Friday 23 January 2004

MI5's Peter Wright: The Cold War's Most Important Spy

by Trowbridge H. Ford, Ph.D. (Columbia)

Peter Wright of Britain's Security Service has been made the subject of ridicule for so long, especially over the plot he developed to remove Prime Minister Harold Wilson from power because he was a Soviet mole, that the leading spy and manipulator of the Cold War, if not for all time, has been reduced to the laughing stock for all concerned. Wright was the first agent to learn the spying potential of lowly counterintelligence, making so much of it that former DG Stella Rimington was reduced recently to call him facetiously "the KGB illegal", like Gordon Lonsdale, but actually the claim was all too true.

Most important, though, Wright was the Soviets' leading scientific spy whose contributions were so important in making the USSR a super power that MI5 has gone to the greatest lengths to hide them, especially because he neutralized defectors who could have stopped him. Within the Security Service, Wright created such a wave of disinformation about who were the spies in the country, and the moles within its midst, thanks to feedback by false defectors like Anatoliy Golitsyn, that it was rendered incapable of hardly anything worthwhile. Similarly, Wright, as the most important Anglo-American intelligence link, had CIA and the FBI chasing up so many wrong trees, and cutting down so many enemies Moscow really wanted gotten rid of, leaving a scene so wretched that Britain's intelligence services have gone to the greatest lengths to hide his efforts.

In fact, Wright so institutionalized wrong agendas within Western intelligence services that they worked more for Moscow than their own side. The process still could not enable the USSR to win the Cold War, as his handler Lonsdale bitterly admitted ultimately to one of his spies, George Blake, though the West's belated effort to exploit Wright's disastrous legacy almost caused it to lose it, a result which the former Assistant Director still helped cover up. Of course, Moscow was so pleased with Wright's record that it too joined the chorus of disapproval, everyone claiming that he was so bad that they almost thought of eliminating him themselves, though it protected his role and identity to the very end.

Wright, unlike the Cambridge spies, apparently became a communist sympathizer not out of ideological commitment but because of necessity. Son of Maurice Wright, who had built direction-finding stations in Norway for Captain Reginald Hall's Naval Intelligence Department during WWI, and served as the Marconi Company's Head of Research after the war, young Peter often assisted his father in wireless experiments, only to see him cut down by redundancy, and alcoholism by the consolidation of communication companies, and the Depression. Instead of going to Public School and Oxbridge, like the offspring of other members of Britain's enterprising middle classes, Wright was forced into farm work just to make ends meet, ultimately gaining a place in Oxford's hardly prestigious School of Rural Economy, thanks still to the pulling of a few strings. While Peter's father ultimately made something of a comeback, it was still too late to prevent his son from becoming SCOTT, it seems, the communist sympathizer who Edith Tudor Hart recruited as a spy for illegal Theodore Mally in the fall of 1936, and who was more valuable than Cambridge's famous spies, even Kim Philby, in identifying potential Soviet ones from university graduates going into government, the professions, and science that he was ordered to cut all ties with the CPGB.

While Wright's spying for Moscow was suspended during the Non-Aggression Pact, he resumed his activities after it became likely that the USSR would win the war with Hitler. In the meantime, he had vastly improved his credibility as a scientist at the Admiralty Research Laboratory by developing degaussing systems to protect ships against magnetic mines and torpedoes, what the Soviets were in dire need of, and it was his re-demagnetizing of the battleship Prince of Wales which enabled Churchill and Harry Hopkins, just returned from a most encouraging visit with Stalin in Moscow, to go to Placentia Bay to sign the Atlantic Charter with Roosevelt, what put Washington on a collision course with both Berlin and Tokyo. Without Wright, the battleship might well have been sunk by German U-boats, and Anglo-American cooperation in the war with it, what was essential for Soviet survival.

Little wonder that Stalin jumped into action about making an atomic bomb, once he received Wright's detailed report in December 1942 on the state of American, British, and German activities in the field. Thanks to contacts in MI6, starting with Mansfield Cumming, Wright had learned that while the German effort to produce the bomb was getting nowhere, an Anglo-American effort was finally forging ahead. Cambridge physicists Lew Kowarski and Hans von Halban had established that a chain reaction could be conducted, Oxford's Francis Simon had developed a machine for effecting isotope separation of uranium by gaseous diffusion, and scientists at Berkeley's Radiation Laboratory were seeking a simplified route to the bomb by using plutonium.

