Adventures in Research: Secrets and Spies During the Cold War

As part of my research into 1960s England, I decided I needed to learn more about British intelligence agencies, and in particular, MI5. Firstly, though, I had to figure out the difference between MI5 and MI6. Right, that’s simple enough! MI5 (now known as the ‘Security Service’) deals with threats to domestic security, while MI6 (the ‘Secret Service’, also known as ‘the one that James Bond works for’) deals with international issues. No, wait – it’s not quite that simple. ‘Domestic’ was historically defined as not just England, Scotland and Wales (and Northern Ireland, after 1920) but the whole of the British Empire (which was a considerable chunk of the world until the 1960s). This meant that MI5, supposedly a domestic intelligence agency, had agents stationed all over the planet, from Aden (now in Yemen), the Sudan and Cyprus, to India and Malaya, as well as throughout the Dominions (Australia, New Zealand and Canada). Plus, MI5 needed to know a lot about their Soviet enemies behind the Iron Curtain, in case a KGB spy popped up in London (which seems to have happened roughly every five minutes during the 1960s). But hang on, weren’t Soviet Union spies the responsibility of MI6? And what about the role of the British army, navy and air force, especially the military’s code-breaking and technological development teams? And what about the police – Scotland Yard, for instance, and local branches in places where spies were hiding? Well, I guess they must all have worked together harmoniously for the good of the nation, sharing all their information and technology.

Ha, ha. No, actually, they spent a great deal of their time squabbling over resources, jealously guarding their information and pointing accusing fingers at one another whenever a spy within the ranks was unmasked or news of a particularly inept piece of bungling reached the public. I learned about this, and more, from several books about MI5. The first was The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew, which intrigued me because why on Earth would a secret service publish a thousand-page volume explaining their inner workings, including a map containing photos and locations of all their offices?1 But actually, this book turned out to be less comprehensive than I’d hoped. 'The Defence of the Realm' by Christopher AndrewThe author, a British historian, was given limited access to MI5’s archives and then the final manuscript was vetted by MI5 to remove anything that “would damage national security” or be “inappropriate for wider public interest reasons” (that is, anything that might make MI5 look bad). The book does provide a good overview of the early years of MI5 (which was founded in 1909 to deal with the threat of German imperialism) and of MI5’s work during the two world wars. However, the closer it gets to the current day, the more guarded the author becomes. He’s reluctant to criticise any of MI5’s actions during the 1950s and 1960s, which included helping the CIA overthrow the democratically elected government of British Guiana (on the grounds the Prime Minister had Communist sympathies, although ironically, the man they put in his place actually strengthened the country’s links with the Soviets), plotting to assassinate inconvenient people (Colonel Nasser in Egypt, for instance) and spying on ‘friends’ (bugging the French Embassy during European Economic Community negotiations and eavesdropping on African leaders during independence talks). At most, Andrew is mildly disapproving when Guy Liddell, an MI5 Director, vehemently opposes independence for the colonies because the “niggers” (Liddell’s term, used in official correspondence) aren’t capable of governing their own countries – but then Andrew excuses this on the grounds that everyone thought that way in the mid-twentieth century. The author also apparently has no problem with MI5 targeting British citizens regarded by the (Conservative) government as ‘subversives’, including such dangerous people as trade unionists, members of the Labour Party and suburban grandmothers campaigning for nuclear disarmament. (Communists, the lot of them! They deserve to be spied on!) He also goes to great lengths to accuse Harold Wilson, the Labour Prime Minister who believed MI5 was bugging his office, of paranoia and outright insanity. But MI5 did keep a file on Wilson! MI5 had previously disseminated false information to discredit Labour politicians during an election! And for much of its history, MI5 was exclusively staffed by members of a tiny section of right-wing British society – men who’d attended the same exclusive schools and universities, who’d usually worked in the colonies, and who were, even by the standards of their day, incredibly sexist, racist and anti-Semitic (even active members of Fascist organisations, in at least one case). Although this book was often very interesting and occasionally quite entertaining, I became so frustrated at the author’s bias, the gaps in the record and the lack of verifiable sources that I ended up skimming the final two hundred pages. There’s a good review by Bernard Porter, who has read the entire book, here at the London Review of Books.

