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Details of Cold-War Tradecraft Revealed!
on 1 February 2010
This is one of those books that I came to late in the game, but after perusing the first page of "Spycatcher", I couldn't put it down for three days! One of the reasons that I resisted reading it was that various espionage writers have criticized the book for its inaccuracies (So he got the date of Philby's interrogation wrong!). I am actually glad that I read the thesaurus of other espionage books including "The Second Oldest Profession," "The Crown Jewels," "My Silent War," "The Philby Files," "Anthony Blunt," (etc.) first, because by the time I read "Spycatcher," I was thoroughly familiar with the multifarious cast of characters. However, as much as I have enjoyed other espionage books, "Spycatcher" surpasses them in one respect: it gives details of tradecraft--now certainly outdated, but nevertheless fascinating--that are impossible in an account of Philby or Blunt who, by necessity, had to remain silent about the fine particulars of their work in intelligence--whether Soviet or British (In "Crown Jewels," Mr. West gives us a glimpse of such details, which the opening of the KGB archives has made accessible.).
Peter Wright lets the reader peek over his shoulder as he installs--what were at that time--sophisticated bugs behind convincing false doors at midnight. He also gives the reader a good chuckle when such operations go disastrously awry and floors collapse or cables are cut, and the work has to begin all over again.
The author writes a wry account of brazen Russian agents importuning numerous passers-by in various London parks in an effort to "turn" them into Soviet assets, until the police, at Wright's instigation, out-brazen the agents by threatening to arrest them for harassment of British subjects. He also informs us of MI5's system of Watchers, who were posted all over London and its environs, whose chief duty was to tail diplomats and cypher clerks from the Soviet embassy (A memorable moment occurs when 105 Russians are declared PNG and expelled from Britain in 1971--an event I recall seeing on television.).
The author's anecdote of Klop Ustinov (actor Peter's father), who had served British Intelligence so faithfully and effectively (at great peril) throughout World War II, and who was living in penury without a pension, is particularly poignant, probably to highlight Wright's own predicament in the pension department at the end of his career (Desmond Bristow of SIS relates a similar story of official cheese-paring in "A Game of Moles.").
The thrust of "Spycatcher" is to build a case against Roger Hollis, the former Director General of MI5, who was at the helm when so many of Wright's operations went wrong. Whether Hollis was a Soviet agent or not (Bristow, who believed that the British intelligence agencies were riddled with Soviet penetration agents, echoes Wright's suspicions in "A Game of Moles."), Peter Wright builds an intriguing circumstantial case against him, noting that the leaks to the Russians and the ruined operations stopped after Hollis had retired. As far as Wright was concerned, the case against Hollis was not proven but the suspicion remained. It was to haunt him the rest of his life.