Spycatcher A Biography

Title:                      Spycatcher A Biography

Author:                 Norman Lucas

Lucas, Norman (1973). Spycatcher: A Biography of Detective-Superintendant George Gordon Smith. New York: W. H. Allen

LCCN:    73159276

HV7911.S57 L8


Date Updated:  September 21, 2015

This book demands careful analysis, for Wright has drawn conclusions about Roger Hollis, former head of MI5 that are at the least controversial. The following is based on a published review which also contains images of newspaper articles about Wright and Spycatcher.

Peter Wright joined MI5’s A2 branch in 1955 as principal scientist where he served until 1976. Before joining MI5 he underwent two days training by John Cuckney, whom he quotes as saying of MI5’s legal status, “It hasn’t got one. The Security Service cannot have the normal status of a Whitehall department because its work very often involves transgressing propriety or the law.” Cuckney went on to make clear that MI5 operated on the basis of the 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not get caught.”

In 1951, two of what would later be known as the Cambridge Four, Anthony Burgess and Donald Maclean, defected. In 1955, MI6 sacked Philby, who in 1963 defected from Beirut. The Secret Service was shattered by the news of these defections, and the very presence of moles in the organizations.

Much of Wright’s career is in pursuing moles in MI5/MI6, in particular he is taken with the theory that Roger Hollis, former Director-General of MI5, was a Russian mole. He writes of his early years in counterespionage, “For five years we bugged and burgled our way across London at the State’s behest, while pompous bowler-hatted civil servants in Whitehall pretended to look the other way.” Wright says, “The most extensive microphoning operation [we] ever undertook was in Lancaster House … which hosted the Colonial conferences of the 1950s and 1960s.” He says a “comprehensive microphoning system throughout the building” was installed and used “throughout the rest of the 1960s and 1970s, whenever high-level diplomatic negotiations took place in London.”

Wright specialized in “bugging” interception activities of various shapes and forms. Some of these activities were rapidly discovered and countered by the Soviets and their allies, which led him to the belief that a mole within MI5 was at work. One of Peter Wright’s successes was in listening to (i.e. bugging) the actions of a mechanical cipher machine, in order to break their encryption. This operation was code-named ENGULF, and enabled MI5 to read the cipher of the Egyptian embassy in London at the time of the Suez crisis. Another cipher-reading operation, code-named STOCKADE, read the French embassy cipher by using the electromagnetic echoes of the input teleprinter which appeared on the output of the cipher machine. Unfortunately, Wright says this operation “was a graphic illustration of the limitations of intelligence.” Britain was blocked by the French from joining the Common Market and no amount of bugging could change that outcome.

Particularly interesting is MI5’s invention code-named RAFTER, which is used to detect the frequency a radio receiver is tuned to, by tracing emissions from the receiver’s local oscillator circuit. RAFTER was used against the Soviet embassy and consulate in London to detect whether they were listening in to A4-watcher radios. Wright also used this technique to try to track down Soviet “illegals” (covert agents) in London who received their instructions by radio from the USSR.

Central to Spycatcher is Wright’s theory that there was a mole at the heart of MI5 for many years, and that the mole was the Director-General himself, Roger Hollis. This theory was based partly on the reports of British/US agents in Soviet-bloc countries, and the reports of Soviet defectors; and partly on the rapid discoveries by the Soviets of actions against them by MI5. Wright narrowed down the possibilities to Roger Hollis and his deputy DG, Graham Mitchell. The investigation of Mitchell arrived at no result, and was followed by an internal investigation of Hollis which also gave no results.

In 1959 the CIA asked Wright about assassination methods; posing“We’re developing a new capability in the Company [CIA] to handle these kind of problems, and we’re in the market for the requisite expertise.” Wrightreplied that “We’d certainly have that capability but I doubt we would use it nowadays.” MI6 had intended during the Suez crisis to assassinate Nasser using nerve gas, but their plot had been foiled. Wright said the SAS “don’t freelance”, adding, The French! Have you tried them? It’s more their type of thing, you know. Algiers, and so on. He describes how MI6 developed poisons which were tried on a sheep at Porton Down; it started “rolling its eyes and frothing at the mouth,” and promptly died.

