Molehunt

Christopher Andrew

  • Sword and Shield: Soviet Intelligence and Security Apparatus by Jeffrey Richelson
    Harper and Row, 279 pp, £11.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 88730 035 9
  • The Red and the Blue: Intelligence, Treason and the University by Andrew Sinclair
    Weidenfeld, 240 pp, £12.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 297 78866 3
  • Inside Stalin’s Secret Police: NKVD Politics 1936-39 by Robert Conquest
    Macmillan, 222 pp, £25.00, January 1986, ISBN 0 333 39260 4
  • Conspiracy of Silence: The Secret Life of Anthony Blunt by Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman
    Grafton, 588 pp, £14.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 246 12200 5

The vast Soviet-bloc intelligence operation in the West is commonly supposed to consist mainly of running illegals, moles and other agents. In fact, the KGB probably spends more of its time reading the newspapers. Much of the intelligence which can be obtained only by covert means in the East is freely available through open sources in the West. A KGB officer in Washington might begin an average day by reading articles on defence and defence contractors in the Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal, then move on to more detailed scrutiny of Aviation Week and Space Technology, technical magazines and trade publications. By lunchtime the information he has acquired would be sufficient to provoke an espionage trial if gathered in the Soviet Union, where even the telephone directories are classified.

The greatest change in KGB operations over the last half-century has been the enormous expansion of technical intelligence collection by overhead reconnaissance, ocean surveillance and sigint (signals intelligence). Soviet technical intelligence, frequently lost sight of in books on the KGB which dwell on the more picturesque humint (human intelligence), is the subject of the most original (though necessarily incomplete and somewhat speculative) chapter in Jeffrey Richelson’s survey of Soviet Intelligence, Sword and Shield. Like GCHQ in Britain and NSA in the United States, the KGB and GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) operate with their allies a sigint network which spans the globe. The Soviet Union has land-based sigint stations not merely on the territory of the Warsaw Pact but also in Cuba, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and in a number of Soviet embassies abroad (including London, where it intercepts microwave-transmitted telephone calls routed through the Post Office Tower). Richelson considers it ‘highly likely’ that there are also Soviet sigint installations in Libya and Iraq. Unlike the UKUSA network,[*] Soviet sigint also has at its disposal a fleet of over sixty AGI (auxiliary intelligence gathering) surface ships, often disguised as trawlers and tramp steamers. Technical intelligence apart, much of Richelson’s useful survey is a digest of previous work on the KGB. At times it is too much of a digest: the notes to Chapter Two contain 27 consecutive references to two books by John Barron.

Despite the enormous Soviet investment in technical intelligence, Richelson considers its importance smaller than in the United States, because of inferior Soviet technology and the much greater opportunities in the West for both humint operations and intelligence collection from open sources. What Soviet sigint may lack in advanced technology, however, it can often make up by espionage. Even comparatively low-level spies like Geoffrey Prime in Britain and the Walker family in the United States are sometimes able to provide priceless technical intelligence. There is recent evidence that from 1976 to 1983 the KGB was able to read France’s diplomatic traffic with its Moscow embassy by bugging an embassy teleprinter which it had intercepted in transit.

The main foreign priority of Soviet Intelligence today is probably the acquisition of advanced technology. According to evidence reviewed by the US Senate Intelligence Committee in 1983, 150 Soviet weapons systems (including a clone of the AWACS) depend on technology covertly acquired in the West. But current Soviet technological espionage continues to attract only a fraction of the interest aroused by defunct Cambridge moles. The market for works even on imaginary moles like Roger Hollis shows no sign of slackening. The KGB, too, remembers the recruitment of the moles by its Comintern Intelligence subsidiary as one of its major triumphs.

The literary attention lavished on the Cambridge moles has led to a curious loss of proportion. Though the moles were fewer in number than those who became missionaries, literary critics or members of other minority professions, explanations of their motives commonly take the form of large generalisations about English social history, sexual orientation and Cambridge mentalités. Since most homosexual interwar Cambridge intellectuals from good public schools were not in the least attracted by Soviet or Comintern Intelligence, it is difficult to believe that either sex or education holds the key to the motivation of the moles. Burgess’s predatory homosexuality does little more to explain his recruitment to the NKVD (as the KGB was known from 1934 to 1941) than Philby’s athletic heterosexuality. The NKVD probably found both rather disconcerting. Generalisations about the ‘Cambridge Comintern’ based on the eccentric careers of Burgess and Blunt do not even fit all of the moles. The very first Cambridge recruit to the Comintern Intelligence apparat, Philip Spratt, was the withdrawn, heterosexual son of a Deptford elementary schoolmaster, who went to grammar school, won a scholarship to Downing College, read mathematics, had probably never heard of the Apostles, graduated with an ordinary degree, and felt an ‘outcast’ when he encountered what he called the ‘social hierarchy’ in which Burgess and Blunt moved so easily.

