The government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has managed to prevent British and Australian publication of Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, the controversial memoirs of Peter Wright, former assistant director of Britain ’s MI-5 security service. This week Toronto-based Stoddart Publishing Co. Ltd. planned to issue the book in Canada and Maclean’s has obtained exclusive rights to publish excerpts. In them, 76-year-old Wright, now retired in Australia, recounts suspicions that the Soviet KGB fatally poisoned Labour Party Leader Hugh Gaitskell in 1963. As well, Wright chronicles attempts by MI-5 members to topple the government of Gaitskell’s successor, Harold Wilson, because they suspected that he was a Soviet agent (Wilson has denied the charge).
Much has been written about Harold Wilson and MI-5, some of it wildly inaccurate. But as far as I am concerned, the story started with the premature death of Hugh Gaitskell in 1963. I knew him personally and I recall about a month before he died he told me that he was going to Russia.
After he died his doctor got in touch with MI-5 and explained that he was disturbed by the manner of Gaitskell’s death. He said that Gaitskell had died of a disease called lupus disseminata, which
attacks the body’s organs. He said that it was rare in temperate climates and that there was no evidence that Gaitskell had been anywhere recently where he could have contracted the disease.
I went to see the chief doctor in the chemical warfare laboratory, Dr. Ladell, and asked his advice. He said that nobody knew how one contracted lupus. There was some suspicion that it might be a form of fungus, and he did not have the foggiest idea how one would infect somebody with the disease.
The next development was that Anatoli Golitsin [a high-ranking KGB official who had defected to the West] told us
quite independently that during the last few years of his service he had had some contacts with Department 13, which was known as the Department of Wet Affairs in the KGB. This department was responsible for organizing assassinations. He said that just before he left he knew that the KGB was planning a highlevel political assassination in Europe in order to get their man into the top place. He did not know which country it was planned in, but he pointed out that the chief of Department 13 was a man called Gen. Rodin, who had been in Britain for many years and had just returned on promotion to take up the job, so he would have had good knowledge of the political scene in England.
I consulted James Angleton [chief of counterintelligence for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency] about the problem. He said that he would get a search made of Russian scientific papers to see whether there was any hint of what the Russians knew about lupus disseminata. A month or two later he sent us a paper about lupus which he had had translated from a Russian scientific journal. This paper described the use of a special chemical which the Russians had found would
induce lupus in experimental rats.
However, it was unlikely that this particular chemical could have been used to murder Gaitskell because the quantities required to produce lupus were considerable and had to be given repeatedly. I took the paper to Ladell, and he pointed out that the paper was seven years old and if the Russians had continued to work on it they might have found a much better form of the chemical which would require much smaller doses and perhaps work as a one-shot drug.
When Harold Wilson became prime minister, it was inevitable that he would come to the attention of MI-5. He had worked for an East-West trading organization and paid many visits to Russia. MI-5, well aware that the KGB will stop at nothing to entrap or frame visitors, was concerned that he should be well aware of the risk of being compromised by the Russians.
When Wilson succeeded Gaitskell, there was a further source of friction between himself and MI-5. He began to surround himself with East European émigré businessmen, some of whom had themselves been the subject of MI-5’s inquiries.
After Wilson became prime minister in 1964, Angleton made a special trip to England to see Martin Furnival Jones, who was then director of counterespionage. Angleton came to offer us some very secret information from a source he would not name. This source alleged, according to Angleton, that Wilson was a Soviet agent. He said he would give us more detailed evidence and information if we could guarantee to keep the information inside MI-5 and out of political circles. The accusation was totally incredible, but given the fact that Angleton was head of the CIA’s counterintelligence division, we had no choice but to take it seriously.
