Dick White’s Devilish Plot

Dick White

The Time: March to June 1951

The Places: London and Washington

GCHQ Eastcote
Arlington Hall

The Organisations: In the UK, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), operating out of Eastcote, in the London suburbs; the Foreign Office (FO), the Security Service (MI5), and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6) – all based in Central London. (GCHQ, which during the war, as the Government Code and Cypher School, had reported to SIS, broke free at the end of 1945, and was then responsible to the Foreign Office.) In or around Washington, D.C. in the USA, the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA, which in 1952 became the National Security Agency, working out of Arlington Hall), the State Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The organisations are paired, in function and in primary communications, as follows: GCHQ and AFSA; the FO and the State Department; MI5 and the FBI; and SIS and the CIA.

The Personnel:

Edward Travis is head of GCHQ. The leading cryptanalysts at GCHQ working on VENONA are Wilfred Bodsworth and Jeffrey Northbury.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the ministerial head of the Foreign Office, Herbert Morrison, is new to his post, having succeeded the deceased Ernest Bevin in March 1951. At the FO, William Strang is Permanent Under-Secretary, Roger Makins is his Deputy Under-Secretary, while Patrick Reilly serves as Assistant Secretary, and acts as liaison with SIS. Reilly served as Secretary to the head of SIS, Stewart Menzies, during the war, and has also chaired the Joint Intelligence Committee since 1950. George Carey-Foster is Security Officer for the FO, while Robert Mackenzie fulfils an equivalent role in the Embassy in Washington, under the Ambassador, Oliver Franks. Christopher Steel is Franks’ deputy.

Stewart Menzies, the head of SIS, is a shadowy figure in the background. His deputy, Valentine Vivian, is responsible for security in SIS. (According to Nigel West, Vivian retired in March 1951, but his name appears in the archives as an SIS officer after that date.) At some stage in this spring, Vivian is replaced as Menzies’s deputy by Jack Easton. Kim Philby, who was recruited to SIS by Vivian in 1941, was transferred to Washington in 1949 as SIS’s representative, replacing Peter Dwyer, primarily to liaise with the CIA on special subversive operations, but with an additional mission to assist the FBI (but not the CIA) in identifying possible spies hinted at by the VENONA project. Maurice Oldfield headed the counter-intelligence section, R.5., for a while, but moved to South-East Asia in 1950.

Percy Sillitoe has been Director-General of MI5 since 1946, but gains little respect from his subordinates because of his police background. His deputy, Guy Liddell, previously headed B Division, responsible for counter-espionage, which is now led by Dick White, whom Liddell mentored. (Dick White worked in intelligence under General Walter Bedell Smith – see below – between 1943 and 1945.) Arthur Martin, who acts as liaison with GCHQ, and James Robertson are B Division officers knowledgeable about Soviet espionage. MI5’s Liaison Officer in Washington is Geoffrey Patterson, who replaced Dick Thistlethwaite in the summer of 1949.

J. Edgar Hoover is chief of the FBI, Mickey Ladd is his Director of Domestic Investigations, and Robert J. Lamphere is the agent working with AFSA on the VENONA project. John Cimperman is the FBI’s legal attaché in London.

Walter Bedell Smith has been Director of the CIA since 1950.  He is an ex-army general who has also served as Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1946-1948). He appointed Allen Dulles as Deputy Director for Plans in February 1951. His leading officers on Soviet counter-espionage is William Harvey. Harvey is unusual in that he joined the CIA from the FBI, and maintains a close relationship with Robert Lamphere. James Angleton (who built a close association with Kim Philby) works at this time in the Office of Special Relations.

Rear-Admiral Earl Stone is the head of AFSA. Meredith Gardner is his chief cryptanalyst working on VENONA. The senior British liaison officer at AFSA is Brigadier John Tiltman, at some stage replaced as SUKLO (Senior UK Liaison Officer) by Patrick Marr-Johnson. (Accessible records show them both present in Washington in 1951.) Philip Howse and Geoffrey Sudbury are cryptanalysts from GCHQ assigned to AFSA. William Weisband is a Soviet spy in AFSA who has worked in Signals Intelligence since 1942.

The Thesis:  That Dick White devised a plan to draw attention away from MI5’s own security failures towards Kim Philby, bringing the CIA in as an apparently imaginative source to cast aspersions on Philby’s loyalty without MI5 having to challenge Stewart Menzies and SIS directly.

VENONA – the Background

The Two Gentlemen of VENONA

John Tiltman
Meredith Gardner (on left)

Keith Jeffery concluded his authorised history of SIS on a celebratory note. In May of 1949, Menzies’s Principal Staff Officer (probably Jack Easton) and William Hayter, who was Foreign Office Liaison Officer, had visited Admiral Hillenkoetter, the head of the CIA, in Washington, and enjoyed the ‘very cordial’ tenor of the negotiations as they discussed Cold War initiatives. At the same time, Maurice Oldfield, who headed the R.5 counter-intelligence section, was gratified by the goodwill he encountered when visiting the CIA and the FBI. Hillenkoetter wrote to Menzies in June to speak glowingly of the organisations’ common purpose, and of the close working relationship they enjoyed. Jeffery pointed to this mutual enthusiasm as indicative of the special nature of the transatlantic intelligence relationship. Oldfield would in 1977 write to William Harvey’s widow that he had enjoyed knowing her husband since 1949, so the two must have met during this visit. Hillenkoetter was, however, a failure, and on the way out, unsuitable by temperament and experience to be a leading intelligence officer.

Maybe Sir John Scarlett, chief of SIS, who commissioned the history, was adroitly trying to define a positive legacy and avoid the more disturbing events. “Full details of our history after 1949 are still too sensitive to place in the public domain,” his successor, Sir John Sawers, wrote in his Forward to the 2011 publication. Indeed. But the lid of the seething cauldron could not be completely sealed. In late September 1949, Oldfield briefed the officer who had occupied the same post that he, Oldfield, currently held, before being posted to Ankara, Turkey at the end of 1946. The officer, Kim Philby, was about to be posted as Counsellor attached to the Embassy in Washington, with responsibility for liaising with the CIA, replacing Peter Dwyer, who, according to Anthony Cave-Brown, was being recalled at his own request. Yet memoirs indicate that Philby was brought in specifically to liaise with the Americans over the joint SIS-CIA operation to infiltrate exiles into Albania in an attempt to overthrow Enver Hoxha’s communist government. For instance, Queen Geraldine of Albania recalls that she and her husband, King Zog, met Philby in 1949, and both instantly ‘hated him’, the King refusing to have the SIS officer in the room with him again. [P.S. Neil ‘Billy’ Maclean, in a separate interview, claimed that Queen Geraldine was mistaken, and that the Englishmen they met was either Harold Perkins, or maybe Julian or Alan Hare, but not Philby.]

Alongside the briefings on Albania, Oldfield explained to Philby that a project that had been able to decrypt intercepted Soviet cables had identified a spy in the heart of the Foreign Office, working in the Washington Embassy in 1944 and 1945, who had passed on highly confidential communications to the Soviets. His cryptonym was HOMER, an identity that Dwyer had noted as early as March 1949 (but which had surfaced some time before, as I explain later). It would be an important part of Philby’s job to help his counterparts apply a name to the traitor who had betrayed these communications between the Foreign Office and the Moscow Embassy, and between Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt, on negotiations with Stalin as the war was running down. But the mutual trust and confidence that characterised the relations between Washington and London were about to break down.

The project was known as VENONA (initially as BRIDE in the UK). Its success lent itself to a procedural mistake by the Soviet authorities, who carelessly reused a set of one-time-pads for diplomatic and intelligence transmissions during the period 1943-1948. (One-time-pads were regarded as an almost unbreakable technique for encrypting messages.) These messages were sent both by cable (in the USA, where commercial carriers provided a copy of all such traffic to the US Government), or by wireless – between London and Moscow and between Canberra and Moscow, and later between (primarily) Washington and Moscow. An intense decryption exercise was initiated by the AFSA, who then brought in the GC&CS (who may well have had a parallel operation in play already) as partners in the exercise. One important aspect of the project is that, while the Soviets changed their procedures in 1948 once they had learned via spies of the breakthroughs, the task of message decryption carried on until 1980, and the whole programme was not officially revealed until 1995.

Yet the process of decryption, namely the timing at which (portions of) certain messages were resolved has not been revealed – apart from the survival of the occasional exchange of messages between cryptanalysts, and the evidence of critical breakthroughs that forced intelligence organisations to take action. This lack of archival evidence has made it very difficult for historians to assess the reactions and intentions of the persons directing the investigation. What is also important to recognize is that the process of translation required a lot of help from political and diplomatic sources, to help identify the source messages stolen by the Soviets, since the original texts were invaluable as ‘cribs’, and the contexts were vital in helping identify the thieves. This was especially true in Australia, where the richness of the cribs meant that traffic was being digested almost in real-time by the beginning of 1948. The search for original texts did, however, run the risk of alerting a broader audience to the highly secret VENONA project itself.

That the group of intelligence officers and Foreign Office officials stalled in passing on to their own teams and their American partners their conclusions about VENONA ‘recoveries’ (as the evolving messages were called) is indisputable. But was such behaviour caused by institutional embarrassment, or was it guided by high politics? Some analysts have interpreted such dilatoriness as a pattern of the latter dimension – that it was a high-level strategy ordered by the British prime minister Attlee to protect a fragile Anglo-American agreement over the sharing of atomic weapons technology. Negotiations on resuming the wartime agreement had begun only in September 1949, and, as Aldrich and Cormac inform us in The Black Door, Secretary of State Dean Acheson had recently explained (maybe insincerely) to the British Ambassador that Congress would probably be able to roll back the embargo that the 1946 McMahon Act had imposed on any technology-sharing.

Some authors, such as Anthony Cave-Brown, in his biography of Menzies, “C”, even hint at a ‘double-agent’ game (actually a misnomer) arranged by Menzies and Hoover (FBI) to use Philby as a medium for disinformation to the Soviets (with Angleton, of the CIA) – an unlikely collaboration. Cave-Brown’s case, however, is woolly and muddled, with a haphazard chronology. The delusion of such endeavours, moreover, lay in thinking that an intelligence unit could control what an agent handed over to the target when the unit had not comprehensively ‘turned’ that agent, and did not manage exclusively his medium of communication. Even if such a dubious programme had been entertained, the selection of an agent for such deception when that agent had been indoctrinated into the secret VENONA programme, which demanded the highest security precautions, would have simply been absurd.

Despite that obvious paradox, the legend lives on. The prime promoter of such a theory is C. J. Hamrick, who, in his 2004 book Deceiving the Deceivers, makes a number of claims about the deception that the British intelligence agencies planted on the public during this exercise. His book contains many ingenious passages of analysis, offers a remarkably insightful account of the controversies surrounding the CIA in its initial years, reflects some painstaking research into the evolution of cables processed at Arlington and Eastcote, and contains a fascinating array of valuable insights and facts concerning the relationship of intelligence to politics. Unfortunately, however, Hamrick makes some huge leaps of imagination in putting his theory together. His book constitutes overall a poorly constructed and frequently dense narrative, full of circumlocutions, non sequiturs, vague hypotheses, unsupported assertions and simple errors that make it difficult to determine a verifiable thread.

