R.W. Johnson

  • Traitors: The Labyrinths of Treason by Chapman Pincher
    Sidgwick, 346 pp, £13.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 283 99379 0
  • The Secrets of the Service: British Intelligence and Communist Subversion 1939-51 by Anthony Glees
    Cape, 447 pp, £18.00, May 1987, ISBN 0 224 02252 0
  • Freedom of Information – Freedom of the Individual? by Clive Ponting, John Ranelagh, Michael Zander and Simon Lee, edited by Julia Neuberger
    Macmillan, 110 pp, £4.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 333 44771 9

British attitudes to the intelligence services are governed by two separate obsessions. The discovery of Maclean, Burgess, Philby and Blunt as Soviet agents has produced a long-lasting preoccupation with hunting down moles, ‘agents of influence’ and the like. Newspapers love it, the public are interested, and the whole business is endlessly stoked by the more enfevered spirits of the Right. There is no doubt that this is a compulsion which goes beyond reason: Blunt, after all, had given up his allegiance to Communism by 1951, yet the whole business is still breathlessly featured by the quality Sunday press several times a year. The second obsession is that of all British governments to prevent their voters knowing even the most elementary facts about the intelligence services their taxes pay for. The Peter Wright trial in Australia has recently brought out the full absurdity of this, with Sir Robert Armstrong attempting at one point to suggest that the very existence of MI5 and MI6 (let alone the identity of their directors) was a secret which could neither be confirmed nor denied. There is no other state in the world which behaves like this and national security cannot be the reason for it. The Russians, after all, are fully cognizant of the existence of MI5 and MI6 and of their directors’ identity – and even the Soviet state tells its citizens that the KGB exists and who the head of it is.

It is on this crazy situation that Chapman Pincher has built his entire career. Since he is extremely right-wing, and willing to swallow even the most ridiculous claptrap in the furtherance of the Anti-Communist Cause, Pincher at least has some access to the officers of MI5 – for in practice the one small hole in the veil of secrecy is the one through which titbits of information are fed to a privileged coterie of writers or journalists on the far right. In Pincher’s work the two obsessions chase each other’s tails: the alleged need to protect national security legitimates the compulsive secrecy, while the need to expose Communist infiltration legtimates attempts to pierce that secrecy. Pincher has been going round and round this mulberry bush for forty years now, with considerable commercial success.

Pincher’s latest offering is at least as awful as the rest. As a literary construction it is a mess, rambling endlessly and repetitively around the same warmed-over material which he has already recycled in Too Secret Too Long, Their trade is treachery and other melodramas. Needless to say, Pincher accepts as gospel virtually every allegation ever made by the extreme Right in either Britain or the US. Thus Joe McCarthy’s allegation that Alger Hiss was a Communist spy is treated as simple fact, as is his claim that FDR’s most trusted adviser. Harry Dexter White, the founder of the IMF and the World Bank, was also working for the Kremlin. The intellectual level of the book is perhaps best illustrated by Pincher’s laborious attempt to construct a mathematical equation to explain treason. The equation, in case LRB readers would like to use it in their Christmas party games, is: A + m + r + b + f + s + i → T, where A is access, m is money, r is resentment, b is blackmailability (sic), s is self-satisfaction, i is ideology, and T is Treason. Ha, thought I’d forgotten f? No, it’s just that f is the pièce de résistance: it stands, would you believe it, for flawed character.

It is with some relief that one turns to Anthony Glees’s Secrets of the Service. Glees is a professional historian and rightly attempts to place British intelligence operations in the context of the twists and turns of British foreign policy. In so far as it is possible, Glees has been meticulous in his examination of the available sources and is almost painfully judicious in sorting the wheat from the chaff. The basis of the story he has to tell lies in the two enormous changes the war brought to MI5 and MI6. The sheer necessity of national survival and the huge expansion of the services had the effect of bringing a whole new wave of highly talented intellectuals into the services, which, until then, had been the exclusive fief of ‘anti-Bolshevik old buffers’. These recruits were so markedly superior that they rapidly rose to positions of power and influence. Given the nature of the Thirties intelligentsia, it was pretty well inevitable that these recruits should have included at least a few who were to turn out to be Soviet moles. The second change followed from the fact that, from June 1941, as Glees puts it, ‘the Soviet Union was England’s only chance of defeating Hitler.’ An immediate decision was taken to stop reading Soviet radio traffic and a large measure of intelligence collaboration with the USSR was instigated. There were always strict limits to this: a team of people was specially charged with drawing up bundles of intelligence marked ‘OK for Russia’, but given that everything gained from the most important source of all, Enigma, was held back, the Russians were always getting far less than half of what we could have told them. (No doubt the same was true in reverse.)

This was, of course, a combination of circumstances in which the likes of Kim Philby were likely to thrive. For the two changes worked together: the young intellectual recruits as a class tended to feel contemptuous, even angry, at their elders’ continuing obsession with the Bolshevik menace to the virtual exclusion of the threat posed by the Nazis. One of the most interesting passages in Glees’s book is his report of an interview with a former MI6 officer who worked with Philby through that period.

‘Philby,’ the officer said, ‘seemed so bright and dynamic … The “old buffers”, the prewar ex-Indian police officers who formed the core of MI6, were simply not a match for him: he was able to ridicule the “Indian Policemen”, obsessed with Communists and drinking cups of tea … Like Blunt, too, Philby was simply a very clever man, far above the level of most of the other officers.’ Among the new recruits, he recalled, there was a strong feeling that people ‘like the deposed King and Mrs Simpson’ had deceived the public about Nazism, encouraging them to see it as a bulwark against Bolshevism and depicting the greatest evil as another war with Germany. This naturally led to a counter, pro-Russian feeling, which has since been misunderstood:

Chapman Pincher is quite wrong to see Oxbridge intellectuals as responsible for this sort of view. The Daily Mirror and Cassandra were far more significant: it was an anti-upper-class populism that made us so pro-Russian … People had different illusions about Russia and its future … They knew that one day Russia might be our main target, but for the moment it was the Germans who were the bad ones.

Glees rather tut-tuts about all this, suggesting that it shows a terrible naivety about Soviet intentions and that perhaps British Intelligence would have been better-off without all these bright recruits, given that a number of them were Soviet moles. This seems to me wrong-headed in several different ways. The key judgment is surely that of William Strang, the Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, in a paper of May 1943:

We need Russian collaboration. The conclusion of the Anglo-Soviet Treaty marks our decision that this must be our policy … even if fears that Russia lay a ‘heavy hand’ on eastern, central and south-eastern Europe are realised … I should not like to say that this would be to our disadvantage … It is better that Russia should dominate Eastern Europe than that Germany should dominate Western Europe.

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