“A wise man in time of peace prepares for war.”

Why did some of the best and the brightest of Great Britain forsake king and country in the 1930’s and become spies for the Soviet Union? How was it possible that some of the ring leaders went undetected for 30 years or more, with the circle perhaps still not closed?

British journalists Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman first encountered the shadows and mirrors of Soviet espionage in Britain as reporters for the Sunday Times in 1979. Their investigative stories fed on breaking news after the public disclosure that Anthony Blunt, Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures, director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, and, previously, an officer for British counterintelligence (MI5), was a spy for the Soviet Union. As their contacts and knowledge of the Cambridge spy ring increased, a book became inevitable—while perhaps a bit weak on analysis and insight, it provides a large collection of quotes from a broad cross section of players in the game.

There were really three aspects to the Conspiracy of Silence to which the tide refers. The first might be called a kind of class conspiracy. It derived from the Cambridge of Blunt in the 1930’s—a world of social status, almost of caste, where young gentlemen naturally believed they were destined to rule in absolute loyalty to their class. Nonetheless, the Depression was in full bloom, the civil war in Spain captured the imagination of young alienated intellectuals, respected British officials and journalists were giving glowing accounts of Stalin’s five-year plans, and the Nazis were beginning to exercise increasing power in Europe. In 1937 a former student activist estimated that 600 students joined the Marxist Socialist Society with perhaps 150 of them members of the Communist Party. The Apostles, a seMI5ecret elite intellectual and predominately homosexual fraternity at Cambridge, became a party recruiting ground. While the leadership ethos of Cambridge was strong, some students saw themselves as leading a vastly different political order. Around Apostles Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess—both homosexual and Communist—there emerged a network of spies and agents, witting and unwitting, that has dramatically affected Britain for over 50 years.

One reason this network operated so effectively was that the elite of Britain seemed unwilling to question its own members and, later on, bring evidence against them. Better to assume the best of one’s peers and avoid the unseemliness of betraying friends, especially those who have shared the perverted sexual practice.

The second aspect of the Conspiracy of Silence was more political. With the flight to the Soviet Union of the Cambridge Communist spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean in 1951, there was a political scandal of major consequence in Great Britain. While the newspapers were busy trying to find the two traitors and tell the story, Whitehall said little and admitted nothing. Apparently British counterintelligence did not immediately grasp the full dimensions of the penetration, nor, clearly, did it want to pass on bad news or information to its would-be political masters in the Labor Party. Clearly, also, the Laborites saw no political advantage in holding public investigations about the problem of spies in their government.

There is a third aspect to the conspiracy which is of a more contractual nature, but to understand it we must review some history regarding Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt. Philby, a major figure in both British counterintelligence and foreign intelligence (MI6) and an old friend of Burgess and Maclean from their Cambridge days, was questioned in the summer of 1951. Shortly after, he was fired and went on to portray himself as a victim of British McCarthyism because of his friendships with Burgess and Maclean. He eventually became a correspondent in Beirut for the Observer and the EconoMI5t, keeping in close contact with the MI6 station chief and other key intelligence contacts in Lebanon until his flight to the Soviet Union in January of 1963. He continued to serve the Soviet Union despite interrogation by MI 5 and despite his old Cambridge friends’ knowledge of his true loyalties. Unfortunately, MI5 lacked hard evidence on Philby.

The case of Blunt is even more bizarre. Blunt joined the party in 1935 and served as a spotter for more recruits in the Cambridge milieu. In 1940 he too joined MI5 and played important roles for British counterintelligence until 1945 when art became his apparent career. After Burgess’ and Maclean’s flight to the Soviet Union, Blunt was questioned by MI 5 about his loyalties 11 times in the next 13 years. Again, there was no hard evidence, and Blunt kept his contacts and friendships in British intelligence. Finally Michael Straight, an American who studied at Cambridge in the 1930’s, made authoritative statements about Blunt to the FBI, in June of 1963. MI5 was able to confront Blunt in April of 1964. The contractual nature of the Conspiracy of Silence became evident when Blunt negotiated a deal unbelievably favorable to his own interests. He would cooperate in the investigations and provide information in return for immunity from prosecution and a pledge of public silence about his past. The government felt they could not prosecute Blunt and that such a deal was the best way they could get information about Soviet intelligence.