If I can discern Hamrick’s argument correctly, I would say that it runs as follows: Under the authority of Lord Tedder, Air Marshall Robb, and General Hollis, Dick White masterminded, with his co-conspirator Roger Makins, a counter-intelligence scheme that none of his immediate colleagues or superiors knew about. What Hamrick suggests is that, after the discovery of purloined ‘Churchill’ telegrams, the VENONA decryption exercise became a predominantly British affair, that the authorities knew about the existence and identity of HOMER as early as 1947 (and that Oldfield was able to give this information to Philby in 1949), and that White contrived to conceal the results of the Eastcote decryption exercises from his peers. Moreover, Percy Sillitoe (who was White’s boss) reputedly kept Hoover up to date on the progress of the investigation using something called an ‘MI6 cipher’, to which Philby had access, and from which Philby thus gained his knowledge of VENONA decrypts, and the progress of the investigation. The proposed goal of all these machinations was for White to exploit Maclean, Philby and Burgess (even though they did not work for him) as unwitting tools to mislead the Soviet Union about the West’s nuclear capability, a project, incidentally, that should presumably have been carried out by SIS, not by MI5.

The germ of this idea came from a General Edwin L. Sibert, who communicated his beliefs in such a deception operation to the author on intelligence matters Anthony Cave-Brown. According to Hamrick, Cave-Brown misunderstood the message, and garbled it in his Treason in the Blood. (Cave-Brown reprised the idea in “C”, adding the testimony of William R. Corson, from the latter’s Armies of Ignorance, but then cited severe doubts emanating from Reilly and Easton that apparently quashed the story.) Sibert had in fact retired eighteen months before Philby arrived in Washington, but Hamrick was impressed enough by Sibert’s story to write: “A strategic deception operation using Anglo-American war plans and bombers as a deterrent to Soviet aggression in Western Europe required a suspected or known Soviet agent of proven credibility whose long loyalty to Moscow and unique access to official secrets [my italics] amounted to verification. Was one available? Evidently he was.” It was if Britain had dozens of such persons waiting in the wings, proven Soviet spies, of many years’ vintage, allowed to flourish and remain unpunished, and all the authorities had to do was to select one with the best profile, and plant information on him. And that it made sense to post the candidate to Washington to perform his duplicity, even though a project that had been initiated to help unmask such spies had been underway in the same capital for over a year.

It does not make sense. There are too many anomalies in this thesis for me to list them here. A full dismantling of Hamrick’s exposition, which ascribes some superhuman sleights to White, as if he were in total charge of GCHQ, and was able to hoodwink his colleagues, including Patrick Reilly (who was, after all, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee), will have to be undertaken on another occasion. I present just a few comments. While it is true that senior officials probably concluded that Maclean was HOMER well before they communicated this fact to their subordinates, it does not mean that Dick White (and he is incongruously given the credit for being able to manage the whole charivari from his position as B Division chief in MI5) was successfully controlling the output from GCHQ, and running the trio of Burgess, Maclean and Philby as disinformation agents to the Soviets. Hamrick’s repeated referral to a frequent series of messages from Sillitoe to Hoover on the progress of the investigation, using ‘Philby’s secret MI6 cipher’, by which Philby gained his information, is simply absurd. Philby gained his information from Patterson, and Admiral Stone, the head of AFSA, knew about Philby’s clearance, because on June 8, 1951, he sent a message to the FBI to ascertain whether Burgess had also had access.

So much of what Hamrick asserts is contradicted by the evidence of the archival records (the KV 6/140 to 6/145 series) released in October 2015 that one must conclude either that the archive itself has been handsomely faked, or that Mr Hamrick has written a work more of fiction than of history. As Hamrick himself wrote: “Ignoring the fact that not one shred of documentary evidence has been found nor is ever likely to be found to support it [General Sibert’s deception plan], its probability can be considered by asking how such an operation could have successfully escaped disclosure.” Ipse dixit.

According to some analysts, the Fuchs case (see below: he was found guilty of espionage in February 1950) killed cooperation on atomic technology sharing between the USA and the UK for good. M.S. Goodman wrote an article in The Journal of Cold War Studies in 2005, quoting a US diplomat who said: ‘We were getting very close to getting into bed with the British, with a new agreement. Then the Fuchs affair hit the fan, and that was the end of it’. Goodman then commented: “The case destroyed any British hopes for a resumption of the wartime nuclear partnership, and even Attlee’s artful performance before Parliament could not rescue it.” The reality is rather more complicated. A research colleague (and biographer of both Guy Burgess and Donald and Melinda Maclean) Michael Holzman has drawn my attention to the recently issued Documents on British Policy Overseas, which include records of negotiations in 1950 between Makins, Bevin and Attlee, accompanied by Canadian Secretary of State Lester Pearson, and Dean Acheson of the State Department. Makins attributed the lack of progress on overturning the McMahon Act to allow exchange of atomic power and weaponry technology between Canada, the USA and Britain on the dampener that Fuchs’s arrest gave to harmonious relations, and tried to appeal to Acheson, through Bevin, that the discovery of one spy (although he forgot about Nunn May) should not be considered cause enough to break off plans.

I have been able to inspect these documents, and to verify from Volume 2 of Margaret Gowing’s authorised history of Britain and Atomic Energy (1974) that the author used the same sources in researching her account. According to Gowing, Acheson temporized and prevaricated, as he knew that Congress would not move quickly on the issue. There was an election coming up in November, and thus prospects for new legislation were slim, especially with the Korean War underway. The flight of another Harwell scientist, Bruno Pontecorvo, to Moscow in September 1950 did not help matters. Britain would have to go it alone, and did so, with a story about its decision published in the New York Times in March 1951. Aldrich and Cormac strongly suggest that Attlee’s attention quickly moved elsewhere, to covert operations in Europe by SIS, and that he left the boffins to produce Britain’s weaponry independently. Thus, while Makins’ concerns may have put a temporary brake on the project to unmask HOMER in April-May 1950, such sensitivities quickly became irrelevant. That summer, the American spies Harry Gold and the Rosenbergs were arrested (Gold as a result of Lamphere’s interrogation of Fuchs in London), so the one-sidedness of Britain’s exposure to treachery was quickly removed. Gowing’s conclusion was that ‘the negotiations would have failed even if there had been no Fuchs, Pontecorvo, Burgess or Maclean’ (p 320).

Moreover, more recent releases to the National Archives, in 2007, indicate that Attlee, when he was informed, on June 11, 1951, of the disappearance of Burgess and Maclean, had been completely unaware of their errant behavior, let alone of any suspicions of espionage. Foreign Secretary Morrison stoutly came to the defence of Maclean and of the Foreign Office. At the time of the Fuchs case, Attlee had been briefed on the VENONA investigation, but it appears he was not given comprehensive updates on the project thereafter. Thus there appears to have been little scope for political interference into what the Embassy Spy investigations were uncovering.

Kim Philby and VENONA

Kim Philby

Why was Kim Philby being brought into this web? The story contains multiple anomalies, and a number of unlikely twists and turns.

First of all, from the UK side, the investigation into the Embassy leaks was supposed to be an MI5 responsibility, not one for SIS. Dick White pressed hard for this at the beginning of 1949, and believed he had the support of Menzies and Carey Foster. He soon found, however, that it was not the case with GCHQ, and then learned that he could not rely on the compliance of SIS and the Foreign Office, with the latter starting to playing a much more inquisitive role. White’s representative in Washington, Dick Thistlethwaite, felt he was being undermined by Travis’s and Carey Foster’s officers in Washington, Marr Johnson and Mackenzie, respectively. Thistlethwaite therefore complained to White, who was not only his boss but a close friend as well. The fact was that every department felt it had  a proprietary interest: GC&CS, because it was in charge of the intercepted material, the Foreign Office, because the leak had occurred on its own territory, and SIS, because the initial prime suspect was Alexander Halpern, of British Security Coordination (BSC, the wartime British intelligence service in the USA), which had reported to SIS. Peter Dwyer, Thistlethwaite’s counterpart from SIS, had worked for BSC during the war, so could contribute very usefully to the investigation.

What was especially poignant, moreover, was the fact that FBI maintained domestically a very jealous hold over the VENONA product: not only did Hoover intensely dislike the CIA, and regretted it had ever been created, he also believed that both it and the State Department were riddled with Soviet spies. (He had a point.) While a few CIA officers were introduced to VENONA earlier, the CIA would learn about the programme officially only in 1952, ironically after a controlled leak to Bedell Smith by the British forced Hoover’s hand. Thus bringing in a senior officer like Philby primarily as the SIS-CIA liaison officer (he had developed a great relationship with James Angleton during the war) would, given the sensitivity of the VENONA enterprise, on the surface appear to be a highly risky and unnecessary move that could only ruffle feathers more. White’s failure to maintain intellectual and practical leadership of the project points, however, to a developing malaise.

For some reason, MI5’s representative in Washington was replaced at about the same time. No official explanation has been offered for the change in the team. A large gap in the record for the summer of 1949 can be seen at KV 6/140, but the authorised history states that Geoffrey Patterson took over from Dick Thistlethwaite in June 1949. These moves would have unbalanced the arrangement, as Thistlethwaite was a senior campaigner, on first-name terms with Dick White. Patterson seems to have been a keen but inexperienced officer, while Philby was clearly a man on the move, identified by some as a future head of the service. It could have been coincidental, of course, but the fact that Philby was heavily briefed by Oldfield before he left could suggest that Menzies was keen that SIS take a stronger hold of the investigations. On the other hand, the author Ben Macintyre suggests, in A Spy Among Friends, that Philby’s appointment arose from the high-level discussions in the USA, and that Philby was a name preferred by some of the CIA officers whose opinion was sought. Macintyre offers no source for that statement, but it would make sense for the presence of Philby to be desired primarily in the light of the plans for joint CIA-SIS operations in Eastern Europe, where the help of an experienced heavyweight would be necessary.  Philby would however have been instructed to stay silent about VENONA before CIA officers, but no doubt became extremely curious once he learned of the dangerous project. Menzies – who viewed Philby as his blue-eyed boy – would not have thought twice about the appointment.

Yet how much did SIS and MI5 suspect about Philby’s possible career as a spy at that time, and should he have been excluded from any sensitive post in Washington? Maurice Oldfield later informed his biographers that, having inspected Philby’s profile, and the records concerning Volkov, the Soviet diplomat who tried to defect from Turkey in 1945, but who was betrayed and killed, he had suspected Philby of treachery, and he even confided his thoughts to his friend Alistair Horne at the time. Yet, even though he was only four years younger than Philby, Oldfield had been in SIS for only three years, and Philby, with his allies high up, was not a figure he could easily challenge. Moreover, Richard Deacon, in his biography of Oldfield, “C”, suggests that Philby’s contacts with the Soviets that he made in Turkey were approved by Menzies, as some kind of disinformation scheme.  “Whenever MI5, or anyone else, raised the issue of treachery, the SIS would come to Philby’s defence and indignantly reject such pleas, explaining that what he was doing in Istanbul, and elsewhere for that matter, was carried out with their full approval”, wrote Deacon. That would explain, if it were true, why Philby was regarded as untouchable.

That account of Philby’s inviolability might also help explain the Guy Liddell discomfort. The information recently distributed about Eric Roberts, as I described in the April coldspur, indicates that Liddell in MI5 also had nourished suspicions about a senior member of the SIS in 1947, but had obviously been told to suppress them by the time Roberts returned from Vienna in 1949. [The BBC has so far not responded to our request for the 14-page document that Christopher Andrew described as ‘the most extraordinary intelligence document I have ever seen’, so the historian must be charged with irresponsible grandstanding until he helps facilitate the release of this document to the public.] Dick White was lower on the totem-pole than Liddell, but was a more dominant character, yet between them, with their own skeletons in the cupboard, they must have concluded that speaking out against Philby at that juncture would not help their careers, or the reputation of MI5.