By the end of the 1960s information was coming to Ml-5’s attention which suggested that there almost certainly was Soviet penetration of the Labour Party. First the Czechoslovakian defectors, named Frolik and August, arrived in the West and named a series of Labor MPs and trade unionists as successful recruits. Then we received the most damaging information of all from Oleg Lyalin [a former KGB agent who had defected]. While Lyalin was still in place, he told MI-5 about a friend of his called Vaygaukas. Vaygaukas was a KGB officer working under cover in the Soviet
Trade Delegation in London. Lyalin told us that Vaygaukas had claimed to him to be in contact with a man called Joseph Kagan, a Lithuanian émigré who was a close friend of Harold Wilson’s. Kagan had helped furnish Wilson’s private office, and had even lent him an aircraft during elections, and Wilson had been much photographed wearing Kagan’s raincoats, which he manufactured in a factory near Leeds.
Wilson interpreted Ml-5’s interest as a crude attempt to smear the Labour
Party and him. But once the Conservative government came into power, it began to take a great interest in the material as well. Victor [Rothschild, head of the government’s Central Policy Review Staff] often used to complain to me about the quality of the intelligence reports No. 10 Downing Street received from F Branch. “They pull their punches all the time,” he would say, “can’t you give us something better?”
In 1972 Victor told me that [Tory] Prime Minister Edward Heath had been appalled at a recent cabinet meeting, which was addressed by Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, the two powerful trade union bosses of the early 1970s. “Ted thought they had talked like Communists,” he said. “I asked F Branch if they
had anything, but of course they’ve got nothing substantial.”
Victor knew from gossip that the recent Czech defectors were providing material about trade union and Labour Party subversion, and began pumping me for the details. I told him to write me formally with a request and I would see what I could do. Later that day I got his memo. “The Prime Minister is anxious to see . . .” he began, in typical Victor style.
I sent Victor’s note to Furnival Jones [by then promoted to MI-5 director general] for guidance. He returned it to me with a handwritten message in the margin: “Tell him what he wants to know!” I drew the files, and began patiently to compose a lengthy brief on the intelligence provided by Frolik and August. I drew no conclusions, but neither did I leave anything out.
The following day Victor rang up. He told me Heath had devoured the briefing that night. “Is this true, Victor?” he asked in amazement, and when told it was redoubled his crusade to remain in power.
[Furnival Jones’s successor, Michael] Hanley, knew little about the material which had been gathered on Wilson and the Labour Party during the 1960s, so I encouraged him to study it. Elections were in the offing, and it could become relevant again, I told him. When he had read the files, he said, “There’s lots of smoke, but not a lot of fire.” Nevertheless, he agreed that it was prudent to reexamine the material. Angleton, in particular, was beginning to badger us constantly about Wilson, and I told Hanley it would be politic to be seen to be doing something.
As events moved to their political climax in early 1974, with the election of the minority Labour government, MI-5 was sitting on information which, if leaked, would undoubtedly have caused a political scandal of incalculable consequences. The news that the prime minister himself was being investigated would at the least have led to his resignation. The point was not lost on some MI-5 officers.
One afternoon I was in my office when two colleagues came in. They were with three or four other officers. I closed the file I was working on and asked them how I could help. “We understand you’ve reopened the Wilson case,” said the senior one.
“You know I can’t talk about that,” I told him.
“Wilson’s a bloody menace,” said one of the younger officers, “and it’s about time the public knew the truth.” It was not the first time I had heard that particular sentiment. Feelings had run high inside MI-5 during 1968. There had been an effort to try to stir
up trouble for Wilson then, largely because the Daily Mirror tycoon, Cecil King, who was a longtime agent of ours, made it clear that he would publish anything MI-5 might care to leak in his direction. It was all part of Cecil King’s “coup,” which he was convinced would bring down the Labour government and replace it with a coalition led by Lord Mountbatten.
I told Furnival Jones in 1968 that feelings were running high, but he responded in a low-key manner, “You can tell anyone who has ideas about leaking classified material that there will be nothing I can do to save them!” He knew the message would get back.
But the approach in 1974 was altogether more serious. The plan was simple. In the run-up to the election which, given the level of instability in Parliament, must be due within a matter of months, MI-5 would arrange for selective details of the intelligence about leading Labour Party figures, but especially Wilson, to be leaked to sympathetic journalists. Using our contacts in the press and among union officials, word of the material contained in MI-5 files and the fact that Wilson was considered a security risk would be passed around.
