Empire of Secrets

Title:                      Empire of Secrets

Author:                  Calder Walton

Walton Calder (2013). Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War, and the Twilight of Empire. New York: Overlook Press

LCCN:    2013375075

JN329.I6 W35 2013


Reviewed by Nigel West.[1]

Date Updated:  April 22, 2016

With so many books published about Great Britain’s Security Service (MI5) and the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6) in recent years, including official histories of both organizations, the thought arises that not be much should be left on this topic to research. But the National Archives at Kew (formerly the Public Record Office) has accumulated so much material from Whitehall that Michael Smith, James Morton, Gordon Correra, and Ben Macintyre, to name but four recent authors, have found plenty to keep them in business for the next two decades.

This is the chosen field of Calder Walton, an Anglo-American historian who studied intelligence at Cambridge and worked with Professor Christopher Andrew on the Security Service’s 2009 authorized history, The Defence of the Realm (published in America as Defend the Realm). His new account of the British intelligence community’s transition from global power to a rather reduced role, not entirely restricted to the Commonwealth, proves that the declassified files lodged at Kew contain huge quantities of fascinating pay-dirt, and that the story of Great Britain’s decolonization experience has scarcely been touched on by previous historians who have tended to concentrate on MIS’s domestic operations and pay special attention to its activities molehunting and countering subversion.


Walton’s alternative viewpoint is the hitherto largely untold tale of MIS’s overseas representation, of counterinsurgency in Malaya, counterterrorism in Palestine, and its influence postwar in the Near East and in Africa. Far from assisting Whitehall to cling to Empire, MIS acted as a trusted broker with some of the new regimes to maintain a security-intelligence link to administrations headed by characters who, only a few months earlier, had developed large personal files in the legendary registry in the basement at Leconfield House. Joma Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, Menachem Begin, Cheddi Jagan, Lee Kuan Yew, and Archbishop Makarios all attracted MIS’s attention and came under varying degrees of scrutiny before they acquired a rather more exalted status and became acknowledged, at least by some, as statesmen and possibly freedom-fighters, rather than as terrorists. As Walton indicates, the new governments found it expedient to retain the advice of Security Liaison Officers (SLOs) rotated from London and came to value the opportunity to have their local Special Branch undergo training by what was arguably the world’s most professional cadre of security intelligence personnel. Even India’s secret security organization, the venerable Delhi Intelligence Bureau (DIB), which by the time of the country’s independence in August 1947 had accumulated some sixty years of records relating to trade union plots, Communist-inspired sedition, mutinies, strikes, wartime collusion with the Japanese, and general nationalist subversion, found it advantageous to use the SLO, operating under diplomatic cover at the High Commission, as a conduit to Whitehall. Far from embracing the Congress Party’s commitment to the non-aligned movement, the DIB viewed Communists with considerable doubt and was particularly skeptical of the KGB’s efforts to cultivate the new ruling elite.

But Walton asserts that MIS was not entirely even-handed, and was keen to peddle supposedly secure communications systems to Nigeria while avoiding the rather obvious likelihood that Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was likely to recommend only ciphers that had been solved already at its Cheltenham base. Nevertheless, such duplicity is apparently the price of supping with diabolical entities, organizations that may have been implicated in some terrible atrocities, such as the murder of innocent rubber-tappers in Malaya, the massacre of villagers in Borneo, and the torture of Mau-Mau detainees in Kenya. Allegations of the mistreatment of prisoners are reproduced in some detail, with some traced back to the courts-martial conducted in 1946 when the commandant of the Bad Nenndorf interrogation center was acquitted of having tolerated the torture of men in his charge.


British colonial rule was far from perfect, but Walton’s rather one-sided view omits giving equal coverage, for example, to the various judicial enquiries conducted into charges of all kind, or giving credit to the authorities who pursued prosecutions in appropriate instances, such as the murder case brought against Roy Farran, who was cleared at his trial of having killed a Jewish terrorist suspect in Palestine.

