The Eagle in the Mirror by Jesse Fink: Black and White Publishing (2023), 319 pages
Follow the Pipelines by Charlotte Dennett: Chelsea Green Publishing (2020), 349 pages
Agents of Influence by Mark Hollingsworth: Oneworld Publications (2023), 310 pages
Spies by Calder Walton: Simon and Schuster (2023), 672 pages
* * * * * * * * * *
The Eagle in the Mirror by Jesse Fink
A few months ago I was contacted by a new ‘recruit’ to coldspur, Jesse Fink, who had been following my coverage of the identity of ELLI. He wanted to know whether I had rejected Charles Ellis (known as ‘Dick’), the MI6 officer, as a candidate for the elusive penetration agent in British intelligence named by Gouzenko. Given the close equivalence between the two names (and the NKVD’s frequently unimaginative choice of cryptonyms), this was a very reasonable inquiry. I replied that I thought it highly unlikely, for reasons of chronology and logistics, but did at the same time refer to Ellis as a ‘scoundrel’.
Mr. Fink was quick to point out that Ellis’s disreputable reputation was probably unjustified, and I have since had to admit that my judgment was based on what has been written about him by such as Nigel West, Chapman Pincher and Peter Wright, without any scholarly safeguards. I had not studied any source documentation myself, and the exercise reminded me that I should never offer an ‘expert’ opinion on anybody in the intelligence world without having performed the proper research myself, or absorbing what someone with a respectable methodology has done him- or her-self. Mr Fink did offer me some flattering comments on the coldspur site: he also told me that he was working on a biography of Ellis that would be published in the summer of 2023, and that his book would rehabilitate Ellis.
I immediately ordered it from amazon.uk: it arrived a few weeks later, and I set about it at the beginning of September. I have dedicated a large amount of space to this review because a) a proper account of the life of Ellis needs to be told; b) Fink has performed an admirable job of tracking down some diverse and obscure sources, and has thus made a highly significant contribution to the literature of intelligence; and c) the exercise brings up a number of issues to do with tradecraft and terminology that interest me greatly. Yet I confess that I am less than enthusiastic about Fink’s rather shrill treatment of the material, and the promotion of the book. For example, Fink chose to title it The Eagle in the Mirror because, as he asks, perhaps rhetorically, on p xxxix:
Where did his loyalties lie? For a man whose name was inextricably linked with the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and the United States of America, what national eagle – Russian, German, American – was staring back at him? Was he truly innocent or guilty?
‘Inextricably linked’? By whom? When? Moreover, since Fink concludes his analysis by asserting that Ellis was an innocent man, and a loyal servant of the Crown, it would appear that he has performed the extrication himself, and that he would judge that his hero saw no eagles but instead the Lion and the Unicorn when he looked into the mirror.
In addition, in the interests of gaining commercial success with his work, I believe Fink has allowed his agent and publicity machine to hyperbolize the questions surrounding Ellis, and his resolution of them. ‘The Greatest Spy Story Never Told’; ‘In Search of War Hero, Master Spy [sic!] and Alleged Traitor’, and a quote from Phillip Knightley claiming absurdly that Ellis ’was James Bond’ adorn the covers. Fink would assert that such exaggeration is needed to help make the book sell at the airport bookstalls, but once the reader is captured, he or she (in my opinion) could well handle a more sober story.
The author has fallen into the trap of what I now call the ‘Max Archer Dilemma’ of writing on intelligence, after the fictional character in Matthew Richardson’s Agent Scarlet (see https://coldspur.com/summer-2023-round-up/ ). In August I wrote, firstly citing Richardson:
“He’d glamorized them, emphasized the sex and the danger, even hoped they might be optioned in a splashy bidding war by Hollywood and hungrily consumed by the masses.” That is absurd: you cannot be the pot-boiling Ben Macintyre and the dryasdust Michael S. Goodman at the same time.
(Not that Max Archer, or his creator, appeared to recognize the Dilemma – unlike Mr Fink, an established author, who described to me the exact same quandary in which he found himself.) The problem is that an author can melodramatize the events for the benefit of a large, popular readership, but those readers will not appreciate the scholarly references and endnotes. The serious readers, meanwhile, will be dismayed by the writer’s joining the potboilers, and not treating the material in a disciplined fashion.
The verifiable facts of Ellis’s career are meagre, and the allegations about him predictably murky. He was born in Australia in 1895, and came to the United Kingdom just before World War I, in which he served with distinction. He was sent to Transcaspia, on a mission against the Bolsheviks. After studying Russian at St. Edmund Hall at Oxford University (or maybe the Sorbonne), he joined MI6 in 1923, and was assigned to various posts around Europe. That year he also married a Ukrainian ‘White Russian’, Lilia Zelensky. In 1928 he published a long and ‘impenetrable’ (according to Fink) book titled The Origin, Structure and Working of the League of Nations. He returned to the UK in 1938 to supervise the interception of telephone communications between Ribbentrop’s Embassy and Berlin. He then spent a short time collecting intelligence in Berlin, where he used the services of his brother-in-law, Zelensky, and a notorious ‘trader’ of information, Vladimir von Petrov, who was another White Russian working at the Japanese Embassy. For most of World War II he worked for William Stephenson’s British Security Coordination in New York, taking charge of intelligence interests, and then helping to establish the USA’s OSS. After the war, he worked for MI6 in the Far East, and helped set up the Australian Intelligence Service. He retired in 1953, and died in Eastbourne, England in 1975.
Matters took an eerie turn in 1946, when captured Sicherheitsdienst officers described to their interrogators a ‘Captain Ellis’ who had provided them with intelligence secrets. Chief among them was Richard Protze, and investigators in Chile tried to follow up the connection with von Petrov after a tip from MI5 located Ellis’s sometime informant there. This led to discovering an association with another dubious character, Anton Turkhul, a colleague of von Petrov’s, who ran a White Russian resistance movement in Paris (certainly infiltrated by the NKVD). When this information was brought to Kim Philby’s attention in the summer of 1946, he oddly denied that he knew anyone named ‘Ellis’. Furthermore, Ellis was at some stage suspected of being blackmailed by the Soviets (since they knew of his indiscretions, von Petrov may have always been their creature, and they may have had some power over Ellis’s wife’s relatives) to work for the Moscow cause, but details of this claim are very skimpy. (Fink’s Index is not completely reliable, and on trying to re-establish the root of the Soviet allegations, all I could come up with were some vague claims made by Peter Wright that echoed an unpublished MI6 report.) Later, in 1954, Ellis was reported to have fled from Australia in somewhat of a panic after learning that a Petrov was about to defect: presumably Ellis believed that ‘Petrov’ was ‘von Petrov’, and might thus unmask him. As Mr Fink points out, Richard V. Hall debunked this theory in A Spy’s Revenge, showing how the chronology simply didn’t work.
The outcome was that Peter Wright, as part of the FLUENCY operation that investigated Soviet penetration of MI6 after Philby’s abscondment in 1963, began a serious study of Ellis’s possible treachery. Fink hints at a deeper study that had been carried out by MI6 officer William Steedman for many years, but the details of that project, named EMERTON, are very sparse. (Nigel West has informed me of the existence of a report that Steedman wrote, which might shed some important light on the events, but it has not been released outside MI6.) In 1966 Ellis was apparently prompted to confess to handing over intelligence to the Nazis shortly before the Venlo incident of 1939, but vigorously denied ever acting as a Soviet agent. This whole sordid story is covered by Fink – although not in a very logical and straightforward manner. (His narrative moves around in time, in that post-modern manner favoured by many writers: it is a technique I find unappealing.) What makes the claims so challenging is that no record of Ellis’s interrogation or confession has been shown to exist.
So where do the stories come from? Primarily they were fed to Nigel West, by Arthur Martin, and to Chapman Pincher, by Peter Wright, complemented by off-the-record interviews with senior or retired MI6 officers, whose intentions regarding Ellis may not have been truly honourable. This is a shockingly disreputable phenomenon. Mr Fink records the leakages, but fails to engage seriously with the duplicity on the part of the authorities, who, while stressing selectively the importance of honouring the Official Secrets Act, allowed such transgressions to pass unremarked and unpunished. I shall return to this aspect of the case later.