Soon after Philby’s arrival in Washington, however, an extraordinary event occurred: he completely changed the tone of the investigation by pointing the inquisitors towards Krivitsky and his 1940 testimony. (Krivitsky had warned of a spy on the ‘Imperial Council’, but his hints had not been strenuously followed up.) Throughout 1949 the project had taken a desultory course, involving the collection of staff lists and checking the background of, almost exclusively, secretaries and members of the Cypher Department. (Halpern and Cedric Belfrage were also suspected, but the latter, who later confessed to being a spy, was discounted early since he was not in Washington when the cables were stolen.) As early as November 19, 1949, however, Philby wrote a memorandum to Robert Mackenzie which crisply summarized the advice that Krivitsky had given about a spy in the Foreign Office, advice that Patterson enthusiastically picked up on. Somewhat surprisingly, Patterson received a rather lukewarm response when Martin and Carey Foster received the message in London, as if to say that of course they had considered a link between the two cases. Carey Foster did, however, produce a shortlist of six diplomats who could fit the Krivitsky/Washington profile, namely Balfour, Makins, Hadow, Wright, Gore-Booth and Maclean.

This bravado from Philby surely suggests that he realised that the evidence against Maclean was so substantial that his goose was essentially cooked, and that Philby’s best course of action was therefore to distance himself as sharply as possible from his comrade in espionage, and boost his counter-Soviet credentials. Yet his action raises further questions: did he have access to pointers that were available to other investigators, and, if so, why did the latter not come to similar conclusions? Otherwise, was it not a bit premature to risk changing the direction of the probe so dramatically, and risk additional attention on himself, and his associations with Maclean?

The Search Takes Time

On reflection, it might seem highly negligent for the multiple leads to Maclean as the source of the Foreign Office leakage not to have been assimilated and acted upon sooner. That was the sentiment that Robert Lamphere expressed in late 1948, a few months after he had been informed by his colleague Ladd of the first VENONA breakthroughs. As he waited for a more urgent response from his British counterparts, he recorded that the counter-intelligence machinery in the USA would surely have moved into top gear in such circumstances. After all, if, following the creation of the shortlist, a notice had been taken of Maclean’s leftist opinions at Cambridge, and his less than outright rejection of them at his diplomatic service interview, and his nervous breakdown after consorting with Philip Toynbee, a ‘known Communist’ (as MI5 considered him) in Cairo, one might have expected him to rise quickly on the list of suspects.  Yet MI5 appeared to be overwhelmed by the list of possible offenders, knowing also that it would be very difficult to elicit a confession from any of them on such circumstantial evidence, and that the best chance of gaining a conviction would be to catch him or her in the act of passing information to the Soviet contact. For the VENONA transcripts would be inadmissible in court: apart from the fact that all intelligence agencies did not want to reveal the extent of their decryption efforts, the nature of the translations and interpretations would mean that their veracity would be able to be picked apart by any capable defence lawyer. And MI5 was not certain, even when the information about the visits to the spy’s wife in New York were revealed in early March 1951, that Maclean was the only Foreign Office staff member who fitted that profile. (Or so it claimed, as long as was possible.)

Donald Maclean

Dick White then made, in February 1950, a shocking and irresponsible suggestion. He had been in Australia when Philby’s memorandum came through, but must have been made aware of the resulting exchange. He held a meeting on January 31, attended by Reilly, Carey Foster, Vivian, Oldfield, Marriott & Martin, at which he floated the idea that the whole investigation should be called off, at least until dramatic new evidence arrived, because of the overwhelming staff lists to be combed through. At this stage, it appeared that he had high-level agreement from the attendees. Carey Foster agreed the field was wide, but wanted MI5 to continue to pursue traces in some way. Vivian was still interested in Halpern. MI5 was charged with providing a formal report, which White duly provided on February 16, laying out the reasons for abandoning the quest, and suggesting that the project be handed over to the FBI.

This reckless initiative must be seen in the context of what else White and MI5 were occupied with at the time. On February 2, Klaus Fuchs (whose role as a spy had also been confirmed by VENONA transcripts) had been arrested, and was sentenced a month later to fourteen years’ imprisonment. White was heavily involved in the project to cover up MI5’s negligence and incompetence over Fuchs, during which Sillitoe vented his fury at White and Liddell for their lack of thoroughness. As Tom Bower, White’s biographer, put it: “There were good reasons to hold MI5 responsible. Not least was White’s failure, in the chain of responsibility, to adopt Suppell’s [Serpell’s] suggestion of investigating Fuchs.” The outcome was that Sillitoe and White had an uncomfortable meeting with Attlee where they lied to the Prime Minister in order to protect the institution. Moreover, Guy Burgess had come under suspicion at this time. On January 23, Liddell noted in his diary that Burgess had probably passed on secrets to Freddie Kuh, a Soviet spy, and three days later was discussing with his colleagues whether Burgess should be prosecuted for Official Secrets Act offences. The last thing White wanted was a fresh revelation that MI5 failures to follow up the Krivitsky testimony had allowed another spy – and a homegrown Briton, at that – to escape the net. White simply wanted the problem to go away: the remedy preferred by him and Liddell was for unmasked spies to fade quietly into the backwaters, and promise not to misbehave again, with no fuss and no publicity involved. Whether in this case he was acting on his own, or was being guided by political considerations, say by Attlee, or possibly Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, is not clear. The 2007 archival information referred to earlier strongly suggests that Attlee was not involved.

Perhaps White overlooked the fact that the Eastcote/Arlington decryption exercises were going to continue no matter how hard he tried to stifle the investigation. For a while, however, he appeared to have been successful. On February 22, Carey Foster (who like many emerges from this whole farrago as a weak character, far too defensive of the organisation he is supposed to be auditing) expressed support for White’s move, although he reserved the right to interview one Samuel Barron, one on the longlist of suspects. The archive is somewhat confused at this point, with memoranda and letters being split into separate files, but a couple of weeks later, it seems that Carey Foster had been spurred into reaction, probably at the behest of his boss, William Strang. On March 9, Carey Foster wrote a determined riposte to White’s suggestion, which was followed up by a similar outpouring from Strang himself, effectively pouring cold water on White’s plan, and suggesting that the Foreign Office would take over the investigation itself, if necessary. It is clear that White was not happy about Strang’s offensive, but he had to clamber down. Yet this rapid volte-face suggests that there was probably no higher-level political direction at work.

So the project continued all through 1950. In August, new material did turn up, primarily about references to the spy’s wife in Washington, and, more dramatically, showing that highly critical correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt had been compromised. MI5’s desire for secrecy enveloped the officers even more deeply in a mire of subterfuge. Part of the new intelligence-sharing agreement between the USA and the UK commanded full disclosure of information, and, indeed, Eastcote and Arlington would continue to share findings irrespective of MI5’s fears. The responsibility for decrypting the exclusively British telegrams of 1944 was passed to GCHQ in the summer of 1950, which meant that Arlington officially had to rely on Eastcote for the latest decryptions. As the search narrowed, it touched tricky ground in dealing with the FBI. MI5 could not afford any premature disclosure of suspicions, or plans to interrogate, to be communicated to Hoover and his cohorts, lest leaks occur and jeopardise the inquiry. At the same time, Lamphere in the FBI was pursuing a similar line, and MI5 had to stay a step ahead of what his progress might be. If Hoover, who was not sympathetic to Great Britain and its intelligence apparatus (he had considered BSC a gross infringement of his territorial rights) learned of the fruits of the inquiry from another source, he would be apoplectic. Thus the mandarins gradually switched from a policy of measured indolence to one of nervous deceit, which resulted in a ‘real’ inquiry being accompanied by a ‘notional’ one, which had to lag a bit behind so that the FBI could be stalled.

A Breakthrough?

How quickly should MI5 have started the quest for HOMER? The records are bewilderingly opaque. There is much controversy about the first appearance of the cryptonym ‘HOMER’ (or ‘GOMER’, sometimes ‘GOMMER’: since the Cyrillic alphabet has no letter for ‘H’, ‘HOMER’ was represented as ‘GOMER’, and frequently abbreviated to ‘G’.)   The folder HW 15/38 at Kew includes a report by Meredith Gardner that shows that HOMER had been identified as a source as early as 26 September, 1947, providing information about the upcoming meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill in Quebec in September 1944. One might judge that the amount of information contained in this message should surely have prompted a well-focussed search on qualified individuals with access to such information. Yet an anonymous post-mortem report written in October 1951 appears to bury this fact, stating: “The resumé mentioned was transmitted 7 September 1944, but the opening (which contained the name ‘HOMER’) was not solved until much later (probably 1951). [handwritten note – ‘not until just before May 1951’: coldspur] The resumé concerned chiefly occupation policies, mentioning both American and British plans.” It is difficult to interpret what this could mean: is the ‘opening’ something different, but, if so, why does it matter, since HOMER was so clearly identified elsewhere in the text? Very oddly, Nigel West (in Cold War Spymaster) ignores the Gardner evidence, and echoes this conclusion that the ‘opening’ was not solved until May 1951.

The investigators were waiting for a stronger clue to the identity of HOMER, facts with which they could confront Maclean. If MI5 and the Foreign Office leaders still had any doubts that their prime suspect was Donald Maclean, they were apparently dispelled on March 31, 1951, when (according to the prime chronicler, Nigel West) the team of Wilfred Bodsworth and Jeffrey Northbury at Eastcote decrypted enough of a message from Stepan Apresyan in June 28, 1944 to identify Maclean by ‘HOMER’s visit to Tyre [New York] where his wife is living with her mother awaiting confinement’. (Nigel West states that this was the first cable, chronologically, that referred to HOMER [GOMER], rather than just ‘G’.) Yet even the exact process of transcription is not clear: in Venona, West provides the text of the above message, not released until 1973, but does not present this cable as the one that provided the breakthrough. In Cold War Spymaster, however, the same author specifically names this Apresyan cable as the one that succumbed to Bodsworth and Northbury at the end of March, and thus allowed Maclean to be confidently identified, presumably because of the ‘wife in New York’ reference. In any case, the news was sent to MI5, and also to Arlington, where Bodsworth’s counterparts congratulated him on the achievement. Thus we know that AFSA experts knew about its content, although what they did with the information has not been recorded by the historians.

Yet it is difficult to trust West’s updated account of what happened. The archives at KV 6/142 reveal a very startling alternative sequence of events, however. On March 31, that is the same day on which the above information was reputedly passed by GCHQ to MI5 in London, Geoffrey Patterson wrote a long letter to the Director-General (nominally to Sillitoe: Harrison’s cables are normally addressed that way, although it is more likely that Martin, Robertson, or sometimes White was first to read them), in which he declared that ‘PH’ (unidentified) ‘has sent to his Headquarters a letter  . . . and enclosures  . . . which are of considerable interest and may take us another step forward in our search  . . .’.  He added: “PH despatched these documents to London on March 30.” The primary suggestion in PH’s conclusions is that ‘HOMER may be identical with G’. (Patterson then added, rather alarmingly, that he and Kim Philby ‘have discussed these latest developments with Bob Lamphere’.)

‘PH’ was undoubtedly Philip Howse, a member of GCHQ, as the October 1951 report cited above explicitly recognises. In his Historical Dictionary of Signals Intelligence, under ‘BRIDE’, Nigel West writes: “Although Philip Howse had been assigned to Arlington in a general liaison capacity, the Canberra-Moscow channel revealed the need for a British input into BRIDE, and he was integrated into the JADE team to look after British interests, which were also focused on the leakage attributed to HOMER in the British Embassy.”(JADE was the name assigned to the technique by which VENONA messages identified which page of the one-time-pad to use.) S. J. Hamrick states that Howse was assigned to Arlington Hall from 1944 to 1946, pointing out that the National Archives records on VENONA do not name the 1951 contributor. Howse clearly returned, however, and Patterson’s weak effort at concealing his identity failed to confuse posterity.

