Commentary Magazine

Do Spies Matter?

It is often said that spies are largely irrelevant to the overall course of international politics. Epidemics of treason may be disturbing for what they imply about the societies that spawn traitors, but espionage itself—or so it is claimed—has had a relatively minor impact on world affairs.

With respect to contemporary events, the validity of this argument is difficult to assess. Is it true, for example, that notwithstanding all the excitement caused by the uncovering of the Walker family spy ring, the naval secrets they passed to Moscow were of comparatively little moment? Too much of the relevant information is classified to permit a fully balanced answer to this question. But already there are indications that even in this age of open skies and on-site inspection, the Walkers and their confederates did serious harm to American strategic interests.

The same sort of skepticism has been expressed about the major espionage cases of the last generation; about the activities of Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, and their colleagues in England, and, on this side of the Atlantic, about the atomic-espionage ring headed up by Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Indeed, so much doubt has been raised about the Rosenberg case in particular that their insignificance as spies is now a piece of received wisdom. Even the overwhelming evidence skillfully marshaled by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton in The Rosenberg File, showing that the Rosenberg ring did indeed pass important information on atomic weapons to the Soviets, has not sufficed to shake the widespread conviction that they did not steal the secret of the atomic bomb (it is even argued that no such secret existed to be stolen).

The issue of whether spies matter has been raised yet again by a number of new books on the British traitors—and by two new books on the recently deceased physicist-spy Klaus Fuchs. Strikingly, all of these books demonstrate, in one way or another, that Philby, Blunt, Maclean, Burgess, Fuchs, et al. did cause real and lasting damage to Western interests.

Also apparent from these new studies is that in the late 30′s and on through the 40′s and 50′s, there were more traitors than anyone imagined—anyone, that is, save for isolated members of the British and American security services. Finally, a key message that emerges from the recent crop of espionage books is that the British traitors of that era, like their counterparts in the U.S. and in Canada, were motivated by an unbending faith in Communism and the Soviet Union. What drove them was not the fact that they were social misfits—some were, others were not; not the fact that they were homosexuals—some were, others were not; and not the fact that they came from the privileged classes—some did, others did not. The one thing all of them had in common was their belief in Stalin, whose service they entered in the 1930′s and in whom their faith was never shaken.



Peter Wright, a former assistant director of MI-5, the British counterintelligence and internal-security agency, was one of the few security officials unsurprised by later revelations about the breadth of the Soviet espionage apparatus in the West. His memoir, Spycatcher1 —a literary sensation, thanks to Margaret Thatcher’s attempt to bar its publication in Great Britain—is a classic of the “I-tried-to-warn-them-but-they-wouldn’t-listen” genre.

Wright first published his book in Australia (where he now lives) to escape the jurisdiction of the British Official Secrets Act. This by itself has been enough for some critics to dismiss him as one more disgruntled ex-employee railing against his former bosses. And Wright is, indeed, profoundly angry at the “gentlemen” of MI-5. On purely personal grounds, he feels the agency broke a gentleman’s agreement with him concerning his pension. But he is bitter at the English upper classes in general—bitter over the condescension with which his Oxbridge-trained superiors at MI-5 treated him, a self-taught scientist who became a master of bugging, decoding, and airwave interception; and bitter about their relaxed, in his view, disposition toward treason.

Spycatcher is a sloppy, error-ridden work that happens also to be fascinating, as well as fundamentally sound. It has proved something of a gift to the British Left, inasmuch as it depicts an out-of-control security service bugging telephones, opening private mail, and following people against whom no charges had been brought. This portrait has enabled Laborites to question Mrs. Thatcher’s motives in banning the book’s publication: might not the Prime Minister’s concern have stemmed from the fact that MI-5 is still engaged in similar practices? But any book on this subject is bound to present material which can be used by enemies of intelligence services. Though the Radosh-Milton book on the Rosenbergs enters a devastating judgment of guilt against the couple, American leftists have for several years been citing it in order to demonstrate that the FBI routinely violates the civil liberties of American citizens. Surely this sort of manipulation is no reason not to write or publish such books. (A much better reason is the simple fact that if every disgruntled ex-intelligence officer were to produce such a detailed memoir, there would soon be no intelligence services.)