'Spycatcher' by Peter WrightNext I turned to a more controversial book, Spycatcher by Peter Wright, a former MI5 officer. Australians may remember that the British government tried to ban its publication in Australia, with the book successfully defended in court by none other than Malcolm Turnbull2. Turnbull managed to make the British government look completely ridiculous during the Spycatcher trial and the book received lots of free publicity and went on to sell millions of copies around the world. It’s at its most interesting (and plausible) when Wright discusses how he and his colleagues “bugged and burgled our way across London at the State’s behest, while pompous bowler-hatted civil servants in Whitehall pretended to look the other way”. He describes the technology they invented to eavesdrop, and detect eavesdropping, and how they managed to keep track of the Soviet spies who were based in the UK during the Cold War. The book becomes less convincing when Wright describes his “freelance” campaign to uncover the ‘moles’ within MI5. His suspicions were mostly based on accounts provided by a (very unreliable) Soviet defector, but also on Wright’s own “intuition”. He attempted to prove the mole was Roger Hollis, then MI5 Director-General, which turned out to be quite difficult for Wright because there was no real evidence (possibly because Hollis wasn’t actually a Soviet spy). Then Wright went on a witchhunt within MI5, scrutinising dozens of staff, causing breakdowns, resignations and suicides and destroying office morale, before he finally gave up, resigned and moved to Australia to write this book. It seems partly motivated by revenge – he was peeved that his MI5 pension wasn’t much larger – but he also seems to relish revealing lots of important secrets, including code names and agent identities, secrets that he’d been trusted to keep. So I think it’s a bit much for him to treat Soviet spies like Anthony Blunt with such contempt in the book – how is Wright’s own behaviour much different? Surely he signed some kind of secrecy agreement when he joined MI5? And after all, for most of the time that Blunt was working as a Soviet spy, the Soviet Union was Britain’s ally – they were both fighting the Nazis (in fact, the Soviets were doing far more of the fighting than the British), so wasn’t Blunt just handing over information that Britain should have been sharing anyway? And how is what Blunt did much worse than Winston Churchill covering up Soviet responsibility for the Katyn massacre, in which more than 20,000 Polish prisoners, mostly civilians, were murdered and dumped in mass graves?

Stella Rimington, the first female Director-General of MI5, knew Peter Wright when he worked there, and her autobiography, Open Secret, describes him as obsessive, paranoid and self-important, with an “over-developed imagination” – in fact, she and her colleagues used to wonder if he was a KGB spy, placed within MI5 to cause maximum disruption to the service. Furthermore, she says MI5 did not cheat him out of any of his pension (although she wishes MI5 management had given him more money to ‘buy him off’, given how much damage his book ended up doing to MI5’s reputation). She does, however, thank him for drawing attention to one of MI5’s problems – that, until the 1980s, MI5 staff had no legal protection for their work. (Eventually, legislation was passed to allow MI5 to intercept telephone conversations and postal correspondence and eavesdrop on private conversations, with oversight by a parliamentary committee.) 'Open Secret' by Stella RimingtonHer book also provides an interesting account of how MI5 was forced to change in modern times – to become more professional and accountable to the public, and to recruit more diverse staff. She’s particularly good at describing the challenges faced by women working within MI5. When she joined in the 1960s, women were not thought capable of doing anything other than administrative tasks, and her managers were bemused and sometimes hostile as she battled to become an officer and progress up the ranks to become a director (although she insists she wasn’t one of those “aggressive feminists”). Her work was made even more difficult because she was a single parent. At one stage, when child care arrangements fell through, she ended up taking her young daughter with her to a ‘safe house’ where she’d arranged to meet a contact. On another occasion, she was about to leave to meet a possible Soviet defector when her nanny called to say Rimington’s daughter was being rushed to hospital, suffering convulsions. (Rimington ended up going to the hospital after the defector meeting, but having to borrow money from the potential defector for taxi fares to the hospital. Perhaps that’s why he decided against defecting.) Family life was further disrupted when Rimington became the first Director-General to be publicly named, which caused a media sensation and meant that she and her daughter (and dog) had to leave their home and hide in an MI5 ‘safe house’ while her daughter was trying to do her A-levels (their dog, however, quite enjoyed this because he got to go on patrols with the security guards and was made an honorary member of the security team, with an official pass attached to his collar).