One of Fink’s sources for the EMERTON project is Nigel West’s At Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and I believe that it is important to add some context here. The head of Counter-Intelligence in MI6 at the time (1965-66) was Christopher Philpotts, who, though a leading candidate to replace Dick White as Chief, had not been recommended by him, and was then overlooked for the post of the deputy to the new Chief, John Rennie, who favoured Maurice Oldfield. Philpotts had been appointed Director of Counter-Intelligence, and had been conducting a vigorous purge of suspect officers, especially those who had concealed their Communist sympathies or affiliations. Out went Andrew King and Donald Prater: Tony Milne (Litzi Philby’s one-time lover) was forced to resign. West comments that the ‘ebullient’ Philpotts became a very unpopular figure. He had also supervised the inquisition into Ellis, who had ‘confessed’ to betraying information found in Nazi files that had been misattributed to the victims of Venlo, Best and Stevens. Yet he was not punished in any way for this transgression (he had retired in 1953), even though West writes that Steedman’s report concluded that Ellis ‘most likely had succumbed to Soviet pressure after the war’.
Is that all there was? A disgruntled ex-Royal Navy officer making vague assertions that were essentially unverifiable? What was the evidence that Ellis had been blackmailed by the Soviets after the war? The accusations were ‘unresolved’. Steedman took early retirement in 1970, but presumably felt free to brief journalists such as Nigel West in informal meetings that were not blessed with official authority, but presumably also tacitly allowed to occur. This aspect of the case seems rather preposterous to me, and may have been swollen only by the obsessions of Peter Wright (who served alongside Philpotts on the FLUENCY Committee and its successor, K7). The case against Ellis for undisciplined and possibly traitorous behaviour towards the Nazis seems strong, but the accusations of aiding Moscow come across as very flimsy.
Mr Fink very precisely nails the highly speculative aspect of these accusations. West’s pronouncements display the precariousness of these charges. West had raised the canard in his 1982 history of MI5 between 1945 and 1972, A Matter of Trust, where he wrote, very hypothetically, “As a German linguist, Ellis had been one of the MI6 officers assigned to translating the [Hitler–Von Ribbentrop] transcriptions. Might he have betrayed it to the Russians, who in turn had told their ally, Nazi Germany?” Yet in April 1983, he was quoted by the Daily Telegraph as saying: “There is only minimal, circumstantial evidence to support the contention that Ellis was ever a Soviet agent.” And I point out, that, when West’s Molehunt appeared in 1987, nary a mention of the accusations against Ellis was made. Yet, in the 2014 edition of the Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence, edited by West, the entry for Ellis includes these very speculative sentences:
The news that Ellis had partially admitted his guilt was revealed by Peter Wright, who also subscribed to the view that the KGB would have been bound to exploit his treason immediately after the war, if not sooner. Wright was convinced that because Ellis’ first brother-in-law was a known Soviet agent it was almost a certainty that he had succumbed to a KGB threat to expose him.
I find this casual citing of Wright as an authority rather disgraceful. It is certainly unscholarly.
Yet, in his ‘Author’s Notes’, Fink poses the rhetorical question: ‘Was Ellis a traitor or forgotten war hero or both? That is ultimately for the reader to decide’. Fink’s own conclusion is to deem Ellis innocent of both charges (namely working for the Nazis as well as the Soviets), which would appear to undermine the invitation he offers, and to misrepresent the probable reality by drawing an equivalence between the Nazi and Soviet allegations (the two ‘eagles’). I believe, moreover, that the question has been wrongly posed, as it presents an exaggeratedly false contrast.
I have to declare that I think much of the confusion about what posterity thinks of Ellis comes down to misuse of terminology. Mr Fink cites William Stevenson, the biographer of the BSC chief Bill Stephenson, who described Ellis as a ‘super-mole’. Yet, instead of debunking the absurdity of this categorization, Mr Fink tries to exploit it by raising the temperature and asking the rhetorical question: ‘Was Ellis a super-mole?’. I would state emphatically that Ellis was never a ‘mole’ (let alone a ‘super-mole’, which I think is really melodramatic), or a double (or triple) agent. If anything, he could have become an ‘agent-in-place’, exploited by a hostile intelligence service, but not for an extensive time. This re-assessment completely changes the tenor of the debate.
Mr Fink adopts the popular notion of ‘double agent’ to cover a multitude of roles, which I would organize as ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’. (For a refresher on classifications of agents, I refer readers to my piece at https://coldspur.com/double-crossing-the-soviets/.) For example, a ‘vertical’ double- (or triple-) agent would be Agent Zigzag (Eddie Chapman), who bounced between British Intelligence and the Abwehr, with no one being sure where his true allegiances were. Another example would be Hilde Beetz, who worked for the Sicherheitsdienst in trying to secure the Ciano Diaries, but then fell in love with Mussolini’s son-in-law, and tried to sabotage the project. (‘Turning’ someone ideologically is a very unlikely process, as SOE found when it tried to insert ‘turned’ German POWs into Austria and Germany. John Bevan of the London Controlling Section preferred to call the spies sent in by the Abwehr, and managed by the XX Committee and B1A, in MI5 as ‘controlled enemy agents’ rather than ‘double agents’.) The point being that characters who allow themselves to drift into double-agent status quickly abandon any political allegiances, and focus almost exclusively on their own survival, and eventually have to be discarded, incarcerated or destroyed (by either side) since they become a liability, and too dangerous. The service that believes that it originally recruited such an agent, but now questions whether he or she is betraying it, has to be very careful extricating itself from the arrangement, lest the enemy come to learn about the means by which the treachery was discovered (such as intercepted radio messages), and thus expose other relationships.
On the other hand, Mr Fink also classifies as ‘triple agents’ characters like von Petrov, who sold information to three (or four) different intelligence services – even though his prime allegiance was claimed to be to the GRU. Yet such horizontal figures should not be called such: they are really ‘traders’, not directly employed by any individual service, but seizing opportunities where they can, and thus in no way should they be described as ‘moles’ or ‘double agents’. On page 59, for instance, Mr Fink writes about Ellis and his high-stakes game of running double agents like Turkhul and von Petrov. What does this mean? That he (but not his bosses) knew they were working for the Germans as well (vertical) or that they were traders (horizontal) whose information might not be reliable or exclusive and were entitled to do what they did so long as they could get away with it? The GRU, the Abwehr and MI6 all thought they were ‘running’ von Petrov: none of them was.
As Mr Fink points out, Ellis was ideologically opposed to the Communists, and that poses for him the question: how could he have been a Soviet agent? He was also opposed to Nazism, but that didn’t stop him taking money from a tainted source, apparently. Yet ideology doesn’t come into it when you can be blackmailed, or threatened by potential harm to relatives in the Soviet Union. In my recent Round-up (https://coldspur.com/summer-2023-round-up/) I listed several MI6 officers who were exposed in this way. Ellis should probably be added to that list, as his Ukrainian wife (and her family) could have given an opportunity for the NKVD to suborn him – as they did with so many others in that situation, such as Harold Gibson. Contrary to what Ellis appeared to believe, there was no dishonour or suspicion attached to speaking Russian, or having a Russian wife. That was a characteristic considered desirable by MI6 recruiters in the inter-war period.
The main point I have been trying to make in recent coldspur posts is that, just because a spy or informer works for an intelligence service, that does not automatically make him a ‘double agent’. (This is a fiction that Adam Sisman lazily helps to perpetuate in his recent Secret Life of John le Carré.) Philby was a penetration agent whose loyalty was always to the Soviet Union. He was an officer in MI6 (by the way, it is only in the USA-FBI that ‘officers’ are called ‘agents’: in MI5 a spy employed off the books by Maxwell Knight to infiltrate, say, the CPGB, would be classified as an ‘agent’), and calling Philby a ‘double agent’ causes great confusion when comparisons are made with phenomena like the Double-Cross operation. Ellis did not ‘penetrate’ MI6 as an impostor: he was employed by the Service as a candidate with assuredly noble ambitions, but may have engaged in dubious transactions without official approval, probably succumbing to manipulation because of his money problems. My conclusion is that Pincher’s and West’s and Wright’s accusations about Ellis severely miss the point in making comparisons with Philby, and Ellis in his defence in 1965 must have been too flummoxed to respond properly.
The book could have benefitted from the production of a reliable time-line for Ellis’s activities, for I found it impossible to trace his movements. What was he doing in 1938-1939? Translating intercepted messages between Ribbentrop and Hitler? Vacationing in France? Sending reports back from Berlin to London? Masquerading as an Englishman in Belgium or the Netherlands? And if Ellis was a Soviet agent, how did the GRU/KGB contact him after the war? I regret I also found it very difficult to track the incriminating statements from the Protze files, for example. It would have been very useful if Fink could have supplied more precise references, namely serial numbers. No dates for the encounter with ‘the Russian posing as a Captain Ellis’ in Brussels (not Paris!) are provided by the archive. I need to inspect the exact context in which ‘Captain Ellis’ was referred to, and to examine closely Philby’s documented but bizarre claim to be ignorant of who ‘Ellis’ was. (It appears that Gwyer of MI5 presented only a summary of Protze’s testimony to Philby, not the original translation.) I have since downloaded those files (on Protze, Wehr-Bei, etc.) that have already been digitized, and I have also commissioned photographs of the von Petrov archive.