As for Wright’s errors, they do not undermine confidence in the book’s essential accuracy. That Spycatcher is absorbing comes as no surprise. This is, after all, the memoir of a key figure in the small group of British officials who worked on virtually every major espionage case of the postwar era. There was a parallel group of American officials—James J. Angleton of the CIA, Bill Harvey of the FBI and the CIA, Robert Lamphere of the FBI, and a few others—with whom Wright and his colleagues cooperated on an ongoing basis. The technical men on both sides of the Atlantic tended to feel that their governments, still basking in the glow of the wartime alliance with Moscow, did not appreciate the scope and significance of Soviet espionage activities in the West. The reason these men had come to a starker view of Soviet intentions and capabilities, and had done so even before the war ended, was simple: they knew about the breaking of the Soviet cipher, the code utilized by Moscow in running its global espionage network.

There had, to be sure, been warnings of what the Soviets were doing even before the war. A number of major defectors—General Walter Krivitsky, Alexander Orlov, Whittaker Chambers, and perhaps a dozen others—provided authorities with significant information on Soviet espionage activities. In many cases this information was taken seriously (although it has been reported that President Roosevelt mocked Assistant Secretary of State Adolph A. Berle when Berle brought to the White House information provided by Chambers on Alger Hiss and others). The real problem was that very little of what the defectors offered could be corroborated. Thus, until the codebreak—despite the warnings from defectors, and despite necessarily limited efforts by the FBI and the British services to keep a watch on domestic Communists—it simply had not been grasped by the Allied governments that there were Soviet espionage rings in Washington, New York, San Francisco, Ottawa, London, Shanghai, Tokyo, and elsewhere. It had not been realized that there were cells in the State Department, the Foreign Office, the OSS, and the Canadian Parliament. It had not been understood that these rings were run with military discipline by trained operatives reporting to Moscow.

The American success in breaking the Soviet code—in itself an extraordinary story—changed everything. As Wright explains:

. . . The codebreak had a fundamental effect on cold-war attitudes among those few indoctrinated officers inside the British and American intelligence services. It became the wellspring for the new emphasis on counterespionage investigation. . . . More directly, it showed the worldwide scale of the Soviet espionage attack, at a time when the Western political leadership was apparently pursuing a policy of alliance and extending the hand of friendship.

“Indoctrinated” officers like Wright—the officials who were entrusted with the knowledge that the Soviet code had been broken and were afforded access to decrypted messages—felt a special sense of urgency about their work. In Wright’s case, this was augmented by his entry into the nontechnical realm. He was involved, early on, in the Philby investigation. Eventually, he became an interrogator of Anthony Blunt and others suspected of espionage in connection with the Cambridge spy ring (so-called because most of its members had studied at that British university in the 30′s).



No doubt Wright’s book—and this is unfortunate—will be remembered for its most sensational charges. In the early 1960′s, Wright grew obsessed with the notion that Sir Roger Hollis, the head of MI-5, was a Soviet “mole.” (An imperfect but reasonably close parallel would be to contend that J. Edgar Hoover was a Soviet agent.) Wright believed Hollis had protected other Soviet agents, including Philby, and had seen to it that major investigations failed along with various covert operations.

Wright cannot prove the case against Hollis. He also suggests, but cannot prove, that former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson kept close company with Soviet agents, and that another Labor-party leader, Hugh Gaitskell, was murdered by the KGB to prevent him from becoming Prime Minister in 1964. The Wilson and Gaitskell tales, incredible though they are, remain minor elements in this memoir.

