by Peter Wright
481 pages, Bantam Doubleday Dell, $8
This book details the work of an outsider attempting to sniff out the worst kind of insider, namely a traitor. Peter Wright entered the UK intelligence community not as a spy, but as a scientist. Once inside, he invented gadgets, which led to planning strategy around them, which led to using his systematic approach to sniff out the Soviet agents who compromised Western intelligence from the 1930s through the 1970s.
Among the more terrifying allegations the book makes is that the scope of such penetration was larger than previously admitted, and that the double agents successfully influenced Western policy by convincing the West that the Soviet missile program was not as advanced as it really was. Intelligence officers in Europe and the United States watched with impotent rage at the futility of running a spy business when all our secrets got leaked to the East.
These were not low-grade spies either. During the 1920s and 1930s, Communism was as fashionable as liberalism is now and the intellectuals flocked to it. Many of them never shook their earlier convictions and seemed to honestly believe that a global revolution of the workers would come about and bring a new age of peace and prosperity. Apparently they didn’t read history, such as of Greece, Rome or even Revolutionary France, but who has time for such details? Among their social circles, being Red was a big hit.
But the effect of the VENONA material on British and American intelligence was immense, not just in terms of the counterintelligence received, but in terms of the effect it had on shaping attitudes in the secret world. By the late 1940s enough progress was made…to reveal the extent of massive Russian espionage activity in the USA throughout and immediately after the war.
More than 1200 cryptonyms littered the traffic…more than 800 were assessed as recruited Soviet agents. It is probable that the majority of these were the low-level contacts which are the staple currency of all intelligence networks. But some were of major importance. Fourteen agents appeared to be operating in or close to the OSS (the wartime forerunner of the CIA), five agents had access, to one degree or another, to the White House, including one who according to traffic, traveled in Ambassador Averill Harriman’s private airplane back from Moscow to the USA.
Most damaging of all, the Russians had a chain of agents inside the American atomic weapons development program, and another with access to almost every document of importance which passed between the British and U.S. governments in 1945, including private telegrams sent by Churchill to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. (231)
Over the next four decades, they found their ways into positions of power, including at least five identified spies in MI5 and MI6, the UK intelligence arm, and one more that Peter Wright alleges he uncovered. This is in addition to the dozens of double agents found throughout the rank and file of the military, political, economic and social infrastructure in the West.
Wright stumbled into his shocking reality through his work with radio signals. He learned to identify who was listening to whom by feedback from the crystals used to tune their radio sets, and began finding bugs — and deploying them. What hit him like a load of bricks was that the Soviets seemed to always be a step ahead of the game. When he installed a bug, they worked around it or removed it. When his agents found a covert spy, the suspect vanished or stopped working.
As more operations were sabotaged and more defectors came to light, Wright honed in on the traitors by using a simple but comprehensive approach. He tracked every operation and every document involved in order to see who could have seen every piece of information that was later compromised. This trail helped him root out several existing spies, and eventually led him to the desk of his own boss, Roger Hollis. That awkward moment and others reveal the high emotional cost of running a spy business.
While he does not style it as such, the book reveals the different between West and East: the individualistic West, with its accountability to voters, could never run an intelligence service as disciplined as the Soviets could. In fact, the entire book can be read as a series of promising programs killed by public lack of interest or “loss of sympathies” by a public tired of war, spies and nuclear terror. Wright shows us how the fickle public opinion rages against the very things that protect it, and in times of real threat, comes running to those same things in terror. Even the notorious old boy network that enabled Cambridge- and Oxford-educated candidates to slip past extensive vetting is revealed for what it was: a way of keeping public servants employed on the cheap by using the independently wealthy to do the heavy lifting.
[H]is first years in MI6 were, almost inevitably, marked by expediency rather than clear strategy. This was never so well illustrated as with his decision to retain Philby as an agent runner in the Middle East, even though he believed him to be a spy. I asked him about this later, and he said that he simply felt that to sack Philby would create more problems inside MI6 than it might solve. Looking at MI6 in the early 1960s, I was reminded of Lenin’s famous remark to Feliks Dzerzhinsky.
“The West are wishful thinkers, we will give them what they want to think.” (263)
Although the book runs long, and is moderately technical, it provides an insight into the subterranean world of managing state secrets and pilfering those of other states. It shows what our voters have forgotten, which is that the Cold War was a vicious time in which life itself hung in the balance. As a cagey intelligence agent, Wright carefully demonstrates to us the utility of spies, but the weighty political issues decided on the basis of covert intelligence that he describes tend to speak for themselves.
For those who find parallels between that time and now, or who are simply curious as to what propels international politics, Spycatcher is an essential read and vital research material. What makes this book exciting is the first-hand perspective on the cusp of change in uncertain times, and Wright’s fact-packed and alienated viewpoint brings that alien feeling to life in the comfort of our living rooms.