While Rimington has some issues with the way MI5 used to work, she says these problems have now been overcome and she seems very loyal to the organisation, vigorously defending its more dubious behaviour. For instance, she denies that MI5 behaved badly when it targeted the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament protest movement – after all, CND was clearly part of a Soviet plot to weaken the West because it wanted Britain to ban the bomb! Similarly, she denies that MI5 worked as “tools of Mrs Thatcher” to break the miners’ strike in 1984 – after all, the unions were full of Communists who hated Thatcher, so by definition, they were “subversive” because they were opposed to the government (and it’s pure coincidence that Rimington’s husband John, a senior Whitehall official, was, at the time, locked in bitter negotiations with the miners’ unions about cost-cutting measures and job cuts). She acknowledges that a lot of MI5’s “fevered activity” during the Cold War was “unsuccessful because the other side very frequently saw us coming” but that “it is a mistake to ridicule all this activity [because] the Soviet bloc presented a serious threat to our national security” and she’s proud that MI5 was “helping to preserve democracy against the forces of totalitarianism”.

For my part, I couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if both sides, Soviet and Western, had directed all the time, money and effort they poured into spying on each other towards humanitarian causes. They could have ensured every child in the world received basic literacy and numeracy education. They could have provided clean water and sanitation to every community that needed it. They could have wiped polio off the face of the Earth. Instead, they chose to devote a huge amount of national resources to activities that achieved almost nothing, except loss of life, for either side. But no doubt Rimington and her colleagues at MI5 would regard such ideas as the ravings of a loony idealist, of someone quite possibly a Communist – maybe even one of those dreaded “aggressive feminists”.


  1. There seems to be a trend for this sort of thing. The Australian version of MI5, ASIO, has just authorised its own history – The Spy Catchers: The Official History of ASIO, 1949-1963, Volume 1, by David Horner, which Robert Manne described in his Sydney Morning Herald review as “clearly organised, comprehensive, fair-minded and slightly dull”. Also Frank Moorhouse, author of the Edith Campbell Berry trilogy, has recently published Australia Under Surveillance, a more personal look at the subject of domestic surveillance.
  2. For the benefit of non-Australians, Malcolm Turnbull is famous for a lot of reasons, including: being extremely rich; marrying Lucy Hughes, from the famous and powerful Hughes family; being a cabinet minister in the Liberal (that is, conservative) Australian government; and, at the moment, being touted as the person who should replace Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, on the grounds that Turnbull is more intelligent, articulate and in touch with the values of twenty-first-century Australians than Abbott is. (Although I would just like to remind Turnbull fans about the Godwin Grech debacle and that Turnbull, MP for one of the gayest electorates in Australia, who got elected by promising his support for same-sex marriage, voted against same-sex marriage in 2012. And don’t forget his claim that he understands ordinary Australians because he himself grew up in conditions of terrible, grinding poverty – reduced, at one stage of his childhood, to living in a rented flat in Double Bay! Okay, that last one is probably only funny to Sydneysiders. For non-Sydneysiders, Double Bay is the equivalent of Belgravia in London or Park Lane in New York.)

2 thoughts on “Adventures in Research: Secrets and Spies During the Cold War”

  1. At least Australians are unhappy with the ghastly Tony Abbott although I doubt Turnbull will be much better, just smoother. I remember taking out the Andrew book from the library and getting a bit frustrated by it too. Rimmington’s comments about the miner’s strike are revealing of MI5’s continuing mindset which is kind of derived from Sapper/Bulldog Drummond!

    1. Tony Abbott appears to be clinging to power, according to today’s headlines, but I agree with you about Malcolm Turnbull.

      MI5 does seem (at least, according to their website and media interviews) to be more willing nowadays to recruit staff from all parts of society – which of course they’ll need to do if they want to combat terrorism effectively.

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