Too Secret, Too Long

Title:                  Too Secret, Too Long

Author:                 Pincher Chapman

Pincher, Chapman (1984). Too Secret, Too Long. New York: St. Martin’s Press

LCCN:    84018199

UB271.G7 P56 1984


Date Updated:  September 3, 2015

Was Roger Hollis, a key wartime official and later head of Britain’s counter-intelligence service, MI5, a Soviet agent? Is that why the Cambridge Ring—Philby, Maclean, Burgess, Blunt—was able to operate with impunity? Why did so many other security blunders occur?

It was Pincher Chapman, Britain’s ace spy sleuth, who first disclosed official suspicions, in Their Trade is Treachery (1981). Now, piqued by Margaret Thatcher’s parliamentary assurance that Hollis had been “cleared” (when, in fact, “the case had been left unproven”), Pincher has assembled new evidence of Hollis’ possible complicity, to add to old. Hollis apart, it makes a fascinating keyhole dossier on Soviet spydom and British failure to uncover or reveal the penetration.

A major weakness of the case against Hollis was his apparent lack of early communist leanings or connections. Why would this apolitical Oxford dropout, and bishop’s son, have been a Soviet mole? During his nine years in China as a business agent and sometime-reporter, Pincher learned, Hollis met (“clandestinely”) with notorious Soviet agent Arthur Ewert, as well as frequenting Agnes Smedley’s salon. There he may also have met Soviet agent Ruth Werner—whose memoirs, published in East Berlin in 1982, provide Pincher with another major building-block. As “Sonia Beurton,” Jewish-refugee wife of a British (communist) officer, she took up residence in the environs of Oxford in 1940—just when MI5 was transferred to the vicinity—to transmit radio messages: from Hollis, Pincher presumes.

Pincher has one scrap of evidence that might connect them: Igor Gouzenko, the Soviet defector who first told of a Soviet mole inside MI5, also told Pincher of a certain grave-site hiding place used as a drop; and Pincher found a grave in Oxford that exactly matched the curious description. Pincher goes on to Klaus Fuchs, his security clearance by Hollis, and his connection with Sonia; and then to the numerous instances, involving the Cambridge group and others, when Hollis might have leaked information or otherwise blocked action—adding to each chapter an analysis of “The Potential Value of Oversight,” his remedy for what he sees as a continuing cover-up. The stories of Hollis’ interrogation, of Blunt’s confession and concealment, and other glimpses of behind-the-British-scenes are fully as intriguing as what Hollis may or may not have been up to.

Published in Britain as Too Secret Too Long: The Great Betrayal of Britain’s Crucial Secrets And The Cover-Up, by Sidgwick & Jackson, 1984.

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[1]

At the end of this street tum L for Holland Park Avenue. Walk E along this centre of Indian life to Campden Hill Square. Halfway up the far side is

Site 54: 6 Campden Hill Square. Guilt, like beauty, can reside mainly in the eye of the beholder. And when a man is believed to have been the most important Soviet mole inside British Intelligence, his every action can look suspicious. Sir Roger Hollis, who lived here from the time of his return from Blenheim in 1943 until his retirement as director-general of MI5 in 196S, invariably walked home from Leconfield House to this “tatty bookless townhouse” (the description is Peter Wright’s) even though he had a chauffeured limousine at his command. Why? To stretch his legs? Or to meet his controller in Hyde Park and perhaps signal his need to leave information somewhere? And he invariably stayed late at the office. Why? To avoid his wife and spend time with his secretary (who was his long-term mistress and later his second wife)? Or to do whatever he pleased in the virtually empty headquarters of MI5?

A full list of what Hollis is believed to have done in the Soviet interest is too long for this book. Chapman Pincher’s Their Trade Is Treachery[2] and Too Secret Too Long[3], each of which is heavily concerned with the probability that Hollis was a Soviet mole, run to a combined total of almost 1,000 pages. Some things are scarcely open to argument. It was Hollis who cast initial doubt on the defector Gouzenko, thus deflecting Gouzenko’s allegations about a spy named ELLI in MI5 or MI6. (According to Pincher, “the person who best fits the known information about ELLI is, unquestionably, Hollis.”) It was Hollis who failed to follow up when doubts about Harry Houghton first surfaced in 19S6 (see Site 94: 190 Strand). Houghton was arrested in 1961 with the rest of the Portland ring. It was Hollis who suspended MI5’s Arthur Martin for a fortnight after Martin obtained Blunt’s confession in 1964, even prohibiting Martin from seeing Blunt during this time and thus giving Blunt “a completely free run,” suggests Pincher, to get advice from the Soviets, destroy evidence, or “make any other dispositions.” It was Hollis who destroyed the tapes and transcripts of the early interrogations of Blunt, keeping only the summaries. It was Hollis who enabled Cairncross to return briefly to England in the late 1960s in exchange for helping MI5 (see Site 25: 76 Warwick Square). This offer was later construed as an “inducement” that would have prevented any future prosecution of Cairncross. It was Hollis who, during his entire time as head of MI5, refused to allow naval spy Alister Watson to be interrogated (see Site 119: Brown’s Hotel). It was Hollis who, just before retirement, tried to destroy Liddell’s diaries (see Site 32: Shrewsbury House, 42 Cheyne Walk).

Other things about Hollis aren’t so clear. Was he or wasn’t he responsible for clearing Fuchs six times (see Site 90: Mornington Crescent underground station)? Some say that these security clearances can “without question” be laid at Hollis’s door, while others say that Fuchs slipped through the net “despite Hollis’s personal actions and not because of them.”