For some reason it had taken a long time for the equation to be made that GOMER represented the same source as ‘G’, a shorthand that was frequently found in Soviet cables. Hamrick reports, without comment, that Meredith Gardner, who must have been one of the smartest cryptanalysts in the world, was not able to work out that ‘G’ and ‘GOMMER’ were the same as ‘HOMER’ before the Embassy telegrams were passed over to GCHQ for further decryption and analysis in 1949. The correspondence between ‘Source G’ and ‘G’ was confirmed, however, as having been made by Mrs. Gray of AFSA in August 1950, and the fact was immediately communicated to the British. It was given to Marr-Johnson, the GCHQ representative, and presumably passed on to Eastcote. The August 1950 memorandum continues “These recoveries were communicated to the British 11 August 1950, who thereupon set up work-sheets for further recovery work. The suspicion that ‘G’ was the source of material ‘G’ occurred to people at AFSA immediately upon seeing Mrs. Gray’s work, and this suspicion was suggested to the British at the same time.” HW 15/38 goes on to report: “On 30 March 1951, Mr Howse transmitted to England the suggestion that G. was Homer and GOMMER. . . . This identification, if true, allowed the placing of G. in New York in June 1944.”  

Yet what is not explained is why Howse’s insight, the correspondence of ‘G’ and ‘GOMER’, was necessary to make the breakthrough. As we can see, ‘HOMER’ – not just ‘G’ –  appears in the Apresyan cable of 28 June 1944, which referred to the agent’s wife in New York. (The cable can be seen at https://www.nsa.gov/Portals/70/documents/news-features/declassified-documents/venona/dated/1944/28jun_kgb_mtg_donald_maclean.pdf) Yes, ‘G’’s communications would have provided supportive evidence, but Bodsworth did not need Howse’s analysis to make his breakthrough reconstruction of the text, and, in any case, Howse’s message would not have arrived in time for Bodsworth to apply it, and then make his report. So what was going on here? If the ‘breakthrough’ did indeed occur at GCHQ, maybe Bodsworth informed his American colleagues well before he let MI5 know, and Howse then tried to claim the credit, presenting a different, but maybe equally important, conclusion to Philby and Patterson as if it had been his own. Howse’s action in sending a package to Eastcote probably negates that, however, and if Howse despatched the documents only on March 30, they would not have arrived at Eastcote in time for Bodsworth to make his report. Was this just a coincidental timing of independent threads? Or was Howse instructed to report the ‘non-breakthrough’ to indicate for posterity that London had had no inkling about HOMER’s identity until he provided the insight?

Given the intensity of this effort, and its being undertaken by cryptanalysts highly skilled at the task, the time it took for these correspondences to be made defies belief. The name HOMER was decrypted on September 26, 1947.  Messages also emanating from the British Embassy, ascribed to ‘Source G’, were known by some time in 1949. The equivalence of ‘Source G’ and ‘G’ was worked out in August 1950. On March 31, 1951, a suggestion was made that perhaps ‘G’ and HOMER were the same person, at which time Eastcote announced it had solved the puzzle.  It took three-and-half years for Maclean’s identity as HOMER to be recognized and admitted: a period longer than that between the USA’s entry into the war and VE-Day. (Anthony Cave-Brown very provocatively, and without comment, wrote, in “C”: “Homer’s identity and nationality remained unknown to the State Department and Foreign Office until 1949.”) So why was the ‘breakthrough’ announced at that juncture?  It should perhaps be noted that the America spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been convicted on March 29: did that event perhaps prompt the investigators to conclude that it was now politically safe to step into the daylight?

The evidence bequeathed us superficially makes no sense at all. Yet the historians generally have stepped away from trying to analyse the conflicts in front of them. C. J. Hamrick, however, on pages 45-48 of Deceiving the Deceivers, offers a fascinating analysis of the conundrum, concluding that Arlington Hall had been out of the picture on the British Embassy cables since the summer of 1950, and that Eastcote had been sitting on the solved cable for some time. That is one of Hamrick’s conclusions that holds together well. In any case, the scribes creating what turned out to be the HW 15/38 archive then entered some disinformation to help breed confusion. The whole imbroglio demands some more detailed analysis.

We can, nevertheless, make some striking conclusions: i) both Patterson and his colleagues in London were in on the act, since they reciprocally referred to Howse as ‘PH’, and obviously recognized that concealment and subterfuge were necessary; ii) MI5 had an independent back-channel into the AFSA organisation, and might therefore have gained information on the progress of VENONA decryption even before the FBI learned of it; iii) GCHQ in Eastcote was probably not aware that Howse was leaking information to Patterson; and iv) an immense security exposure occurred, since Patterson did not just share the confidences with Lamphere (whom MI5 apparently accepted as a justifiable recipient) but also Philby, which meant that the information would surely be passed on to SIS – and the KGB.

Patterson certainly had not been briefed by London, since he makes some creative suggestions about the identity of HOMER. Indeed, he follows up with another letter (presumably also sent by diplomatic bag) in which, having also discussed the material with Mackenzie, he expands on his analysis, and, somewhat impatiently, but justifiably, looks for a response. On April 4, Robertson responds by cable, apparently quite unconcerned that Patterson has seen the material before the officers of MI5. His main advice runs as follows:

  1. Agree new material most important. Leakage enquiry now being pursued on presumption HOMER equals G.
  2. Collateral for G.C.H.Q. being collected here and, unless we ask specifically, consider it safer you do not repeat not draw subject files from Embassy.

His response does not make sense if Bodsworth’s solving of the Apresyan telegram had provided the ‘breakthrough’. Robertson then asks Patterson to work with Mackenzie in inspecting travel documents that might help clarify the New York visits made by HOMER.

Apart from the anomaly of the ‘HOMER=G’ equivalence, and what relevance it had to the Bodsworth exercise, at least four aspects of this exchange are breathtaking for the interpretation of the decisions for the handling of Maclean, confirming the conclusions outlined earlier. The first is the total lack of surprise shown by MI5 at the fact that its Washington outpost has worked out the HOMER=G breakthrough before London has. The second is that London intelligence (by which I mean MI5 and the Foreign Office, with fragmented attendance by SIS) should have realised that, once the information about ‘the latest recovery’ (as it came to be called) floated around Washington, anyone over there could have been privy to the supposed secret. The third is that Patterson’s and Philby’s access to cryptographic sources, and thus awareness of what was going on, meant that they could not be hoodwinked in any way about the progress of the inquiry. The fourth was the news that Lamphere was right in the thick of things, and could thus presumably come to the same conclusions as MI5’s detectives: moreover, much of the evidence required to seal the deal was to be found in the United States.

Yet MI5 proceeded as if they knew none of this. Indeed, Robertson followed up by trying to dampen Patterson’s enthusiasm: ‘ . . at this stage consider enquiries  . . . should not be confined to preconceived theories but cover all Chancery, cipher and registry staff. Feel sure you agree and will exercise moderating influence on premature speculations’. It was as if dozens of Embassy staff had pregnant wives in New York whom they visited in New York occasionally, and were thus under suspicion. Indeed, Mackenzie in Washington was keen to look for other culprits, and, partly on the grounds that Krivitsky had said that the Foreign Office source had attended Eton and Oxford, pointed the finger at Paul Gore-Booth, who had the disadvantage that his name more closely resembled the letters of ‘GOMER’. It was then, on April 2, that Philby made an even more persuasive case that HOMER was the Imperial Council spy. In a telegram to his boss, Menzies (in the archive at KV 6/142-2, unsigned, and with its first paragraph redacted) he refines the analysis discussed with Patterson and Mackenzie, and adds helpful information about Gromov (Gorsky) and Paul Hardt, who had also been mentioned by Krivitsky. The letter is a masterful exhibition of subterfuge, with Philby trying to protect his reputation and deflect possible criticism. And it apparently worked with Menzies.

What is also extraordinary is the lack of archival evidence of how MI5 received the critical information from GCHQ, and the lack of any initiative to let the Washington representatives know formally of the results. The final entry in the KV 6/141 folder is a note whereby Robertson, Martin and Carey Foster have a meeting at the Foreign Office on March 28, 1951, where they discuss a long report that lists several dozen Embassy employees, including junior staff, in order to whittle down the suspects. The report focuses on Messrs. Pares, Middleton, King and Payne. It is an exercise in self-delusion, probably written by Carey Foster, as if the writer thought the problem would go away if the authorities sat on it for long enough.

The Great Deception

As soon as the British authorities accepted internally that Maclean was indeed HOMER, on April 17, 1951, according to its formal chronology, they started to dither. Martin had told Patterson on April 12 that Maclean was the top suspect, but the MI5 and Foreign Office mandarins suddenly realised the implications of their conclusion. They would eventually have to interrogate Maclean. But if they informed the FBI of their suspicions and plans, the news might leak in a horribly prejudicial way. Lamphere might, however, also come to the same conclusion, which could make them look very foolish if they had not confided in the FBI as they were supposed to. Thus they concocted all sorts of strategies to pretend that they were less well advanced in creating the recent ‘recoveries’ than they actually were, that there were still six suspects they had to investigate. MI5 wanted to tell the FBI more, but the Foreign Office held back, as it did not want the Department of State to hear of it before the FO was ready. Patterson was squeezed: he was again encouraged to let Lamphere harbour his suspicions about ‘Fisher’ (actually Belfrage), even though Belfrage had been eliminated from the inquiry long before.  Mackenzie therefore pressed for continued deception of the FBI: Patterson and Philby disagreed.

By May 15, a tentative timetable had been arranged, whereby Maclean (who was now under surveillance, and had had secret papers withheld from him, so had a strong suspicion of what was going on) would be interrogated on June 8, and the FBI would be informed of that event the day before. On May 17, the KGB sent instructions to London for the escape of Burgess and Maclean, deeming that Maclean was in such a nervous state that he needed accompaniment. Martin prepared for the interrogation, and wrote up his detailed case against Maclean, which he sent to White (but not the Foreign office) on May 19. Sillitoe intervened to insist that no action on Maclean could be taken unless the FBI were informed. The interrogation date was then pushed back to June 18 (because of Mrs. Maclean’s imminent confinement), and Sillitoe planned to be in Washington at that time to explain things, and soothe Hoover. On May 25, Foreign Minister Morrison signed off on the interrogation warrant. That same evening, Burgess and Maclean absconded via Southampton.

The events following the disappearance have been described in multiple books, and I shall not go over them in full here. Instead, I shall concentrate on two aspects of the case: White’s ploy to unmask Philby, and the puzzling use of Anthony Blunt as some kind of witness/consultant in the investigation. Menzies realised immediately that Philby was compromised, because of his close association with Burgess in Washington. In fact, Verne Newton, in The Cambridge Spies, even wrote that Vivian had been sent out to Washington in March to warn Philby about the unsuitability of his boarding Burgess, an account that Cave-Brown also reports, having interviewed Easton. Philby had written another memorandum, on June 4, in which he tried to distance himself from Burgess by providing hints to his suspicious behaviour. Cave-Brown represents this message as a key trigger for Martin to confirm his suspicions about Philby. Martin then tells White, who conveniently presents a damning report on Philby written by Millicent Bagot, and then convinces Menzies that Philby must be recalled. Any complacency Philby had was shattered when John Drew, an experienced and trustworthy officer who had worked for the London Controlling Section in World War II, who happened to be on a visit to Washington, was on June 6 able to hand Philby a letter from Jack Easton, Menzies’s deputy, which alerted him to the fact that he would shortly be formally recalled. He duly arrived in London on June 10, and was immediately summoned by Dick White ‘to help with our inquiries’.

White had meanwhile been very busy, making sure Sillitoe was properly briefed for his meeting with Hoover, and also preparing Patterson for the line of deceit to take. In a letter of May 25, he introduced the concept of the ‘real and notional aspects of the case’, emphasizing how the wool had to be pulled over the eyes of Lamphere and Hoover so that they would not guess that the authorities had concluded that Maclean was their man well before the day he absconded. It would have been disastrous if the FBI learned that Maclean had been at large for several weeks since being identified, and been able to escape the nation’s security forces. (On June 2, Patterson was even instructed to tell Hoover that Sillitoe believed that Maclean’s disappearance was a coincidence.) White decided that Sillitoe should be accompanied by the impish and devious Martin, as Sillitoe needed someone who understood what was going on (which Sillitoe clearly did not) and could plausibly lie about the situation. Sillitoe would work at the high level, and Martin would brief Lamphere. But this is where the story diverges: in the account that he gave his potential biographer, Andrew Boyle (whose notes were inherited by Tom Bower after Boyle’s death) greatly distorted the sequence of events in order to disguise his plot.