Not so Hollis. Yet Wright’s inability to frame a fully persuasive indictment against the MI-5 chief does not mean the charge in this case is incredible. Indeed, to some extent it is Hollis himself who was incredible.

Everything Roger Hollis touched seemed to go bad; appalling miscalculations informed his entire career in intelligence. It is, admittedly, possible to look at each separate misjudgment and find that Hollis was not solely responsible for the failure. In the matter of Klaus Fuchs—the brilliant physicist and confessed atomic spy whose Communist ties were apparently known to authorities from the day he set foot in England as a Hitler refugee—some civil servant apparently persuaded Hollis to grant Fuchs a clearance so he could take part in building the bomb. In the case of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, who made a safe getaway to the Soviet Union before they could be apprehended, it was the Foreign Office, not Hollis, that was directly responsible for allowing the two diplomats to escape. And so forth. But in the end, and especially in view of the fact that the Soviets did indeed penetrate British intelligence at an exceedingly high level, it is not so surprising that there are those who suspect Hollis.



It is interesting that this entire set of seemingly fantastic theories concerning Hollis, Wilson, and the death of Gaitskell can be traced to a single source: Anatoly Golitsyn, one of the most important of all Soviet defectors. Golitsyn was a KGB major who asked for asylum at the American embassy in Helsinki in 1961; he arrived bearing information not only about the British intelligence services, but also about Soviet penetration of the CIA. James J. Angle-ton, the head of CIA counterintelligence, became Golitsyn’s chief patron, and set about acting on the information the defector provided by conducting internal investigations. In the process, Angle-ton came to be accused—even by some of his colleagues—of doing more damage to the CIA than any Soviet mole could dream of accomplishing. A parallel charge is often leveled at Wright, sometimes called the “British Angleton.”

The two men were no doubt guilty of excesses. Wright, in particular, is still condemned as the “persecutor” of an entire generation of Oxbridge alumni—men in positions of power and influence throughout Britain whom he investigated as possible traitors. But there was a good deal to worry about. Domestic security was Wright’s job, and Philby, Burgess, and Maclean were not figments of his imagination. What kind of counterintelligence officer would not pursue his quarry with enthusiasm? In his effort to collect confessions and ferret out additional names, there were no means available to him other than confrontation and intimidation. (By the time Wright undertook his “great mole hunt,” the spying had mostly stopped, so wiretaps and mail covers would not have revealed much.) If it was crucial that the British security services endeavor to reconstruct the past in order to determine what had been compromised, the man charged with the task would inevitably become, as did Peter Wright, a terrible and threatening figure.

The voluntary confession of the American Michael Straight—who told the FBI in 1964 that he had been recruited in England by the Comintern while a student at Cambridge in the 30′s—enabled the British to add a fourth name to the Philby-Burgess-Maclean triad, that of Sir Anthony Blunt, famed art historian, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, and former intelligence officer. Suddenly, MI-5 had two live witnesses to question (the first three men having long since fled to the Soviet Union). Straight was prepared to cooperate out of a sense of remorse; Blunt allowed himself to be questioned by Wright and others over a period of several years, but far less willingly. In exchange for a grant of immunity, a system evolved: Blunt would offer a name, and Wright would hunt down the individual in question, often with no hope of prosecuting the suspect if he refused to cooperate. But many—out of fear, or guilt, or both—did cooperate, and their names appear in this book. The list lends impressive credibility to the thesis that—from the Admiralty to the security services to the Foreign Office—a generation of Communists, many of whom probably committed espionage, had played key roles in governing Great Britain during the cold-war era.

Of all those in the British Establishment who became aware of Wright’s work during the 1960′s and 1970′s, or who were interviewed as MI-5 sought to reconstruct the Cambridge ring and assess the damage, only Lord Victor Rothschild seems to have grasped the need to conduct a full retrospective inquiry. (Rothschild was himself a suspect for a time because of his close ties to Burgess and Blunt.) The more widely held view was that the past was just as well left alone; certainly this was Blunt’s view.