The core of the book is in Wright’s 1960s search for a mole who would have been recruited by the Russians thirty years earlier. The book examines the various people and their inter-relationships from the 1930s, which have relevance to the search for a mole in the 1960s. There is much reference in the book to the student days of people like Blunt and their lives as homosexuals, their memberships in secret societies such as the Cambridge Apostles, etc. One anecdote reported in the papers concerns the allegation that Burgess’ Soviet controllers ordered him to wed Churchill’s daughter Clarissa, as a cover for his espionage activities. He was unsuccessful in this task.

The FLUENCY project at MI5 researched the history of penetration of British Intelligence, particularly from accounts of UK/US assets in Soviet countries, and Soviet-bloc defectors to the West. These accounts, taken together, hinted in the direction of Hollis. But no conclusive, clinching proof was ever found, and Hollis, soon before stepping down as DG, said to Wright; “Well, Peter, you have got the manacles on me, haven’t you? All I can say is that I am not a spy.”

Towards the end of Spycatcher Wright talks of items beyond the concerns of 1960s mole-hunting. He talks about a “decisive shift inside MI5 towards domestic concerns,” and includes a few words on MI5’s operations in Northern Ireland. He mentions “student militancy in the 1960s gave way to industrial militancy in the 1970s,” adding that “intelligence on domestic subversion became the overriding priority”. He also comments of the increasing computerization of MI5 and their projected links to state computer databases such as the National-Insurance database at Newcastle. “From now on we were to be data processors.” This seems to me to be rather Luddite, since what else is intelligence other than processing data. Processing by hand, perhaps, but adding a machine doesn’t really change the task.

In the book’s final chapter, Wright talks of approaches from colleagues who said of the prime minister, “Wilson’s a bloody menace and it’s about time the public knew the truth …. this time we’ll have him out.” Wright goes on to say, “Although the full Wilson story never emerged, it was obvious to me that the boys had been actively pushing their plan as much as they could. No wonder Wilson was later to claim that he was the victim of a plot!”

Peter Wright concludes Spycatcher with a mention of the Trend inquiry in 1974 into the question of whether Hollis was indeed a Russian mole. In 1981 Prime Minister Thatcher told the Commons that Trend had concluded Hollis was not a Russian agent. On this note ends the 382-page saga of mole-hunting.

According to Spycatcher the technique of “barium meal” is standard practice that has been used by MI5 (and other intelligence agencies) for many years, under the name “Barium meal test”. A Barium meal test is more sophisticated than a canary trap because it is flexible and may take many different forms. However, the basic premise is to reveal a secret to a suspected enemy (but nobody else) then monitor whether there is evidence of the fake information being utilized by the other side. For example, the double agent could be offered some tempting “bait”: e.g., be told that important information was stored at a dead drop site. The fake dead drop site could then be periodically checked for signs of disturbance. If the site showed signs of being disturbed (in order to copy the microfilm stored there) then this would confirm that the suspected enemy really was an enemy: e.g., a double agent.

Nigel West[1] says it is the technique of providing a suspect with a traceable item of information and then watching to monitor its progress in the hope of tracing it to an adversary. The name comes from a medical procedure that allows physicians to follow the passage of mildly radioactive material through the body.

Dan Mulveena’s comments on the book are:

After retirement Wright, a trained scientist and former MI5 Assistant Director who had been deeply involved in the controversial molehunt for Soviet agents inside the British security and intelligence services and British establishment, moved to Australia. Falling on hard times, he failed as a thoroughbred horse rancher and having been denied a promised full pension by MI5, Wright, with the assistance of a ghost writer, wrote a tell-all book, resulting in a famous court case in Australia which the British government lost, thereby ensuring that the book would become a best-seller. His ghost writer made some silly mistakes including incorrect addresses and locations, and misspelled names in recounting Wright’s recollections. Wright also was certainly wrong in his belief that MI5 Director Hollis had been a Soviet spy and that the GRU volunteer to SIS, Oleg Penkovsky, had been a KGB double agent. He got other things wrong as well. Critics seized on these errors to disparage the entire book. Nevertheless Wright’s unabashed revelations of counterintelligence operations and how British and American services worked with and against each other during the height of the Cold War, make for entertaining and colorful reading. Wright’s claims should be compared with Andrew, Defend the Realm. Most of the famous and infamous intelligence personalities of the day and a number of notable operations can be found in the pages, along with many lessons and insights for the discerning reader. This is one of several “intelligence textbooks” recommended by Dan Mulvenna, in his “The Intelligence Officer’s Bookshelf: An annotated bibliography,” compiled by Dan Mulvenna (updated December, 2011).

