Professor Christopher Andrew, formerly official historian of MI5 and author of ‘The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5′, introduces key files from the release of Security Service files to The National Archives in November 2017.
Security Service file release November 2017
One of the highlights of the latest MI5 release at the National Archives is the first tranche of files on the Portland spy ring, which at the beginning of the 1960s marked a turning point in Cold War espionage in Britain. All previous post-war Russian espionage cases investigated by MI5 had been run by intelligence officers based at the KGB or GRU (military intelligence) London stations. The Portland spy ring, however, came under the control of a deep-cover Soviet illegal with bogus Canadian nationality.
The lead which led to the discovery of the spy ring came from a CIA agent in Polish intelligence, Michal Goleniewski (codenamed SNIPER). In April 1960 Goleniewski reported that an agent recruited by Polish intelligence in the British naval attaché’s office in Warsaw in about 1951 had been handed over to the KGB when he returned to Britain. The prime suspect was quickly identified as Harry Houghton, who had served as clerk to the naval attaché in Warsaw in 1951–2 and had been sent home for ‘general inefficiency’, exacerbated by heavy drinking. Despite his record in Warsaw, on his return to England he was employed as a clerk at the Underwater Detection Establishment (UDE) at Portland, Dorset. Houghton’s six-volume file begins at KV2/4380.
When Mrs Houghton, who had since remarried, was questioned by MI5 in 1960, she revealed that he had brought classified papers home with him from work at the UDE, and taken them to London at weekends. Q ‘Once Houghton returned from one of these trips in a fairly merry state and threw what she estimated to be approximately £150 into the air with shouts of glee.’ Houghton let it be known that his money came from black market deals in Poland—which, as MI5 noted, was a plausible if untruthful explanation. Mrs Houghton told a neighbour that Q ‘on occasions her husband was so violent that her life was in danger’. A few years after their return to Portland, the Houghtons separated and later divorced.
At about the same time as the separation, Houghton began an affair with a female UDE clerk, Ethel Gee, better known by her nickname ‘Bunty’, who had access to more highly classified documents than he did. Gee’s file, KV2/4377, has at times a rather condescending tone:
Plain in appearance and speaking with a fairly strong Dorset accent, it would be hard to find someone further removed from the popular conception of the female spy than Miss “Bunty” Gee.
Houghton’s former wife told MI5 that Q ‘Houghton is interested in her only in so far as she has access to secret information which is now denied to him’. The file on Gee reports that Q ’Besides his steady relationship with Miss Gee, [Houghton] appears to have flirtations from time to time with other middle-aged spinsters who, in spite of his coarse manner, evidently find something attractive in him.’
Houghton’s file records MI5 surveillance of a number of meetings by him in London with Gordon Lonsdale, initially identified as Q ‘an illegal agent working for either the 2 Russian or Polish intelligence service’. Only later did MI5 discover that Lonsdale’s real name was Konon Molody, a deep-cover KGB illegal using bogus Canadian identity documents. Houghton’s indiscretions somewhat simplified a complex surveillance operation. A report on file notes that after Houghton met Lonsdale near the Old Vic on 6 August 1960 Q ‘they went to a cheap café and the watchers were in a position to overhear some of the conversation. Lonsdale spoke in a low voice but Houghton was loud mouthed. The conversation included reference to future meetings on the first Saturday in each month.’
Intelligence from the Portland UDE was believed by the Admiralty to have helped the Soviet Union construct a new and more silent class of submarines. After trial at the Old Bailey in March 1961, Molody alias Lonsdale was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment, Houghton and Gee to 15 each. Molody’s illegal KGB assistants, Morris and Lona Cohen, alias Peter and Alice Kroger, were given 20-year sentences. The MI5 files on Molody and the Cohens have not yet been declassified.
Within two years the media feeding frenzy aroused by the security and sexual scandals of the Profumo affair had eclipsed public interest in the Portland spy ring. Harold Macmillan regarded the affair in 1963 as the most difficult episode in his premiership. The element of sexual scandal was in reality very small. Though the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, had an affair with the model and showgirl, Christine Keeler, the affair was quickly over. Had he not lied to the Commons by denying the affair and simply refused to comment on his private life, many in the Chamber might have hesitated to throw the first stone. The brief affair with Christine Keeler by a Soviet military intelligence officer in London, Evgeni Ivanov, operating under cover as assistant naval attaché, also did not come close to threatening national security. Keeler was never in any position to obtain state secrets from Profumo and pass them on to Ivanov.