It would be another 15 years from the time of Blunt’s confession until Margaret Thatcher, forced by threat of independent revelations, delivered to the public the astounding fact that the knighted Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures was a confessed Soviet spy. The central message of Penrose and Freeman reflects their professional interests: the secrecy of British intelligence is much too extreme; if there were more public information surrounding intelligence, MI5takes and abuses would occur with less frequency.

Peter Wright, understandably, has a different message in Spy Catcher. Wright was formerly assistant director of MI5. The son of a leading scientist at the Marconi Company, he had to wait a few years to attend Oxford because of his father’s depression-induced bout with alcoholism and unemployment. After attending Oxford for a year, at the outbreak of World War II, he signed on with the Navy, where he was a scientist in electronics research. After the war, on merit (though he never earned a university degree) he became Principal Scientific Officer at the Services Electronics Research Laboratory. In 1949 Wright became “external science adviser” to MI5 while still technically employed at the SLRL. In 1955 he became the principal scientist for MI5.

This biographical information is important since Wright’s motives and mental stability have been attacked following the summer of 1984 when he first made public allegations about Soviet penetration of MI5. The first wave of reviews of his book, now on best-seller lists for almost a year, often repeat these ad hominem attacks. (Journalists Penrose and Simon characterized Wright as an “anachronism” and “zealot” who believed that only he knew the truth.) Unfortunately, Wright does little to dissuade his amateur psychoanalyst detractors. For instance, he notes that those with “privileged background and education denied to me” turned to Communism “while my family suffered at the capricious hand of capitalism,” and yet “I became the hunter and they the hunted.”

In addition to the resentments of social class, there are the scars of past bureaucratic wars as possible explanations of “Wright’s revenge.” But Wright does not seem so bitter as to allow his basic reasoning to be warped. He describes the various turf wars and his own personal disappointments in some detail. He admits personal unhappiness when another man was chosen chief scientist for an MI5 and MI6 joint science staff. He describes more than a few drinking episodes with his colleagues, including James Angleton, director of counterintelligence for the CIA. And throughout the book acrimonious reference is made to a “gentleman’s agreement” to consider Wright’s 14 years of government service prior to MI5 a part of his pension. Perhaps it is this broken promise that was a factor in Wright’s decision to break his oath of secrecy.

While Wright reveals his personal struggles, he also lays out the case, quite persuasively, that there must have been high-level presentation of MI5 and that much circumstantial evidence pointed to Roger Hollis, the director of MI5 from 1956 until late in 1965. For three years Wright chaired a high-level six-person counterintelligence investigation committee (code-named FLUENCY), organized in the wake of the Blunt confession, which unanimously supported this astounding conclusion. This study was then totally taken over by an officially constituted penetrations investigations unit which reached the same conclusion as Wright’s committee. In fairness, it should be pointed out that Wright always states this conclusion about Hollis as tentative and best fitting the evidence.

What was the evidence? First there was analysis of massive amounts of radio communications that led to the conclusion that there were at least five spies at high levels in Great Britain. Burgess, Maclean, Philby, and Blunt were four, and the key question has been, who is the fifth man? (This analysis was done over many years and involved a large number of people. It was not Wright’s personal conclusion.)

Next, there was the testimony of several different East Bloc defectors from different periods and from widely different backgrounds. This testimony mentioned high-level penetration of counterintelligence, but actual names were not known, although certain personal clues were repeated. Over time the scraps of descriptions paralleled the career path of Hollis. Some have accused Wright of relying too heavily on one controversial defector, Anatoli Golitsin. However, Wright consulted a variety of defectors and discarded that part of Golitsin’s testimony for which there was no corroborative evidence. He seems quite capable of distinguishing what Golitsin knows from what Golitsin guesses.