Robert Lamphere divulged what happened next in The FBI-KGB War. While Sillitoe met with Hoover, on June 13, Martin engaged Lamphere, and handed over the famous seven-point memorandum (which I described in the April coldspur). This report sharply described several aspects of Philby’s ostensibly communist background, and Martin then passed it on to Lamphere’s old friend William Harvey in the CIA.  The Cleveland Cram archive shows that, on June 15, Harvey then presented his scathing report to Bedell Smith, actually derived from the Martin memorandum, but claimed by Harvey (with encouragement by Martin, no doubt) as resulting from his own inspiration. The next day, Sillitoe met with Allen Dulles of the CIA, who passed ‘Harvey’s’ memorandum to him, Sillitoe of course being completely unaware of what the source was. Sillitoe cabled back home on June 17 to say that he had also had a very satisfactory meeting with Bedell Smith (see Guy Liddell’s Diaries), Bedell Smith telling him he would rather deal with MI5 than SIS in the future. On June 18, Sillitoe and Martin flew back to London. The same day, Hoover told Admiral Sidney Souers, special consultant to the President, about Burgess’s habitation with Philby while in Washington, and that Philby’s first wife had been a Communist. Aldrich and Cormac show this as evidence that ‘Truman was getting better information on the British moles than Attlee’. If that were true, it was because MI5 was not providing the intelligence they gave to the FBI and CIA to their own Prime Minister, not because the US organisations were more efficient.

General Bedell Smith in Moscow

Many of the accounts of this period (including Andrew’s authorised history of MI5) have Bedell Smith banishing Philby from Washington at this time, but, as the archival chronology clearly shows, Philby was back in London by the time Sillitoe and Martin left for Washington. Meanwhile, David Martin, in Wilderness of Mirrors, incorrectly amplified the story about Harvey’s heroic insights into Philby’s background, a story that has been picked up by innumerable chroniclers. I described this in the April coldspur, and also showed that Guy Liddell was completely unaware of what was going on.

Bedell Smith may well have stated that he did not want to see Philby in Washington again, but the record shows that the chief of the CIA was much more annoyed at Hoover’s withholding information about VENONA from him than he was at either Sillitoe’s deception or even possible treachery by Philby. After acting Ambassador Steel visited Bedell Smith in October of 1951, Steel wrote to Reilly about Bedell Smith’s mood, quoting him as follows: “Of course Percy Sillitoe lied to me like a trooper but I appreciate he had to do it on account of your understandings with Hoover and it was not his fault.” Steel went on to write: “Bedell’s principal worry is concerned with how much Burgess may have learned casually from Philby and in his house about his, Bedell’s, organization. He was very anxious to be reassured that we had not had any previous cause for suspicion of Burgess as we had of Donald Maclean and that we had let him know about Burgess as soon as our suspicions were aroused. He is naturally not very happy about what Burgess may have picked up but appeared much more interested in a vindication of our own bona fides towards himself.” That did not sound like the voice of a man greatly offended by rumours about Kim Philby.

As for White, his version of the story, as related in The Perfect English Spy, was a gross distortion of the truth. First of all, he represented Martin’s conversations with the CIA as ‘focused on Burgess’, concealing the Philby memorandum. He then claimed that the long message from Philby that hinted at Burgess’s possible flirtation with espionage arrived on June 18, when that message had actually been seen two weeks earlier. Next White asserted that at only at that stage did Jack Easton send the letter to Philby warning him of the cable to call him home, when that had happened on June 6. He then told his biographer that it was only then that he and Martin started to compile a record of Philby’s work, as preparation for the interrogation of Philby to which John Sinclair had given his grudging approval. Lamphere’s report makes it abundantly clear that the research had been completed well before Sillitoe and Martin left on June 11. Cave-Brown reported that White immediately produced a dossier compiled by Milicent Bagot on Philby. David Martin then contributed to the White caprice, however, by adding that it was at this stage, on June 20, that MI5 compiled the dossier on Philby, listing the seven points so ingeniously provided by Harvey! White also made sure that his harsh opinion of Rees was articulated (‘why did he not come to us earlier’?), and he left a very clear impression that Liddell was irreparably tainted by his association with Blunt.

‘Old Men Forget’. Was this just a misremembrance by White in his declining years? That is very unlikely: his account is a tissue of lies. What he was trying to do is show that he and Martin had nothing to do with the plot to bring Philby down, and were simply following up doggedly on their investigation, since Burgess’s friend from Washington had been brought to them on a platter. Yet it was imperative for White to show that the creation of the dossier on Philby had been prompted by outside investigations, and that it had not occurred until after Burgess’s escape. That was a somewhat risky line to take, as it indicated a fair amount of naivety about Philby’s past, a track-record which, if William Harvey could work out from so far away (from the planted evidence), MI5 should have been able to conclude themselves, as any objective observer might suggest. Philby was in SIS, not MI5, of course, which ameliorated their responsibility. As seems much clearer now – especially if the Liddell-Roberts anecdote is shown to have substance – White had very probably already made that calculation, but he had enough problems on his hands without taking credit for identifying another skeleton in the closet whom he should have called out a long time before. And, if Philby’s guilt could swiftly be acknowledged, though perhaps not proven or admitted, it would help his cause. Yet his old ally Bedell Smith did not respond with the degree of specific outrage that he had hoped for. And, in a clumsy interrogation carried out by White himself immediately Philby returned to Britain, the master-spy resisted the attempts to make him confess, despite the damning evidence.

The ghastly secret that haunted White was as follows: if it could ever be shown that he had harboured serious doubts about Philby before he was sent to Washington, or while he was there, and done nothing about it, he (White) would have to be regarded as putting the whole VENONA project in jeopardy. White would therefore continue to dissemble over the years (see, for example, what he said to Nicholas Bethell over the Albanian incidents, as recorded in Bethell’s book The Albanian Operation of the CIA & MI6) – highlighting his own insights into Philby’s culpability, but not saying exactly when he came to any individual conclusion about a certain activity, or with whom he shared it. #  Meanwhile he concealed from his interviewers the plant that was placed with Harvey and Bedell Smith that listed the fuller indictment. In summary, he distorted the truth to indicate that he had no suspicions of Philby before Burgess absconded. When Burgess and Maclean disappeared, however, he could not hold back any longer. He needed to punish the old foe, SIS, without drawing attention on himself. The fact that he went behind Menzies’s back to attempt to unmask Philby proves that Menzies was not aware of the plan. And White could not have masterminded a deception project using Philby without Menzies’ and Easton’s participation. But was White working alone? Who else knew what was going on?

# For example, in his comments to Bethell, the historian manqué attempted to excuse MI5’s tolerance of communists in 1940, the year in which Philby was recruited by SIS, by telling his interlocutor that at that time ‘the Russians were our allies’, when of course they were then allies of the Nazis, providing matériel to the Germans for the prosecution of the Battle of Britain.

Philby as the Third Man?

What would have been convenient for White would be evidence that Philby had been the agent who had warned Maclean about the net closing in on him, and let him and Burgess know about the imminent arrest. Was Philby thus the Third Man? That question is one of many that surround the eighteen months that Philby spent in Washington, and it is probably educational to list the main conundrums about the man’s activity at this time, and attach some tentative answers to the riddles:

  1. Why did Menzies send Philby to Washington in 1949? (He seriously had no doubts about Philby’s loyalties.  In his Forward to The Philby Conspiracy, John le Carré points out that Menzies had appointed him head of Soviet counter-espionage in 1944 despite knowing his past, and was not apparently disturbed by the Volkov incident in 1945.  According to Cave-Brown, based on interviews with Easton, Reilly was similarly not aware of the questions surrounding Philby, as he was party to the discussions on Philby’s possible promotion in early 1951.  Whether Menzies entrusted a mission of deception and disinformation to Philby cannot be verified.)
  2. Why did Philby so quickly help point the finger at Maclean? (Philby immediately realised from what Oldfield told him that Maclean was probably doomed, and he had to save his own skin.)
  3. Why was Burgess sent to Washington in 1950, despite his malfeasance? (It was typical FO incompetence, as reinforced by its treatment of Maclean after his riotous behaviour in Cairo. The Foreign Office was absurdly indulgent to its senior employees: Attlee was shocked when he later learned of the continued employment of Burgess and Maclean, despite their transgressions.)
  4. Why did Philby take on Burgess as a boarder? (He genuinely thought Burgess’s reputation was safe, needed him as a convenient courier to New York, and believed he could control Burgess’s aberrant behaviour better by keeping a close eye on him.  It was, however, appalling tradecraft.)
  5. Why was White not concerned about Philby’s close collaboration with Patterson? (He probably was concerned, but could do nothing about it without incurring Menzies’s ire.  If White truly had concluded much earlier that Maclean was HOMER, he may have even believed the situation would resolve itself without MI5’s being tainted.)
  6. Why did SIS only warn Philby about his association with Burgess in March 1951? (Menzies and his lieutenants – apart, possibly, from Jack Easton – were so out of touch that they genuinely did not know Burgess was a threat until his outrageous behaviour that month.)
  7. Why did SIS immediately recall Philby in May 1951 if it regarded him as a loyal officer? (Given that Burgess had absconded with Maclean, it accepted that Philby would be contaminated in Hoover’s and Bedell Smith’s eyes.  Cave-Brown claims that Menzies acted only after White had informed him of Martin’s suspicions, provoked by his reading Philby’s awkward letter about Burgess)
  8. Why did Menzies agree to White’s interrogation of Philby immediately he returned? (The political pressure was intense, but Menzies was confident that Philby would be exonerated.  Thus he instructed Easton to agree to the trial, grudgingly. In July, Easton would travel to Washington to tell Winston Scott of the CIA that SIS believed Philby was innocent.)
  9. Why was Lamphere not more shocked when he was told about Philby’s probable culpability? (He had never liked Philby, but was overwhelmed by the implications of Maclean’s treachery. He wrote that he did not believe Philby was an active spy since he had spent so little time trying to woo him, Lamphere.)
  10. Why did Philby later promote himself as the Third Man, despite the obvious logistical difficulties? (It distracted attention from the real facilitator in the bowels of MI5 and magnified his reputation as a fixer extraordinaire.)
Guy Burgess

In his notoriously unreliable memoir, My Silent War, Philby wrote, of the plan to use Burgess to help Maclean escape: “In somebody’s mind – I do not know whose – the two ideas merged: Burgess’s return to London and the rescue of Maclean.” From this emerged an extraordinary series of events that involved Burgess’ s being booked for speeding three times in one day in the state of Virginia, and thus arrested, a project that Burgess ‘brought off  . . . in the simplest possible way’, according to Philby’s account. Burgess was accordingly reprimanded by the Ambassador and sent home, where he then successfully met his Soviet contact, and informed Maclean of the escape plan.

