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Cambridge Historian Writes Definitive History Of Britain's MI5

"I thought at the end of the Cold War that those days were over, but I'm not as sure now as I used to be," says Christopher Andrew.

"I thought at the end of the Cold War that those days were over, but I'm not as sure now as I used to be," says Christopher Andrew.

Christopher Andrew, a history professor at Cambridge University, recently published the first authorized history of the domestic branch of the British intelligence establishment -- officially designated the Security Service and commonly known as MI5. In writing his book, titled "Defend The Realm," Andrew had extensive access to MI5 archives, although parts of it still remain closed. He discussed the results of the work in an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas.

RFE/RL: What, in your view, was MI5's biggest failure in the Cold War?

Christopher Andrew:
I think that it was the amount of time taken to discover the five leading spies from my university. It's rather ironic that a historian from Cambridge University should have been the person who was appointed to write the [MI5] history. But, in other words, it was the five, "The Magnificent Five" as the KGB, or some of the KGB, began to call them after the film "The Magnificent Seven" came out in 1960. It loved Westerns. The reasons were, partly, because [the British government] had had no vetting system before World War II, so these people had got embedded. But MI5's investigation [also] missed a number of key points.

This is a rare example in which it's really misled by a defector. Anatoly Golitsyn, who came over at the beginning of the 1960s, was the most dangerous kind of KGB defector -- in other words, one who has some really good intelligence combined with an awful lot of conspiracy theories. Now, he insisted that the Cambridge Five all had been at Cambridge at the same time and that they all knew each other. Now, MI5 accepted that definition, and it wasn't until 1980 that it actually solved the case. It solved the case then because there was another defector, Oleg Gordievsky, who was far, far, far better informed than Golitsyn had ever been -- and had no conspiracy theories.

MI5 then discovered that it had actually solved the case in 1964. In other words, it had found the identity of the five major spies at Cambridge, but [had missed that] two of them -- Anthony Blunt, the so-called "fourth man," and John Cairncross, the so-called "fifth man," certainly fourth and fifth in order of discovery, and also fourth and fifth in order of recruitment -- it hadn't grasped that they were part of the ring of five. You know, to suddenly realize in 1982 that your most difficult intelligence problem had been solved 18 years before -- yes, I think that was the worst example.

RFE/RL: What effect did the Cambridge Five have on the conduct of the Cold War?

One of the things that treachery always does is very difficult to calculate. In other words, where you create distrust, that has a corrosive, long-term effect. Otherwise, plainly, the main damage they did was not in Britain, it was in Eastern Europe. And there are people who died -- who were killed, and in a number of cases tortured to death -- because of members of the [Cambridge] Five, and who would not otherwise have met that grisly fate.

You know, [British intelligence agent and Cambridge Five member Kim] Philby was a young idealist, the first of them to be recruited [by the Soviets] in 1934. You can see just by looking at his memoirs -- which, of course, were a public relations job -- the way that he becomes brutalized by working for Josef Stalin. It’s difficult, after all, to remain a normal human being if you're working for Josef Stalin.

So, for example, he talks about "freedom fighters" -- because that's what they are, that's what I think they're recognized as nowadays, certainly in Ukraine -- [parachuting] into Ukraine. Kim Philby had provided the coordinates and they were picked up. And he makes a little joke of it. He says, "I don't know exactly what happened to them, of course, but I can make a pretty good guess. " So, treachery costs lives, and the [Cambridge] Five cost lives.

RFE/RL: Do you have any notion of how many lives were lost as a result of the treachery of the Cambridge Five?

No, no, no. And in any case, I think it's extremely difficult to calculate. Because when you look at the agent networks -- for example the Forest Brothers in the Baltic republics -- the capture of one agent, or the suspicion that falls on one agent, has wide repercussions for the family and friends.

So even if it was possible to give a precise number of those who died or whose lives were wrecked by the Cambridge Five, that wouldn't take into account the knock-on effect of the suspicion and of the persecution which then fell on their friends and family.

RFE/RL: The Security Service has over the past two decades become less concerned with espionage, and now mostly focuses on counterterrorism. Why is that?

That's right. It's a comparatively sudden change. MI5 was founded exactly 100 years ago this month, solely as a counterespionage network. Nowadays, on its 100th birthday, it only spends 3.5 percent of its resources on counterespionage. Espionage is still going on. But espionage by, for example, Russia is plainly not as threatening to national interest now that the Cold War is over as it was at the period when people legitimately wondered whether the Cold War would turn into hot war.

