A reexamination of the downfall of three infamous British spies and a long overdue vindication of the British intelligence services
“A remarkably well-crafted and thoroughly documented book.”—Library Journal
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Deceiving the DeceiversKim Philby Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess
By S. J. Hamrick
Yale University PressCopyright © 2004 S. J. Hamrick
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMoscow bound: May 25, 1951.-Six conspirators.-Unanswered questions.-The government officially responds.-The 1955 White Paper.-Philby reveals the secrets.-The hunt for HOMER.-Journalists join the search.-Hearsay, conjecture, and semiofficial leaks.-Washington opens the Venona archive.-London's dilemma.
It was almost midnight as the pale Austin A-40 sedan careened out of the darkness into the thin gray twilight of the quay at Southampton. Abandoning the rented car, two men lept from the front seat, seized their luggage, and dashed for the 11:45 ferry bound for the French coast. The first was blond and slender, over six feet three, and a head taller than his stocky, dark-haired companion. As they jogged up the gangway, the ferry screws were already churning, adding their sea broth to the unmistakable smells of dockside and departure any place on earth: tar, brine, rotting wood, rusting iron, sea salt, oil, and diesel smoke, all promising the reprieve of new headlands, new countries to explore, and new adventures to be found no less than new lives discovered and old lives discarded. The two would never return to England. In their exile they would become amongthe most infamous Englishmen of their generation.
The date was May 25, 1951, the ferry was the SS Falaise bound for St. Malo, and the two men were the diplomats Donald Duart Maclean and Guy Francis de Moncy Burgess. Maclean, the taller, had celebrated his thirty-eighth birthday that day. He was acting head of the American Department at the Foreign Office in London. Burgess, two years older, had returned to England from the United States in early May after he had been sacked as second secretary at the British embassy in Washington. Sent home for irresponsible conduct, he now faced certain dismissal. If after fifty years both men now seem far younger in their fame than seems possible, Moscow, their destination, would transfix them in time, as ageless in memory as the scores of youthful photographs that would appear in newspapers, magazines, and books in the weeks, months, and years that followed. Only their legends would grow old. On May 25, 1951, they had been Moscow's faithful servants for seventeen years.
At the time of the SS Falaise's sailing, the two were under surveillance by MI5, British counterintelligence, and Scotland Yard's Special Branch, but not beyond London. Maclean had been followed by MI5 for much longer than Burgess. His surveillance had been officially ordered in mid-April by Foreign Secretary Herbert Morrison at the request of MI5 and senior Foreign Office officials who had learned that he was a suspected Soviet agent. His recent MI5 and Special Branch watchers pursued him no farther than the gate at Charing Cross train station in London, where he punctually arrived and departed each day for the Sevenoaks station in Kent and on to Beaconshaw, his large Victorian house at Tatsfield, a village on the Kent-Surrey border. Over the weeks, his MI5 shadows had been as conspicuously predictable as his 5:19 train from London, or so it is claimed. Aware of their presence and the April suspension of his access to Foreign Office secret documents, he had been told he was under suspicion.
His informant was Burgess, who had known of MI5 suspicions before he left Washington for New York the last week in April. His mission was to spur Maclean's departure from England with the aid of his MGB control officer at the Soviet embassy in London, Yuri Modin, and another of Moscow's English agents, Anthony Blunt. A former MI5 officer semiretired from Moscow's service since 1945, Blunt acted as an intermediary when not busy with his duties at the Courtauld Institute and as surveyor of the king's pictures. Blunt met Burgess at Southampton when he arrived on May 7 aboard the Queen Mary and drove him to London and his top-floor suite at the institute, where Burgess spent the night and enlisted Blunt's help. The next day Blunt met with Modin and passed on Burgess's warning. Alarmed that Maclean's interrogation would wipe out his entire Cambridge network but unsure of the next step, Modin scheduled another meeting two days later. During that second meeting, he insisted on talking with Burgess personally to confirm Maclean's predicament. He was also stalling for time. Without the authority to act alone, the KGB resident at the Soviet embassy had cabled Moscow Center for instructions. The reply soon authorized Maclean's defection to Moscow.
At his meeting with Burgess, Modin brought along his superior, the imperious KGB resident Nikolai Borisovich Rodin (pseudonym Korovin). To Modin's disgust, he practiced his own eccentric tradecraft, sacrificing prudence to his own comfort and convenience; he had no hesitation phoning British agents under his control at their offices or arriving at an assignation in a Soviet embassy sedan. In June 1950 he had spent six and a half hours in a suburban London park chatting up a worried Burgess before he left for his Washington posting.