Some comments by Jay Berkeley:[2]

Southwest from Sloane Square Tube Station, on King’s Road, just west of Bywater Street is the building-society branch that was, until a few years ago, the Markham Arms pub, King’s Road. This was Kim Philby’s habitual pub, his “local” when he lived in Carlyle Square. And it was probably the site of an important meeting with Anthony Blunt in 1954. The Soviets waited three years after Burgess and Maclean fled before re-establishing contact with Philby, They made subtle contact {first with Blunt at the Courtauld Institute of Art (see Site 82). Blunt then made a lunch date with Philby; reasonable enough: the two had known each other for years. The restaurant where they met was crowded so they walked down King’s Road and had a pub lunch, almost certainly here. Over drinks and lunch, Blunt gave Philby the details for Philby’s subsequent meeting with Soviet intelligence officer Yuri Modin—a meeting at which Modin gave the unemployed Philby £5,000 and, I imagine, as much encouragement as their hurried street encounter would allow.

In the 1960s, so Spycatcher tells us, an unfurnished upstairs flat in a mews house in Pavilion Road (one street west of Sloane Street) served as headquarters for the unprecedented MI5 investigation of its deputy head, Graham Mitchell. Elsewhere in this area (in an “MI6 safe house near Sloane Square”, Spycatcher tells us), Philby was interrogated in 1955. Well, not really interrogated: he was taken “gently over familiar ground” by former colleagues from MI6, supplied with acceptable answers, and virtually whitewashed preparatory to Macmillan’s clearance of him in the House of Commons. The interview was recorded by equipment under a floorboard, and the signal was fed by telephone back to Leconfield House where selected MI5 officers listened in outrage.

Down King’s Road to the southwest and turning south onto Oakley Street, you are led to the Thames. Donald Maclean had a bed-sitter somewhere in Oakley Street, I am told, when he came down from Cambridge and started his twin careers with Moscow Centre and the Foreign Office.

Some more comments by Roy Berkeley:[3]

Walk down Park Road and make a sharp L towards the Clarence Gate of Regent’s Park. Overlooking the park is a series of elegant villas, their location and style set by the theatrical John Nash, architect to the Prince Regent. Named for the second brother of the Prince Regent is Clarence Terrace. When Western intelligence agencies built the Berlin Tunnel beneath the Soviet sector of Berlin in the early 1950s, they showed the kind of audacity and enterprise that had long typified communist ops. Here at Clarence Terrace, SIS and CIA planned the project together, Nigel West tells me. The 1,800-foot tunnel ran from the American zone in West Berlin to the Soviet zone in East Berlin. Sophisticated equipment tapped into all Soviet telephone traffic in East Berlin and recorded all Soviet communication with Warsaw and Moscow. Unfortunately, the Soviets learnt about the tunnel even before it was built (see Site 84 All Souls’ Place). After officially “discovering” it in 1956, they took thousands of East Berliners on propaganda tours.

Peter Wright in Spycatcher[4] locates another activity in this building (which I assume to be his “unmarked four-storey Georgian house in an elegant terrace in Regent’s Park”). MI5 knew that if its Watchers operated from Leconfield House, they could be readily identified by Soviet counter-surveillance. Instead, therefore, they worked from an anonymous building in Regent’s Park. Wright describes the scene: “The central control room was dominated by a vast street map of London on one wall which was used to monitor the progress of operations. In the middle of the room was the radio console which maintained communications with all observation posts and mobile Watcher teams.” To imagine the wealth of electronic technology behind the graceful facade of Clarence Terrace is to know that such equipment, for such activities, could be anywhere. And probably is.

[1] West, Nigel (2006). Historical Dictionary of International Intelligence. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, p. 22

[2] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, p. 66-67

[3] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 155-156

[4] Wright, Peter (1987) with Paul Greengrass. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of A Senior Intelligence Officer. NY: Viking


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