Accessibility links

Breaking News

East/West: UK Spy Allegations Causing Headaches For British Government

Echoes from the past, in the form of Cold War spying allegations, appear set to cause headaches for the British government. Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke looks at those old espionage activities and how they can still create difficulties today for the authorities in London.

Prague, 22 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The ever-widening revelations and allegations about Britons who spied for the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War are threatening to become a political issue for the current government of Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Although the sudden rash of spying disclosures deal with activities occurring as much as half a century ago, they have given rise to awkward questions which, so far, the Blair government has not done a good job answering.

The controversy started some weeks ago, with the disclosure that a woman called Melita Norwood, now an 87-year-old great-grandmother, spied for Moscow on Britain's effort to develop an atomic bomb. Norwood, code-named Hola, admits passing information to the KGB. Her details and those of many other alleged agents are contained in information brought to Britain in the early 1990s by KGB defector Vasily Mitrokhin, and which forms the basis of a book (The Mitrokhin Files) published last week.

Since the Norwood disclosure, a string of other people have been named as working for the Soviets or for the East German intelligence service, the Stasi. One of these, retired economics professor Victor Allen, has acknowledged his activity for the Stasi, telling the press it was "perfectly legitimate." Another academic, Robin Pearson, has not publicly denied allegations linking him to the Stasi. Others have kept silent.

The current espionage scandal is all the more spicy because of Britain's long-standing reputation as a hotbed of Cold War spying and betrayal. One thinks of the sensational scandals of the 1950s and 1960s relating to Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and the rest of the circle of agents and double-agents grouped around the so-called Cambridge set of left-wing intellectuals. At that time, the British security organs were considered so riddled with traitors that U.S. intelligence services reportedly routinely withheld information from their British allies.

But there is a difference, in that the latest known batch of agents were far from having the stature of the Cambridge set. Analyst Edward Foster puts it this way:

"These people were probably peripheral, and although they may have been in contact over a period of time, and to varying degrees been willing contributors to the supply of information assembled by the Stasi or Warsaw Pact intelligence apparatus, I don't think we ought to assume the information they were giving was terribly sensitive."

Foster, the head of the European Security Program at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told RFE/RL that he considers them to be small fry, and does not see any major new damage emerging to the reputation of the British security services. He recalls there was an enormous and indiscriminate process of information-gathering by Eastern intelligence services. At each level those services had an interest in puffing-up their achievements, even when their informants were passing information of very limited value.

The Conservative opposition in the British House of Commons (parliament), however, does not plan to let the Blair Labour government off the hook on that score. They have demanded that Home Secretary (Interior Minister) Jack Straw explain exactly how many accused spies have emerged as former Soviet bloc files have become available, how serious the allegations are and whether the security services kept government ministers informed.

Foster says he finds the call for an inquiry justified on the grounds that serious issues of legality and ministerial responsibility are involved, issues which are important for democratic government:

"What is peculiar is that the security services are making decisions which should properly be the function of the home secretary, and for that reason there are very good grounds to actually examine the procedures that were followed here."

In a statement last week, Straw said that when Mitrokhin's material on Norwood became available to British intelligence in 1992, the intelligence services themselves took the decision that this material did not provide evidence that could be put to a British court.

Moreover, the agencies judged that the material should remain secret for some years in order to protect leads to more recent espionage. The services also decided not to interview Norwood personally. Straw said the government ministers of the day were not consulted. He said, in addition, that he himself only learned of Norwood's role less than a year ago. Straw announced that a parliamentary committee is now examining the procedures the intelligence services used in handling the Mitrokhin material.

Pointing to the anomaly of the situation, Foster says that because of the decisions by the intelligence services years ago, the British legal authorities would now have a difficult time making a case for prosecuting Norwood or others like her. He questions whether the security services should be in a position to make decisions about individuals who are believed to have behaved traitorously, with the result that they go unpunished.