When Walton relies on declassified documents-and he has uncovered a veritable treasure trove of them at Kew-he is on firm and fascinating ground, but on the occasions when he strays and offers some independent analysis, significant problems arise over the accuracy of his sources. For example, Kim Philby was not “the first head of Section IX” (an honor enjoyed by Jack Curry) and did not “work on Zionist affairs for SIS”; nor was he “a close Cambridge friend” of Donald Maclean, a student whom he met only twice. Finally, Philby was not “widely tipped within SIS as a future Chief of the service.”

Roger Hollis was not “a wartime entrant to MIS,’’ and a TypeX machine did not generate either codes or one-time pads; Camp 020 did not derive “its name from the Twenty Committee” and was in existence for more than a year before the committee was even contemplated; Scotland Yard never had a “Fenian Special Branch,’’ and the British never had an embassy in Istanbul. Far from being reticent about disclosing information about his role in running wartime double agents, Tommy Robertson was the person who gave the American author Ladislas Farago a detailed account in 1971, and attempted to publish details in 1980 (until he was refused permission and threatened by M 15 chief Stella Rimington).

On a lighter note, Walton rather misses the point of CHEESE’s notional double agent Paul Nicossoff, by misspelling the invented surname “Niscoff.” However, when Walton turns his attention to the controversial issue of hostile penetration of MIS, his account goes seriously awry. In his version, the sequence of events begins with Andrew Boyle naming Anthony Blunt as a traitor, and the author is alleged to “have exposed him as a Soviet agent in his book The Climate of Treason. Then apparently “a group of disruptive conspiracy theorists led by the renegade MIS officer Peter Wright, and the journalist Chapman Pincher would accuse—among others—a Director-General of MIS, Roger Hollis, of being the missing “fifth man.” Finally, Walton insists the mystery that had puzzled MIS for three decades .would be solved by Oleg Gordievsky who, in 1990, revealed the elusive spy to be John Cairncross, the traitor who had betrayed “the Allies’ greatest wartime secret, the Manhattan Project.”

This bizarre chronology is factually incorrect, but perhaps more importantly, the interpretation seems very close to Christopher Andrew’s hotly disputed, highly partisan, and perjorative characterization of the molehunters in Defence of the Realm as conspiracy theorists. The verifiable facts are that Boyle did not expose Blunt in his book, nor even name him. Wright did not lead any group of malcontents and was not even in touch with his fellow molehunters Alec MacDonald, Arthur Martin, John Day, Bill Magan, and Stephen de Mowbray when he collaborated with Chapman Pincher to produce Their Trade is Treachery. Wright did not claim that Hollis was “the fifth man” but asserted, entirely accurately, that the Director-General had been investigated twice as a possible Soviet spy. Cairncross, of course, was known to MIS as the “fifth man” since 1963 when he had confessed, and the public had become aware of his role in 1981 when his identity became public a full nine years before the publication of Gordievsky’s Inside the KGB[1]. Furthermore, Cairncross knew nothing of the Manhattan Project, and nothing suggests he ever passed details of it to the Soviets. What he did betray in 1940 was a copy of the MAUD Committee report which was the origin of the British atomic research project, a full two years before the Anglo-American Manhattan Project was initiated.

The charge that a substantial number (actually, the overwhelming majority) of counterintelligence experts who investigated hostile penetration of MIS and concluded that there was good evidence of a high-level spy were “conspiracy theorists” who would be disproved by Oleg Gordievsky is absurd.