Next, there were certain operational responses of Soviet spies to several different surveillance techniques. These ranged from the sudden location of bugging devices to actual Soviet reactions in the field to changes in MI5 operations known only at the highest levels. Some of these events were directly traceable to Hollis’ movements.

Finally, there were a whole series of stories in the institutional memory of MI5.

The FLUENCY report sat with the top of MI5 for many years. While Wright and his colleagues pursued spies from within, they became unwelcome to many who knew little of their findings. Worse, Wright could not reveal his findings, and most members of British intelligence did not know the truth about Blunt until 15 years after he was unmasked. In the meantime, other members of the Cambridge network were being removed from positions of trust. For example, Alistair Watson was an Apostle at Cambridge who, according to Blunt (as quoted by Wright), taught Blunt Marxist theory. He spent virtually his whole subsequent career in defense-related science. Watson admitted under questioning to having had numerous face-to-face meetings with four different Russian KGB agents but said it was to learn more about the Soviet Union. He never admitted to having been a spy but was transferred out of defense work, ostensibly for failing to disclose his Communist background or that of his wife and daughter. There were others like Watson, and Wright became disliked.

Lord Trend, a former Cabinet minister, was asked in late 1974 to review all of the evidence about penetrations, and Hollis in particular. He interviewed Wright on several occasions but his report apparently was not finished until after Wright left the service in January 1976. In 1981 Margaret Thatcher said to the House of Commons that Lord Trend concluded that Hollis was not a spy. Wright has this to say of it: “He had faith in a man’s innocence as I had faith in his treachery. . . . Only facts will ever clear up the eternal mystery.” His study remained an official secret. Wright’s central message seems to be that the British intelligence agencies never took the time to check out people’s backgrounds before entrusting them with secrets. In classic cases of vetting, it was enough if the person was from Cambridge and had acquaintances in the government. Unlike Penrose and Simon, Wright never advocates American-style publicity and congressional investigations on intelligence. Of course, his book has caused a furor in Britain, but that is nothing compared to the damage done by the Cambridge old-boy network which Wright describes.

Another theme emerging from these books has to do with the conflicting demands of diplomacy, foreign intelligence gathering, and counterintelligence. This conflict becomes most apparent in expulsions, the ultimate ugly stick of counterintelligence. If large numbers of foreign spies are known to be operating illegally, it seems appropriate to throw them out. But other agencies who run spies overseas counsel patience, lest their spies are thrown out in reprisal. The diplomats hate expulsions because it fouls up their MI5sion: to improve relations and encourage trade. As it is, war gives one set of priorities, while peace gives another.

Finding anything is hard to do if you do not believe it exists and consider it of no importance. And so most of us do not believe our friends and associates could be Soviet spies, nor do we think it important to test that proposition regularly. Those whose job is to catch spies must hold such beliefs and conduct such tests. It seems a most unfriendly and unwanted task, especially in times of peace, ease, and affluence.

Yet conservative estimates put Soviet Bloc spies in the United States at over 1,000. This count does not include illegals (those with totally fictitious identities who entered the country without diplomatic, trade, cultural, or other cover), visitors, or those Americans who have been recruited. Sixteen Americans were prosecuted as spies in 1984-85, but there is no way to guess how many other Americans are now providing secrets to the Soviets. The alienation and anti-Americanism on the college campuses in the 1980’s coupled with the war in Central America seems disturbingly similar to the British experience of the I930’s. We can only hope that American intelligence agencies are up to the challenge and are receiving the necessary support in this new era of glasnost.


[Spy Catcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, by Peter Wright (New York: Viking Press) $19.95]

[Conspiracy of Silence: The Secret Life of Anthony Blunt, by Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) $22.95]