Andrew Sinclair helps to cut the moles down to size. The real intellectual élite in inter-war Cambridge, he reminds us, were not the moles or their contemporaries (mostly from the arts faculties) in the Apostles but the brilliant scientists at the Cavendish Laboratory. Even the Kremlin, Sinclair argues, learned more from Cambridge physicists than from Cambridge moles. The key figure in the flow of Cambridge atomic physics to the Kremlin was, he believes, Peter Kapitsa, who arrived at the Cavendish in 1921, became Professor Sir Ernest Rutherford’s favourite pupil and was elected a fellow of Trinity. Each Tuesday at Trinity Kapitsa ran an informal club at which about thirty scientists discussed their latest discoveries. When Kapitsa was ordered back to Moscow in 1934, Rutherford allowed three of Kapitsa’s research assistants to join Kapitsa to work on a helium liquifier from the Mond Laboratory. In 1935 the entire contents of Kaptisa’s laboratory, including even the clocks and wall fittings, were shipped to Russia. Sinclair claims that Soviet Intelligence in the 1930s had ‘an atomic espionage section’ assisted by the NKVD resident in London, S.B. Cahan. By June 1939, he believes, the theoretical research for a Soviet atomic bomb was complete. Only with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact two months later were the channels of communication between Kapitsa and his Cambridge colleagues broken. Henceforth the Kremlin had to rely on atomic espionage rather than on the free flow of scientific research. A dozen wartime scientists in Britain, Canada and the United States passed on nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.

Sadly, The Red and the Blue is seriously flawed in its analysis of both Cambridge science and Soviet intelligence. As one of the early atomic scientists, Sir Rudolph Peierls, has observed in a letter to this paper (23 October 1986), no one in the mid-Thirties in either Cambridge or the Kremlin could have predicted the invention of the atomic bomb. The discovery of nuclear fission came, not, as Sinclair claims, in Cambridge in 1932, but out of the blue in Berlin in 1939. That news of this discovery reached British physicists so quickly is striking evidence of how freely scientific information crossed the frontiers of inter-war Europe without the help of the Kapitsa Club.

Had there been a carefully constructed NKVD plot to exploit Kapitsa’s unique range of scientific contacts in the West, it would have made greater sense to allow him to keep his base in Cambridge while travelling to Russia to keep in touch with Soviet physicists. But in the increasingly paranoid atmosphere of Stalin’s purges such a solution would have been impossible. The Great Terror of 1936-8 included physicists among its victims, some of whom fell foul of the NKVD because of their contacts with Western scientists. Lev Landau, who like Kapitsa later won a Nobel Prize, was imprisoned by the NKVD as an alleged German spy. Even during the Second World War, the KGB seems to have been slow to grasp the importance of atomic physics. When Klaus Fuchs began to pass nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union, he was continually frustrated by the scientific ignorance of his KGB control.

The Terror damaged not merely the development of Soviet science but the NKVD itself. Appropriately, the NKVD was one of the chief victims of its own purges. Theodore Maly, the first control of both Philby and Burgess, was recalled to Moscow and shot. During the three-year period covered by Robert Conquest in Inside Stalin’s Secret Police the NKVD leadership was twice liquidated. Nikolai Yezhov, who succeeded G.G. Yagoda as head of the NKVD in September 1936, purged most of Yagoda’s men in the spring of 1937 (though Yagoda himself was not shot until March 1938). The purge of Yezhov’s appointees began even before he was succeeded by Lavrenti Beria in December 1938. Every one of the Commissars of State Security (Grades 1 and 2) on the eve of the Great Terror was shot before it was over. Of the 634 known NKVD officers with State Security rank when Yezhov went to the execution cellars in April 1940 (allegedly charged with being a British spy!), only 43 had held office in the pre-Beria period. Inside Stalin’s Secret Police at times resembles a telephone directory as much as a book, with text and appendices of roughly equal length. But it has the great merit of showing how much of importance can be deduced about the NKVD from unclassified source material.