Mr Fink has performed some extremely important research, looking into many original sources. He provides an excellent Bibliography. Yet he occasionally nods, citing secondary references (including me) rather than the originals. For instance, he quotes Wright (of all people!) on Krivitsky. Yet Krivitsky, during his interrogation by MI5, never stated that von Petrov had a source in British intelligence, contrary to what Pincher and Wright claimed. Krivitsky said that he checked von Petrov’s reports, discovered that they had probably been translated from articles in the Times written by ‘Augur’, and when von Petrov was challenged, his reputation fell. I note also that Anthony Cavendish, in Inside Intelligence, wrote that George Young, who was responsible for dissolving the Sicherheitsdienst after the war, had recalled that ‘the OKH (Army High Command) pre-war files on the United Kingdom largely contained cuttings from the News of the World.’ Thus do intelligence-gatherers weave their magic, trying to sustain their existence and to enhance their reputation.
I have since investigated, and I have learned that ‘Augur’ was in fact Vladimir Poliakoff (1864-1956). Indeed, a Poliakoff brother is mentioned as a possible source in Appendix 10 of KV 2/2468, p 40 – one of the files pertaining to Helmuth Wehr-Bei, who worked for Protze. A few other errors appear. Fink describes Roger Hollis as ‘Philby’s superior’ (p 130). His coverage of Philby’s movements in 1947 is inaccurate. He quotes without correction Montgomery Hyde’s claim that Ellis was recruited by ‘SIS’s Colin Gubbins’ to purge British intelligence files (p 154), but Gubbins never worked for SIS. On page 136 Fink records that Philby resigned from MI6 in July 1951: on page 148 he states that he was sacked ‘by a reluctant MI6’ in 1955.
In any event, Ellis was assuredly not entirely innocent. Working from Fink’s material, I compiled a list of errors that Ellis probably made:
- Trusting his brother-in-law and von Petrov (poor tradecraft)
- Handing over secret information (the MI6 ‘battle plan’) without authority (although it would probably have been denied)
- Not considering implications of exposing himself to the Abwehr and the GRU
- Not cutting off contacts with von Petrov once his relationships were established (decontamination)
- Handing over details of the Ribbentrop telephone interceptions (though the proof of this activity is still debatable)
- Getting into money problems (which may not have involved his wife’s medical expenses, contrary to what he claimed)
- Pocketing money that he was given, and not revealing it
- Drawing Stalin’s attention by criticizing the Soviet Union
- Deleting his first marriage from his ‘Who’s Who’ entry
- Wrongly describing son Olik as by Barbara, second wife
- Lying about his fiancées [sic] back in England
- Trying to contact Philby on his return to the UK, despite instructions not to do so
Maybe there were others: in any case, this is not the behaviour of a man with no conscience. But it does suggest someone who lacked the guile and suspiciousness to be a successful agent-handler. One wonders, therefore, about his effectiveness as a developer of the OSS’s methods in such areas: his deep interest in the workings of the League of Nations is not suggestive of the type of mind that is attuned to the world of intelligence and counter-intelligence. Mr Fink’s book shows that he was something of an idealist, and he should have been given some careful tuition and guidance before being thrown into the dangerous world of deception, subterfuge and disinformation.
What is the source of the ‘confession’? This seems to me to be crucial. Without any documentation, how much are we to believe? Apart from the major divulgences from Martin and Wright, Nigel West told me that it was also recounted to him by Christopher Philpotts, the chief security officer, in the presence of Michael Wrigley, another MI6 officer, as if it had been an in-house briefing. He then later indicated that the subject came up in conversation at a casual lunch between the three, well after Philpotts had retired. What was Wrigley doing there? Was Philpotts in contravention of the Official Secrets Act? Were the claims malevolent, as part of the anti-Philby ‘Hollis as mole’ movement? Did it suit MI6 to have serious slurs thrown on Ellis’s reputation? Or were the stories accurate, but blown out of proportion by West and Pincher?
This incident seems remarkable to me in the way that it eerily echoes what transpired at the Spycatcher trial in Melbourne in 1985-86. Malcom Turnbull, defending Peter Wright, challenged the British Government in the shape of Sir Robert Armstrong over its failure to prosecute Arthur Martin, who provided Nigel West with information for his book on MI5, A Mattter of Trust, as well as Wright himself, who provided Chapman Pincher with his insider stories for Their Trade is Treachery and Too Secret Too Long. Turnbull also persisted in asking why the Government chose not to try to prevent publication of the two books. If the facts of Ellis’s ‘confession’, which may have been extracted under pressure, are true, his admissions and protestations seem vaguely convincing: maybe there is no smoke without fire. Yet what I think is scandalous is that MI6 very selectively released information on Ellis to writers – none of them professional historians – whereupon the latter delivered conclusions, harmful to Ellis’s reputation, based on material that cannot be inspected, verified or contested by anyone else.
Richard V. Hall is one who – correctly, in my opinion – draws parallels between the leakage of information concerning Hollis, and that about Ellis. It was as if the authorities failed to prosecute West and Pincher because it was convenient to cast slurs about Hollis’s loyalty as a method of covering up the deficiencies and oversights of both MI5 and MI6 in dealing with Soviet penetration agents, from Fuchs to Blake and Philby. Neither Hollis nor Ellis was around to defend himself. Yet Mr Justice Powell explicitly rejected Turnbull’s assertion that there had been a conspiracy to achieve that goal, while not acknowledging that there could have been any other reason, except for laziness or incompetence in the sluggishness of Sir Robert Armstrong and his office. What is also remarkable (as Mr Fink carefully explains) is the fact that both White and Oldfield were convinced of Ellis’s overall integrity, but did not have the guts to step in and quash the allegations. As I have written before, it suited the devious White to have indeterminable questions hanging over Hollis as a way of distracting the world from his own failures (Fuchs, Blunt, etc.), and Ellis may have fallen into the same mould. Both gentlemen were dead, and could not defend themselves.
In summary, if we scale back the ‘super-mole’ allegations, and concentrate on the indiscretions in Germany in 1939, we have a much simpler case to consider. Ellis was obviously not in that category – not a Philby – but, at the same time, I don’t think he can be vindicated and rehabilitated in the confident manner in which Fink concludes his analysis. I would adjust my assessment of him as a ‘scoundrel’ to perhaps a ‘fool’, or, maybe more appropriately, an intelligent and well-intentioned man who was naive in many respects, and did several foolish things.
Devotees of possible subversion of MI5 and MI6 should read this book, but not get distracted by the hyperbole and rhetoric, which represent (to me, at any rate) a rather regrettable variety of disinformation. Do read the excellent Endnotes carefully, and follow up where you can. And we should be thankful that, owing to the hopes of Mr Fink’s publisher for a success of Macintyresque proportions, The Eagle in the Mirror did actually reach the bookstalls. Otherwise it would have been difficult for any of us intelligence mavens to have enjoyed the benefits of Mr Fink’s industry. I suppose that is the price we have to pay for bringing fresh research into the open, and I trust that coldspur will be indulged for a more methodical analysis and refinement of Mr Fink’s excellent hard work in a way that enhances rather than impairs his commercial success.
Follow the Pipelines by Charlotte Dennett
Charlotte Dennett is an American investigative journalist who has been on a mission to discover whether any foul play was involved in the death of her father in an aircraft accident in Ethiopia on March 24, 1947, when she was only six weeks old. I was drawn to Dennett’s story because a search that I initiated indicated that she suspected that Kim Philby might have been responsible for arranging the sabotage that brought down the plane. Charlotte’s father, Daniel, was working at the time for the Central Intelligence Group – the precursor to the CIA – and the plane was carrying 2000 pounds of highly secret radio equipment to Addis Ababa. As unlikely as it seemed to me that Philby would have been involved in such violent exercises just after he had been sent out to Turkey, in January 1947, I thought I ought to check out her story.