Walton says that before their respective defections Gordievsky and Vasili Mitrokhin had been granted access “without restriction” to the KGB records which allegedly did not contain any evidence to support the claim. Two issues arise from this dubious assertion. First, did either of the two Russians have the opportunity to read the files mentioned? Mitrokhin merely claimed to have read the Directorate S archive which covered the First Chief Directorate’s (FCD) illegal operations, and he never pretended to have seen the files of the FCD’s Third Department, which was responsible for dealing with Great Britain and Scandinavia. In contrast, Gordievsky did say he had read an internal KGB history of the London rezidentura, but his memory can be doubted for good reasons. Whatever Gordievsky may say, the rezidentura history must have been very incomplete because it omitted any reference to Geoffrey Prime, the KGB’s star spy inside GCHQ who had operated in England for years and was not arrested until April 1982. In addition, Gordievsky incorrectly identified another spy, Leo Long, as the asset codenamed ELLI, when Long is now known to have been codenamed RALPH. These two facts serve to undermine Gordievsky on the narrow point of the material he supposedly examined in preparation for his posting to England, and certainly nullify the proposition that Gordievsky’s lack of knowledge of MIS penetration meant that none existed.

This line, peddled so often by Christopher Andrew, has been enhanced by Walton’s adding that unnamed GRU defectors have also reached the same conclusion. Who are they? Walton provides absolutely no clue to their identities, and, yet, this is surely an important development in the continuing debate, especially, as is now known from Guy Liddell’s recently declassified diaries for 1945, that a plethora of indications of an as-yet undetected high-level spy in London. In an apparent effort to bolster Gordievsky’s credibility, Walton repeats the nonsense that he had disclosed John Cairncross’s position as the fifth of the “Cambridge Five” in 1990. This is patently untrue, since Barrie Penrose interviewed Cairncross in Rome for The Sunday Times a decade earlier! On occasion Walton seems to have followed his mentor so faithfully that he has even copied his mistakes, such as his description of Mahé as “a remote island in the Seychelles.” This error— Mahé is not remote and is the largest and most heavily populated of the islands, within sight of Praslin, another large island—is an exact repetition of the same words to be found in Andrew’s The Defence of the Realm.

In short, Walton embraces several Cold War myths about MIS and SIS and, when he strays from his core subject, manifests a tendency to make extravagant statements, such as “the story of British colonization is a story of deception,” and the story of Britain’s postwar deco1onization “is one of overwhelming failure.” Indeed, he goes much further, and believes the British government has deliberately destroyed or concealed official records that “by any measure should have been disclosed years ago.” While Walton gives no examples, he contradicts himself by acknowledging that a cache of old Colonial Office files have been found in Hanslope Park and are in the process of being transferred to Kew. So, if a massive conspiracy exists to conceal potentially embarrassing documents, why is Her Majesty’s Government releasing them for public scrutiny?


Upon closer analysis, Empire of Secrets clearly has a tendency to embroider, and this can be seen in Walton’s treatment of two specific incidents, the details of which are well documented elsewhere. The first relates to SATYR, the ingenious Soviet listening device shown to the United Nations Security Council by U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. in May 1960. Found in January 1952 in the private study in Spaso House, the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Moscow, it had been placed there by Ambassador to the USSR W. Averell Harriman, to whom it had been given as a present by Soviet school children. The apparatus, concealed inside a wooden copy of the USA’s Great Seal, required no power source. Instead, a delicate filament resonated when bombarded with radio-waves, and the frequency of the vibration changed when voices were heard in the room. These two remarkable features meant the device was almost impossible to detect unless the necessary radio broadcast was made, and the required equipment was available to interpret the altered vibration. As it turned out, the device was discovered entirely by accident during a routine security sweep of the building.

In Walton’s dramatically altered version, however, the device was found in the U.S. embassy in London, having been donated by the Soviet ambassador, and had been discovered when the American envoy’s voice had been picked up in another room in the same building. In a further modification, Walton names the Ministry of Defence’s chief scientist as the genius who learned how the diaphragm worked, but, in reality, the SATYR mystery was solved by Marconi technicians at Chelmsford.