So it's overwhelmingly a counterterrorist agency. But how it got into it is, I think, not generally known. The first major terrorist target of the Security Service was actually Zionist extremists -- Menachem Begin, for example, the future prime minister of Israel -- after blowing up the British headquarters in Palestine, the King David Hotel, after blowing up the British Embassy in Rome. They then planted a huge bomb in Whitehall [British government headquarters], which failed to go off.

That was immediately after World War II. It's not until the IRA gets going in the 1970s that MI5 begins to turn towards counterterrorism. But even then, counterterrorism related to the IRA and other forms of Irish republican terrorism had been for many years the lead [responsibility] of the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police Force. It's actually not until 1992 that MI5 – and, in my view, just in time -- gets the lead role in dealing with the IRA.

And just at almost the moment that The Troubles, or most of them, are ended -- after the Good Friday, or Belfast, agreement in 1998 -- within a few months of that, Osama bin Laden launches his first major terrorist attack, as well as centrally financing others, against the U.S. embassies in East Africa. So for the last decade and a bit more, the Security Service's main target has been Islamist terrorism.

And it had its biggest success only last month, in September, which would have been a British 9/11. There was a plan to put suicide bombers on board seven aircraft leaving Heathrow for great North American cities -- five [in the] United States and two [in] Canada -- and to explode them in midair, either over the Atlantic or over great North American cities. And the method that was devised was perfectly viable. I think that that is an occasion -- even more, probably, than against the IRA's London campaigns in the 1990s -- when MI5 made a big difference.

But you know, at any moment it might be [necessary] to change one's view, because one might suddenly discover that something appalling was going on that MI5 was not keeping track of. There's no indication of that at the present time. But the so-called Operation Avert, which defeated this incredible attempt at midair terrorism, is, I think, a pretty good example of why the Security Service is needed at the present time.

RFE/RL: Is Russia no longer a threat comparable to that presented by the various terrorist networks?

It's not simply MI5. The [parliamentary] Security and Intelligence Committee rates the Russian Federation and China as the two [countries] who are carrying out most espionage in Britain. As I've already said, though, the threat posed by espionage depends on all kinds of things, including the international climate.

If you're being spied upon by somebody you're at war with -- or whom you could conceivably be at war with -- then that poses a much more serious threat. At the present time there's only a slight possibility of a war with either Russia or China. And, therefore, even though it would be nice if they scaled down their espionage a bit, it doesn't begin to pose the kind of threat it did in the Cold War.

RFE/RL: Do events like the poisoning of Aleksandr Litvinenko in London in 2006 reflect badly on the capabilities and reputation of an organization like MI5?

Broadly, leaving aside or without commenting directly on that particular case, no security service in the world can stop somebody poisoning another person. What I'll say about that is that one of the surprising things of recent years are the kind of cases [like that of] the current president of the Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko. He has, after all, publicly accused Russian intelligence of involvement in his nearly fatal poisoning before the last presidential election, and of harboring one of the individuals who, he says, was chiefly responsible for it. I thought at the end of the Cold War that those days were over, but I'm not as sure now as I used to be.

RFE/RL: The British title of your book ["In Defence Of The Realm"] is identical with that of a 1970s British film which was highly critical – to put it mildly -- of the powers and role of MI5. With all the insight you have gained, where do you stand in the debate over the respective limits of freedom and security?

That's a problem which has to be solved by every generation afresh -- the balance between liberty and security. There's never any arrangement that lasts from generation to generation. Broadly speaking, the greater the threat, the more it is reasonable to expect people to accept a level of surveillance on those who there's good reason to believe are involved in this. And it is necessary in Britain to have to get authorization for every act of surveillance in Britain from the home secretary [interior minister], and that system is pretty scrupulously adhered to.

But the problem that always presents itself in terrorist cases is the following: Do you wait until you're absolutely certain that you've got enough evidence to convict in a court of law -- in which case you may be too late to stop the attack -- or do you carry out, make the arrest, or ask for the arrest to be made, before you have that evidence? That's an extremely difficult dilemma because it may look as if you were persecuting innocent victims.

Of course, in any case, arrests aren't always 100 percent right. But there's a good example in my book about [convicted terrorist plotter] Dhiren Barot, whose ultimate aim was to explode a dirty or radioactive bomb in London. When he was arrested, there was no evidence against him that was usable in a court of law. And if the computer codes that he had used hadn't been cracked, [then] probably the case against him would have been unsuccessful.

So there are always these kinds of dilemmas, and there is never any easy formula that resolves them. It's a matter of judgment -- and an extremely difficult judgment at that.