From time to time the barbarism of the NKVD breaks through Conquest’s usually dry analysis of its bureaucratic politics. He describes how the liquidation in February 1938 of A.H. Slutski, head of the NKVD foreign department, was followed by a gruesome pantomime designed to deceive Soviet agents abroad. Slutski, who was said to have died of a heart attack while consuming tea and cakes, was eulogised in an official obituary as ‘a fearless fighter for the cause of the working class’: ‘Chekists knew his name to the ends of our broad fatherland. Enemies feared that name.’ His lying in state was somewhat marred when NKVD officers familiar with forensic medicine observed on Slutski’s face the characteristic stains caused by the hydrocyanic acid contained in his last tea and cakes.

The latest attempt to unravel the story of the Cambridge moles is Conspiracy of Silence by two well-known investigative journalists, Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman. They have produced a highly readable account of ‘The Secret Life of Anthony Blunt’ based on a mixture of recollections and gossip. These give a vivid and largely convincing picture of the extraordinary fascination which Burgess exercised over the older Blunt. Penrose and Freeman have persuaded an unprecedented number of retired intelligence officers to go public – even if one of them, Peter Wright, prefaces his revelations with the words: ‘I’ll tell you this much. Not to be quoted and I’ll sue you if you do.’ Mr Wright is at the moment preoccupied with other litigation.

One of the most interesting interviews recorded in Conspiracy of Silence is with Arthur Martin, the MI5 officer in charge of interrogating Blunt after his secret confession and the granting of immunity to him in 1964. Penrose and Freeman conjure up a bizarre portrait of Sir Anthony waking from a night with rough trade, spending the day at the Courtauld pursuing his research and encouraging his students in the study of Truth and Beauty, then passing the early evening talking into Arthur Martin’s tape-recorder. ‘Sometimes he would look ghastly when we met,’ Martin recalls. ‘He had obviously been drinking a good deal.’ In the course of the interrogation Martin became curiously sympathetic: ‘With Blunt I didn’t feel that I disapproved, which sounds odd I know.’

Debriefing Blunt had, none the less, an alarming effect on Martin. He began to ask himself why the Russians had ‘allowed’ Blunt to leave MI5 after World War Two. Gradually he became convinced that another high-level Soviet mole must have remained in place within MI5 – a fear fed by the vast conspiracy theories of the defector Anatoli Golitsin. Largely at Martin’s insistence, MI5’s own deputy director-general, Graham Mitchell, was put under surveillance on suspicion of being a Soviet agent. The director-general, Sir Roger Hollis, concluded – probably correctly – that the obsessive hunt for traitors was undermining MI5 morale. Martin was taken off the Blunt case and moved to MI6. Hollis’s choice of successor to Martin, however, proved disastrous. Blunt’s interrogation was taken over by Peter Wright, a conspiracy theorist who quickly concluded that the chief mole was Hollis himself.

Some of Blunt’s friends and acquaintances have also provided Penrose and Freeman with intriguing insights into his career. The writer Robert Harbinson reveals that Blunt was ‘panic-stricken’ at a report that the Queen Mother had declared: ‘The one thing I cannot stand is a traitor.’ Blunt is pictured listening gravely to a first-hand account of the Queen Mother’s remarks, then disappearing into a bedroom with a sailor who had been ‘picked up’ for him. But the most surprising revelation about Blunt’s private life is the claim that, ‘to the amazement of his friends’, the fastidious art-historian was a telly-addict, frequently glued to the box ‘irrespective of the programme’. A more rounded picture of Blunt’s career may emerge from Susan Crosland’s forthcoming official biography.

Penrose and Freeman offer plenty of entertaining gossip, but they rely on it too heavily. People, places and events have been inadequately checked. At times the authors seem to regard interviews as a satisfactory substitute for the written record. Having, for example, identified Semyo Nicolayevich Rostovski, alias Ernst Henri, as one of those concerned with the founding of the Cambridge ‘Ring of Five’, they tracked him down in retirement in Moscow, where, predictably, he ‘said that he knew nothing about spies.’ But Henri’s rather more revealing books appear to have escaped Penrose’s and Freeman’s attention altogether.