Once the KGB resident Anatoli Gorsky took Wright in tow after a face-to-face meeting where he was given the new code-name 'K' to protect his security, he soon was working so efficiently with Vladimir Barkovsky, its head of scientific and technological intelligence, in recruiting agents like MOOR and KELLY, and stealing documents from careless colleagues that Igor Kurchatov, the head of the Soviet project, wrote a memorandum in July 1943 on what needed to be learned from the Manhattan Project in America. In March, Kurchatov, after a hurried trip to Murmansk to demagmetize the vital Northern Fleet with Wright's latest expertise, had written an extensive memorandum for Mikhail Pervukhin, People's Commissar for the Chemical Industry, based upon other material from 'K', indicating that the creation of an atomic bomb was now entirely feasibile. "Kurchatov was very impressed by what he saw," David Holloway has written in Stalin and the Bomb, "all of which concerned Britain. It had 'huge, inestimatble significance for our state and science,' the wrote." (p. 91)

The young ARL scientist taught Barkovsky advanced nuclear physics, improving his running of sources, what Wright had had to teach himself at night in his flat at Hampton Wick. He provided the Soviets with everything he could find in Britain about the experiments Glenn Seaborg and Emilio Segre were conducting on uranium piles at Berkeley to produce plutonium. To answer such questions, Wright helped recruit physicists Klaus Fuchs, Alan Nunn May, and Bruno Pontecorvo to accompany Professor James Chadwick to various North American research facilities. Little wonder that neither Nigel West nor Christopher Andrew were even slightly interested in determining who 'K' was when they got the chance, the former supplying pictures of Barkovsky in The Crown Jewels as if the processor of reports had given the Soviets the bomb, and the Cambridge professor so identifying Barkovsky with 'K' in The Sword and the Shield that they became one! (Index, p. 689)

While Wright's spying trailed off with the winning of WWII, once the threat posed by Soviet defector Konstantin Volkov in Ankara against Philby and himself had been disposed of, and the Soviets were getting the bomb, the exposure and escape of Donald Mcclean, Guy Burgess, and Philby, while the Rosenbergs were executed for all the spying, forced him to resume activities. The idea of the privileged traitors escaping any kind of reckoning for another life of recognition while the struggling Jewish couple were made scapegoats by the Americans was just too much for the underpaid government scientist. At the Post Office, Wright developed for MI5 resonating devices, microphones, and bugging technics so that he became the West's master of "black bag jobs". Unfortunately, they almost all failed because of some unexpected development, e. g., bugging the wrong room, agents in the bugged room never talking, and installing a bug which still somehow failed, all apparently the result of tipoffs. In the process, he destroyed the last bit of credibility Igor Gouzenko, Wright's greatest threat, had. Its culmination was when he, as a new Ultra genius, tapped a phone in the Egyptian Embassy's cipher room, and started surprisingly reading its Hagelin machine communications (ENGULF) despite Soviet sweeping of the facility, creating a situation in which Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd took its disinformation so seriously Britain backed down during the Suez Crisis.

While London looked for fig leaves for its frustrations, Wright consolidated his position for spying as MI5's first scientist. He was so successful in getting the Secret Service to develop technical means which helped Soviet spying, claiming that they already had them, and Britain really needed them - e. g., a reagent to develop secret writing, detecting microdots through neutron activation, inspecting the interiors of dead letter containers without detection, and more X-ray methods to inspect the interiors of safes. (One can only wonder when MI6 agents in the USSR ever gained information, and transmitted it to London by these means.) Then Wright combined these technical breakthroughs with the spying potential of his new handler, Lonsdale, who had taken over from Yuri Modin because he did not want in any way to be associated with the Cambridge ones. Wright and Lonsdale independently used the debriefings of the Dragon Returnees, the German scientists forced to work in the USSR after WWII, by the Colemore Committee to squeeze every bit of information possible out of any scientists who had had any connection with the Soviets.