This flight of fancy does not stand up to serious analysis, on the following grounds:

  1. Risk: To require Burgess to engage in dangerous driving, an activity that might have resulted in death, was irresponsible. The desired outcome of having Burgess recalled to London was by no means certain.
  2. Speed: The process was extraordinarily laborious. Burgess’s driving escapade happened on March 1: Ambassador Franks received the letter of complaint from the Governor of Virginia on March 14, and told Burgess he was seeking FO approval for his recall. On April 14, he was ordered home, but did not leave on the boat from New York until May 2, arriving in the UK on May 7. If Burgess had been serious, he could voluntarily have returned home earlier without suspicion.
  3. Necessity: As the Mitrokhin archive informs us (probably reliably, in this case), Philby had a Soviet handler in New York named Makeyev, and Burgess was used as a courier to take messages to him. Makeyev could have had messages passed on to Moscow and London much more easily – and no doubt did so. (While in New York, Burgess stayed with Maclean’s younger brother Alan, who was working as Gladwyn Jebb’s private secretary at the time – a series of visits, including Alan’s unrecorded role as a prison visitor to another traitor, George Blake –  that the Macmillan publisher unaccountably omitted from his jocular memoir, No I Tell a Lie, It Was the Tuesday  . . .)
  4. Logistics: It would have been impossible and irregular for Philby and Makeyev (or Philby and a claimed contact in Washington) to make arrangements for Maclean’s escape from so far away, a claim made by both Modin and Philby. Moscow Centre would have had to approve and organize the whole project.
  5. Timing: While Philby did not make the claim, critics have pointed to the fact that Burgess and Maclean absconded on the very day that Foreign Secretary Morrison signed the order for interrogation, suggesting that the Third Man was able to tip off the traitors immediately that decision was known. That would have been impossible for Philby to accomplish: the timing was probably coincidental.
  6. Pragmatics: The Soviets did not have to wait until the date of interrogation was determined to initiate the escape, which must have been planned for weeks ahead. Once Maclean had been confidently identified, his extraction would have occurred as soon as all the pieces were in place.

The fact that Philby was not aware of the timetable, or what the plans were for Maclean’s escape, is shown by a message from Makeyev that even Hamrick quotes, one ‘verifiable’ (although that word should always be used carefully when dealing with Soviet archives) from the Mitrokhin papers. Makeyev met Philby on May 24, and Hamrick comments on it, without dating it, as follows: “In one or only two of Philby’s documented face-to-face meetings with his KGB illegal, Makayev found him distraught: STANLEY, he reported, ‘demanded HOMER’s immediate exfiltration to the USSR, so that he himself would not be compromised.” Thus, the deception was a tactic to draw attention away from a real source close to the centre of power: and that process helped MI5 as well. Despite its obvious flaws, the account of Philby as the Third Man who warned Burgess and Maclean became a political catchphrase, and has been picked up by numerous writers. It suited Philby to deny it when under fire in 1955, and it suited him to confirm it when writing his memoir.

The Strange Case of Anthony Blunt

Anthony Blunt

When Guy Burgess arrived at Southampton on May 7, he was picked up by Anthony Blunt at the Ocean Terminal. The descriptions of Blunt’s role in helping the Soviet cause in the next two-and-a-half weeks before the May 25 departure of Burgess and Maclean are notably unreliable. The account by Yuri Modin (who was the KGB handler of Blunt and Maclean at the time) in My 5 Cambridge Friends is notoriously wrong on many points, such as Philby’s access to VENONA information and the timing of his suspicions concerning HOMER, Philby’s passing hints to the investigation in London, his own failure to recognize Makeyev, and the details of Krivitsky’s interrogation. He adopts the fiction of the Burgess mission undertaken to alert Modin and company of the imminent threat to Maclean, and that Philby and Burgess planned the details of the escape (for Maclean only, of course) while others (such as John Costello) have reported, by access to the Petrov papers, that the decision to exfiltrate Maclean had been taken months before. Somewhat puzzlingly, Miranda Carter in her biography of Blunt, Anthony Blunt: His Lives, despite acknowledging Modin’s flaws, cites him repeatedly. What is certain, however, is that Blunt acted as a go-between, communicating with Modin and Burgess about what shape the plans would take.

In his 1987 book, The Secrets of the Service, Anthony Glees quoted the testimony that Blunt provided to the Times in an interview published on November 21, 1979. It is an awkward and deceitful explanation in which Blunt gave away his continuing relationship with the Soviets, while denying that he had had any involvement in warning Burgess and Maclean. Thus Blunt supported the story that it was Philby who provided the hints that were based on VENONA. “Philby warned them, as has been publicly stated and I could not have had any knowledge of this.” Glees points out the anomalies, reminds us that Hugh Cecil and Andrew Boyle echoed the same line of reasoning, and cites Robert Lamphere’s account of the obstructive MI5 inquiry. But Glees’s argument focuses on the notion that the escape was provoked by the decision to interrogate Maclean in the week beginning May 21 (actually made on May 24), thus absolving Philby of the ability to communicate a warning from Washington.  If Blunt had been the source, however, he would have had to rely on another insider in MI5, since he had left the service in 1945. That conclusion would point to the existence of another mole, as Chapman Pincher strongly asserted, naming Hollis. Glees, sceptical of the case against Hollis, then turned to the evidence of Patrick Reilly, which I shall analyse soon. Yet if the timing of the abscondence had been coincidental, it would not have required the constant refreshment of the investigation’s progress to Blunt, or to anyone else, in those heady days of May 1951.

In my February posting of coldspur, I laid out the bizarre chain of events which led to Goronwy Rees arriving to have an interview with Guy Liddell, on June 7, only to find Anthony Blunt in the room. The source for the timing of this event comes from Jennifer Rees and John Costello, yet there must be some doubt about it. Liddell’s Diaries (which contain many redactions over Burgess and Maclean) are interrupted for the period between June 2, when he met with Blunt to discuss Burgess’s travel patterns, and June 12, when he indicates that he had just returned from Wales – presumably on holiday. His first entry on his return is to deflect the discussion to Dick White: “Dick had had a talk with Anthony and Garonwy [sic] Rees, which seems to indicate that Burgess had in 1937 been fairly closely implicated in Communist activities.” Thus it seems likely that the Rees/Liddell/Blunt encounter probably occurred earlier. Jennifer Rees provides no source for the date: Costello cites Nigel West’s MI5 and Chapman Pincher’s Too Secret Too Long, but neither of those works gives a date for the meeting. Maybe Rees’s hazy memory imagined a delay that did not occur. In any case, Liddell either tried to minimise the event, and reduce his involvement.

In The Perfect English Spy, however, the timetable changes. White told his biographer that Liddell’s meeting occurred on June 1 – but did not mention Blunt’s presence – and that he, White, interviewed Rees on June 6, i.e. while Liddell was away, which would grant more sense to Liddell’s comment. Yet there is no mention of a previous meeting between Liddell and Rees, and certainly no reference to Blunt’s presence. Was that ‘second’ meeting part of Rees’s imagination? The evidence of White and Liddell might suggest that it was: perhaps it was part of Rees’s fevered campaign of denunciation of Liddell. While White’s recollections are frequently dubious, and he might have had good reason for suppressing Blunt’s involvement, Liddell’s diurnal records were less sensitive, and occasionally very ingenuous. As Liddell wrote in that same careful June 12 entry, after dining with a very perturbed Blunt: “No new facts emerged, except that I feel certain that Anthony was never a conscious collaborator with Burgess in any activities that he may have conducted on behalf of the Comintern.”

Guy Liddell

Liddell’s contribution to the investigation was certainly unusual. He had headed B Division before White, and was now Deputy Director-General, but his Diaries show that White introduced him to the leakage case only on April 11, 1951! He does not appear to be surprised or upset about this, but does become more involved after May 25. A note to file by Robertson on May 29 states tersely: “Mr Anthony Blunt is being contacted by DD [Deputy-Director, i.e. Liddell].”  At this stage the whereabouts of Burgess and Maclean were not known, and most of the investigators would claim that they had no inkling that Burgess might come under the same suspicions that surrounded Maclean, so Liddell must have volunteered the information that Blunt, as a friend of Burgess, might be able to shed more light on him. Again, the lead-up to this invitation is ambiguous: both White and Costello reported that Liddell had received a telephone call from Rees on May 26, but had not been able to make sense of it. Rees said that he had tried to contact Liddell unsuccessfully that day, and thus contacted Blunt. Yet Liddell’s diary entry for May 29 (after a large redacted segment for the previous day) indicates that Burgess’s absence came as a complete surprise. He (Liddell) knew about Maclean’s departure, but not that he had been accompanied. It was Blunt who informed him: it is either an enormous bluff, or he was for some reason being kept out of the picture.

In any case, the outcome was that Blunt turned out to be the main witness for the prosecution. The archive at KV 6/143 contains an entry (June 6) where Blunt’s testimony that Burgess worked for the Comintern is used as the primary background material in the briefing-book prepared for Sillitoe for his coming meeting with Hoover. (Reilly’s and White’s knowledge that Guy Burgess had eagerly shown he had contacts inside the Comintern in June 1940 was conveniently overlooked.) At the same time, it is clear that Rees tried to exonerate his friend somewhat: he told the investigators that in 1939 Blunt had echoed his (Rees’s) protestations at the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact. That was not true, but Rees no doubt felt some obligation to a man he admired for dragging him into the controversy. And this whole exercise aroused the excitement of MI5’s B2 section. On June 11, Robertson was minded to declare: “Blunt has been named in Goronwy Rees’s statement as a person who was understood by Rees to have been one of Burgess’s source of information, at the time when Burgess was working for the Russians. Blunt has given every appearance of co-operating with M.I.5 in the present investigation but, by reason of his employment in this office during the war, must be regarded as under some suspicion.”

The irony was that the junior ranks in MI5 had just learned of Blunt’s possible treacherousness, while Liddell and White had known about it since 1944. After all, Blunt had made no secret of his Communist pretensions, he had written about them in the Spectator, he had been recalled from a Military Intelligence course in 1940 because of his dubious background (and somehow had been exonerated), and had then been recruited by MI5. As I also showed (conclusively, I would say: I have not received any rebuttal) in Misdefending the Realm, Blunt was caught red-handed accepting purloined secrets from his sidekick Leo Long, then working for MI14, which he then passed on to the Soviets. No doubt Blunt apologised, saying it was a one-off event, to which he was inspired by a deep sympathy for our struggling ally. He probably added that he believed Stalin was not receiving the richness of intelligence from Britain that he deserved, and felt entitled to show such initiative – an action, we should remember, with which Valentine Vivian expressed sympathy in another context. Long was suspended for a while, and Blunt was no doubt given a slap on the wrists, and continued with his perfidy.

Thus it might have come with a sudden and dreadful shock when White came to the realisation that, if apparently reformed Communist sympathisers like Maclean, and then Philby, and most recent of all, Burgess, could turn out to be red-blooded traitors and snakes in the grass, there was no reason why Blunt might not be in the same category, too. And here Blunt was, pretending to help the cause in nailing Burgess, just as Philby had gone out of his way to help incriminate Maclean. The final irony was that that, immediately White concluded that Philby’s guilt was proven – because of Burgess’s escape – he must have known that the fact of VENONA would have been leaked to the Russians, and thus there was no harm in confronting Maclean with the cables to cause him to confess. That would have been dangerous if Maclean had brazened out his interrogation (though that was unlikely, given his psychological condition), but it would no longer have mattered. By now, however, he had flown the coop.

Reilly and the Hollis Mystery

While Kim Philby had certainly acted as a ‘Second Man’ in warning Moscow of the net closing in on Maclean, many commentators and historians have picked up this unauthentic issue of a Third Man – an intelligence insider – warning Burgess and Maclean of the imminent plan to interrogate HOMER. Several have alighted on Liddell as the prime suspect, among them Costello, Lamphere, Oldfield, Deacon and Rees, as I listed in the April coldspur. An alternative theory has been strongly promoted by Chapman Pincher. Indeed, it was his life’s work to prove that the man behind all the counter-espionage disasters was Roger Hollis, who succeeded Dick White as Director-General of MI5 in 1956.

