An Enemy Within

Paul Foot

  • Molehunt: The Full Story of the Soviet Mole in MI5 by Nigel West
    Weidenfeld, 208 pp, £10.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 297 79150 8

Which is the more subversive: a group of senior people in the security services who are giving secrets to the enemy, or a group of senior people in the security services who are working systematically to bring down the elected government here? The question would worry most democrats, but for the authors of books about the security services it is no worry at all. To a man, they are absorbed with the first danger. The second danger, they protest, does not exist. Or rather, if it does exist, it is best not to mention it.

Security service bosses, they tell us, have been agents of the enemy. The first difficulty here is that enemies change. From 1940 to 1945, for instance, the enemy was Germany, Italy and (to a slightly lesser degree) Fascism. Russia (together with the Communism which that country purported to represent) was an ally. The small group of university-educated Communists, who thought that the best way to advance the cause of peace and socialism was to infiltrate the British security services in the interests of Russia, naturally did very well in those years. They did not even have to tell lies. They devoted themselves with energy and skill to undermining the enemy (Germany, Italy, Fascism) and building links between the British state and the Russian state. In those years they flew high over the more typical officers of British Intelligence at home and abroad, whose natural sympathies were right-wing, and who tended to side politically with Hitler and Mussolini rather than with anything which stank of Communism.

Surprisingly quickly, after the war, the enemy changed. Suddenly Germany and Italy were allies; Russia and Eastern Europe enemies. In the security services, the balance of power changed too. The old reactionaries came out of their caves, dusted themselves off and set out in hot pursuit of the Lefties who had had it so good for so long. In the McCarthyite atmosphere which spread across the Atlantic, and with the demise of the Labour Government, the Communist culprits were hunted down. Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean fled to Russia in 1951; Kim Philby was finally exposed in 1963; Anthony Blunt in 1979. The first three took refuge in Russia. Blunt died in disgrace, deserted both by the Leftist friends of his youth and by the Royal Family and his colleagues in the Establishment, who had patronised him in his prime.

All through this period the Right grew in confidence and determination. The hunting of Communists in their own ranks became an obsession. Many top men in MI5 (always more paranoid than MI6, which had to deal with foreigners and therefore could not regard them all as one big rabble) became convinced that the Communist cancer had spread far higher even than the agents who had been exposed and deposed. ‘Soviet penetration of the security services’, it was suggested, had gone right to the top.

What was the evidence for this? The hardest and toughest piece of evidence is laid bare (for the millionth time) at the beginning of this latest book on the subject. In January 1963, a former SIS officer, Nicholas Elliott, was sent to Beirut to denounce Kim Philby to his face as a Russian agent. As soon as he did so, Philby confessed, and gave Elliott an extensive though not complete account of his work for the Russians. Elliott went on his way and Philby promptly cut and ran for Russia.

Nigel West, like many other spy-writers before him, is intrigued by this episode. Most significant of all, he believes, was a remark Philby is alleged to have made to Elliott on the latter’s arrival. This remark, described by West as ‘ambiguous’, was as follows: ‘I had not expected you so soon.’ Nigel West concludes: ‘Philby’s disappearance from Beirut, and his unexplained comment to Elliott, suggested that the KGB had been in control of the episode; and they had known of Elliott’s offer of immunity and had enabled Philby to prepare a cover story.’ Moreover, ‘the logical conclusion of this viewpoint was the existence of another highly-paid source within the small group of counter-intelligence experts privy to Elliott’s mission. The only question was the name of the culprit’ (my emphasis). This ‘logical conclusion’ set off the ‘molehunt’, which absorbed the time and effort of a substantial section of the security services for half a century.

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