The second item to demonstrate Walton’s reliability-or lack of it-is his account of the death of Lionel Crabb, the SIS frogman who drowned in April 1956 while conducting a clandestine survey of the hull of the Soviet vessel Ordzhonikdze docked in Portsmouth Harbor. Such operations were routinely undertaken on visiting Soviet warships and when, fourteen months later, Crabb’s body was recovered from the sea some miles away, it was headless and handless, as might be expected where only a torso has been protected by a rubber wetsuit. In Walton’s version, Crabb had been “killed-decapitated in suspicious circumstances while attempting to install a listening device.” Once again, Walton’s rather more embellished (and inaccurate) version of events goes without any indication of his obviously unreliable sources.

Another unsettling characteristic is Walton’s determination to find fault with the way MI5 conducted its postwar business, noting how the organization trampled over the British constitution by opening files on left-wing Labour Members of Parliament (MPs). But on what basis were MPs exempt from Security Service scrutiny? He reveals, with evident horror, that MI5 had maintained files on Barbara Castle and Fenner Brockway—but for the sake of balance and clarity he might just as well have recalled that numerous Labour MPs, among them Wilfred Vernon, Konni Zilliacus, Sir Barnet Stross, Will Owen, John Stonehouse, and Denis Pritt were Soviet spies, and might also have explained that no prohibition can be found in the Constitution or elsewhere that excludes MPs from MI5 surveillance.

Curiously, in a rather revealing aside, Walton speculates that MI5 was habitually guilty of “sexing up’ its dossiers if only cynically to obtain more resources.” Apart from the gravity of such a charge, the vocabulary chosen is quite deliberate, and provocative, as a reminder of the criticism of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s notorious “dodgy dossier,” published in February 2002, which purported to detail the threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Blair and his sycophantic spin-doctors reacted with fury at the BBC’s use of the same term, so these words are heavily loaded.

Walton uses the same term again when he comes to the Suez crisis, which he says was “a catastrophic intelligence failure.” He goes on to say that “a small coterie within the government, centred on the Prime Minister, sexed up the intelligence brief beyond all recognition in pursuit of an obsession to overthrow an unwanted Middle East dictator.” This highly contentious charge really makes no sense since Anthony Eden himself was convinced that the world should be rid of Egypt’s Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser. So, who sexed up what intelligence, for whose benefit? Nobody would deny that the debacle was a costly and humiliating failure, but only because President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration scuppered it. Unmentioned is the subsequent admission by President Richard M. Nixon, who had served as Eisenhower’s Vice President, that the U.S. had made a terrible mistake—the worst foreign policy decision of the era. Walton’s only evidence of inaccurate intelligence is in relation to the SIS source codenamed LUCKY BREAK who had insisted that Nasser was succumbing to the Soviet Bloc, but whereas this individual has in the past been identified as General Khalil of the Egyptian Air Force, he is now said by Walton to have been “a member of the Czech intelligence service.” Now, if true, this is indeed a veritable bombshell, for although the basic message of Nasser’s sinister intentions remains unchanged, rather more weight is probably given to a senior figure in the Egyptian armed forces than to a Czech, even if then recent deliveries of weapons to Cairo had originated in Czechoslovakia. So who is this mysterious Czech characterized as “a major flaw” in the “single-source intelligence” fed to Prime Minister Eden? Actually, Walton simply makes the claim without any further explanation, and adds no footnote to indicate the nature of his own grounds.

The implications of redefining LUCKY BREAK are immense. Did the SIS really have an asset inside Czech intelligence in 1956? What position did he (or perhaps she) hold? Was the information false? While true that the SIS had recruited an StB officer in the 1960s, codenamed FREED, nothing has been divulged about a mole from an earlier date, so Walton’s disclosure is of great significance, especially if it is to be taken at face value.

Everybody now accepts that Eden, assisted by Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) Chairman Pat Dean, Cabinet Secretary Norman Brook, and Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd, cooked up the Franco-Israeli scheme now called the “collusion plan,” but they made no attempt to justify their cause to anyone else by “sexing-up” any intelligence, and the charge seems to be limited to the suggestion that Eden “led others to believe” that LUCKY BREAK was an Egyptian. So, who were these “others,” and what impact did Eden’s alleged misrepresentation have on them? None of this being explained, it is therefore unsatisfactory. What, precisely, was the “catastrophic intelligence failure” previously flagged?