With this "sounding board" (Spycatcher, p. 115) as a basis, Lonsdale would seek out targets for spying, and Wright would then follow up in the unsuccessful cases with charges of treachery, forcing suspects to tell all about their associates, work, and where and how more could be learned. This resulted in masses of material to Lonsdale through dead letter drops for microdot transmission to Moscow by the Krogers aka the Cohens, and further feedback to him for exploitation. Wright made the process transparent when he justified it by claiming that Peter Kapitsa, the most anti-communist scientist the Soviets had, and 1978 Nobel Prize winner in physics, had spent his time at Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory, talent-spotting potential recruits for Moscow. If Kapitsa was seeking communist world-domination, everyone could be.

While Wright put this witch hunt on a worldwide basis (FLUENCY), he took his experience of trying to eliminate Cyprus's Colonel Grivas, claiming that without him the EOKA movement would collapse, to Washington for action against Cuba's Fidel Castro. In 1957, Wright had gotten to know CI Chief James Angleton in the wake of Philby's betrayal, and was convinced that his determination to win the Cold War could backfire to Soviet advantage. Two years later, right after Castro had seized power, Angleton arranged for Wright to tell DDP Richard Bissell and his assistant Richard Helms that the head of the Cuban Revolution should be cut off before it was too late. Actually, communist Cuba was an asset that Moscow had no use for. It was too far away from its real interests, and too expensive to maintain. CIA arranged for staged explosions on the French freighter La Coubra in Havana harbor, and Mafia assassins to do the job, but without success. In the meantime, Wright used his new resonating capability (RAFTER), behind CIA's back, to limit Michal Goleniewski's exposure of Lonsdale's spy ring to a minimum, obliging the Polish intelligence officer to defect in the process.

After the failed Bay of Pigs operation, which forced the retirement of Bissell and DCI Allen Dulles, Wright, bolstered by Golitsyn's defection, returned to Washington in October 1961 to give the renewed remedy in person to William King Harvey, the Agency's head of 'Executive Action'. While Chairman Khrushchev did everything he could to make JFK, now with Harvey's help, take the bait, the President refused to either assassinate Castro, or invade Cuba as the Missile Crisis developed. For his trouble, the President then became the problem, and Wright did what he could but without success as the countdown commenced in Cuba to force JFK's hand for a solution by debunking Oleg Penkovsky's claims of Soviet defensiveness and weakness. While the plan to blame the Dallas assassination upon the communists was prevented by the shooting of Texas Governor John Connally, those consumed by Soviet disinformation about Cuba's importance had to settle upon Vietnam as a substitute.

While it is easy now to debunk Wright's spying, it might well have succeeded if JFK had not been so opposed to an invasion. KGB Chief Alexandr Shelepin had concluded that with Wright's spying, and disinformation about Castro, the Soviets could well take over Western Europe, and, as Khrushchev had predicted to the 21st CPSU Congress, start completing the communist utopia. As it was, Wright had to settle, with Golitsyn's and CIA's help, in using FLUENCY to find more traitors, high and low, at home and around the world. DDP Helms expanded the program by suppying 20 technicians, and unlimited computer time to keep better track of suspects. While Premier Harold Wilson was the most prominent member of the witch hunt - Wright's critics thinking that the seriousness of the effort was somehow explained away by the fact that MI5 itself did not support the move - this was just the tip of the iceberg.

Wright had Lord Adrian, Cambridge's Chancellor, spilling his guts about who might have been spying with Kapitsa. Then MI5 somehow confused Judith Hart for Wright's recruiter, Edith Tudor Hart, ruining the Labour's minister's career. There were several suicides, thanks to Wright's probing, of suspects who had been rather imprudent in their youth. Special Branch files were filled with the names of potential subversives, and the BBC 'blacklisted' writers and intellectuals who could not appear on its programs. Of course, the most serious blunders concerned alleged moles within MI5 itself, particularly DG Roger Hollis, witch hunts which adversely affected anyone who stood in Wright's way. His parting gift to MI5, what Rimington dismissed by claiming that he had been rendered harmless by then ("Spies like us," The Guardian, September 10, 2001, G2, p. 2), was to use suspicions of Michael Hanley's leftist past to induce him to adopt a military solution to the problems of Northern Ireland, a wrong turn which Britain is still trying to recover from.

Actually, conditions beame so bad that MI5 decided in 1987 to let Wright's memoirs finally appear. DGSS Anthony Duff made an unprecedented effort to frustrate Wright's bitter effort, only to allow copies from overseas to flood into the kingdom, ruining thereby any chance of preventing its appearance by injunction. One can only wonder what prompted this diversion.