One of Anthony Glees’s objectives, in The Secrets of the Service, was to inspect Pincher’s claims, and I recommend the Professor’s book to anyone interested in the controversy. [I should declare that Professor Glees was my doctoral supervisor.] Glees analysed some of Pincher’s assertions about Hollis, and then reviewed them in the light of the Burgess-Maclean case. I have to say that I think Glees may have been influenced a little too much by some of the prominent politicians and officers whom he interviewed, among them Lord Sherfield (previously Roger Makins in our cast), Sir Patrick Reilly and Dick White. For instance, Lord Sherfield diminished the harm that Maclean had been able to cause, focusing on the matter of nuclear weaponry, when we now know that Maclean’s betrayal of Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s plans for negotiations at Yalta resulted in untold death and misery for much of eastern Europe, especially Poland. It is the post-mortem of the Burgess-Maclean affair, where Reilly contributed several comments in writing to Glees, that is even more provocative, I believe, and bears some close relationship to my inquiry.

Patrick Reilly

Glees introduces Reilly by citing Lamphere’s recently published FBI-KGB War, where its author complains about the way that the FBI were ‘misled and repeatedly lied to’ about the events that led up to the identification of Maclean. Lamphere stated that the Americans were told nothing about Maclean until after the escape, and he quoted Arthur Martin as ‘telling him that MI5 had insisted the FBI not be told about Maclean’. Glees then goes on to write: “As Chapman Pincher rightly observes, if this is true then Philby cannot have tipped off Maclean, since Philby would have known about Maclean and the date of interrogations only in his capacity as MI5’s postman to the FBI. But is this true? The answer must be ‘no’.” One might point out that, irrespective of Philby’s briefing by Oldfield in 1949, there is a solid difference between Maclean’s being identified as one of the suspects – a fact that was communicated to Lamphere, by Patterson – and the fact that he alone was about to be hauled in for questioning. In any case, Glees then called on one of the main participants in the investigation, Patrick Reilly, for his opinion.

To Glees, Reilly is a figure who instantly commands respect. “For against these allegations we must set the far more authoritative testimony of Sir Patrick Reilly . . .  His first concern now is that the full story of Maclean’s identification be told.” Reilly was generous enough to write letters to Glees on the topic, and I reproduce some of his statements here, adding my own commentary:

  1. “In the circumstances of the time, someone who was a member of the Communist Party might not have been acting dishonourably in not disclosing his political sympathies, provided, of course, he was not acting as a Soviet or a Communist agent.”

This is an extraordinarily ingenuous and weaselly policy to defend. First of all, it reflects the regrettable but all too real belief that there were ‘academic’ Communists who were harmless (probably British), and ‘practical’ Communists whose mission was to overthrow liberal democracy (probably foreigners), and that it was therefore quite acceptable to hire the former, even though they concealed their affiliations, while persecuting the latter. Did Sir Patrick not understand that the CPGB took its orders from Moscow, and that agents were known to engage in subterfuge, and thus conceal any illicit activity?

  • “One important stage in the investigation has, however, been overlooked. This is that at a fairly late stage a message became available that Homer was being consulted by the Russians  . . . The new message however showed that the spy was someone of some importance and we were then able to produce what was a relatively short list, about 9, I think. But we still had nothing special pointing to Maclean and indeed I remember clearly that we thought someone else was a more likely suspect.”

This is probably the only occasion in the history of intelligence where the treachery of leaking secret information has been described as a ‘consulting’ exercise. As KV 6/142 shows, Martin informed Patterson on April 12 that Maclean was then ‘the top suspect’. Reilly’s colleague in the Foreign Office, Carey-Foster, may have hoped otherwise, but the Washington Embassy was informed ‘at this fairly late stage’ of HOMER’s probable identity.

  • “The other part of the story quoted by Pincher is pure fabrication; it is totally untrue that the Foreign Office told MI5 not to inform the FBI that Maclean had been identified. On the contrary, Sir Percy Sillitoe [head of MI5] was absolutely determined not to put a foot wrong with Hoover since he had had such a lot of trouble with the latter over the Fuchs and Nunn May cases. He kept Hoover informed with messages which were sent over for special security through MI6 and therefore, of course, through Philby. And there is not the slightest doubt that it was Philby who was thus able to set Maclean’s escape in train. Indeed, I remember that when we in the FO were getting impatient about the delay in interrogating Maclean we were told that Sillitoe wanted to be quite sure we were in step with the FBI before the interrogation took place.”

There is no evidence that Sillitoe, who was out of touch with the details of the investigation, maintained regular communications with Hoover on the subject. (Hamrick makes much of the ‘special MI6 link’ accessed by Philby). K 6/142 shows that Reilly reported at a meeting on April 17 that ‘Strang wants no information passed to the Americans’. Martin passed that message on to Patterson on April 18. On May 10 Mackenzie suggested: ‘If Maclean breaks under interrogation, we should tell the FBI we intend to question him and very shortly afterwards give them the results’.  K 6/142 offers, from a meeting on May 15, that the Foreign Office ‘was anxious that nothing be disclosed to the State Department’, and thus nothing should be sent to Hoover (for fear of leaks). On the same date, Makins and Mackenize pressed for Hoover not to be informed until after Maclean’s interrogation had taken place.

  • “The allegation that Maclean was not going to be prosecuted is also totally untrue. The long delay in interrogating him was due to the fact that it was considered that the evidence from the deciphered telegrams could not be used in court.”

This is partly true. Unless Maclean could be encouraged to confess, or had been caught red-handed passing over information (which was then unlikely, given the obvious surveillance imposed on him), he could not be tried in court based on VENONA evidence. Thus there was no certainty that he was going to be prosecuted, but also no decision made in advance not to prosecute.

  • “MI5 therefore considered that a conviction could only be obtained by a confession and in order to obtain a conviction their star interrogator, Skardon, needed much more information about Maclean. Hence the long delay which proved disastrous, especially as MI5 did not have enough men to keep Maclean under continuous observation.”

On May 15, a meeting between Reilly, Carey Foster, Mackenzie, White, Robertson and Martin agreed to go ahead with the interrogation, but keep silent about it to Washington for up to 3-4 weeks. Reilly did have a point, however. MI5’s report of May 18 stated that the service needed three months to prepare for the interrogation: that was partly because they wanted the FBI to make further investigations about Maclean’s wife, but Lamphere was very nervous about leakages to the State Department.

  • “Morrison would certainly have had before him a written submission, certainly already signed and approved by Strang, drafted by me or Carey Foster.  That submission would have certainly have been the result of prior discussion and the Home Secretary’s concurrence would have been obtained.”

The use of the conditional tense shows evasiveness. Could Reilly, so anxious to set the historical record straight, not recall what papers he signed?

  • “All Sillitoe’s messages to Hoover went through Philby who was thus able to arrange for Burgess to get himself sent home to alert Maclean without the latter’s contact in the UK having to contact him. Philby would of course have been on the alert for information about the date of the interrogation. He could have telephoned to Burgess who was not then suspected or under observation. But it is surely much more likely that he would have used the safe channel of his Soviet contacts in Washington who would have informed their colleagues in London who must have told Burgess by the morning of the 25th since the latter spent the day preparing for the escape.”

Communications on the progress of the BRIDE/VENONA investigation were sent variously by Robertson, Martin or White to Patterson, who then shared the results, as guided, with Philby and Lamphere. There is no evidence of secret traffic between Sillitoe and Hoover. The existence of safe contacts in Washington is highly dubious: Philby used Burgess to contact Makeyev in New York, but does claim he made contact once or twice with handlers in Washington. In any case, Philby would not have had time to act. The decision to go ahead with interrogation (for June 18-25) was taken on May 24, the day before the abscondence.

  • “At last, towards the end of May, MI5 declared themselves ready to interrogate. Full details of the plan were telegraphed to Washington (via Philby). I seem to remember that some hitch with the FBI caused a last-minute delay.”

On May 25, White informed Patterson of the recent meetings, and the schedule. He claimed that the discovery of Maclean’s wife in New York was ‘very recent’, and introduced ‘the real and notional aspects of the case’. The same day, Sillitoe sent copies of the instructions to Menzies, adding that they would be available to Philby, too (via Patterson). The FBI was not party to the decision.

  • “In the FO we had no conceivable motive for further delay. We were longing for the end of three months of intense suspense.”

On the contrary, the Foreign Office was trying to stretch the process out.  For example, reluctant to admit that Maclean could actually be a traitor, Mackenzie continually sought to investigate Gore-Booth.

  1.  “Our service had the tradition of a closely knit family. That one of us, the son of a Cabinet Minister, should be a Soviet spy was something quite horrible and we had been living with this knowledge for months.”

Apart from the fact that the Foreign Office, like any normal family, had its black sheep, rivalries, jealousies, misfits and idlers (as is clear from memoirs and archives), if Reilly had known this fact ‘for months’ (and the description pointed solely to Maclean), how could he pretend that, ‘at a fairly late stage’, the shortlist of suspects had been reduced to nine? And had he already forgotten about the conviction of John King, and Krivitsky’s warnings about the ‘Imperial Council’ spy?  On the issue of ‘family’, Richard Deacon informs us that George Wigg, who had been the intermediary between Prime Minister Harold Wilson and the intelligence services, told him that esprit de corps was the bane of the Foreign Office.  Deacon wrote: “Wigg himself said that Morrison, when he left office, ‘still persisted in the view that Foreign Office esprit de corps was in part responsible for the affair [the failure to apprehend Burgess and Maclean before they defected]. Esprit de corps, apparently, had kept Morrison ignorant of information implicating Maclean which had been given to the Foreign Office by Stalin’s former agent, Walter Krivitsky, in 1940; it had also kept him ignorant of the Volkov revelations, made through the British Embassy in Turkey.”

  1.  “What is of course impossible to understand is that Arthur Martin should have told Lamphere (if he really did) that the FO told MI5 not to keep the FBI informed. . . If he is concerned to incriminate Hollis and therefore wants to minimize Philby’s part, he is being deliberately untruthful. I am absolutely astonished that it is possible for any doubt to be cast on the fact that it was Philby who warned the Russians of the investigation of Maclean and thus enabled them to plan his escape. The statement that the FO had told MI5 not to inform the FBI is false. I say that with complete certainty.”

As I have shown above, Reilly’s statement is simply untrue. There is not necessarily a logical link between the desire of the Foreign Office to keep information from the FBI (because of the risk of leakage, and the discomfort of having an announcement of Maclean’s interrogation pre-empted by the Americans) and the casting of doubt on the assertion that Philby could not have been responsible for all that Reilly (and others) claimed he did. Philby no doubt did warn the Soviets of the investigation into Maclean, but he would not have been able to alert them to the imminent interrogation. Indeed, no one may have done so.

Professor Glees’s conclusion from Reilly’s contribution was that ‘the full truth about the defection of Burgess and Maclean serves to incriminate Philby and to exonerate Roger Hollis in particular”. Apart from the fact that Philby was incriminated anyway (if not by the last-minute disclosure), if Reilly’s testimony can now be shown to be untruthful, would that incriminate Hollis? Not necessarily, but that is the topic of a completely different discussion. (Hollis hardly features in all the archival reports about the Embassy Spy investigation, but that was because he was intensely involved with the Australians in investigating their VENONA leaks, travelling to the Dominion frequently in 1948 and 1949, and helping to establish the ASIO organisation.) The major point here is: what was Reilly trying to hide?

The first declaration to be made is that, like White, he wanted to divert all attention away from any potential mole in MI5 (or a further one in the Foreign Office). This would likewise minimise the highly irregular relationship with Anthony Blunt, which must have also embarrassed Reilly enormously when the truth came out in 1963. If one maintained the stance that Burgess and Maclean had really been alerted at the last minute, but then Philby was eliminated from the line-up, fingers would have to point at another source close to the discussions. Blunt was later shown to be an intermediary for the Soviets, but he was not close enough to the action – unless Liddell had been keeping him constantly updated. But Liddell was largely out of the picture, too. The subsidiary point was that he wanted to clarify that MI5, not the Foreign Office, had been the main stumbling-block in the move to interrogation. That was perhaps petty (and White was still alive when he wrote to Glees), but it presumably meant a lot to Reilly.