A pattern now clearly emerges of rather provocative statements which are not really followed by the solid building-blocks on which the edifice is constructed and justified. Was it really “the Shah’s dictatorial rule” that ultimately led to his overthrow in 1979? Some might say that the causes of the Islamic revolution were to be found in the clergy’s opposition, not so much to the repressive nature of the Shah’s regime, but rather to the imams’ innate hostility to his secularism, land reforms, and westernization. Either way, the earlier 1953 coup masterminded jointly by SIS and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) achieved its objectives, but to imply that the entire exercise ultimately was counterproductive is taking revisionism a little too far.

In the case of Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Walton admits that MI5 calmed Whitehall’s fears about his Communist sympathies, but then castigates the same organization for fueling unnecessary anxiety about the allegiances of Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta. Walton insists that “there was no significant evidence that either Kenyatta or Mau Mau had anything to do with communism,” yet in almost the same breath he asserts that Kenyatta had joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), had attended a university in Moscow, espoused Marxist views, associated with other revolutionaries and Communists, and (unmentioned by Walton) appeared in the MASK traffic exchanged with the Comintern (MASK being MI5’s penetration of Great Britain’s Communist Party). Perhaps a consistency might be detected here.

Walton does not disguise his obvious abhorrence of British colonial policy, and portrays the Colonial Office’s suspicions of Nkrumah as a condition approaching paranoia. But history, unrelated by Walton, reveals that Ghana’s transition to independence in 1957 was ultimately proved quite enlightened, leaving the country with a solid educational base, and better prepared than the legacy left by the French, Belgian, and Portuguese colonists in neighboring countries.


Calder Walton covers a lot of ground in Empire of Secrets, and his experience as one of Christopher Andrew’s researchers on Defence of the Realm has obviously given him a first-rate road map to guide him to the archival gems that he has uncovered. His facts are fascinating, but his analysis and interpretation seem less reliable, heavily influenced by his obvious repugnance for colonialism, notably Britain’s. Nevertheless, Empire of Secrets is essential reading for another’ aspect: MI5’s role in Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s “wind of change.”

Some words from Jay Berkeley[2]

Sloane Square in London is not far from Belgrave Square (to the southwest). Between Sloan Square tube station and Belgrave Square is Eaton Square and close by, on Chesham Close, is the ample courtyard of Chesham House, Chesham Close. This was the Soviet Embassy in the late 1920s when the Comintern was interfering heavy-handedly in Britain’s internal affairs. Astonishing as it may seem now, communists then expected the rest of the world to fall into their hands as easily as Russia had. True believers expected merely to nudge the Forces of History along by sharpening the class conflict and by engaging in a little military and industrial espionage.

Diplomatic relations between Britain and the USSR were complicated by the fact that the Soviet Union had a controlling link to a British political party. The USSR subsidized the Communist Party of Great Britain and was often caught recruiting intelligence agents from Party membership. Complicating things further was the fact that the Soviet Union viewed its commercial relations with the world as an extension of its subversive and intelligence activities. Britain couldn’t pretend that the USSR was like any other nation with which it had diplomatic and commercial intercourse.

And Britain resorted to action not customary with any other nation. In 1927 when decrypted messages showed that the All Russian Co-operative Society (Arcos) and the Soviet Trade Delegation were involved in subversive activities, the Secretary of State for War obtained permission to search their combined premises (see Site 92). The ensuing “Arcos raid” provided firm proof of subversion and of the use of diplomatic cover to conceal it. Britain immediately broke diplomatic ties.

When the embassy reopened in 1929, the Soviets promptly stepped up subversive activity again, producing the mutiny at the Royal Navy base at Invergordon barely a year later.[3]

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[4]

After two world wars, imperial Britain no longer had the capacity to deal simultaneously with economic crisis at home, a growing Soviet threat, and rising independence movements in its colonies and protectorates. As the world watched, one former colony after another achieved nationhood in what appeared at the time to be a relatively orderly process. In Empire of Secrets, British historian Calder Walton reveals these events were anything but orderly, despite attempts by the UK’s intelligence services to achieve that goal.