In one of the most telling passages in Spycatcher, Wright presses Blunt to acknowledge that he had shielded Alister Watson, a fellow Cantabrigian subsequently employed by the Admiralty. Wright, having concluded that Watson, too, was a Soviet agent, chides Blunt for withholding the information: “‘You said there were no more, Anthony. You said you were telling me the truth.’” After a pause Blunt replies: “‘I could never be another Whittaker Chambers. . . . It’s so McCarthyite, naming names, informing, witchhunts.’” Wright summons Blunt back to reality: “‘Anthony, that’s why we gave you immunity.’”

The belief that no good would come of this effort to disinter the past was not unique to espionage suspects, or even to leftists. An inability to apprehend the seriousness of the crime seems the critical factor here—along with the sense that whatever the crime, the motive for it must have been positive. At one point in Wright’s book, Blunt himself offers this standard apologia, condescendingly telling his interrogator that “‘unless you lived through [the period], Peter, you cannot understand. . . .’” Wright’s rejoinder was quick: “‘Oh, I lived through it, Anthony. I know more about the 30′s probably than you will ever know. I remember my father driving himself mad with drink because he couldn’t get a job. I remember losing my education, my world, everything. I know about the 30′s.’” It is an applause-inspiring moment.



Blunt’s career is traced in meticulous detail by Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman, two journalists for the Times of London, in Conspiracy of Silence: The Secret Life of Anthony Blunt.2 This well-written and thoughtful biography identifies Blunt primarily as a recruiter, or talent-spotter, for the Soviets, which means that the damage he caused can best be measured by the deeds of those he recruited. It is worth noting, however, that near the end of his life Blunt acknowledged (according to Penrose and Freeman) that he might also have been personally responsible for the deaths of British soldiers and intelligence agents during the early years of the war (“‘Some—not many . . .’”).

How so? During the 22-month Russo-German alliance (which ended in June 1941), there was a good deal of intelligence-sharing between Berlin and Moscow. Blunt was privy to the names of British agents on the ground in Europe. Like every other Soviet spy of this period, he passed on to his controllers literally everything that crossed his desk. The Soviets may in turn have given the names to the Gestapo—with obvious consequences. (Great Britain and Germany were already at war.) Later on, if any of the British agents survived the war and wound up inside the Soviet sphere, Moscow itself would almost certainly have taken action against them.

As for the many Soviet agents recruited by Blunt and Burgess, the identities of several have now (thanks to Wright and Penrose/Freeman) been confirmed beyond doubt. They include Leo Long, a Cambridge recruit who served in military intelligence and as an official of the British occupation regime in Germany. (Long confessed.) Another Cambridge recruit was John Cairncross, who after the war served in intelligence, in the Foreign Office, and at the Treasury before leaving England to work for the UN Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome. During the war itself, Cairncross was on the staff of the Bletchley Code and Cipher Center, and was involved in allied planning for the future of Yugoslavia. (Cairncross confessed but, like Long, denied having spied after the early 1950′s.) The list also includes the aforementioned Alister Watson, whose particular expertise at the Admiralty was antisubmarine detection; Wright considers him to have been the individual Cambridge spy who did the most damage—a reasonable evaluation, given the importance of submarine capability to the East-West strategic balance. (Watson admitted to having been a Communist, and to having met with various KGB agents, but he never made a detailed confession.) Wright also uncovered an Oxford spy ring, parallel to the Cambridge ring. Among its likely members was an eventual Labor M.P., Bernard Floud, who committed suicide in the late 1960′s after questioning by MI-5.

There are a number of other possible agents about whom Penrose and Freeman differ with Wright. Sir Dennis Proctor, a high-ranking civil servant who died in France in 1983, is one; and Penrose and Freeman also question Wright’s conclusions about Alister Watson. None of the disputed cases is likely ever to be resolved. The true role, for example, of the late literary critic Goronwy Rees will almost certainly remain a mystery, as will the parts played by others who were investigated but never confessed.