Reilly thus remains something of a paradox. Why, after all that time, did he not simply admit that Philby had known about Maclean for a long time, and that the timing of the escape was probably coincidental? He would not have constructed such a web of deception around himself. Moreover, his professional contribution to intelligence matters appears very flimsy. His period as Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, a position he held from November 1950 to April 1953, is treated with complete lack of interest by Michael S. Goodman in his official history of the Committee (2014). Goodman grants Reilly and his specific tenure only two uninformative paragraphs. (The sole fact that Michael Goodman vouchsafes us, about Reilly’s term as Chairman of that body, is that he destroyed a chair when he heard the news about Burgess and Maclean – a highly symbolic gesture of Chekhovian, or even Dostoyevskian, proportions.) Goodman does comment, however, on the JIC’s general abrogation of responsibility over VENONA and Soviet espionage, whether out of ignorance or indifference: “The JIC’s failure to probe the strategic implications of the damage caused by Soviet espionage is even harder to understand, despite the fact that administrative responsibility for security and counter-intelligence lay with MI5”, he writes. Goodman might have added that Reilly was in close cahoots with White at the time, but clearly concealed everything from the JIC itself. The real mystery is why such an unimpressive character as Reilly was not only appointed Chairman of the JIC, but lasted there three years.

Summary and Conclusions

Jorge Luis Borges likened the Falklands War to two bald men fighting over a comb. Here were two old-age pensioners claiming that neither of them, when schoolboys, broke the window. In 1951, Dick White, when he realised that Philby was blown, executed a crafty move to plant the responsibility for MI5 lapses on his rival organisation, SIS. Thirty-five years later, he distorted the real sequence of events when he described the happenings of that spring to his biographer, not wanting to reveal that he had suspected Philby long before. Back then, Patrick Reilly, embarrassed and enraged by the leakiness of the Foreign Office, had tried to stave off the inevitable. Thirty-five years later, under no pressure at all, he volunteered to document for Anthony Glees ‘the full story of what occurred’, and tried to turn the reading public’s attention away from the rottenness of MI5 and towards the comprehensive culpability of Philby. He could quite plausibly have simply debunked the ‘Third Man’ concept without practising to deceive.

Why did they do it? Because they could get away with it, and they knew that, even if the archive were opened, they would not be around to see it. This was the 1980s, however. The decade had kicked off with Andrew Boyle’s Climate of Treason, and the unmasking of Blunt. Chapman Pincher had followed in 1982 with his searing Too Secret Too Long. The secret of VENONA was starting to leak out, from David Harvey and Nigel West, and then Robert Lamphere’s FBI-KGB War in 1986. It does not appear that either White or Reilly read Lamphere’s account, but Glees’s reading of it prompted his approach to Reilly. Peter Wright’s controversial and revealing Spycatcher came out in the same year (1987) that Glees’s book was published, at the same time when Tom Bower started interviewing White. The mandarins needed to move on to the offensive, and try to protect the reputations of themselves and their institutions. Dick White’s deep plotting shows a hitherto undocumented side of his character as he elbowed and intrigued his way to the Director-Generalship of MI5.

The last point to be made is on the rather romantic notion of ‘intelligence sharing’, with which this piece started. The practice has a humorous aspect, in that Britain was invited by the Americans to join an exercise that would turn out to embarrass its intelligence circles. MI5 (for a while) shared the fruits of the Embassy Spy investigation with the FBI, but the FBI did not share them with the CIA, who did not even know about VENONA. And it has its darker side, too. It appears that Dick White, to meet his own political objectives, shared his inner suspicions with the CIA in order to spite his real rival, SIS, while concealing what he was doing from his boss, Sillitoe (a policeman) and his political master, Attlee (a Socialist). All the time, the real enemy, Stalin, learned more about VENONA (from Philby, and the American spy, William Weisband, uncovered in 1950) than either Truman or Attlee.

The research is never over. While I am relatively happy that my explanation in this piece is as solid as possible, given the sources available, further questions remain to be answered: For example:

When did White seriously begin to suspect Philby? In 1945? In 1947? In 1949?

Was there anything devious in Philby’s posting to Washington in 1949?

Did Menzies apply pressure on White to remain silent between 1945 and 1951?

Was there any outside political pressure on White & Reilly?

Was the Embassy leakage investigation extenuated for reasons other than embarrassment?

How much did Liddell tell Blunt?

Why was Menzies so tacit in the whole project?

Why did Reilly feel he had to lie so poorly?

Did Eastcote truly delay or conceal some of the VENONA decipherments?

Readers may think of others. Please let me know.

And lastly, what historiographical lessons can be learned from this? They are familiar.

  1. Luminaries will say anything to protect their legacy if they believe the archival record will not be released. Do not trust interviews of ‘The Great and the Good’ for historical exactitude.
  2. You cannot rely on authorised histories. Their sweep is to great, their sources too random, and they are works of public relations.
  3. Too many accounts pluck indiscriminately from semi-reliable sources, and lack a research methodology, as if an accurate story can be enticed from a volume of facts both reliable and unreliable, or from a succession of interviews with persons loosely connected with the drama.
  4. A methodology is thus essential, containing a rigorous chronology, knowledge of the roles, ambitions and objectives of the participants, and the background in which they worked. The historian has continually to ask: Why should we trust certain sources? What does redacted information in the archive tell us? How can conflicts in the record be resolved? Why would a participant in the drama want to make such falsifiable claims?

Sources Used

I list the following, in a hierarchy of those most reliable downwards.

Level One comprises mostly official archives. The series KV 6/140-145 at the National Archives at Kew is the primary source, even though it is selective and has been redacted. Publicly available CIA & FBI records have been used, although they are likewise often heavily redacted. I am grateful to an anonymous colleague for showing me excerpts from the Cleveland Cram archive. KGB records should always be viewed with some suspicion, but the Mitrokhin Archive contains some items that most critics have judged reliable. The VENONA transcripts are trustworthy (despite what some leftist apologists have claimed in recent years). Guy Liddell’s Diaries have also been a useful source, as they mostly bear the aroma of immediacy, but they have also been heavily redacted in places, and Liddell was not above inserting the occasional deceptive entry.

Level Two consists mostly of serious, primarily academic, histories. It must be remembered that all of these were published before much of the relevant archival material was released. They are thus highly reliant on what little ‘authorised’ history had been published, on other secondary sources, on the press, sometimes on controlled access to archives, on testimonies from participants through interviews, even on leaked documents. They are characterised (mostly) by a seriousness and objectivity of approach, with some governing methodology apparent, but not always a sound approach to the resolution of conflicts in evidence. (If you challenge interviewees too closely, they will cut off the oxygen from you.) Andrew Boyle’s Climate of Treason (1979) clearly broke new ground. Robert J. Lamphere’s FBI-KGB War (1986) adds some well-supported facts, although the author is very loose on dates. Anthony Glees’s Secrets of the Service (1987) offers a painstaking analysis of the affair, but unfortunately is too trusting of the evidence of Reilly, Makins and White. John Costello’s Mask of Treachery (1988) is a compendious but more journalistic volume, suffering from the author’s apparent desire to cram every ‘fact’ he could find about the case in the hope that a consistent story would emerge from the exercise. Verne Newton’s Cambridge Spies (1991) provides a thorough US-centric view of the spies’ activity, although it uses some dubious sources a little too indiscriminately.  The accounts of VENONA are generally solid: the official publication VENONA: Soviet Espionage and the American Response 1939-1957 (1996), edited by Robert Louis Benson and Michael Warner, Nigel West’s VENONA: The Greatest Secret of the Cold War (1999), John Earl Haynes’ & Harvey Klehr’s VENONA: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (1999), and Herbert Romerstein’s and Eric Breindel’s VENONA Secrets (2001), but they are all weak on the exact process of message collection and decryption, and contain errors.

Level Three displays a broad range of more specialised works, biographies mainly, by such as (but not restricted to) Miranda Carter, Jennifer Rees, Andrew Lownie, Michael Holzman, Ben Macintyre, Stewart Purvis and Jeff Hulbert, Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman, and Roland Phillips. They all bring something to the table, but are for the sake of this exercise a little too narrowly focussed, or are acts of homage, or rely too much on oral evidence and memoir. I would place in this category the very readable works of Chapman Pincher, who rewards his readers with some tireless excavation of ‘facts’, but provides no sources, is too easily impressed by insiders who may be stringing him a line, and whose methodology is flawed by his objective of having all evidence point to Roger Hollis as a traitor. Nigel West’s Molehunt is also useful, but has been carelessly put together, and requires caution. Anthony Cave-Brown’s Treason in the Blood (1984) has some valuable material, but is undisciplined, as is his biography of Stewart Menzies, “C” (1987), which throws out some will-o’-the-wisp stories about Philby in the course of reporting interviews the author arranged with contemporaries.

Level Four includes a number of unreliable works that need to be listed, since they are so frequently cited by books in Categories 2, 3 and 5. The comparison of misleading stories appearing in memoirs with new archival sources does however often result in new syntheses. David Martin’s Wilderness of Mirrors (1980) is perhaps the most dangerous because it has been so widely quoted, a journalistic creation lacking sources. I have covered S. J. Hamrick’s fascinating but irresponsible Deceiving the Deceivers (2004) in my text. Kim Philby’s My Silent War (1968) needs to be approached with great scepticism, as do most books about Philby, including Patrick Seale’s and Maureen McConville’s Philby: The Long Road to Moscow (1973), a work completely devoid of sources but apparently reflecting a belief that a plausible story could be woven from interviews with about one hundred-and-fifty persons, and The Philby Conspiracy (1968) by Bruce Page, David Leitch and Phillip Knightley. The biography of Dick White, The Perfect English Spy (1995), by Tom Bower, is a classic example of how a prominent intelligence officer manipulated the media and distorted the truth. Goronwy Rees’s memoir, A Chapter of Accidents (1972) is highly unreliable. Dozens of works, by authors from such as Richard Deacon to Yuri Modin, could be included in this category.

Level Five includes the official or authorised histories. In normal circumstances such would at least appear in Category 2, but for this subject, they add nothing, and, moreover, frequently cite items from Level Four for their authority. Keith Jeffery’s Secret History of MI6 (2010) stops in 1949. Christopher Andrew’s Defend the Realm (2009), the authorised history of MI5, has solid coverage of VENONA in general, but is weak on the Burgess and Maclean case, and uses Wilderness of Mirrors as a source. No authorised history of the FBI exists, but John Ranelagh’s The Agency (1986), which comes closest, shows the same defects as Andrew.

Lastly, as part of my background reading for this project, I read Robert Littell’s The Company (2002), a semi-fictional account of the life of the CIA. It is an epic work in many ways (900 pages), a complement perhaps to Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, and a real page-turner. It has the disquieting feature, however, of mixing in historical figures (e.g. Kim Philby, James Angleton, Richard Helms, J. F. Kennedy) with invented characters, which may give the work some measure of authenticity, but is bound to lead to disillusion among the cognoscenti. The figure of William Harvey of the CIA, who fulfils a minor, but very important, role in the story of Dick White’s deception, is thinly masked by Littell’s giving him the name of Harvey Torriti. The reason for this is, I think, simple. The author needed his hero to be alive when Communism collapsed (the real Harvey died in 1976), and he also wanted to describe Torriti’s experience in dealing with a botched defection in Germany – which he ascribed to Philby’s mischief – by the time he wrote his report to Bedell Smith condemning the British traitor. In real life, however, Harvey was not sent to Germany until after the 1951 incident. The facts would have impaired a good story.

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

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