Charlotte’s brother, Daniel C. Dennett III, may be a better-known name than Charlotte. He is an eminent cognitive scientist and philosopher, famous for his forthright atheism. (A review of his autobiography, I’ve Been Thinking, by Julian Baggini, combined with an interview, appears in the November issue of Prospect, and a deeper review, by Nigel Warburton, appears in the Times Literary Supplement of October 20.) He was invited to write a Foreword for Follow the Pipelines where he rather bewilderingly spends most of its three-page text speculating whether Kim Philby was in fact a ‘triple agent’ when he turned up in Moscow in 1963. (That inevitable confusion over ‘double agents’ again.) Dennett implies that MI6 knew that Kim was always loyal to the British cause, and that he could thus safely be despatched to impart disinformation to his KGB handlers. Dennett even provides an imaginary speech of one-hundred and twenty words that Philby’s superior officers gave to him some time after they interrogated him in 1951, and instructed him to continue giving information to Moscow.
This is such obvious nonsense that I am amazed that Dennett was allowed to get away with it. Baggini quotes from Dennett’s book, where the author states that it is the story of ‘how I became such a good thinker’. Not a modest man, clearly. But we should be wary of philosophers like Dennett and the late Derek Parfit telling us what to do. They are not the most practical of people, their expertise is not automatically transferrable to other fields, and, like economists, they disagree wholeheartedly amongst themselves, as Warburton shows. (Apparently, Dennett is a ‘compatibilist’, like his hero, David Hume, but ‘compatibilist’ is not a word that my Chambers Dictionary recognizes.) Warburton also reports that Dennett ‘adored’ his father, which sounds a little precocious for a boy who was just five years old at the time of the sad event. Would Charlotte’s analysis turn out to be any more sober, I wondered?
When Ms. Dennett sticks to writing about the machinations of oil companies, and their manipulation of governments in their attempts to construct pipelines that will take the petroleum to ports in the Mediterranean for their Western customers, she writes very well. She includes several highly useful and well-designed maps that display the proposed routes, and the sometimes hostile and barren territories that they had to cross over, in the sixty-five years since the end of World War II. Despite deploying that irritating technique of jumping around chronologically, as if the reader would be excited and fascinated by the choppy experience the author had in discovering the facts and rumours surrounding her father’s sad demise, she keeps a firm grip on the main outlines of the story concerning the competition for oil revenues in the Middle East.
But I do not want to discuss or analyze that dominant story in this review. It is the possible linkage between Philby and the unexplained plane crash that absorbs me. How did Dennett arrive at Philby? The author’s quest had started in a classically novelettish way – by inspecting a trunk in the attic after her mother died, and finding letters and papers. She interviewed an old comrade of her father’s, tried to gain the release of documents from the US National Archives, read many contemporary news stories, and studied the history of the region and the search for oil. She learned from some sources that the plane crash was probably due to sabotage. She came to the conclusion that it was not just the Russians who were butting heads with the Americans in 1946 and 1947 in the region: French and British colonial interests were clashing with the American plans for expansion and oil exploitation as well. And she identified Kim Philby as one of the ‘purported enemies’ of her father at the time of the fatal flight.
I believe that Dennett’s whole thesis is greatly undermined by the circumstances of her father’s death. She explains that a more important person, the US military attaché in Saudi Arabia, Colonel McNown, was scheduled to fly on the ill-starred flight, and that Dennett at the last minute gained the seat reserved for McNown, as the latter deplaned in Jidda, thus aborting his planned trip to Eritrea and Ethiopia. If indeed an assassination attempt was being planned with some meticulousness, and Dennett had been the real target, the fortuitous event of McNown’s change of itinerary does not make sense. Be that as it may, Charlotte Dennett resolutely pursues her prey.
The CIA had refused to hand over any documents from the period January 1 to March 31, so Charlotte delved around herself. Yet her account of Philby’s status and movements is a little suspect. She introduces her target by stating (p 121) that ‘he had become an acute embarrassment to both the British and the Americans for having moled his way into the highest levels of British intelligence on behalf of the Soviets, and in the process had sent many Western operatives to their deaths.’ That is a heavy brew for the end of 1946: Philby was indeed under deep suspicion at that time, and his posting to Istanbul could be interpreted to indicate that MI6 realized that such a questionable officer had to be removed from the leadership of Section IX, Soviet counter-intelligence.
Yet the implication that Philby’s treachery was broadly accepted at that time (‘an acute embarrassment’) is very much overstated, and the suggestion that he had sent ‘many operatives to their deaths’ premature. Moreover, it directly contradicts what her brother asserts about the awareness of Philby’s guilt by his bosses! I imagine that Dennett is referring primarily to Operation VALUABLE, whereby Philby may have betrayed plans for infiltrating guerrillas into Albania, but that did not occur until October 1949. (According to Stephen Dorril, SOE was fomenting unrest in Albania in 1946, but Philby was not involved then.) If Dennett was thinking of murkier deeds betraying agents in Austria, that might have occurred in 1946, but the evidence for that is hazy, and Dennett does not appear to be familiar with any details. Any such betrayal, moreover, did not involve ‘sending operatives to their deaths’.
It is true that Philby had been appointed, in the autumn of 1946, chief of counter-intelligence in Istanbul – not for the whole of the Middle East, as Dennett claims, but with a much more focussed responsibility, according to most sources, namely trying to determine the activities of Soviet spies in Turkey. He had been sent out there (according to E. H. Cookridge) in February 1947. In The Third Man, Cookridge emphasized that Philby had been asked to visit Arab states in an effort to discover how they were responding to Soviet approaches, and Kim’s father was viewed as a useful intermediary in that role. But that visit did not leave much time or opportunity for Philby to carry out devious schemes before the death of Dennett’s father in March. The author speculates on how much Philby would have revealed to the Soviets – and the British – about her father’s activities in the region. She claims that Philby spent most of January 1947 visiting his father in Saudi Arabia, and that the two of them flew to the British military base in Taif, above Jeddah, where Kim spent thirty-six hours with the head of the military mission before ‘returning’ to Istanbul. On March 10, Dennett likewise visited Taif, but the significance of that coincidence is not explored.
I wish I had a good handle on Philby’s movements in January 1947. Anthony Cave-Brown (in Treason in the Blood) writes that Philby left London for Istanbul ‘in January 1947’, travelling via Cairo. He then apparently went on to Jiddah, and then Riyadh, where he spent ‘five nights and six days’, before spending a couple of days in Taif. “Then,” Cave-Brown writes, “Kim left for Istanbul, where he formally took up his position in the middle of January.” (He later corrects that assertion to state that Philby arrived in Istanbul as station commander on January 26.) Cave-Brown’s sources are not specified clearly, but he may have been using the St. John Philby papers at St. Antony’s College, and a biography of him by Elizabeth Monroe, Philby of Arabia.
Yet I was under the impression (thanks to Jesse Fink) that, on January 24, 1947, Philby was still in London, writing to Joan Paine of MI5 about the status of the German Sicherheitsdienst officer Richard Protze, who had provided testimony in the Charles Ellis case. That did not square up with a Philby tour of the Middle East before ‘returning to Istanbul’. So I returned to Protze’s files (in this case, KV 2/1741) and concluded that, while the letter from MI6 to Paine followed up a signed letter from Philby in November, this one was not from him. The office location was the same, but the name of the author had been redacted, and, unlike the circumstances of the preceding November 1946 letter, there was no handwritten annotation to request that the letter be copied to the ‘PHILBY’ file. He must have left London by then. I believe that Mr Fink agrees with my assessment.
Philby’s presence in the area, however, did not alone signify his culpability. What other evidence was there? Philby was entirely a suspect by association: Dennett claims that his name ‘had come up’ in connection with the death of Sikorsky in a plane-crash off Gibraltar in July 1943, since he was head of the Iberian section of MI6, and he had visited Spain two months beforehand. (While quoting Cave-Brown liberally, she somehow chooses to overlook his statement that the crash was caused by a lunch bag left behind by a workman that broke loose and interfered with the controls.) Philby had been an educator at SOE: therefore he must have been familiar with explosives. (!) He had married a Jew, so he would have developed Zionist sympathies. (Most of the Communists in London, including Litzy, were more focused on installing Communism in their homelands than dealing with the intricacies of Zionism.) And Dennett’s rhetorical questions then reach new heights: might the interests of Philby’s dual masters (the British and the Soviets) converged? “Might they have arranged, through Philby, to have the Irgun Zvai Le’Umi or Greek communists to do their dirty work?”, she asks.