Perhaps the most remarkable example in Conspiracy of Silence of the authors’ neglect of the written word in favour of the oral interview concerns the Trinity Classics don, Andrew Gow, who they suggest may have been Blunt’s recruiter and Soviet control. When the Times claimed to unmask Donald Beves of King’s as a probable Soviet recruiter in 1977 (an allegation which it later withdrew), many Cambridge observers believed that the phantom molehunt had reached its satirical limit. Gow, however, is a name which out-Beveses Beves in sheer improbability. Surprisingly, Penrose and Freeman consider none of Gow’s caustic comments on ‘the shrill screams of our advanced undergraduate thinkers’, and their naive faith in ‘the revolutionary millennium’. Gow was wont to observe disdainfully: ‘Air, even if hot or deleterious, is usually best allowed to escape.’ But he wrote in March 1941 after protests against the suppression of the Communist Daily Worker: ‘I should have more sympathy with these advocates of freedom of speech if freedom of speech were really what they wanted; but the most vociferous of them, so far as I know, bore with silent fortitude the suppression of the fascist organ and the more candid do not conceal that all they really want is freedom to speak themselves.’ Gow was a member of, and bequeathed his distinguished cellar to, an older and perhaps more interesting Cambridge semi-secret society than the Apostles. This society still survives and has gone remarkably unobserved during the literary molehunt of the last decade. Some sleuth will doubtless eventually discover it and extend the molehunt into even more satirical ground.

The flawed though readable interpretations of the Cambridge moles in The Red and the Blue and Conspiracy of Silence underline the need for a scholarly analysis which will examine all the written record. Inside Stalin’s Secret Police gives a glimpse of some of the difficult but revealing source material on KGB operations which has still to be studied. The origins of the Cambridge moles lie less in the social structure and sexual preferences of the Apostles than in a carefully planned Soviet and Comintern intelligence operation. The originator of that operation was Willi Münzenberg, the ‘patron saint of fellow travellers’ and the great virtuoso of Comintern overt and covert propaganda. During the Twenties Münzenberg perfected two linked techniques which, in a modified form, were exported to Cambridge in 1933. The first was the formation of Front Organisations (privately described by Münzenberg as ‘Innocents’ Clubs’) to ‘organise the intellectuals’ in support of popular left-wing causes under covert Comintern leadership. Secondly, Münzenberg used the activities of some of the ‘Innocents’ Clubs’ as a cover for the recruitment of intelligence networks. The next stage in the origins of the Cambridge moles which requires further research is the development of secret conspiratorial cells known as fünfergruppen (groups or rings of five – not all with five members) within the German Communist Party in the early Thirties as it prepared for an underground existence after a Nazi takeover.

In the summer of 1933, having moved his base from Berlin to Paris after Hitler’s accession to power, Münzenberg mounted his first major British operation. The innocents’ club which he used on this occasion was the World Committee for the Victims of German Fascism, secretly controlled by Comintern but fronted in Britain by an innocent Labour peer, Lord Marley. In September 1933 Münzenberg sent his lieutenant Otto Katz (alias André Simone) to London to organise, under the auspices of the World Committee, a ‘Legal Inquiry into the Burning of the Reichstag’. The inquiry met in the impeccably respectable surroundings of the Law Society courtroom in Lincoln’s Inn, was supplied by Katz with forged evidence from the Comintern Intelligence apparat of a Nazi conspiracy to burn down the Reichstag (as well as genuine evidence disproving Nazi allegations of a Communist conspiracy), and had a resounding propaganda success.

Simultaneously, Katz, whom MI5 had argued in vain should be barred from Britain, began a recruiting drive for Comintern Intelligence. Ernst Henri urged young British left-wing intellectuals – if their anti-Fascism amounted to more than mere words – to show their solidarity with the heroic German workers, form secret ‘groups of five’ and join in the secret war against the spread of Fascism. Probably within a few months, Guy Burgess began forming what one of those who knew him called his ‘light blue ring of five’.

The irony of Comintern’s Cambridge connection was not lost on Münzenberg. One of his Cambridge emissaries later recalled: ‘A young Communist undergraduate ... explained to me dolefully that the beautiful ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge should be razed to the ground when the Proletarian Dictatorship was proclaimed ... He seemed suspicious of my genuine revolutionary spirit when I expressed my doubts as to the necessity for demolition ... It was odd to see students of such a famous university, obviously upper-class with well-bred accents, speak about Soviet Russia as the land of promise.’ As he surveys the Moscow skyline from his study window, Kim Philby still grimly insists: ‘I can see the solid foundations of the future I glimpsed at Cambridge.’ The wretched final years of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean in their Moscow exile tell a different story.

[*] Analysed by Richelson and Desmond Ball in The ties that bind (Allen and Unwin, 1985).