Soundings in the office had already been taken, and up to 30 officers had given their approval to the scheme. Facsimile copies of some files were to be made and distributed to overseas newspapers, and the matter was to be raised in Parliament for maximum effect.
“We’ll have him out,” said one of them, “this time we’ll have him out.” “But why do you need me?” I asked. “Well, you don’t like Wilson any more than we do . . . besides, you’ve got access to the latest files—the Gaitskell business, and all the rest of it.”
“But they’re kept in the [director general’s] safe!”
“Yes, but you could copy them.”
“I need some time to think,” I pleaded. “I’ve got a lot to think about before I take a step like this. You’ll have to give me a couple of days.”
At first I was tempted. The devil makes work for idle hands, and I was playing out my time before retirement. A mad scheme like this was bound to tempt me. I felt an irresistible urge to lash out. The country seemed on the brink of catastrophe. Why not give it a little push? In any case, I carried the burden of so many secrets that lightening the load a little
could only make things easier for me.
It was Victor who talked me out of it. “I don’t like Wilson any more than you do,” he told me, “but you’ll end up getting chopped if you go in for this.” He was right. I had little more than a year to go. Why destroy everything in a moment of madness?
A few days later I told the leader of the group that I would not get the files. Some of the operational people became quite aggressive. They kept saying it was the last chance to fix Wilson. “Once you’ve retired,” they said, “we’ll never get the files!” But my
When he had calmed down he asked me for the names. I gave them. Having come so far, I could not very well refuse. “Look after them, won’t you?” I asked Hanley.
mind was made up, and even their taunts of cowardice could not shake me.
Although the full Wilson story never emerged, it was obvious to me that the boys had been actively pushing their plan as much as they could.
In the summer of 1975 I dined with Maurice Oldfield [the head of MI-6, the domestic counterpart of MI-5]. He turned the conversation to Wilson. How high had feelings been running in there? he asked. He kept hearing all sorts of rumors.
“Most of us don’t like him. They think he’s wrecking the country.” Maurice was clearly preoccupied with the subject, because he returned to it again and again.
“You’re not telling me the truth,” he said finally.
“I’m not with you, Maurice . . . .”
“I was called in by the prime minister yesterday,” he said, his tone suddenly changing. “He was talking about a plot. Apparently he’s heard that your boys have been going around town stirring things about him and Marcia Falkender [Wilson’s secretary] and Communists at No. 10.” He trailed away as if it were all too distasteful for him.
“It’s serious, Peter,” he began again, “I need to know everything. Look what’s happening in Washington with Watergate. The same thing will happen here unless we’re very careful.”
I ordered another brandy and decided to tell him everything I knew. When I had finished describing the plans of the previous summer, he asked me if Hanley knew. “No,” I replied. “I thought it best just to forget the whole thing.”
“I want you to go back to the office tomorrow and tell him everything.”
When I saw Hanley the next morning, he went white as a sheet. He might have suspected that feelings against Wilson ran high in the office, but now he was learning that half of his staff were up to their necks in a plot to get rid of the prime minister. It was at times like that I was glad I never climbed the executive ladder.
Ironically, his first reaction was anger with Maurice.
“Bloody Maurice!” he raged. “Poking his nose into our business!”
“There will have to be an inquiry, of course,” he replied.
I [retired] before the Wilson story ended, and Hanley and I never discussed it again. I heard that a member of the government security commission was called in to make a private inquiry for the cabinet office, and it has since been reported that Hanley made a number of changes, mainly in the field of recruitment, with a view to introducing new blood into MI-5. This presumably explains the cryptic letter I received from Hanley shortly after I retired to Australia.
“You’ll be pleased to note,” he wrote, “that the firm has passed its recent examinations, and is doing rather well!” Shortly afterward Wilson resigned. As we always used to say in the office, “Politicians may come and go, but the Security Service goes on forever.”
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