It was at this stage that my patience began to run out. Yet Dennett was not finished. She suggests that Philby had been keeping an eye on events in the Levant from his office in London. She cites a report that he sent to the Foreign Office on July 9, 1946, warning of an imminent ‘Irgun plot to attack British diplomatic personnel and facilities in Beirut’, a notice that apparently prompted the British [Foreign Office? It is not clear] to send to Lebanon two of the country’s highest intelligence officers in Palestine – an unsourced claim. “Some of Philby’s chroniclers [unidentified]”, she writes, “have interpreted this as a ploy by Philby’s Soviet handlers to divert senior British Intelligence officers away from Palestine to Lebanon at the very time when the Irgun’s plot to bomb the British King David Hotel in Jerusalem was about to happen”. (The latter event did take place on July 22.) That sounds to me a rather clumsy way of implicating Philby in nefarious behaviour, if it were true. Yet Dennett goes on to state that bombing of the British and American Embassies in Beirut did in fact occur on August 9. So what is your point, madam? She explains it all as a ruse by Philby to stay in good stead with his British handlers, as they might have otherwise suspected that he was the ‘double agent’ that he in fact was. But hadn’t she earlier written that they knew he was a mole already?
I had to read this report by Philby. Palestine, after all, was a British mandate, and, as such, MI5 was responsible for its security, through its SIME office in Cairo, not MI6. The officer Anthony Cavendish had been posted there in the summer of 1946, and was working for B Division of SIME, under Maurice Oldfield’s leadership, trying to counter the activities of the illegal organizations working against the British in Palestine. So how could Philby have been meddling in MI5’s business? Dennett cites Calder Walton’s Empire of Secrets, p 103, as her source, so I turned to it. In fact, Walton interprets the warning as being an inaccurate pointer to the Beirut bombing, but waffles about Philby’s motivations. Irrespective of other considerations, Philby would not have done anything so reckless without precise directives from Moscow, whose policy towards Palestine, in Walton’s words, ‘had not yet crystallized’. Moreover, Walton gets the reference wrong. He cites it as serial 108b in KV 4/36, and gives it a date of July 9, 1945 (!). I determined that the file is actually KV 5/36, and it is accurately identified as such by Bruce Hoffman in his book Anonymous Soldiers.
I rapidly commissioned photographs of KV 5/36 from London. Philby’s contribution turns out to be a quite unremarkable entry. On July 9, 1946, he indeed passed on intelligence received from ‘a usually reliable source’ indicating that several members of the Irgun Zvai Leumi (the most violent of the three Jewish underground organizations) had arrived in Beirut, with a supposed mission of sabotaging His Majesty’s Legation building. This letter was sent to the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office, and MI5, and was part of Philby’s role as the liaison with MI5. It was one of the permanent irritations for British intelligence that, while MI5 and MI6 were organized on geographical lines (MI5 handling the Empire, MI6 foreign territories), agents working for their enemies, e.g. the NKVD, the Abwehr, and Irgun, would obstinately not respect these artificial boundaries, but cross them, and make surveillance more difficult. Intelligence-sharing between MI5 and MI6 was thus absolutely critical.
The SIME station in Jerusalem was duly informed of the warning, and deeper insights were requested of it. On July 21, Oldfield and Isham – actually Sir Gyles Isham, the Defence Security Officer, to whom Cavendish reported administratively – responded by cable that they could not shed any light on the matter, as they were not in possession of any relevant intelligence. The very next day, the deadly blast at the King David Hotel occurred. It does not sound as if SIME was distracted by the Lebanon threat, but that the message was passed on too sluggishly, and that Oldfield and Isham were not on top of things to the extent that they later claimed. Irgun later admitted that the loss of life (British and Jewish) had hurt their cause: an attempt to find signs of Soviet manipulation behind the scenes does not convince at all.
Thus Dennettt suggests a scenario of absurd proportions. Philby, who had no field experience, and no knowledge of sabotage exercises or materials, as a prelude to his posting in Istanbul to focus on the Soviets, is sent on a semi-private mission to visit his anti-Semitic father and gain intelligence from the Saudis. During this short visit, he manages, despite the fact that Palestine is MI5’s territory, not MI6’s, to make contact, unnoticed by SIME, with a Jewish underground organization in order to arrange the assassination of an American who was not even scheduled to be on the plane that crashed two months later on a flight from Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia. Moreover, he draws attention to himself by passing on a legitimate warning of a terrorist attack that is not taken seriously enough. If his name had ever been associated with the project, it would have caused a massive stink with the Americans, the British, the Saudis, and the Soviets, and his career in Turkey would have been over.
Charlotte Dennett is understandably upset about the mystery that surrounds the death of her father, and she is probably justified in believing that information is being withheld from her. Her practice of selectively plucking possibly incriminating evidence of Philby’s culpability from her published sources is, however, simply irresponsible. To allocate blame to Kim Philby may be cathartic, but is, in my view, quite absurd. The man was odious, and thus his reputation encourages undisciplined writers to ascribe all manner of evils to him. As an example, Anthony Cavendish, referred to earlier, was quick, when Philby absconded, to blame him for the miserable failure of the project to insert exiled Latvians behind the lines in 1949-1950 (Operation JUNGLE), even though Philby had been in Washington at the time. Moreover, it may suit those who know more to have the cloud of suspicion hang over him. It reminds me again of Dick White, happy to have unending and irresolvable investigations into the deceased Roger Hollis as a Soviet mole being carried on, as the process distracted attention from his own obvious failings. Some of the research in this highly-flawed book is admirable, but its dominant thesis is pure self-delusion and rhetoric. In that respect, another work in the infamous ‘Kim &’ series (see https://coldspur.com/2021-year-end-roundup/ ): Kim and the Dybbukim.
Agents of Influence by Mark Hollingsworth
Between the 1930s and the 1960s, a hierarchy of Communist sympathizers existed. First were the signed-up members of the Communist Party itself, unashamed of their allegiance, openly declaring their commitment to the Leninist-Stalinist cause, such as Dave Springhall. Next were the fellow-travellers, those who did not go so far as to join the Party, but openly expressed their sympathies for the movement, such as The Red Dean, Canon Hewlett Johnson, or the lawyer Denis Pritt – the classical ‘useful idiot’. More shady were the Comintern or NKVD agents, resident legally, perhaps by marriage, acting as couriers and recruiters, and sometimes propagandists, such as Edith Tudor-Hart and Peter Smolka. Then there were the Illegals, probably bearing a false identity that allowed them to maintain residence in the UK for a while, and act as recruiters for Moscow, or as clandestine messengers, such as Arnold Deutsch. Next were the notorious native penetration agents, disguising their commitments, and exploiting their background to gain entry into the corridors of power, and betray secrets to their Soviet masters, such as Donald Maclean and Kim Philby. But perhaps equally as dangerous were the agents of influence, acting to support the Communist revolution, but being careful to perform their task with subterfuge and subtlety, never openly indicating their allegiance, and ensuring that they were never contaminated by any hint of espionage. The best example was Victor Rothschild, who recommended that MI5 hire Anthony Blunt.
I titled Chapter 6 of Misdefending the Realm ‘Agents of Influence’, and I used it to highlight the pernicious effects that the actions of Isaiah Berlin and Victor Rothschild had on the ability of MI5 to defend the realm, in that, between them, they made Marx respectable and minimized the dangers of academic communists, thus encouraging counter-intelligence officers to lower their resistance. For those few coldspur readers who may not have a copy of the book readily at hand, I reproduce here a key paragraph:
The subject of ‘agents of influence’ has not received the attention it deserves, yet some commentators assert that such persons could be even more dangerous than ‘penetration agents’, spies who handed over documents. While spies provided the enemy with information that might help with policy or with negotiations (such as Soviet preparation for the Yalta conference), agents of influence could directly manipulate policy so that such manoeuvres were no longer necessary. Such agents worked in a twilight world: not members of the Communist Party, but identified by the Soviets as allies with an ability to influence domestic policy. (Such figures were frequently named in messages exchanged between the rezidentura and Moscow, as the VENONA decrypts show. Not all persons identified were agents of influence, but the cryptonyms of many who must have performed damage have still not been assigned to their real counterparts.) These agents were careful never to be engaged in the act of passing physical information to a Soviet handler, but might consort with Soviet diplomats in their official roles.
One important aspect of the term is that it refers to ‘agents’, suggesting that the hostile power has some sort of relationship with them, if not direct recruitment, at least a familiarity with them, and maybe some control over their behaviour (in the case of Berlin, for instance, who still had relatives in the Soviet Union). The literature has not been served well in this regard: the Wikipedia entry is a mess, as its ‘talk’ section confirms, and there is a tendency to include conventional spies (such as Alger Hiss) in this category. Thus my interest was provoked, a few months ago, when I learned that a book titled Agents of Influence had been published.