The case of the Oxford philosopher Sir Stuart Hampshire points up another complicating feature of MI-5′s retrospective effort to assess damage—namely, concern in England during the 1960′s and 70′s over what the reaction would be in Washington to repeated disclosures that the British intelligence services had been infiltrated. The very mention of Hampshire’s name in connection with espionage outrages Penrose and Freeman, yet according to Wright, Hampshire acknowledged to MI-5 that Burgess had sought to recruit him before World War II. Hampshire apparently ignored the invitation, and went on to brilliant service as a wartime codebreaker. But when he returned to government on special assignment in 1965 to head up a special review of the GCHQ, the British equivalent of the National Security Agency, the fact of his past contact with Burgess was not recorded in his security file. It is possible that Hampshire, either deliberately or negligently, withheld this information. But it is rather more likely that top-level British government officials simply were not anxious that such things be recorded, and were themselves, therefore, responsible for the omission. The GCHQ project was bound up with a review of Anglo-American intelligence-sharing initiated by Washington, and a persistent theme in Spycatcher is the British fear that the U.S., fed up with the various security lapses, might terminate cooperation in the intelligence sphere.

This concern had a split impact. Where officials like Wright were all the more driven to root out spies and thus demonstrate Britain’s seriousness of purpose, others sought to suppress information lest the CIA or the FBI finally decide that enough was enough. This latter fear was hardly groundless. Washington, despite its own security problems, was both amazed at and infuriated by the extraordinary degree of Soviet subversion in Britain.



Yet the question still persists: given massive Soviet penetration, how extensive was the damage? The threads pulled together in these and other recent books enable us at last to answer this question with some degree of precision. The subversion had its effect in two major areas: Eastern Europe and the atomic bomb. If, in the early postwar years, Moscow had failed to consolidate its hold in Eastern Europe, or had failed quickly to develop the atomic bomb, the Soviets would not have been able to enter the 1950′s as a superpower—and would not have been emboldened to encourage the military confrontation in Korea that claimed 50,000 American lives. The Soviet agents in the West materially helped Moscow achieve both these goals.

On the issue of atomic espionage in particular, two new books about Klaus Fuchs afford an illuminating and dispassionate perspective. Both Norman Moss in Klaus Fuchs: The Man Who Stole the Atom Bomb3 and Robert Chadwell Williams in Klaus Fuchs: Atom Spy,4 recognize that Moscow would eventually have developed the atomic bomb anyway (no argument to the contrary has ever been advanced in serious circles). But both also believe that Fuchs alone, quite apart from the contributions of such other agents as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Alan Nunn May, and Bruno Pontecorvo, advanced the Soviet quest by a matter of years. Specifically, thanks to his time at Los Alamos, where the American bomb was developed, Fuchs was able to tell Moscow that an implosion plutonium bomb would work.

Both studies demonstrate the degree to which Fuchs was animated by ideological conviction. Whenever he somehow lost contact with his Soviet controllers, he would take steps to reestablish the link. He engaged in espionage until shortly before he was arrested in 1949—by then he was a senior scientist at the British atomic research center at Harwell. Sentenced to fourteen years in prison—his crime differed from treason under British law because the Soviet Union and Britain had not been at war—Fuchs served nine years and four months. Upon his release, he immediately emigrated to East Germany where he assumed a major scientific post. On board the airplane the day he left England—a country which had sheltered him from Hitler, educated and employed him—Fuchs told an Associate Press reporter: “I wish to say that I bear no resentment against Britain . . . for what has happened.”

Fuchs’s subsequent career in East Germany won him many honors, including election to the Central Committee of the Communist party. But, in an unusual restriction for someone of his stature, he was never permitted to travel to the West. It can only be concluded that security authorities deemed the risk too great that Fuchs might defect and then reveal the true scope of the information he had delivered to Moscow during his espionage days.

