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Security Service file release October 2015: Introduction

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 October 2015.


One of the most colourful files in the latest MI5 release is that of the senior Conservative politician Robert Boothby, MP for East Aberdeenshire for over thirty years before being given a life peerage in 1958. His file, which begins at KV2/4095, includes a curious exchange of notes in March 1939 in a London restaurant Mirabeau between Boothby and a fellow diner who, though he did not realise it, was a member of MI5. Hearing Boothby talking loudly and indiscreetly, the MI5 member passed him a message on restaurant notepaper which said, ‘If you will forgive me for saying so, you are talking too loud and too much.’ Boothby sent the following furious reply:

I certainly do not forgive such a piece of unwarranted impertinence. I happen to be a Minister of the Crown, and I would have you know that we are not yet a Nazi State; that the methods of the Gestapo do not apply in this country; and that there are better ways of serving the country than writing foolish little notes in restaurants.

Though Boothby’s ministerial career was cut short a year later after his involvement in a financial scandal, by the 1950s his popularity as a pundit on radio and TV current affairs programmes had made him a household name.

His career almost ended, however, in a sensational scandal. On 19 July 1964 the lead story in the Sunday Mirror, published under the banner headline ‘THE PICTURE WE DARE NOT PRINT’, claimed there was an incriminating photograph of Boothby, whom it identified only as a prominent politician in the Lords, in the company of the leader of London’s biggest protection racket. The Sunday Mirror also claimed that Scotland Yard was investigating a homosexual relationship between the two. Three days later, uninhibited by British libel laws, the German magazine Stern identified the two men concerned as Lord Boothby and the gay psychopath Ronnie Kray, who, with his twin brother Reggie, ran north London’s leading criminal gang.

Immediately after the publication of the Stern story, the Director-General of MI5, Sir Roger Hollis, was summoned to see the Conservative Home Secretary, Henry Brooke, who feared that, only three months before the October 1964 general election, the affair might result in a scandal which would have rivalled the Profumo affair. Hollis told the Home Secretary they had received reports that Boothby was bisexual and had contacts with the Krays, but, since he had no access to official secrets, had concluded that Boothby’s private life was no concern of MI5.

Boothby publicly denied that he had a homosexual or any other close relationship with Ronnie Kray and issued a writ for libel against the Sunday Mirror, which paid £40,000 damages as well as Boothby’s costs. Thereafter the media were scared off pursuing the story by fear of further libel suits. As Boothby’s MI5 file shows, his relations with the Krays, who were later were sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, were much closer than he admitted. Had those relations been made public at the time, the resulting scandal would have been even more deeply embarrassing than the Profumo affair for the former Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. What Hollis and Brooke must have known but did not mention when they met on 22 July, was that the bisexual Boothby was the long-term lover of Macmillan’s wife, Lady Dorothy Macmillan.

The most important and lengthiest files in the current MI5 release are those on the Soviet spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who defected to Moscow in 1951 while both were working for the Foreign Office. Burgess’s file, which begins at KV2/4101, shows that he was not under suspicion at the time of his defection. His outrageous behaviour and repeated indiscretions over the past few years made him appear highly unlike any existing stereotype of a Soviet spy. Burgess’s trip to Gibraltar and Tangier in 1949, for example, turned into what his friend Goronwy Rees called a ‘wild odyssey of indiscretions’. His file contains a complaint from the MI5 representative in Gibraltar at what he called Burgess’s ‘extremely indiscreet’ behaviour: Q ‘Burgess appears to be a complete alcoholic and I do not think that even in Gibraltar I have ever seen anyone put away so much hard liquor in so short a time as he did.’

By contrast, Maclean’s file, which begins at KV2/4140, confirms that, before he fled to Moscow, he had been identified by US and British codebreakers as a Soviet agent codenamed HOMER. The decrypted Soviet telegrams, eventually codenamed VENONA, which identified Maclean and other Soviet spies, were released some years ago by NSA and GCHQ. But there are some interesting further details in the multi-volume file entitled ‘Leakage of Top Secret Foreign Office telegrams in the USA’ which begins at KV6/140.