Walton’s account focuses on the British Security Service (MI5), the agency responsible for imperial security and intelligence at home and in the colonies, but he includes the contributions of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), the SIGINT agency (GCHQ), military intelligence, and local Special Branch sections with arrest authority. He begins with the story of a bomb placed in a London Colonial Office restroom by an agent of the Stem Gang, an Israeli paramilitary organization fighting to get the British out of Palestine. The bomb was detected by chance and failed to go off because of a faulty timer. The contemporary echoes are obvious, and more will be found in later episodes in which insurgent elements competed for power throughout the empire.

Britain’s period of decolonization involved counterinsurgency and counterterrorist operations in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, and Walton deals with each in considerable detail. MI5 had personnel—some declared, some undercover—in nearly every country involved. In the immediate postwar era, combatting terrorism was its priority. MI5 failed in Palestine, where terrorism was a major contributor to the British withdrawal. (p. Ill) Later in Malaya, where dollar earnings exceeded the entire industrial output of Britain in 1948, the MI5 branch struggled against the communist-inspired insurgency. Years of jungle warfare followed and sometimes “interrogators tortured detainees” while recruiting double agents, a topic that Walton discusses at length. (pp. 188-97) Ultimately, he notes, the Malaya operations stabilized the local economy and were considered a qualified success.

Elsewhere, the results were mixed at best. MI5 stations in the African colonies trained indigenous security elements while monitoring sources of local political unrest and supporting American attempts to neutralize Soviet penetration operations. Here, too, the record shows occasional “shocking levels of violence” before the British withdrew. (p. 286) In several cases, MI5 elements remained after independence to continue training, deal with security matters, and provide cryptographic equipment-thus allowing GCHQ to monitor local communications.

Most of the details Walton presents are based on recently released archival documents. When he turns his attention to Cold War counterintelligence, however, he is on less firm ground. For example, Roger Hollis was not “a wartime entrant to MI5” (p. 68); he joined in 1938. Kim Philby was not the first head of Section IX; he succeeded John Curry. And Walton’s claim that Anthony Blunt was named as a Soviet agent by Andrew Boyle in his book The Climate of Treason: Five Who Spied for Russia[5] (1979) is inaccurate, For legal reasons, Boyle used the pseudonym Maurice for Blunt.[6] Finally, the Soviet bug in the US Great Seal was discovered in the ambassador’s residence, not the embassy—and in Moscow, not in London. (p. 144).[7]

Empire of Secrets is an impressive work and reveals the role of Britain’s intelligence services in decolonization. It offers many parallels for any country struggling to help new nations establish representative governments where none existed before.

[1] This may be the British title. In the US it was published as KGB: The Inside Story by Christopher Andrew and Gordievsky.

[2] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 57-58

[3] See McKnight, David (2001). Espionage and the Roots of the Cold War: The Conspiratorial Heritage. Portland, OR: Frank Cass

[4] Peake, Hayden B. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (20, 2, Fall/Winter, 2013, pp. 131-132). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found online at www.cia.gov.

[5] Boyle, Andrew (1979).The Climate of Treason: Five Who Spied for Russia. London: Hutchinson

[6] “Boyle did identify Blunt in the 1982 edition of The Climate of Treason, and Walton cites that edition in his bibliography, but he names the wrong publisher; it was Coronet-Hodder & Stoughton, not Hutchinson, which published the 1979 edition.” The footnote in quotes is from Peake. However, according to WorldCat, the 2nd edition was indeed published by Hutchinson (1982). There was a similar version published in 1980 by Coronet-Hodder & Stoughton. I believer that Boyle is right, Peake is wrong.

[7] This incident has been widely discussed. For a summary and numerous sources of more information see http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/The_Thing_(listening_device).



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