Had the media been aware of the contents of the MI5 file on the German-born fashion and photographer’s model Gisela Winegard née Klein, KV6/146 in the current release, conspiracy theories would have been even more extravagant. A report to MI5 in 1938 from Valentine Vivian, head of counter-intelligence in MI6 and later its deputy chief, described Ms Klein as ‘a young woman of striking appearance’ who had got to know Profumo when he was an undergraduate at Oxford in 1933. A later report from a foreign source wrongly claimed that Klein had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in the 1930s. In fact, all Rhodes scholars were male until 1977. But her contacts with Profumo continued intermittently for at least twenty years, despite Klein’s wartime involvement with German intelligence, of which Profumo, who had a distinguished war record, may have been unaware. In 1950 her then American husband, Edward Winegard, announced he was divorcing her because he had discovered what he called ‘endearing letters’ to her from Profumo on Commons notepaper. On this occasion the marriage survived and an intelligence report of 1952 concluded: ‘We have good reason to believe that Mr and Mrs Winegard have recently engaged in blackmailing activities and now think it possible that their intended visit to the U.K. may be connected with this affair.’
One of the most extraordinary spies identified in the current release is William John ‘Jack’ Hooper, a British-Dutch dual national who at various times worked for MI6, for the Russian NKVD, for the Abwehr (German military intelligence), and for MI5. 3 Before the Second World War, Hooper was partly responsible for betraying MI6’s most important and longest-serving German agent, Otto Krüger. After the German conquest of the Netherlands in 1940, Hooper fled to England, where he was taken on a year later by MI5 as an agent-recruiter based mainly in Glasgow. In August 1945, the Director-General of MI5, Sir David Petrie, reported to the Chief of MI6:
With the exception of one incident involving rather serious indiscretions with a woman [Hooper’s mistress] and a general tendency to high expense claims, I have had no trouble with Hooper and have no reason to suspect that he has been acting other than in the interests of this country. His work, which has been carefully supervised, has in fact been extremely good.
Petrie changed his mind soon afterwards when post-war interrogations of Abwehr officers revealed Hooper’s previous career as a German agent. The Abwehr’s failure to contact Hooper after he moved to England in 1940 had been an enormous missed opportunity. By threatening to reveal to the British his role in the betrayal of Krüger, it might well have been able to re-recruit him as a German agent.
By contrast, numerous files already in the National Archives show that the British Double-Cross System, in which MI5 played a central role, made possible the most successful strategic deception in the history of warfare, chiefly at the expense of the Germans. The additional six-volume file, beginning at KV2/4351 in the current release, on the Polish Air Force officer Roman Czerniawski (codenamed BRUTUS) show his emergence as one of the most important double agents of the war, feeding a mass of disinformation to his Abwehr case officer.
For those researching Second World War intelligence, the most valuable newly declassified file is probably KV4/476. It contains a lengthy report entitled ‘The ISOS Material’, which analyses the use made of decrypted Abwehr communications. The acronym ISOS stood for Intelligence Service Oliver Strachey—Strachey being the veteran codebreaker at Bletchley Park who had broken the Abwehr ciphers. The report on MI5’s use of ISOS was written at the end of the war by one of the Security Service’s most formidable wartime intellects: Herbert Hart, later professor of jurisprudence at Oxford and principal of Brasenose College. He shows that the initial break of Abwehr ciphers was made possible by intelligence obtained early in the war from Double Agent SNOW.
ISOS was of enormous assistance in the capture of wartime German spies. Hart concluded that, though some of the spies infiltrated into Britain might have been caught without intelligence from ISOS decrypts, Q ‘it is virtually certain that very few of those who were captured overseas and brought to the U.K. for detention would have been caught but for the existence of this source…’ Hart’s report gives the names of the main German agents caught as a result of the ISOS decrypts or mentioned in them, as well as those agents not identified by ISOS.
As previous declassified KV series files have shown, the main terrorist threat faced by MI5 in the aftermath of World War II came not from the IRA or Islamist extremists but from the Zionist extremists of the Irgun, led by the future Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, and the Stern Gang, the last terrorist group which actually described itself as terrorist. In 1946 Irgun blew up the headquarters of the British 4 administration in Palestine, the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, with heavy loss of life, then destroyed most of the British embassy in Rome. File KV2/4362 provides further information on the nearly successful attempt in 1947 by two Stern Gang terrorists, Gilberte Elizabeth Lazarus (alias Knuth) and Yaacov Levstein (alias Eliav), to blow up the Colonial Office in Whitehall (now part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office). Lazarus planted a bomb but either she or Levstein failed to fuse it correctly. Levstein’s fingerprints found on the device showed that he was the bomb maker. Commander Leonard Burt, head of the Special Branch, believed that if the bomb had gone off, it might have done as much damage as the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem nine months earlier. Lazarus and Levstein were later arrested in Belgium on their way, MI5 believed, to make further bomb attacks in Britain.
