Tag Archives: MI5

Tales from a retired spy.

You learn some fascinating things about the world of espionage by reading the memoirs of retired spies. This year is the thirtieth anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s attempt to have the publication of Peter Wright’s book Spycatcher stopped. Thatcher lost the court case, and the book was published in ’87.

Spy Cather
Spy Cather

Wright began as a Naval scientist, and was recruited to work for MI5, Britain’s counter intelligence agency. Most of the book occurs in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, but some things don’t change with time. Readers might recall the very recent furor about how how the US was spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and how Australia tried to hack the phone of  the wife of the Indonesian Prime Minister. Well, it turns out that counties have been spying on their own “friends”for decades. When Britain was trying to join the “Common Market” (as they called the European Union back then), Britain’s spying efforts were mostly directed at the USSR (no surprises here), the Egyptians (because of the Suez canal) and then France, its supposed ally because France opposed Britain joining. This was spying over what was then a purely economic matter. Great resources were devoted to breaking French encryption, at the French embassy, and for three years the British read all of the cables between the French embassy and Paris. However it didn’t help them join at the time.

Wright tells all the stories you would expect of break-ins, buggings, attempts to ensnare soviet agents into traps, and teams of followers trailing diplomats and suspected spies. Many of them are fascinating for someone reading for the first time how spies work.

Wright was obsessed with the idea that the head of MI5, Peter Hollis was a Soviet spy: that MI5 had been ‘penetrated’ by the Russians. A large portion of the later chapters is devoted to this issue, which has never really been proved one way or the other.

The book is now out of print, but available second hand on the usual websites. For those who might want to know how things worked during the cold war, it’s a good eye-opener. It would be useful for novel writers setting political thrillers in the cold war period.

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Why is John le Carre such a good spy / thriller writer?

I first came across John Le Carre’s novels 30 years ago. The first book of his I read was “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.” It dealt with a theme that recurs constantly through the remainder of le Carres’s books: betrayal, and the way intelligence services use and the dispose of people. The main character is sent on a mission where he risks his life going into East Germany during the cold war. He makes a shocking discovery at the end of the novel: a central belief he has held all the through the book, something he based his whole actions on, is in fact a lie. And the people who sent him into East Germany knew it, and used him to spread that lie, at the risk of his own life and that of his girlfriend. The book doesn’t have a happy ending.

In real life, le Carre (real name John Cornwall) was a spy.

He worked for the British Army’s Intelligence Corp in Germany in 1950, returned to England in 1952 where he spied on suspected communists for MI5 at Oxford, and he became a full time MI5 officer in 1958. In 1960, he transferred to MI6, and left the service in 1964 after ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” became a success. By this time, Cornwall’s cover as an MI6 agent had been blown by the real-life Kim Philby, a British agent secretly working for the Soviet Union.

What makes le Carre’s characters so interesting is that they often very flawed people. His own life experience gives him ample justification for books based on secrets, deceit and betrayal. Perhaps his best ever book was written in  1986. The cold war was still on. Le Carre writes  “A Perfect Spy”. It tells the story of a young man who has a conman for a father. The conman father is based on le Carre’s own father, who went bankrupt several times and ended up in jail for insurance fraud.

The main character (Magnus Pym) is a British intelligence officer who forms a relationship with a Czechoslovak intelligence officer in which they exchange documents so each can claim to have a valuable mole on the other side. The book contains a line that struck me as brilliant. When Magnus leaves home to hand over his first batch of documents, le Carre writes “…and Magnus stepped out into the night and became his father.”

And let’s be realistic: what do  intelligence agencies like MI6 and MI5 do? They get people from other countries to betray their countries. They burgle, they bug, and they spy on their own colleagues. Just read Spycatcher , the autobiography of MI5 officer peter Wright, who spied on his own boss in an attempt to discover if the boss was a soviet mole.

In the world of James Bond, good is good and evil is evil and James Bond never stabs anyone in the back. In le Carre’s world, intelligence agencies are prepared to cut people loose after they used them. The interests of your country matter more than the life of some informant.

In some ways, le Carre’s books remind me of the American film “Fair Game” (see here, and here ) about real life CIA agent Valerie Plame, who was exposed as a covert CIA agent by the White House when her ex-Diplomat husband criticised intelligence suggesting that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy yellow cake from Niger. Plame had scientists ready to defect from Iraq to the US, and they were left high and dry when Plame was exposed. (Gordon Libby got a jail sentence of two and a half years for exposing Plame, but George. W. Bush commuted his sentence.) Which just goes to show you what murky world intelligence can be. And le Carre takes through that murkiness in all its sordid detail. That’s one reason why his books are so compelling. There’s something fascinating about people who lie, burgle and bug for a living, and do it with the blessing of their country. Most of them believe that that they’re doing it for a “good” purpose, because “my country” is a good country. Don’t most of us think that? I’ll be sad when le Carre dies. I wonder who’ll take his place?

Any thoughts on why spy novels continue to be popular? Please, leave a comment!!!

Richard Snow

twitter: Richard_A_Snow