At the meeting, the two Russians insisted that Burgess talk to Maclean immediately and convince him he had no alternative but to defect to the Soviet Union. Burgess obliged, visited Maclean at the Foreign Office, and subsequently met with him at the Reform Club. Maclean was indecisive. While he dithered, Burgess and Blunt continued their chats with the Russians. It was during a stroll with Modin in St. Regent's Park that Blunt suggested the pair escape by ship to the French coast. Modin thought it an interesting idea, visited a tour office, discussed boat schedules to France with the tour organizer, examined the brochures, and selected the SS Falaise. He recommended the Falaise escape route to Nikolai Rodin, who approved and soon met personally with Burgess to instruct him to book two berths on the Falaise for the May 25-27 weekend. Wary of Maclean's frail nerves and uncertain determination, Moscow had insisted that Burgess accompany Maclean. On Thursday, May 24, Burgess dropped by the travel agency and bought the two tickets. As must be evident by now, the four conspirators assumed their frequent meetings were unobserved, despite knowing full well that the fifth, Donald Maclean, had been under watch by MI5.
The arrangements were now complete. Early in the evening on May 25, Burgess arrived at the house in Tatsfield to fetch Maclean, interrupting his birthday dinner with his wife, Melinda, who was eight and a half months pregnant. Maclean introduced Burgess as Roger Styles and told her they were off for a weekend excursion. She was angry at not having known of his plans and the unexpected disruption of the birthday supper. Twelve hours or so earlier, Foreign Secretary Morrison had signed the final order authorizing Maclean's arrest and interrogation between June 18 and June 25. Despite many claims to the contrary, neither man was aware of the Foreign Office decision nor were their two Soviet accomplices. The timing was a matter of pure luck, so Burgess's voluble Soviet control Yuri Modin admitted in 1994.
That May night, as the running lights of the SS Falaise vanished in the darkness of the estuary toward the English Channel, the Cambridge classmate who had recruited both men for Moscow's OGPU in late 1934 was still at his post at the British embassy in faraway Washington. Weeks earlier he had learned Maclean was under surveillance and had sent Burgess to warn Maclean in London and get him out. He was of course Harold A. R. Kim Philby, chief of station for MI6, British intelligence. A day earlier, on May 24, he had for a second time implored his KGB control officer, a semicompetent Soviet illegal named Valeri Makayev based in New York, to remove Maclean from England as soon as possible for fear he too would be in jeopardy. He had also impatiently fired off a thinly disguised airmail alert to Burgess telling him, in effect, to get moving. Now he was anxiously awaiting the results.
After May 25, Philby's espionage career would be on its last legs, but his successes were behind him by then in any case. It hardly mattered. In time his renown would dwarf that of his outward-bound colleagues. He hadn't expected Burgess to accompany Maclean, explicitly cautioning him against it before Burgess left Washington. On the morning of June 7 he learned the worst: Burgess had disappeared as well. Burgess had shared Philby's house on Nebraska Avenue during his brief eight-month posting to the embassy and their close association and long friendship put him at risk. Although Philby assumed no one was the wiser, least of all MI5, for the past several years Burgess had been his sole cutout or message carrier to his Soviet control. Burgess's absence had compelled him to meet Makayev and plead for Moscow's help. Predictably enough, Philby was now under suspicion. In June he was recalled to London, questioned inconclusively, and in late July asked to resign. Not until twelve years later, in January 1963, did he disappear from Beirut as mysteriously as Maclean and Burgess. Six months later he reappeared in Moscow and was given Soviet citizenship.
The tale has been told so many times the drama is thought to be wrung out by now, but there is far more to the story than is implied in its conclusion. If the many interpretations are to be believed, the last month of MI5's Maclean investigation was a debacle from beginning to end. The brief summary offered above suggests as much. The English and Russian conspirators' ability to roam around London with impunity, to meet, walk about, and talk undetected and unobserved seems curiously improbable, hardly descriptive of the work of experienced MI5 officers seriously attempting to disentangle and identify Moscow's clandestine espionage networks in the Foreign Office or elsewhere in England. The interpretative errors, including those blaming MI5 for gross incompetence, were based on the assumption by the Foreign Office and by the six conspirators, including Philby, that Maclean was the sole subject of the MI5 investigation. No one seemed to consider that he might be MI5's stalking horse.
MI5 had identified Donald Maclean as a Soviet agent long before May 25, 1951, perhaps as much as a year or two earlier but certainly no less than nine months or by mid-August 1950, as our narrative will show. As in many counterespionage initiatives, Maclean was MI5's instrument in an operation that searched far beyond a single Foreign Office diplomat. A simple fact began that MI5 operation and explains every decision that preceded it, whether made by MI5, by MI6, by the Foreign Office, by the KGB residence in London, by Philby and Burgess in Washington, or by KGB Center in Moscow. That fact, which has never been officially disclosed, is the date MI5 knew beyond any doubt that Donald Maclean was a KGB agent.