It is written by Mark Hollingsworth, described as ‘a journalist and historian’ on the flyleaf. Hollingsworth is further described as ‘author of ten books, notably Londongrad: From Russia with Cash, Saudi Babylon, an acclaimed study of MI5 and a biography of Mark Thatcher’. That uncertain punctuation is misleading. Is the ‘acclaimed study of MI5’ in apposition to Saudi Babylon, further describing it, or is it a separate volume? Presumably the latter, but if so, and if it has been ‘acclaimed’, surely the title merits being given? An inspection of Hollingsworth’s website indicates that no such book is listed, and it took a trawl of amazon to discover that it must refer to a 1999 volume titled Defending the Realm: MI5 and the Shayler Affair. Yet I then read in a frontispiece to the book under review that Hollingsworth had co-authored a book with Nick Fielding bearing that same initial part of the title, but subtitled ‘MI5 and the War on Terrorism’. So I do not know where the acclaim came from, and I have no idea what is going on. Not a good start if the author himself wants to conceal the existence of one his major works, or to cast some mystery over its title.
The book does not have a very inspiring beginning. The first chapter (‘The Covert Art of War’) plods through all the familiar territory of the evolution of Soviet intelligence since the Revolution, and then informs us that, on March 13, 1954 ‘the KGB was born.’ That led me to believe that this was going to be a book about the KGB era. And then Hollingsworth stumbles as he tries to get into his stride in Chapter 2: ‘Agents of Influence’. He introduces the person of Peter Smolka via a discussion on Graham Greene’s screenplay for The Third Man, on which Smolka had reputedly advised the author on the plot-line, as well as showing him the sewers in the communist sector of Vienna, and writes:
But what nobody knew at the time was that Smolka was in fact an NKVD agent of influence and had been secretly working for the Soviet Union since late 1939, after being recruited by the notorious double agent Kim Philby.
I find so much to dispute in this sentence that I could probably dedicate a whole coldspur bulletin to it – and shall probably do so, one day. The notion that Philby had recruited Smolka (or Smollett, to which he had changed his name after British naturalization) was one that Philby himself promoted, but it is far more likely that Smolka had become a servant (with the cryptonym ABO) of the NKVD much earlier, and Borovik’s book subtly suggests this. Nevertheless, Philby got into trouble with Gorsky, his NKVD handler, for approaching Smolka without authority. (In that case, one might ask, why was Smolka given the cryptonym ABO by Moscow Centre?) Smolka was thus as much an ‘agent of influence’ as was Philby a ‘double agent’. He was surely sent to the UK to penetrate British institutions, and ended up exerting influence, since he was hired by the Ministry of Information to help with propaganda efforts, and thus abetted the cause of the Soviet Union quite dramatically. If conventional agents wielded no ‘influence’ at all, they would not be of much use, but to categorize every agent who assists with propaganda or disinformation as an ‘agent of influence’ diminishes the whole debate.
Did ‘nobody’ know of Smolka’s loyalties at the time? I find it hard to believe. When Smolka arrived in the United Kingdom in 1931, he had red flags over him from a police report in France. He was known to be a communist, he travelled at least once to the Soviet Union and wrote an unpleasant book extolling its merits, and yet he was granted naturalization, was recruited by the Ministry of Information to head its Russian Section, and even given an O.B.E. Moreover, he had been in close contact with Philby since 1934. Hollingsworth mentions that Litzi Friedman was a close friend of Smolka’s, but does not reveal that his wife, Lotte, had been Litzi’s closest school-friend. Hollingsworth also claims that Smolka had returned to Vienna, and that he, Litzy and Kim, had helped smuggle Austrian socialists through the sewers. Yet he does not provide a source for this anecdote: I suspect it may come from Smolka’s godson, Peter Foges. Moreover, in a feeble interrogation by the inept Arthur Martin in 1961, Smolka claimed that he was not aware that Kim had married Litzi until he met him in the autumn of 1934.
In this instance (and probably others), Smolka was almost certainly lying. His story has not been fully told, and a detailed inspection of his extensive archival material (released in 2015) reveals some very troubling facts. I have started to inspect Smolka’s embarkation and disembarkation records in an effort to define his movements in the nineteen-thirties, and have come across much that is startling, and very provocative, on which I shall report in due course. E. H. Cookridge, who was in Vienna at the time, does not mention Smolka in The Third Man. Information on Smolka supplied by such as Boris Volodarsky is very confusing. Yet other snippets, including Smolka’s co-operation with Graham Greene on the script of The Third Man (the movie, not directly related to Cookridge’s book) suggest that some of Smolka’s activities in the mid-thirties must have been connived at, and concealed, by MI5 and MI6. Purvis and Hulbert, in The Spy Who Knew Everyone, have provided the best coverage of Smolka that I have seen so far, but they are far too trusting of Kim Philby’s testimony, and ignore some important markers in Smolka’s files.
I do not propose to analyze the rest of the book in any detail. Hollingsworth is really writing an account of Soviet subversion and propaganda. While he has many interesting anecdotes to impart, I merely offer the flavour of his material, by reproducing an important paragraph:
The term ‘agent of influence’, a literal translation of the Russian term ‘agent Villanova’, is both elastic and multifaceted. Many such agents are not official spies in the conventional sense – that is hired to complete a mission assigned by a KGB case officer. Some are not even aware that the Soviet diplomat they are meeting is in fact an intelligence officer. Only a few become registered agents. Instead the relationship is informal and covers a broad spectrum of social and professional relationships – from casual lunch partners to close personal friendships. Usually they are journalists, politicians, civil servants, bankers, lobbyists, and, in more recent years IT and social media specialists. Their mission is simple – to secretly exert influence, spread disinformation and destabilize the enemies of Russia.
I think Hollingsworth’s agenda is clear.
After describing the antics of Victor Louis, another famous ‘agent of influence’, Hollingsworth then deviates wildly off the rails, spending chapters on surveillance in Moscow, and honey-traps: as his blurbs from such as Edward Lucas and Christopher Steele testify, his story is simply another account of Soviet intelligence operations against the West. Thus he spends many pages relating the processes of inveigling victims such as Jeremy Wolfenden and Anthony Courtney, and includes the notorious paid stooge Robert Maxwell in his gallery of ‘agents of influence’. Maxwell even appears in a photograph with his crony Leonid Brezhnev, and is boldly described as a Soviet agent. (Nothing subtle or discreet about that.) Hollingsworth does, however, provide a useful Appendix of KGB Forgeries, but the book has drifted far from the subject by then.
One last aspect I shall comment on. Edward Lucas says that Hollingsworth’s history of active measures is ‘deeply researched’. Hollingsworth describes himself as an historian, but it is clear that most of the work he undertook was having conversations with various intelligence personnel, ‘many of whom were anxious to remain anonymous’. In his Acknowledgements, however, he gives credit to ‘George Nixon, my brilliant researcher, who did a fantastic and tireless job in tracking down obscure documents from archives, compiling profiles of individuals and tracing sources. His Russian language skills were also useful’. Indeed: I can well imagine. But how did Hollingsworth assess Nixon’s ability to distinguish between facts, lies and disinformation, and to handle the inevitable contradictions that arise from intelligence archives? Serious historians work at the coalface themselves, and perform their own interpretations.
Spies by Calder Walton
I have to admit that I approached Calder Walton’s panoramic study of the intelligence wars between ‘East’ and ‘West’ with a good measure of diffidence. The first reason was the author himself, who has studiously ignored me on a couple of occasions, and whom I have been tempted to mock gently (see my December 2021 Round-up at https://coldspur.com/2021-year-end-roundup/ ). I had been encouraged to contact him because of a project on which he had reputedly embarked – the Cambridge History of Espionage and Intelligence – of which he is stated to be General Editor, alongside his long-time mentor, Christopher Andrew. The Belfer School at the Harvard Kennedy Center informs us that the publication of this three-volume work will appear in 2022 [sic]. I can only assume that the crackerjack international team of ‘historians and ex-intelligence practitioners’ was held up by the discovery of the coldspur trove, which necessitated a careful revision of many of the work’s chapters.
