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Security Service file release September 2019

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 September 2019.


The National Archives Podcast September 2019
MI5 Files declassified in September 2019
Prof Christopher Andrew

The main highlight of the latest declassified MI5 documents at The National Archives is the second tranche of files on the Portland Spy-ring, which at the beginning of the 1960s marked a turning point in Cold War Russian espionage in Britain. Intelligence obtained by the KGB from the Portland Underwater Detection Establishment (the UDE) was believed by the Admiralty to have helped the Soviet Union construct a new and more silent class of submarines.

All previous post-war Russian espionage cases investigated by MI5 had been run by intelligence officers based at the KGB or GRU (military intelligence) stations, known as residencies, in London. The Portland spy-ring, however, was under the control of a deep-cover KGB illegal, Konon Molody, who posed as a Canadian businessman named Gordon Lonsdale. Lacking the diplomatic immunity which protected intelligence personnel at the KGB London residency, Molody was arrested in 1961, convicted, and sentenced to 25 years in jail.

His newly released 37-volume MI5 file, which begins at KV2/4429, contains much fascinating detail from 1960, when he first came under MI5 surveillance, to 1964, when he was freed in a so-called ‘spy swap’ and exchanged for a British citizen accused of espionage in Moscow. The file includes poignant correspondence with his wife and daughter in Russia whom he rarely saw. One of the letters from his daughter Trosha, transmitted to him by microdot, ends: ‘Daddy, we are all waiting for you.’ His wife Galya told him how much she missed him: Q ‘I see you often in my dreams!’ From time to time Galya asked him to do some shopping for her. She wrote before a New Year party: ‘I do beg of you, if you have the possibility, to send me a white brocade dress and white shoes.’ Molody was irritated by the shopping requests.

Among the most remarkable documents in Molody’s multi-volume file are the accounts of a series of interviews with him in prison by Charles Elwell, the MI5 officer who had done most to put him behind bars. The atmosphere during their meetings was often surprisingly cordial. Elwell would sometimes bring with him bags of cherries or strawberries which they enjoyed together. Molody said on one occasion that if the KGB knew, they’d conclude that Elwell had turned him.

Some of Molody’s most remarkable admissions to Elwell, though not all should be taken at face value, were about his disillusion with the KGB. His career as an illegal, Molody claimed, had been a waste of time. He now intended to put his own interests first. Molody told Elwell at their third meeting that, if his sentence was shortened and he was freed from jail and given money, a new identity and the opportunity to write best-selling memoirs, he was willing to become a British double agent collecting
intelligence from Moscow including details of its illegal intelligence operations. We shall never know whether this was a genuine offer. Though Elwell believed that, with Home Office support, he could have turned Molody into a double agent, this support was never forthcoming

Molody claimed during the interviews by Elwell that over half the approximately 300 KGB illegals were posted to the United States, with what he called ‘a fair proportion of the remainder’ in Britain. It’s easier now than it was at the time to see that some of what Molody said was misleading.

Some of the KGB illegals files whose contents were smuggled out of Russia in 1992 by the dissident KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin with the help of MI6 give a rather different picture. When I began work with Mitrokhin on his top-secret material, I was surprised to discover how many KGB illegals posing as Western nationals were deployed not against Western targets but in so-called PROGRESS operations against dissidents within the Soviet Bloc.

Among the examples in our book, The Mitrokhin Archive, is the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. More KGB illegals, posing as sympathetic Western tourists, journalists, business people and students, were sent to penetrate the reformists of the Prague Spring than were ever deployed against any Cold War target in the West. The real number of KGB illegals in the United States was a fraction of what Molody claimed.

The newly-released MI5 files at The National Archives also include those of Peter and Helen Kroger, who managed Molody’s communications hub from a bungalow in Ruislip. Their seven-volume file begins at KV2/4484. At MI5’s request, GCHQ identified the bungalow at Cranley Drive by intercepting its coded radio transmissions to and from the KGB in Moscow.
Like Molody, the Krogers were KGB illegals living under assumed names. Unlike Molody, however, they were American-born and posed as antiquarian booksellers. Only when their fingerprints were taken after their arrest did MI5 discover that their real names were Morris and Lona Cohen. Both had been Soviet agents since (and, in Morris’s case, slightly before) the Second World War. In 1969 the Cohens were freed from prison in exchange for a British lecturer imprisoned in Russia, given heroes’ welcomes in Moscow and personally awarded the Order of the Red Star by the Chairman of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, later Soviet leader. Like Kim Philby, both later had Russian postage stamps issued in their honour. Unlike Philby, Morris Cohen was also posthumously made Hero of Russia.

