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About the Author
Stephen Grey, author of Ghost Plane, is an award-winning investigative journalist who has contributed to The New York Times, 60 Minutes, ABC News, CNN, Newsweek, The Atlantic Monthly, the BBC and other publications.
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The New Spymasters
Inside the Modern World of Espionage from the Cold War to Global Terror
By Stephen Grey
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Stephen Grey
All rights reserved.
The Secret Agent
'Spies in the British service commonly take up their dangerous duty out of sheer love of adventure'
– Captain George Hill, British secret service officer in Moscow
Captain Francis Cromie – thirty-six years old, tall and strongly built, a commander in the Royal Navy and bearer of the Distinguished Service Order – reached into the consul's drawer and pulled out a revolver. It was 31 August 1918, a day when Russia was at a crossroads in its history. It was also Cromie's last day alive. He was in the British Embassy in wartime Petrograd (St Petersburg) and it seemed that the 'Red revolution' of workers and peasants' communism was in jeopardy.
A day earlier, Moisei Uritsky, the local chief of the new secret police, the Cheka, had been murdered in cold blood. Now word came through that, 400 miles away, the leader of the Reds, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, had been shot too. He was in bed in the Kremlin with two bullets inside him, one in his chest and one in his neck, and surgeons were unclear if he would survive.
Further north, British and other allied troops had landed on 4 August in the town of Archangel to join the White Army – the combined anti-revolutionary forces. Though this allied force consisted of only 5,000 men, more were expected, and the Bolsheviks feared that they would be marching south. There was word too that inside the city foreigners were conspiring with ultra-left revolutionaries and former tsarists to mount a counter-coup against the new revolutionary government.
These rumours were true and one of the plotters was Captain Cromie, a man of action and an intelligence officer. With other British secret servants then in Russia, he was tangled up in the West's first trial of strength with the new communist power. The events of those epic days, and the errors made, would define modern espionage.
Just after 4 p.m., witnesses at the embassy heard shouts and the slamming of car doors in the yard outside. The Cheka had arrived. Cromie was busy holding a council of war in the chancellery with fellow diplomats and several spies and hangers-on. But he had been betrayed. Two of his trusted contacts in the room, Lieutenant Sabir and Colonel Steckelmann, who claimed to be part of the tsarist White Russian forces, were in fact Cheka agents.
In another part of Petrograd, a British intelligence officer – the man the public would later know as 'the ace of spies', Sidney Reilly – was waiting to meet Cromie. He was hoping that a coup against the Reds he had fomented was about to be launched.
According to an eyewitness, as recorded in the British National Archives, a member of the Red Guards – the armed volunteers of the Bolshevik revolution – approached the chancellery door with a revolver. Cromie turned to his companions and said, 'Remain here and keep the door after me.' He then opened the door, levelled his gun and shouted, 'Clear out, you swine', before heading down the passageway, pushing the Red Guard before him. No one saw what happened next, but during an exchange of fire in the corridor two of the raiders were shot.
Cromie sprinted down the corridor and out on to the chandeliered grand staircase. As he leapt down its carpeted steps, the Cheka agents, already upstairs, chased after him, firing down from the balcony. Two bullets penetrated the back of his skull and he fell in a heap at the bottom of the stairs. He groaned softly, his blood draining into the carpet.
Captain Cromie had become involved with fellow British spies in a bid to overthrow the Bolsheviks, but they had been outwitted and compromised. He was perhaps the first man to die because of a blunder by officers of His Majesty's Secret Service.
* * *
These were the early days of what became British intelligence. In 1909, the Secret Service bureau (referred to simply as SS) had been founded as the world's first intelligence agency in response to a media-led campaign of panic about imperial Germany's supposed espionage activities. (The CIA did not follow for another thirty-eight years.) The bureau's foreign section was founded two years later, with an annual budget of a mere £7,000 (the equivalent of just under £300,000 in 2014 prices). During the First World War it was absorbed into the War Office and known as department MI1c, but for most of its existence it has been officially called the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), and is known to insiders simply as the Service. By the late 1930s it would become popularly known by one of its cover names, MI6.
From its inception until 1923, SIS was led by an eccentric, Captain Mansfield Smith-Cumming, who went by Cumming or 'C'. He insisted on signing his letters with a big capital 'C' in green ink – the initial and green ink still being used today by the current chief – and his men were a collection of mostly upper-class, ruthless mavericks.
It was the era of amateurs and audacity. After a preliminary interview in the Whitehall attic that Cumming had made his lair, his new recruits were dispatched abroad with little or no training and with few instructions.