The second reason is that I find it difficult to get excited about fresh encyclopedic coverage of broad subjects such as this. A new comprehensive study surely needs a major set of revelations from new archival material – especially from foreign sources – or a dramatically new philosophical approach, in order to justify the quantity of analysis offered. Walton makes some claims, mainly about newly released Russian archives (which I shall investigate more deeply later), but it is hard to conclude that they contribute to any major new findings. It seemed to me that ninety per cent of what Walton wrote here was familiar, even if I could not unerringly identify the source on every occasion. Yet, if the reader has digested Christopher Andrew’s KGB, MacDonald Hastings Secret Wars, Phillip Knightley’s Second Oldest Profession, David Dallin’s Soviet Espionage, Stephen Dorril’s MI6, John Haynes’s Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, any number of books on the Cambridge Five, and a few other popular titles, I suspect that most of what Walton lays out will be familiar.
In many respects, it is a very enjoyable read. Walton romps through the decades in a sprightly fashion, and presents many examples to explain how intelligence wars developed over a hundred years, and to reinforce his primary message of the importance of continual investment in espionage and counter-espionage to be maintained by the West in the face of the threats from the East, which now, of course, includes China. That is perhaps not a surprising message, and thus I looked for fresh insights as to exactly what our intelligence services should be doing differently. But to whom is the book targeted? It appears to be the only marginally-informed general reader, and it is not clear how his or her knowledge will be able to influence strategy. For instance, at one point (page 90), he writes: “The most important intelligence body during World War II was one that you have probably never heard of, the London Controlling Section.” That sounds a little condescending, and if his target reader is going to be that ill-informed, I do not see how he or she will appreciate or understand the wealth of arcane sources cited in the Endnotes, which include a number of books and archival material in Russian.
Walton also has a rather irritating practice of preening over his exclusive access to secret archives, and his one-on-one interviews with important intelligence personnel, British, American and Russian. He proudly reminds us of his privileged access, under the patronage of Christopher Andrew, to MI5 files when he contributed to Andrew’s authorized history, and he frequently quotes conversations he has had with presumably influential officers on both sides of the East/West divide. Whether he should have trusted what those persons told him is another story. Writers should always be on their guard when they are being flattered by bigwigs who may view their contacts as useful mediums by which to transmit a message: one thinks inevitably of Peter Wright and Chapman Pincher. “GCHQ insiders confidently told me . . .” is one such example (p 250). Others include: “SOE’s official historian, M. R. D. Foot, once told me. . . .” ( p 84); “As the then director of US National Intelligence, James Clapper, told me. . . .” (p 509); “A former MI6 senior officer, on the condition of anonymity, said. . . .” (p 414); “According to former Soviet intelligence officers. . . .” (p 333).
All of which brings me round to methodology. Walton describes his methodology in the following terms: “synthesize contemporary records and newspapers, private papers, memoirs, and oral interviews”. But that is not a methodology, it is a process crying out for some discipline. Moreover, missing from those sources is archival material, the recently released Russian variety of which he is eager to quote, although submerged in so much vagueness that it is difficult to verify. One of Walton’s somewhat obtuse techniques is to present a paragraph that contains multiple assertions, and then affix an Endnote number at the end. (This is a technique he tried to defend in his first book, Empire of Secrets.) When one looks up the reference, one may encounter multiple sources, and it is impossible to associate any of them with any single feature of his text. And I am not sure that all these are trustworthy. For instance, a typically controversial passage runs as follows:
Within the Kremlin today, Soviet agents from early in the Cold War, like Fuchs and the five Cambridge Spies, occupy pride of place in the annals of foreign intelligence. The SVR showered them in hagiographical terms on its centenary in 2021. The reality is different. Contrary to the impression given by the SVR, these agents conducted their hugely damaging espionage for Moscow at times despite, rather than because of, the KGB and Stalin. The damage they inflicted on British and American national security was the result of their motivation and skill as spies, not the professionalism and methods of the KGB, which at times badly let them down. Furthermore, contrary to what the SVR portrays today, British intelligence came close to catching all of them.
This paragraph contains such a mixture of provocative assertions and unlikely claims that I was very eager to read what sources it was based on. ‘Catching’ spies, especially those who were native subjects or who had been granted naturalization, was a problematic concept in the administration of British democracy, with confessions normally required (c.f. Fuchs and Blake), and the publicity of criminal trials avoided. Thus I imagined that the statement about the spies’ proximal capture must surely have come from some previously unreleased British source. The relevant Endnote runs, however, as follows:
Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki, Rossiyskoy Federatsii 100 let, p. 98, and chaps. 7 [pp 89-93], 13 [pp. 146-159]; Primakov, Ocherki ob Istorii Vneshney Razvedki, vol 3. 20-60; Dolgopolov, Kim Filbi, p. 17.
Now, as you rush to your local library to check out these works, I shall point out that I do have a copy of Dolgopolov’s biography of Philby, and page 17 contains nothing of relevance to these matters. I do not believe that the bland reference to forty pages of another text of a probably propagandist nature, without any discrimination or analysis, constitutes serious scholarship. If Walton had focused in his book on a detailed analysis of such new writing from Russia, he might have made a significant new contribution to his area of study, but I can only stand in amazement at such haughtiness. (In another donnish aside, in Chapter 17, Note 55, he writes: “This is disputed, of course, in commentaries such as Shebarshin, Ruka Moskvy, pp. 264-66.” ‘Of course’! How could I have overlooked them?)
Thus Walton wraps his manuscript in a series of references to obscure and almost impossibly unverifiable sources. He even has the effrontery to suggest that some of these archives were opened for his unique benefit. (“Russian archives, uncovered for this book, suggest that the FBI’s suspicions about Nambiar were correct.” p 371). Yet it is never clear who inspected these archives, namely the Archive of the President of the Russian Federation, the State Archives of Ukraine, the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History, and the Russian State Archive of Sociology-Political History. Walton does not confess to a knowledge of Russian, and he omits any mention of a visit to Russia under his brief Appendix ‘Methodology and Sources’. His Acknowledgments contain no message of thanks to any translators, or Russian citizens who ploughed the State archives. Can he personally attest to the reliability of the material cited? It is a mystery, and I think it is a very dubious performance.
In fact, Walton’s text sometimes gives the impression of having been written by a committee. Early on, he stresses that one of the lessons he wants to impart is that the Cold War did not end with the dismantling of the Soviet Empire in 1991. Yet multiple times he refers to the ‘end of the Cold War’ (e.g. p 22, p 324, p 329, p 432, p 448). His mentor Christopher Andrew is thanked for reading the whole text, but I wonder how carefully he attended to some of the pronouncements from the pulpit? Several judgments seem ill-considered: though not startling enough to shock, they are so carelessly phrased as to indicate less than sustained reflection, and misrepresent an often more complicated reality. For example:
P 7: From 1917 onward, these three powers, the Soviet Union in the East, and Britain and the United States in the West, have thus waged an intelligence war based on two competing ideological systems, vying for global supremacy.
Whether the muddle of liberal democracy should be considered an ‘ideology’ is highly debatable. Unlike the Soviet Union’s belief that Communism would eventually prevail everywhere, neither the USA nor Great Britain pursued a strategy of ‘world domination’: the omission of Nazi Germany in this summary is bizarre. Russia no longer promotes an ideology of world supremacy, but a nationalist philosophy intent on regaining traditional lands and trying to protect a mythical sense of Russian identity.
P 37: MI6 archives reveal that it had little intelligence from inside Russia in the first chaotic months of Bolshevik rule.
In fact, the early months of Bolshevik rule were probably the only time that MI6 had any good intelligence coming out of Russia, from such as Paul Dukes, Robert Bruce-Lockhart, George Hill, and Stephen Alley. The Cheka was soon to manipulate Western attempts at espionage through the ‘Trust’ operation. MI6 never controlled any spies (penetration agents) in the Soviet Union.
P 84: SOE’s official historian, M. R. D. Foot, once told me that its greatest success was to ‘give resistance movements in occupied countries the moral courage to fight”. Hastings has correctly noted: ‘true achievement was felt after the war, not during it.’ “Never could enemies of democracy claim that Britain and the United States had abandoned the occupied nations to their fate.
The issue of SOE’s role, and its reputation with occupied countries, is far more complex, given (for example) the various betrayals and incompetence shown in France and the Netherlands, and the abandonment of the Poles. Reprisals discouraged subversion in Norway, and eliminated it in Czechoslovakia.
P 91: Thanks to ULTRA, London’s intelligence chiefs identified every wartime Axis agent sent to Britain, approximately one hundred and fifteen in total. MI5’s counterespionage outfit, B Division, captured and turned thirty of them into double agents, using them to send disinformation back to the Axis powers in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
This is a great distortion. ULTRA did allow MI5 to trace the acceptance of a few agents managed by the Abwehr. But the number of 115 seems to have been plucked out of the air, ULTRA made little contribution outside Europe, and Petrie’s claims are exaggerated.