The notion that Fuchs’s contribution was nothing short of momentous is strengthened by a highly unusual interview with Andrei Sakharov, published late last year in the English-language Moscow News. Commenting on the Soviet rocket program, Sakharov states that Klaus Fuchs “transmitted to the USSR, both during and after the war, highly important atomic secrets out of ideological conviction.” Of this it can only be said that Sakharov, the father of the Soviet H-bomb, ought to know.



As for Eastern Europe, the effort to prevent Britain and the United States from frustrating Soviet policy there was carried forward by two sorts of agents. There were those like Kim Philby who betrayed to the Soviets various Western-backed commando operations aimed at sparking armed insurrection; and there were the “policy moles,” ideological Communists who, after locating themselves in strategic posts in the British (or American) government, sought to influence policy in a direction favorable to Stalin. Anthony Glees, in The Secrets of the Service,5 argues that these latter efforts were at least as significant as was out-and-out espionage.

A good example of the policy mole is James Klugman, a Cambridge man who later became the official historian of the British Communist party. Based in Cairo during World War II as an officer of the Special Operations Executive (roughly, the British equivalent of the OSS), Klugman was one of at least six Communist moles in that organization. He was able to persuade London that in Yugoslavia the brunt of the partisan war against Hitler was being borne by Tito and the Communists rather than by Mihailovitch and the Royalists. The wartime British decision to aid Tito, a decision influenced in no small part by Klugman, proved enormously important to the eventual postwar fate of Yugoslavia.

In The Secrets of the Service Glees also discusses the activities of Christopher Hill, an important wartime Foreign Office adviser on Anglo-Soviet relations and later the Master of Balliol College, Oxford. Hill was a member of the British Communist party until 1957, and as Glees demonstrates, he and others like him tendered advice to the Foreign Office that left Britain systematically “ignorant about Soviet intentions.” (Hill acknowledged to Glees that he did not broadcast the fact of his party membership, but also maintained that his left-wing views were no secret, and that he never actually took direct instructions from Moscow.)

When one considers the fact that London was getting advice from the likes of Hill, various wartime decisions become a good deal easier to understand: for example, the decision not to monitor Soviet code communications during the war, which allowed the espionage rings to flourish; or Winston Churchill’s otherwise surprising willingness to take at face value Stalin’s promises about the future of Poland; or indeed the whole series of British “miscalculations” that facilitated Moscow’s consolidation of power in Eastern Europe.

The part played by Communist agents in frustrating operations intended to lead to armed revolt in Eastern Europe has been known for some time—thanks in part to boastful passages in Kim Philby’s autobiography concerning the failed Anglo-American effort to infiltrate armed Albanian émigrés back into their native land from Greece, a debacle that resulted in the capture and death of virtually every agent involved. Philby, who was closely involved in the planning, betrayed the entire operation. And, as Chapman Pincher notes in Traitors: The Anatomy of Treason,6 Philby was responsible for giving away teams of parachutists dropped into Poland and the Eastern Ukraine in the late 1940′s, also in hopes of fomenting popular uprisings.

There has been a tendency in some circles to regard all these operations with a degree of scorn, accepting the notion that they were wholly unrealistic enterprises, doomed from the outset. Actually, however, given rising levels of popular discontent in Eastern Europe as Stalinist repression intensified, it is not at all clear that these undertakings were destined to fail. And in view of the likely impact of a successful revolt inside the Soviet bloc, the betrayal of these operations by Philby and others was tremendously important—one of the many important contributions these ideologically inspired spies made to Moscow; one of the many ways in which their treasonous activities harmed the West.




1 Viking, 392 pp., $19.95.

2 Hill & Wang/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 588 pp., $22.95.

3 St. Martin's, 216 pp., $16.95.

4 Harvard University Press, 267 pp., $25.00.

5 Carroll & Graf, 447 pp., $22.95.

6 St. Martin's, 346 pp., $19.95.

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