The main intelligence transmitted by the Cohens to Moscow from their bungalow in Ruislip came from two mercenary agents in the Portland Underwater Detection Establishment (UDE). Molody’s MI5 file reveals that he described one of the agents, Harry Houghton, as an incompetent fool who failed to operate correctly the camera he gave him to photograph classified documents. Houghton’s main importance to Molody was that he passed on intelligence from Ethel Gee, another clerk at Portland UDE, with whom Houghton was having an affair. Gee had access to more highly classified documents than he did. Both Houghton and Gee were arrested at the same time as Molody in 1961 and each sentenced to fifteen years in jail. Part of their multi-volume MI5 files were released two years ago. The newly released remainder include many letters which Houghton and Gee wrote to each other during their prison sentences. Houghton’s file begins at KV2/4476, Gee’s shorter file at KV2/4472.

In his meetings with Elwell, Molody did not reveal the identity of probably his only other British agent. It was not for another thirty years, after the escape of Vasili Mitrokhin from Russia with his top-secret archive, that MI5 discovered that at one point Molody had been the case officer of the KGB’s longest-serving British agent, Melita Norwood, who became known by the media as the ‘great-granny spy’. The two did not get on. Perhaps Norwood was repelled by signs of Molody’s high-living, womanising lifestyle. Or perhaps Molody lacked the ability to run an ideologically committed female agent. After only two months with Molody, Norwood was transferred to a new case officer from the KGB London residency.

Sources in the United States and Russia complement the MI5 files on the Portland Spy Case just released by The National Archives.

Probably the ablest of all the Soviet illegals, whose file is included in the latest release, was Arnold Deutsch, the recruiter in the mid-30s of the leading Soviet agents often known as the Cambridge Five: Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross. Deutsch’s academic record was even more impressive than any of the Five. At Vienna University he had progressed in only five years from first-year undergraduate to the degree of PhD with distinction Though Deutsch’s one-volume file, KV2/4428, is patchy and duplicates some material available elsewhere in the KV series, it contains some fascinating documents. These include Philby’s account of his recruitment by Deutsch in Regent’s Park, London, in 1934, which, almost 30 years later, he gave his MI6 friend, Nicholas Elliott, just before defecting to Moscow.

As well as devising a new strategy to recruit high-flying university students, Arnold Deutsch was also involved in attempts to use the film and cinema industry to provide cover for Soviet intelligence personnel—with, as his file shows, the help of his cousin Oscar Deutsch, the millionaire owner of the Odeon cinema chain, who was probably unaware of his Soviet intelligence role. Oscar told the Home Office that Arnold had Q ‘made an intensive study of Psychology in relation to the Cinema’. Russian sources reveal that the NKVD was simultaneously penetrating Paramount Pictures in Hollywood.

The Home Office rejected Oscar Deutsch’s attempt to employ his cousin as psychologist for his Odeon cinema chain on the grounds that a suitable psychologist could be found in Britain. Early in the Second World War, the Ministry of Information requested regular reports from Oscar Deutsch on the morale of his cinema audiences. There were probably unfounded suspicions that Deutsch shared these reports with Soviet intelligence before his death from cancer in 1941 at the age of only 48.

The newly declassified MI5 files also include that of arguably the most charismatic of the leading student Communists in Cambridge in the mid-1930s, Pieter Keuneman, son of a Supreme Court Justice in Ceylon (as it then was). His five-volume file, which originated with Indian Political Intelligence, begins at KV6/147. Nowadays almost forgotten, at least in Britain, Keuneman, though nominally a socialist, became the Cambridge Union’s first Communist president as well as editor of the student magazine The Granta. His fellow Cambridge Communist, Eric Hobsbawm, called him Q ’dashing, witty and remarkably handsome’. In 1943 Keuneman became the first General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.