This file notes that the post-war codebreaking agreement with the United States required British and American codebreakers to share the results of their work on VENONA. It also records that, until he suffered a breakdown in 1950, Q ‘Maclean was regarded as an outstanding career diplomat with great ability and steady temperament’. GCHQ was anxious that when he was interrogated, as it was intended that he should be, nothing should be said which would lead him to suspect that Soviet telegrams had been decrypted.

On 17 April 1951 the Foreign Secretary, Herbert Morrison, agreed to MI5 surveillance of Maclean. Soon afterwards the surveillance team saw Maclean (who was codenamed CURZON by MI5) meeting Burgess. Since Maclean was head of the Foreign Office American desk and Burgess had just returned from the Washington embassy facing the prospect of dismissal, their meeting was not in itself suspicious. Though Burgess was obviously worried, it was reasonable to suppose that the cause of his worries was the fact that he was facing the sack and the end of his Foreign Office career.

According to a report in his file by A4, the MI5 surveillance department:

Q Guy Burgess … is, in fact, obviously deeply worried. He will order a large gin (his favourite tipple) and will then pace the bar for a few seconds, pour the neat spirit down his throat and walk out, or order another and repeat the performance.

…It would seem likely that Burgess has unburdened himself to CURZON [Maclean]…

On Friday 25 May A4 saw Maclean leave the Foreign Office after work, carrying a large cardboard box. It followed him to Victoria Station, where, according to its report, Q ‘After a drink he boarded the 6.10 p.m. train.’ That was to be the last A4 saw of Maclean. MI5 later discovered that, at midnight the same day, Burgess and Maclean caught a boat from Southampton to St Malo, whence they made their way, via Paris, Switzerland and Prague, to Moscow.

File KV6/143 contains a report from Washington that the defection of Burgess and Maclean had Q ‘severely shaken the State Department’s confidence in the integrity of the officials in the Foreign Office’. The CIA and State Department were reported to have said that

Q …in view of their records, the two men should never have continued to occupy posts in the British Foreign Office. They pointed out that in the State Department repeated drunkenness, recurrent nervous breakdowns, sexual deviations and other human frailties are considered security hazards, and persons showing one or more of them are dismissed immediately.

Soon after their defection, fragmentary evidence of Burgess’s, as well as Maclean’s, involvement with Soviet intelligence began to surface. Burgess’s file reveals that his friend Goronwy Rees, who later became Principal of University College, Aberystwyth, told MI5 that, before the War, Burgess had recruited both him and Anthony Blunt as agents of Comintern, the Communist International [KV2/4105]

The multi-volume files on both Burgess and Maclean contain many intercepted letters to and from British correspondents during their years in Moscow. Burgess’s correspondence is both more voluminous and more interesting than that of Maclean. Most of the correspondence is friendly. But a letter from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution turning down a contribution from Burgess curtly informed him that Q ‘We do not accept money from traitors.’ [KV2/4113]

Among the most colourful and enigmatic of Burgess’s correspondents was his friend the Labour MP Tom Driberg, who visited him in Moscow and subsequently wrote a book claiming Burgess had never been a Soviet agent. After Driberg’s visit to Moscow, file KV2/4120 reveals that he reported to the Foreign Office that the KGB had attempted to recruit him. Driberg’s KGB file, of which a summary was later exfiltrated from Moscow by the senior KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin, reveals that the KGB believed it had successfully recruited him as Agent LEPAGE Q ‘chiefly on the basis of compromising material which recorded his homosexual relations with an agent’ of the KGB, and remained in contact with him. The Mitrokhin Archive is now open to researchers at Churchill College Archive Centre, Cambridge. Much of its contents are in books I wrote with Mitrokhin.