P 191: In truth, the KGB badly let Philby down, and he, in turn, betrayed his fellow Soviet agents, Burgess and MacLean.
It is not clear in what way the KGB let Philby down. He had behaved irresponsibly in inviting Burgess to lodge with him in Washington. He did, indeed, draw attention to doubts about Burgess and Maclean in an attempt to save his skin when he knew they were lost. Moscow did, however, ‘rescue’ Burgess, Maclean and Philby.
P 301: In 1945, the United States and Britain had different strategies for the postwar world. Their differences centered on Europe’s empires. As Churchill roared, he did not become prime minister ‘to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.’
Roosevelt had continually undermined Britain’s imperial ambitions throughout the war. Soon after the war, Churchill was ousted, and Attlee took over. The quotation derives from 1942. Churchill did return to the Premiership, but the main dismantling of the Empire is generally attributed to Attlee and Macmillan.
P 518: At key moments, Soviet intelligence officers badly let down the Cambridge spies, failing to appear at meetings and placing so much pressure on them that at least one, Donald Maclean, had a nervous breakdown.
One might ask how much of the pressure on the spies was self-induced, since one would not expect the NKVD/KGB to act in any other way. In a way, the Foreign Office was far too indulgent to Maclean’s ‘mental health’ issues.
P 532: It would alas be unsurprising to discover that a Chinese Kim Philby or Rick Ames is already working inside U.S. or British intelligence, disclosing Western secrets.
There might well be mercenary spies providing secrets to the Chinese, or Chinese citizens in the USA or GB legally doing the same, but it is highly improbable that any US or British native has committed himself to betrayal because of a conversion to the strange Chinese political cause of authoritarian party control and managed capitalism, analogous to the commitment that Philby made to Communism.
P 539: While there is not a clash now between communism and capitalism, the century’s struggle does have an ideological component to it: between authoritarianism and liberal democracy.
This restatement is incorrect. The original clash was indeed between totalitarianism and liberal democracy, not communism vs. capitalism, which was an item of Leninist/Stalinist propaganda, too simplistically adopted by many western commentators. This century’s clash is more of an economic one, yet China and Russia present very different threats in their dealings with the West.
These few examples reinforce the point I made about the risk of ‘encyclopedic’ studies (see coldspur of November 2022 at https://coldspur.com/an-armful-of-history-books/ ) struggling to show authority over a wide range of topics. If you are going to set yourself up as an A.J. P. Taylor or a Simon Sebag-Montefiore, you need to have strong credentials and to have done your homework thoroughly.
Moreover, Walton makes several minor mistakes in territory that should be closer to home – and should have been picked up by Christopher Andrew. He ascribes the policy of recruiting idealistic young university graduates to Arnold Deutsch (p 56), when Deutsch was one of the executors of the policy. (I cannot locate the source, but I believe the architect was Trilisser, or maybe Artuzov.) He writes that MI6 chief Sinclair acquired Bletchley Park at the outbreak of the war (p 72), but the purchase occurred in 1938. The ‘Jedburgh’ teams of SOE/OSS agents were not named after the place where they were trained (p 82): the name just happened to be next in the list of codenames. The inquiries into Nunn May in Canada in 1945 were not carried out by MI5’s liaison officer in Ottawa, Cyril Mills (p 131), as he was already on his way home, having been demobilized. Jane Archer was no longer Jane Sissmore, and about to marry John Archer, in 1945( p 133): she had married him on the outbreak of war. Stalin’s military aims in the late 1940s were not an unknown factor (p 150): the defector Tokayev had described them in Stalin Means War. It is not true that Philby and Burgess worked out their plan without informing the KGB rezidentura (p 191): the KGB had been alerted, and it was never Philby’s intention that Burgess should accompany Maclean to Moscow. The NSA and its defence contractors did not replace vacuum tubes with computers using magnetic tape and tape drives for their calculations (p 246): tapes are storage devices. Walton does, however, sensibly judge that Roger Hollis was not a Soviet mole, as he would in that case have alerted the KGB to the danger that Gordon Lonsdale was in (note on p 590.)
The final chapter, on the Chinese threat, appears to have been written in a rush. Abbreviations are not explained: that dreadful phrase ‘the intelligence community’ appears seven times in just over one page, showing a lack of serious thought, and the arguments are often trite. Walton goes to town in explaining the Chinese threat, providing a rich set of examples of how it is attempting to subvert western institutions, steal technology, hack into important data centers, and play havoc with social media, mimicking much of the traditional Soviet playbook. Yet he appears to forget that the advice he had offered in his Foreword (“What is required is forward thinking and imagination: open-source intelligence collection, machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), and super-computing.”) is simply inadequate and outdated – a laundry list that any alert non-specialist could have compiled. The Chinese have advanced far in the deployment of technology itself, not only to challenge Western security (Walton does not mention the threat to encryption embodied in quantum computing improvements, for example), but to impose strict controls on its own citizens, that conventional mechanisms are no longer adequate.
Walton ignores the fact that pluralist Britain and the USA are at a great disadvantage when dealing with the authoritarian control of the Chinese Communist Party. In the West, governments are temporary and fractured: they do not control business, academia or the media. Walton never mentions dubious projects such as the China Forum at Jesus College, Cambridge, which is an echo of those ‘Friends of Russia’ and ‘Peace Movements’ sponsored by Soviet intelligence. His prognostication is shallow, and his advice usually obvious or second-rate: ‘Good intelligence will be key for Western policymakers’; ‘The West must seek well-placed spies like Gordievsky to complement open-source information’; ‘Strategy toward China must be based on strategic empathy’ [without explaining what that entails]; ‘A campaign for digital literacy is required to counter disinformation’; ‘Western governments must expect the intelligence wars to persist’; ‘The U.S. government must disclose, challenge and debate clandestine Chinese activities’.
What the average reader is supposed to do with this woolly advice is not clear, nor do I expect that the diverse organs of Western civilization (‘the West’) will pick up his entreaties with vigour and single-mindedness. Liberal democracies are indeed a muddle, but we should celebrate and value them for that superiority over any stifling authoritarian governments. Perhaps the Chinese ‘experiment’ will collapse under its own contradictions, but, as with Putin, we can never know whether what replaces President Xi and his oppressive edifice will be better or worse, or how the Communist Party will react to growing dissatisfaction and frustration among its citizens. (“A people’s revolution, comrades? Oh, perhaps not. We tried that already.”) Untangling tight business relationships with China will undoubtedly be messy, but that would appear to be the number one priority.
It is probably clear to coldspur readers by now that the more I delved into this meretricious book, the less I liked it. If Walton had chosen a particular theme, such as the revelations that recently uncovered Russian archives throw on intelligence matters (and why they should be trusted), or a detailed study of the practices of Chinese subversion and counter-intelligence, he might have made a valuable contribution to intelligence studies. Instead he dispenses his self-satisfied and cliché-ridden analysis to no great effect, and displays some bizarre judgments and opinions. On lighter matters, at one stage he writes of ‘the impossibly named Kermit Roosevelt’, an appellation that strikes me as no more absurd than ‘Calder Walton’ (or even ‘Walton Calder’). He also offers (on page 91) an arch observation on T. A. Robertson of the XX Committee, noting that Robertson ‘delighted’ his fellow officers in MI5 when he turned up for work in trews or kilt. In what was certainly Geoffrey Elliott’s weakest book, his profile of Robertson titled Gentleman Spymaster, the author informs us that, at the outbreak of war, Robertson sported his Seaforth Highlanders trews, and was soon given the name ‘Passion Pants’ by the secretarial staff in MI5. I suspect that it was more likely that his colleagues mumbled: “Look at that prat Robertson, prancing around in that Scottish rig, trying to charm the ladies. Who does he think he is? Bonnie Prince Charlie?”
We shall never know.
(P.S. I heartily recommend The Red Hotel by Alan Philps, a very sure-handed and insightful account of how Stalin manipulated the foreign Press Corps in Moscow between 1941 and 1945, and, for those who enjoy more recherché history, who may have liked my article Homage to Ruthenia (https://coldspur.com/reviews/homage-to-ruthenia/ ), or have savoured the works of Joseph Roth or Gregor von Rezzori, I point you towards Goodbye, Eastern Europe, by Jakob Mikanowski. This is a rich account of the way that distinctive local communities, from Riga to Tirana, had over the centuries held together but had then been broken tragically apart, and drawn into mortal conflict, when they came under the scourge of the twin monsters of Nazism and Communism.)
(Latest Commonplace entries can be seen here.)