For more than fifty years Britain's Official Secrets Act has defied attempts by journalists, writers, and intelligence historians to unlock that secret or any other that would resolve the remaining mysteries associated with Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess. The search for answers began with Maclean and Burgess's May 25 flight from England and has continued episodically and inconclusively for more than five decades. As new information came to light over the years and old theories were discarded, interpretations have gradually evolved toward a reasonably credible reconstruction of their separate espionage careers. But the facts that explain their conclusive identification as Soviet agents are either missing, as with Philby and Burgess, or conjectural, in the case of Maclean. The date of his reported April 1951 identification by MI5 is based on evidence that is unverified, undocumented, and of questionable reliability. However persuasive those accounts appear-and many are persuasive enough to generate the belief that there is nothing more to be learned-they remain entirely speculative, even those that seem to be unofficially confirmed by comments by Foreign Office staff. The unanswered mysteries for all three are concealed in the precise date British intelligence knew beyond question that Donald Maclean was a Soviet agent.
The May 25 disappearance of Maclean and Burgess made banner headlines when London's Daily Express broke the story on June 7. Forewarned, the Foreign Office the same day announced that the two had been suspended on June 1 for being absent without leave. In Parliament, doubts were raised by the Conservative opposition in June and July but were turned aside by the Labor government, which insisted there was no reason to believe either had Communist associations. The brief fire smoldered and eventually died out but blazed up even more furiously in 1955, after press reports disclosed that a Soviet defector had insisted that the two missing diplomats were in Moscow and in fact were longtime Soviet agents.
Four years after Maclean and Burgess disappeared, the government was finally forced to abandon British intelligence policy of secrecy and silence and confront an issue it could no longer avoid. The Tories were now in power, not Labor, and fell back in defense of the establishment. In September 1955 the government issued its White Paper. The document sketched out a useful chronological outline but did little to resolve doubts or the larger mysteries. It attempted to restore confidence in the integrity of the Foreign Office and British intelligence but the reassurance fell on deaf ears in Parliament in November when the issue was debated. The Labor opposition accused the government of a "cover up." The government had inherited the mess and knew only as much as senior Foreign Office officials, who in turn knew only as much as British intelligence was willing to share. The White Paper, incomplete and intentionally vague, set forth only slightly less than Foreign Office seniors actually knew. The first draft was written by Sir Dick Goldsmith White, then Director General of MI5, assisted by a veteran MI5 officer, Graham Mitchell. Dick White knew far more than anyone else in London about the Donald Maclean case, including the date and the means by which he had been identified as a Soviet agent. The draft was subsequently reviewed by MI6 and Foreign Office officials, who knew far less.
The White Paper disclosed that in January 1949 "British security officials" were notified that certain Foreign Office information "had been leaked to the Soviet authorities some years earlier." The 1949 warning offered "little more than a hint" as to the identity of the Soviet agent, an uncertainty that made it "impossible to attribute the leak to any particular individual." More than two years later, in mid-April 1951, the list of suspects was reduced to "two or three persons." By early May 1951 Maclean had become "the principal suspect." Because "legally admissible evidence" didn't support his prosecution, "security officials" began investigating his present "activities and contacts," meaning MI5 had put him under surveillance. At the time, he was seven months into his posting on the American desk at the Foreign Office. On May 25 Foreign Secretary Morrison "sanctioned" his interrogation between June 18 and June 25. That same night Maclean and Burgess fled England for the Continent. The White Paper explained that the watch on Maclean was confined to London and didn't include surveillance at his home at Tatsfield, which was "inadvisable" in the remote village because of the risk of compromise. Philby wasn't mentioned in the document.
For obvious reasons the government White Paper failed to reveal the source of the intelligence by which the unknown Soviet agent was discovered in January 1949 and Maclean identified as a suspect in the spring of 1951. It didn't characterize the substance or the sensitivity of the Foreign Office "information" passed to Moscow. While admitting Maclean was a principal suspect, the White Paper failed to declare his guilt. Those details were withheld because the intelligence operation that would have answered those questions was far too sensitive to be admissible. Not until July 1995 was that top-secret operation officially acknowledged and its archive declassified. The decision was made not by London, but by Washington, much to the amazement and displeasure of British intelligence.
Excerpted from Deceiving the Deceivers by S. J. Hamrick Copyright © 2004 by S. J. Hamrick. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
S. J. Hamrick was a Foreign Service officer for more than two decades. In 19951996 he returned to the State Department as a senior policy adviser. As a young draftee he was assigned to the Army Counter Intelligence Corps. He has written seven novels under the pseudonym W. T. Tyler, including The Man Who Lost the War, The Ants of God, The Lion and the Jackal, Last Train from Berlin, and most recently The Consul’s Wife.
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