy Liddell Diaries, a daily journal of the wartime work of MI5’s Director of Counter-Espionage. He also published a study of the Comintern’s secret wireless traffic, MASK: MI5’s Penetration of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and a counter-intelligence textbook, Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence.

He has lectured at the Smithsonian institute in Washington DC, speaks regularly for Hilton Special Events, on the QE2 and QM2, and for Seabourn, Regent Crystal Cruises. His topics include: GARBO: The Spy Who Saved D-Day; VENONA: The Greatest Secret of the Cold War; The Cambridge Five: The True Story of Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Kim Philby. Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross; Double Agents of World War II; The History of the British Secret Intelligence Service; James Bond: The Fact and fiction of 007; Combatting Terrorism: How the IRA were beaten in Northern Ireland; Enigma: Bletchley Park and the Codebreakers; Molehunt: The Search for Soviet Spies.

In 2003 Nigel West was awarded the US Association of Former Intelligence Officers’ first Lifetime Literature Achievement Award.

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5 Responses to The Circus

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