* * *
Cumming's agency was a break with tradition. For centuries Britain's greatest spies had not been part of a separate bureaucracy. Certainly, intelligence networks were not unknown – whether Sir Francis Walsingham's informers in Tudor England, or Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger's all-source intelligence organization, established in the 1790s to combat French-inspired revolutionaries in Europe, or more recently British India's security apparatus. But politicians believed that the British public had come to abhor such things, except as an expedient in an emergency. 'Nothing is more revolting to Englishmen than the espionage which forms part of the administrative system of continental despotisms,' wrote Erskine May in the second volume of his 1863 Constitutional History of England. The spies who were respected had been the nation's explorers and adventurers who learned foreign tongues, mixed in with the 'natives' and revelled in all the danger (and, more often than not, in the loot). Even as Cumming plotted a new order, there were men like T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) in Jordan and the future Saudi Arabia, as well as the intrepid Gertrude Bell in Iraq, who continued that tradition. Before them there were spy-diplomats like Captain Arthur Conolly of the East India Company (beheaded in Bukhara, in modern-day Uzbekistan, for spying in 1842) and Captain Sir Alexander Burnes (murdered in Kabul in 1841). Both had trekked over the mountain passes of the Hindu Kush, playing their part in the so-called 'Great Game' made famous by the writer Rudyard Kipling. Mostly volunteers, they were hardly 'secret agents'. While many operated under a flimsy disguise – as surveyors, for instance – their activities were neither secret nor discreet. As a more recent 'incremental' (to use one term for such a person) put it to me, 'I was recruited before I was even born.' But they were still spies. In the Great Game, they were gathering information about the extent of Russian encroachment and trying to elicit details of the secret intrigues between Russian envoys and local tribes.
Spying from the start of the twentieth century was more closely defined. Article 29 of the 1907 Hague Convention was clear that spying involved skulduggery:
A person can only be considered a spy when, acting clandestinely or on false pretences, he obtains or endeavours to obtain information in the zone of operations of a belligerent, with the intention of communicating it to the hostile party. Thus, soldiers not wearing a disguise who have penetrated into the zone of operations of the hostile army, for the purpose of obtaining information, are not considered spies.
In this new era, the mostly aristocratic, mainly amateur and adventurous tradition of spying did linger on in Cumming's new agency. But the bureau's early experiences showed the need to reinvent methods.
In the First World War, the secret service had not proved itself a great success. While the navy had cracked the German cipher codes, Cumming had been unable to recruit any agents inside Germany, with the notable exception of a Dutch-based itinerant naval engineer, Dr Karl Krüger. The service's main success, instead, had been in the Netherlands and Belgium, with a network of train-spotter agents who tracked the movements of troops and supplies and helped describe the German order of battle. A post-war history of intelligence on the western front records 'the bulk of the work of the Secret Service in occupied territory was devoted to train watching'. After the war, Britain made the mistake of authorizing the issue of medals or other honours to over 700 Belgian agents, putting them all in danger when the Germans invaded again in 1940.
It was in revolutionary Russia, after the fall of the Tsar in 1917, that British intelligence not only found an enemy that would obsess it for decades but also took on a new shape. Stories of the derring-do of the men involved – people like Cromie and, in particular, three of his comrades in secret intelligence who then operated in Russia, Sidney Reilly, Paul Dukes and George Hill – have been told before in many colourful ways. But what the storytelling typically omits is just what failures their operations were, and how these failures demonstrated why espionage needed to adapt. Against an emerging modern state like the early Soviet Union, these missions established what worked and, more critically, what did not.
Despite their failures, Cromie and his generation also helped to establish the myth of espionage. Their amateur-style, action-man heroics created a potent, enduring and largely false idea of the intelligence officer as a 'master spy'. It was a myth that endured – and still does – partly because it was useful. It has been exploited ever since to recruit spies and expand budgets.
Lenin's tightly knit Bolshevik party, the communist faction that had taken over in the October Revolution of 1917, was a worthy foe, along with their intelligence outfit, the Cheka. After years of organizing secretly against the repressive regime of the tsars, the Bolsheviks were masters of conspiracy. Not only did they watch all foreigners and undertake intense surveillance of suspected spies, they also introduced double agents and provocateurs, and made use of elaborate ruses. In this high-pressure world of spy versus spy, Western intelligence had to rethink its approach, become professional and – contrary to the myth – outsource the actual spying to others.
* * *
A spy intrigue that is blown open to public scrutiny is known by American intelligence as a 'flap'. In Britain's first ever flap, in 1918 Petrograd, the protagonists, Captain Francis Cromie and Lieutenant Sidney Reilly, were rather different characters.
Born in Ireland in 1882, the son of a British Army officer and diplomat, Cromie had a commanding but slightly aloof bearing. He joined the Royal Navy Submarine Service at the age of twenty-one and in 1915 torpedoed and sank the German cruiser Undine, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order the following year. He was dispatched to Russia in 1915, leaving behind a young wife and child. His task was to command a flotilla of British submarines that patrolled and fought in the Baltic, and he was decorated a number of times by Tsar Nicholas II. After the Revolution, when the imperial Russian navy withdrew from the war and disbanded, Cromie's initial role ended, but in January 1918 he was reassigned to the embassy in Petrograd as naval attaché. He may have engineered this, as one admiral later put it, because of a 'romantic interest': a young aristocrat, Sophie Gagarin, became his lover.