The Burgess and Maclean files also contain new material on the other three of the Cambridge Five: Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross. Among documents written by Philby is what he calls Q ‘a summary of my knowledge of Guy Burgess’, written after Burgess’s defection, in file KV2/4102. Philby begins by saying that, as a student at Cambridge, Burgess was Q ‘a strong personality with a bold and brilliant brain’ and ‘an incredibly wide range of acquaintances’. The part of the report which Philby probably found most difficult to write was his explanation of why he allowed Burgess to stay with him while working at the Washington embassy, at a time when Philby was the MI6 representative in the United States. Philby claimed that he had been Q ‘faced with a conflict which I had difficulty in resolving. On the one hand, his behaviour around the house was such that I was reluctant for him to prolong his stay; on the other hand, I feared that if he moved into quarters of his own, some major scandal might ensue.’ Philby claimed that Burgess did eventually find other accommodation in Georgetown but was recalled to London before he could move into it.

In reality, though British Intelligence did not discover this until much later, Philby probably found it convenient to have Burgess staying with him, since he acted as courier to Philby’s KGB case officer in New York, Valeri Makayev, codenamed HARRY.

With the considerable advantage of hindsight it seems clear that Soviet intelligence was far less successful in running Burgess, Maclean and Philby than appears from their files. It was not till years later that MI5 discovered that, in the middle of the Second World War, Moscow informed its London intelligence station that the Five were now known to be part of a British intelligence deception but to treat them Q ‘in such a manner as to reinforce their conviction that we trust them completely’: ‘Our task is to understand the disinformation they are planting on us.’ Though the KGB later realised the Five were genuine Soviet agents, it continued to make serious mistakes in its handling of them.

The latest MI5 release contains an important new source on the careers of Maclean, Burgess, Philby and other student Communists while they were at Cambridge. This is a copy of the minute book of the Communist-dominated Cambridge University Socialist Society (CUSS), formerly the Cambridge University Labour Club, for the years 1928 to 1933: file KV3/442. Maclean was elected a committee member during his first year at Cambridge in 1931 and later put in charge of CUSS publicity at a boisterous meeting where Q ‘Members created a precedent in Cambridge by singing the Internationale and other songs vociferously.’ In 1932 Philby was elected treasurer of the Society and remained in active contact with it after graduating in 1933. A committee meeting in March 1934 discussed a letter from Philby, then in Vienna, appealing for help for persecuted Austrian workers. Guy Burgess was one of two CUSS militants put in charge of raising money for Philby’s appeal.

A copy of the minute book was not obtained by MI5 until 1972. Had it been obtained before the Second World War, Philby would have found it much more difficult to join the Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6. The CUSS minute book also contradicts Philby’s claim in his report after Burgess’s defection that, while both were at Trinity College, Cambridge, they were only ‘casual acquaintances’.

The Burgess and Maclean files inevitably overshadow those of the other suspected Soviet spies and Communists in the current MI5 release. The 4-volume file on the Austrian-born journalist Harry Peter Smollett, beginning at KV2/4167, is, however, a significant contribution to the history both of Soviet espionage in Britain and of the careers of Philby and Burgess. MI5 concluded, it seems correctly, that Smollett was already a Soviet agent when he arrived in Britain in 1930 and continued to be so at least until the end of the Second World War. In 1934 Smollett told the Home Office that he and Philby were planning to set up a news agency, but the project foundered in the following year. After Russia entered the Second World War in 1941 Smollett succeeded in becoming head of the Russian department in the British Ministry of Information. Some of Smollett’s enthusiastically pro-Russian wartime reports were later found among Burgess’s belongings after he fled to Moscow.

As usual, the latest MI5 release contains many topics both for media stories and for academic research. Undergraduates seeking subjects for final-year dissertations and postgraduates looking for PhD topics will find numerous possibilities in the KV series. The National Archives have, once again, produced a very helpful short guide to the latest MI5 release.