Oh for the Quaint and Courtly Days of Cold War Spying
In a time of poisonings and digital election tampering, it’s tempting to wax nostalgic for a time when a spy like Donald Maclean could escape detection because he was ‘one of us.’
Donald Maclean was a star British diplomat and a brilliant spy who fled to the Soviet Union from Britain in 1951, leaving establishment embarrassment as well as political and personal devastation in his wake.
With the news this March of Sergei Skripal’s poisoning in Salisbury, England, as revenge for spying for the West, as well as the ongoing revelations about the vast amount of personal data being used by Russian agencies to penetrate and influence the workings of democratic governments, we may feel somewhat nostalgic when looking back on an espionage era of greater political purity, a time when young people of conscience believed wholeheartedly that Communism was the only path to world peace. Maclean and his fellow Cambridge spies were part of a short-lived generation of such ideologues worthily energized as fascism started to brutalize Europe and the Depression caused mass-unemployment and hunger.
Maclean’s exposure should have taken place a decade before the first inklings of suspicion finally fell upon him and he became headline news. Walter Krivitsky had been the chief Soviet illegal in the Netherlands until a summons to Moscow at the height of Stalin’s purges convinced him that the wiser course was to seek asylum. Part of what he had to trade was snatches of admiring conversation overheard in Moscow Center about an outstanding new agent on the fast-track of the British Foreign Office, a man under the age of thirty, who had a Scottish name, who had been educated at Eton and Oxford, whose father had possibly been “one of the chiefs of the Foreign Office.”
Such was the trust inherent in the British establishment and such were the strains imposed on her security services at the beginning of the war, that this was not followed up.
A decade later those same security services were desperate to crack the identity of “Homer,” an alias the NSA decoders in Arlington Hall, Virginia had come across as the Russian code-name for the mole in the British Embassy in Washington. Homer had wrought such damage to the United States and the United Kingdom (and the trusting “special relationship” between them), yet the authorities steadfastly refused to believe that one of their own could be the source of any leaks, preferring instead to start investigating freelance personnel with foreign connections. Even as the repressive wheels of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee were beginning to turn in the United States, it did not seem possible that such a patriotic and high-achieving British diplomat could be a traitor on such a scale.
Krivitsky himself was not given any further chances: a year later he was found in a locked Washington hotel room, a gunshot wound to his temple, the gun itself on the wrong side of the wound and a long way from his hand, and no fewer than three suicide notes in the room. Whereas the attempted assassination of Skripal by the nerve agent novichok was directly traceable to Russia and—while heavily denied by them—has led to expulsions, sanctions, diplomatic stasis, and global tension, there was little such attention paid to Krivitsky’s end.
Igor Gouzenko defected in 1945 but managed to survive. He too had been summoned to Moscow from his post as a cipher clerk in Ottawa, but for the lesser crime of leaving classified documents out at night. Few defections ever run smoothly, but this one was positively farcical as he twice tried to turn himself in to the Ottawa Journal and managed to make the Ministry of Justice think that he was applying to take out Canadian citizenship. Even as his flat was being ransacked by his fellow “diplomats,” he got away, most critically bringing with him the name of the British Los Alamos scientist-spy Dr. Alan Nunn May.
The NKVD, forerunner to the KGB, fruitlessly spent the next 37 years searching for Gouzenko to mete out punishment. When a Canadian member of Parliament, Thomas Cossitt, raised a question about Gouzenko’s pension, the Russians assumed the defector was his constituent and looked for material with which to blackmail the MP to extort Gouzenko’s whereabouts until 1982.
The news of the cipher clerk’s escape reached London via the Washington Embassy, causing Maclean some consternation about whether he too might be implicated. But Moscow Center has on the whole taken great care to keep its agents in separate cells. When spies become close friends, as was the case with Guy Burgess and Kim Philby, disaster (or success from another viewpoint) can follow if one thread of a network is unpicked.
Nunn May became a spy out of ideology, a conviction that the Communist cause (and the sharing of scientific knowledge) was the only way to ensure world safety in the fragmented 20th century. As did Maclean, a Communist from his Cambridge University days, although he took care never to join the Party as such until it was essential to do so after his arrival in the Soviet Union. He refused payment for his services to the cause at immense, nearly fatal, personal cost.
Before that time as well as today, the stick of blackmail and the carrot of money have proved the greater recruitment tools. Skripal, when he was identified as a GRU officer in Spain in 1995, was characterized as a man with a “nose for money” and was initially turned by an access agent who promised him large commissions for selling Spanish wine to his contacts in Russia. Once in British hands as Agent Forthwith, he was paid between $5000 and $6000 dollars for each meeting with his MI6 handler at a time when Boris Yeltsin’s terminally creaking Soviet Union was often unable or too incompetent to pay its officers at all.
Maclean was recruited by an astute psychologist called Arnold Deutsch (known to him only as “Otto”) who had worked with Freud’s disciple Wilhelm Reich in his native Vienna until he had to leave in hurry: He was involved in the publishing for Reich’s “sex pol” movement, which propounded the somewhat startling theory that “a man’s poor sexual performance led him to fascism” and that political liberation was predicated upon sexual freedom; the Viennese police regarded him as little better than a pornographer.
Deutsch had the original idea of taking bright graduates who might get to the top of the “bourgeois apparatus” that ran British life on the grounds that any useful idealism would be excused. He set about recruiting on the basis of carefully work out psychological criteria: His nascent spies should harbor “an inherent class resentfulness, a predilection for secretiveness, a yearning to belong, and an infantile appetite for praise and reassurance.” In that time when espionage had to rely on individual roles and traits rather than cyber know-how, Maclean fit the bill perfectly.
Even when the hunt was in full cry for the spy who leaked, among much else, the telegrams between Churchill and Roosevelt detailing their negotiating positions at the Yalta Conference that defined the borders of post-war Europe, the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Germany, and America’s nuclear capability through his Access All Areas pass to the Atomic Energy Commission in Washington, Maclean went undetected until a chance reference to a family matter and a brilliant piece of NSA decryption hastened the flight of the spy Deutsch had code-named “Orphan.”