Was he or wasn’t he the MI5 spy serviced by SONYA in Oxford during the war (see Site 95: The London School of Economics)? He is “the likeliest candidate,” says Pincher. For compelling logistical and organizational reasons, it “wouldn’t have been Blunt, whom the Hollis supporters offer as an alternative.

Was he or wasn’t he the person in MI5 who made the 1947 interrogation of SONYA a joke and then established the legend of her departure? Hollis was “the leading figure” in the control of her case, notes Pincher.

Was he or wasn’t he the person who tipped off Burgess, and therefore Maclean, about Maclean’s impending interrogation (see Site 120: Clifford Chambers, 10 New Bond Street)? “Though not even deputy director then, he had been one of five people fully in on the secret,” writes Pincher.

Was he or wasn’t he involved in MI5’s decision to exempt itself from the positive vetting system instituted throughout the government in the early 19S0s? As director of security at the time (head of MI5’s C Division), Hollis must have been “particularly influential” in this decision, writes Pincher. MI5 didn’t adopt positive vetting until 1965, just before Hollis’s retirement and “after some indignant argument” from Hollis, writes Pincher.

Did he or didn’t he pursue the Philby case with vigour—again people line up on both sides—and was it he or Mitchell or someone else entirely who told Philby that an offer of immunity would soon be extended to him in Beirut (see Site 52: 18 Elsham Road)?

Did he or didn’t he delay the investigation of Mitchell (see Site 133: 33 South Audley Street), knowing that if Mitchell retired under a cloud then the suspicion hovering over Hollis himself might be dissipated?

The list could go on: the probable leakages, the botched cases, the peculiar coincidences. Is it coincidence, for instance, that the Soviets asked Blunt to get information from many sections of MI5 but never from F Division (which monitored political extremists) while Hollis headed it? Even Blunt thought this odd. Is it coincidence that almost immediately after Hollis went to Australia in the late 1940s to tell the Australians of a major Soviet espionage effort there (but not to tell them that Britain had broken the Soviet codes), the KGB changed its codes? Is it coincidence that more than 50 attempts by MI5 to penetrate the KGB’s effort in Britain all came to nothing? Is it coincidence that after Hollis left MI5, “the leakages from MI5 seemed to have ended,” as Pincher states? The 1974 arrest of Willi Brandt’s personal assistant as a Soviet agent would have been impossible, writes Pincher, if either of the British security services had been headed by a spy.

Hollis’s defenders say that nobody could have succeeded against Soviet espionage and counter-espionage, in those times, with those resources, and in those circumstances (in a liberal democracy, that is, not especially alarmed about the Soviet threat). Thus argues Anthony Glees in The Secrets of the Service: British Intelligence and Communist Subversion[4]. No, runs another argument, the hunched-over and unforthcoming Hollis was unimaginative, dull, inept. No, runs another, he was fully aware of the Soviet threat. Looking at Hollis’s words about the Anglo-Soviet Treaty of 1942, Sheila Kerr finds it “impossible to believe he was a Soviet agent” and “hardly plausible” that his warning about Stalin was “an effort to maintain his cover.” Glees, too, claims that Hollis’s words exonerate him: letters to his mother from his first job (with the British American Tobacco Company, in China) prove his “complete loyalty” in China and argue against his having been recruited there by an active communist ring whose members he must have known. “Why should anyone deliberately want to falsify their political views to their own family?” asks Glees. (I find this question both grammatically and intellectually wanting.)

Why, ask the defenders, does Gordievsky ridicule the charges against Hollis? John Costello has a reasonable answer: since Gordievsky wasn’t told about Geoffrey Prime (the Soviets’ long-time spy in GCHQ), he wouldn’t have been told about Hollis.

Isn’t it possible that everything attributed to Hollis can be explained by the presence of Philby and Blunt? Margaret Thatcher argued this to Parliament in 1981 when Pincher’s Their Trade Is Treachery appeared. I understand Mrs. Thatcher’s reason for saying so, but no, it isn’t possible.

Couldn’t the Soviets have inspired the whole indictment of Hollis, asks Glees, perhaps even calling upon Philby to supply the well-crafted disinformation? This seems a desperate conjecture, and it doesn’t begin to explain the almost certain existence of a Soviet spy somewhere in MI5. On top of everything else suggesting such a person, we have the word of the defector Golitsyn that the Soviet Embassy in London, almost uniquely in the world, needed no special department to prevent defections; their man in MI5 would warn Moscow, said Golitsyn.

“Fears about Soviet penetration of MI5 go back many years. They were “as old as the office furniture” when Peter Wright came onto the scene; early in the 195Os, MI5’s Anne Last had entered the suspicions into a notebook and she had pointed to Hollis or Mitchell as the “most likely” suspect. By the 1970s fully 16 of the 21 molehunters believed in the guilt of either Hollis or Mitchell. Since then, Pincher has been advised that “many” in MI5 “now incline to the opinion that Hollis was a spy.”

One of Hollis’s accusers concedes that he may have been the most ordinary of bureaucrats, wanting only “to ingratiate the Service, and himself, with Whitehall. And that meant ensuring there were no mistakes, even at the cost of having no successes.” One of Hollis’s defenders, on the other hand, concedes that he may have been “the most ingenious liar of the twentieth century.” Which was he?

[1] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 129-133

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

[3] Pincher, Chapman (1984). Too Secret, Too Long. New York: St. Martin’s Press

[4] Glees, Anthony (1987). The Secrets of The Service: A Story of Soviet Subversion of Western Intelligence. New York: Carroll & Graf,


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7 Responses to Too Secret, Too Long

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