Also at Cambridge in the mid-1930s was the writer Peter Kemp (file KV/4418), a contemporary of three of the Cambridge Five at Trinity College and later a member of the wartime Special Operations Executive (SOE). Kemp first came to the attention of MI5 at the age of only 16, while he was still at school, when he applied to join the Communist Party. The head of MI5, Sir Vernon Kell, asked the Chief Constable of East Sussex, Colonel Ormerod, to investigate. Ormerod told Kell that Kemp’s application was Q ’really very amusing’. Kemp had told his parents he had decided to Q ’infiltrate’ the Communist Party in order to report to the government on its nefarious activities. Kell replied that Q ’no further action of any kind will be necessary’.

Most Soviet agents within the British intelligence services, the Cambridge Five chief among them, were not discovered until after, sometimes well after, the Second World War. The main exception was Ormond Uren, an SOE staff officer, whose five-volume MI5 file begins at KV2/4467. Uren was part of a spy-ring headed by the CPGB’s national organizer, Douglas Springhall, who was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment in July 1943 for offences under the Official Secrets Act. Though MI5 believed that Soviet agents normally broke visible contact with the Communist Party, Springhall took what MI5 called Q the ‘unusual step of using the Party apparatus for espionage’. He was, however, not a very good spy. Uren’s name was discovered by MI5 in Springhall’s diary. Like Springhall, Uren was sentenced to seven years imprisonment. He was believed to have passed on to Moscow, via Springhall, details of the whole SOE organisation. Uren claimed he was merely sharing information with a wartime ally.

The newly declassified MI5 documents also include files on two senior Labour politicians of the Clement Attlee era, who were suspected of covert contact with the British Communist Party. The back-bench MP, Konni Zilliacus, whose three-volume file begins at KV2/4415, was expelled from the Labour Party for a three-year period. It seems likely that he was briefly an undeclared member of the Communist Party. The one-volume file on the Labour cabinet minister, Emanuel ‘Manny’ Shinwell, K2/4425, concludes that, though not a Communist and Q ‘careful not to have any open association with the [Communist] Party, it is clear that he invoked Communist aid for publicity purposes in his differences with members of his own Party’.

There is no doubt that, as Prime Minister, Attlee took a personal interest in such cases. It’s usually forgotten that, at his own request, Attlee had far more private meetings with the Director-General of MI5 than any other 20th-century prime minister. Details are in the centenary history of MI5, Defence of the Realm.

Though a majority of the most significant intelligence files in the latest MI5 release relate to Soviet espionage and/or British Communism, they also cover a great variety of other topics

Among the most colourful individuals is the eccentric oil billionaire Nubar Gulbenkian, instantly recognizable by his long beard, monocle and orchid in his buttonhole, whose
business dealings and foreign connections attracted the attention of MI5. The two surviving volumes of his file begin at KV2/4426.

The most colourful of the German spies in this MI5 release is the French-born, wealthy American industrialist, Charles Bedaux, whose sinister career has generated even more sinister conspiracy theories about plots involving his connections with, among others, British royals, Hollywood actors, Adolf Hitler and leading Nazis. His incomplete, one-volume file, KV2/4412, records his arrest in North Africa while working for German intelligence in 1943, and his suicide a year later while in detention in the United States.

Unusually, the current MI5 release also includes the file of a man believed to be working for Israeli intelligence in Britain soon after the foundation of the state of Israel. Cyril Wybrow, whose two-volume file begins at KV2/3292, began his intelligence career during Second World War in British Security Intelligence Middle East (SIME), becoming Area Security Officer in Jaffa, where he narrowly avoided court martial in 1943. In 1950, while Wybrow was working for the Joint Intelligence Bureau in the War Office, an investigation concluded that he was responsible for passing top-secret SIS (MI6) reports to Israeli intelligence. He was never prosecuted, perhaps because of the sensitivity of the sources involved.

As usual, the current MI5 release contains numerous topics for both the media and historical researchers. 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 declassified files.