The most tragic files in the current release are probably the five volumes on the Labour MP, Bernard Floud, which begin at KV2/4393. His case was part of a larger investigation into the possibility that before the Second World War Soviet intelligence had recruited a major spy-ring in Oxford University as well as in Cambridge. One of the chief Oxford suspects was Floud, who had been an undergraduate at Wadham College from 1934 to 1937 and, though not formally a Party member, had been heavily involved in Communist campaigns. One of his Communist contemporaries at Oxford, Jenifer Fischer Williams (who married Herbert Hart), later told MI5 that Floud had advised her to join the civil service and secretly pass information from it to the Communist Party; she had put him in touch with a Central European later identified as Arnold Deutsch, the recruiter and first controller of the Cambridge Five.
MI5 investigations concluded that, while Floud worked in the Ministry of Information from 1942 to 1945, the CPGB ‘regarded him as an intelligent and amenable source of information’. At the post-war Board of Trade, where he rose to become assistant secretary, Floud was ‘reported to have organised and taken part in secret meetings of Communist civil servants until some time in 1948’, though there was no evidence that his Communist contacts continued after 1952, by which time he had left the civil service. His pre-war contacts with Soviet intelligence are unlikely to have been of great significance.
In 1964 Floud became a Labour MP. Two years later, the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, and the prime minister, Harold Wilson, authorized MI5 to question him. The questioning continued at intervals for some months but was temporarily suspended in January 1967 when Floud’s wife, a former student Communist whom he had met at Oxford, died after a long illness. At Floud’s final interview in March, he was told that, because of what MI5 considered his lack of frankness about past Communist associations, he could not be given security clearance. He can have been in little doubt that his prospects of a ministerial career had gone. Six months later Floud killed himself. Obituaries made no mention of his questioning by MI5, and his family believed that his suicide was the result of long-term depressive illness (of which MI5 seems to have been unaware), worsened by the death of his wife. The collapse of his ministerial ambitions, following his failure to gain security clearance, may well have added to his despair.
Though the two cases are unconnected, Floud’s undergraduate contemporaries at Oxford included a New Zealand Rhodes Scholar at New College, Ian Milner, who unlike Floud, became an important Soviet agent. Milner joined the Communist Party 5 at Oxford in 1934 and later became an Australian diplomat. His 7-volume file begins at KV2/4370 and contains details of a joint investigation of the case by MI5 and ASIO, its Australian equivalent. In 1950, realising that he was under suspicion, Milner fled to Prague, where he spent the rest of his career teaching English literature at Charles University. There is one important omission from the MI5 file. When it was compiled, the decrypted Soviet intelligence telegrams, codenamed VENONA, which led to Milner’s identification as a Soviet agent codenamed BUR were considered too secret for inclusion. These are among the VENONA decrypts now available at the National Archives in series HW15. Further information on Milner is also available in the declassified records of the StB, the Cold War Czechoslovak ally of the KGB, many of which are accessible on line. StB files reveal that the initiative for Milner’s move to Prague came from the KGB, which feared that he was about to be arrested. Once at Charles University, he was paid three and a half times the usual university salary and sent reports to the StB on academic and diplomatic contacts.
Milner was not the only Oxford Rhodes Scholar to be recruited as a Soviet agent. The most important was probably the American Duncan Chaplin Lee, on whom there’s a recent biography by Mark Bradley. Lee became the right-hand man to the United States’ World War Two intelligence chief, General ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, and passed important intelligence from Washington to Moscow. The main sources for Lee’s intelligence career, however, are in US archives rather than at Kew.
MI5 files on two other, very different Oxford graduates are bound to attract media attention. The first is that of the diplomat, writer and politician, Sir Harold Nicolson: KV2/4364. Nicolson’s file contains vivid correspondence with his friend and lover Guy Burgess both before and after Burgess’s flight to Moscow in 1951. The originals of some of the intercepted Moscow letters are now at Princeton University.
One of the surprises in the latest MI5 release is the file on Kingsley Amis (KV2/4399) which was opened after a report when he was an Oxford undergraduate in 1942 that he was regarded as Q ’a very promising member of the Oxford branch of the Communist Party’. MI5 received reports that Amis continued to be Q ‘hot-headed’ when commissioned in the Royal Corps of Signals but Q ‘quietened down’ after demobilisation in 1945. According to a report in 1955, a year after Amis published his celebrated first novel Lucky Jim, he had shown no interest in Communism for some years. Though Amis was never the slightest threat to national security, his slender file will intrigue literary critics. His biographer, Zachary Leader, argues that Q ‘the desire to irritate and annoy animated Amis all his life’. The same characteristic was noted by Amis’s World War II commanding officer who reported that he was apt Q ‘to make controversial statements in the hope of making an impression’.
As usual, the current MI5 release contains numerous topics for both the media and historical research. Undergraduates seeking subjects for final-year dissertations and postgraduates looking for PhD topics will find a range of possibilities in the latest additions to the KV series, which has become a major source for British history, often providing unfamiliar perspectives on the period from the First World War to the Cold War The National Archives have, once again, produced a very helpful short guide to the latest MI5 release.