Cromie's new role was primarily in intelligence. His boss was Admiral Sir William 'Blinker' Hall, the Royal Navy's legendary chief of intelligence (then by far the most powerful of the Empire's mushrooming secret services). Among Hall's functions was the running of the navy's message decryption service, which was named Room 40 after its original base at the Admiralty. When Cromie began his job in January he still had naval assets to protect, but as the German army drew closer, he arranged the scuttling of the Royal Navy's six submarines and blew up supplies. And by the start of the summer that year he engaged himself – with others in British intelligence – in a far more grandiose scheme: to subvert Bolshevik power.
In August 1918, two men, Jan Buikis and Jan Sprogis, walked into the embassy in Petrograd. This was just after British troops had landed to the north in Archangel. The visitors claimed to be officers from an elite Lettish regiment that formed the praetorian guard of the Soviet leadership (Latvians were then called 'Letts'). Buikis and Sprogis told Cromie that their comrades did not want to fight the British; instead they wanted help to change sides and cross to the British lines.
Cromie sent the men on to Moscow and it was there that the Lettish defectors met Bruce Lockhart, Britain's first official envoy to the Bolshevik government, and were introduced to the man who worked as agent ST1 of the British secret service: Sidney Reilly. The Letts knew him as 'Mr Constantine'. With Reilly, the Letts went from talking of defection to plotting an armed counter-coup. Meanwhile, in Petrograd, Cromie was equally involved in conspiracies. Many of his objectives were purely military: with the Germans now only 100 miles away, he hatched a plan with tsarists to find a way to blow up Russia's Baltic fleet, by then under the control of the Bolsheviks and based in nearby Kronstadt, to avoid its being captured by the Germans and to destroy bridges ahead of German advancing columns. But, along with Reilly, he also had hopes of something more. As he telegraphed to London in June 1918, 'Intervention on a thorough scale is the only thing that will save the situation and Russia.' A fellow diplomat in Russia noted, 'Cromie wished to unite the large number of Russian organisations to work together under British instruction.'
At this time Britain was still embroiled in the Great War, with thousands dying daily on the western front. In August 1918, the British suffered 80,000 casualties, and on one day alone – 8 August – 6,500 Allied soldiers were killed. The Bolsheviks, meanwhile, had made peace with Germany, signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on 3 March 1918. This gave the Western Allies an interest in confronting the Bolsheviks and supporting the pro-tsarist White Russian forces, who rejected the peace deal.
As Britain moved closer to outright war with the Bolsheviks, Cromie knew that he was under close scrutiny. The Cheka followed him around and, after his flat was turned over, he moved to a 'safe house'. He had to abandon this – escaping over the rooftops in his pyjamas – after another Cheka raid one night. He then moved into the embassy compound, along with Sophie Gagarin.
Cromie still believed that there was a chance of influencing the course of history. He kept in close touch with the two men he knew as 'Tsarist officers', Steckelmann and Sabir, who had promised to help him. Both claimed to be Russian White Guards based in nearby Finland. On the morning of Cromie's death, Steckelmann had sent a message to the embassy before he came in person, saying that the 'time for action is ripe and cannot be delayed'. In fact, as the British were to discover later, he and Sabir were secret agents of the Cheka.
The Cheka had come to believe, correctly, that Cromie was plotting against them and this may be why he was killed. As the Times correspondent George Dobson, who was present in the embassy, reported soon afterwards, Cromie 'was evidently regarded by the raiders as the arch-conspirator amongst all the plotters ... He often said that he would never be taken alive by the Bolsheviks, and [the] pointing of their revolvers at him was a provocation which he naturally resented.'
That day, unaware that Lenin had been shot and of the growing jeopardy of his own situation, Sidney Reilly had made his way to Petrograd. While all the drama at the embassy was taking place, Reilly was waiting for Cromie in the flat of the MI1c station chief, Commander Ernest Boyce. After hearing of the shoot-out, Reilly slipped quietly away to Moscow on a sleeper train.
* * *
While the story of Cromie and his death in Petrograd was quickly forgotten, Sidney Reilly's activities came to be regarded as probably Britain's most famous tale of espionage. It was first publicized in 1931 in a posthumous – and largely fictional – 'autobiography' written with his wife and was then published as a book and a limited edition of the London Evening Standard. Further accounts of his life were published, including some by former intelligence officers. Together they created a popular icon for SIS that persisted. Strange, then, that he really had little in common with what the agency became.
Excerpted from The New Spymasters by Stephen Grey. Copyright © 2015 Stephen Grey. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Timeline of Major Events,
Introduction: The Exploding Spy,
PART ONE: THE CULT OF INTELLIGENCE (1909-89),
1. The Secret Agent,
2. The Best-Ever Liars,
PART TWO: NEW SPIES (1989-2008),
6. Caveat Emptor,
PART THREE: THE FLOCK OF BIRDS (2008-13),
7. Cover Blown,
8. Allah Has Plans,
9. Faith in the Machine,
10. The Peacemaker Spy,
PART FOUR: WHERE NEXT?,
12. The Good Spy,
About the Author,