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Spycatcher

By Peter Wright & Paul Greengrass 

29 Oct, 2020

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Peter Wright and Paul Greengrass 1987’s Spycatcher : The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer is an account of the MI5 experiences of Peter Wright, who was an officer and eventually Assistant Director in the organization.



The account begins when Wright is hired by MI5. Wright’s father had been involved in cutting edge radio research as well as intelligence work; consequently, Wright knew a lot about the field. His technical expertise made him potentially useful in the eyes of some MI5 senior officials. 

Once ensconced in the intelligence agency, Wright discovered that it had its own internal travails: struggles with budgets (limited) and bureaucratic obstruction by rivals within and without MI5 (unlimited). He found that other senior officials were unconvinced that new technology was needed … despite which the research arm of MI5 did manage to come up with cunning new tricks and winkle out enemy secrets. (Enemies: the Soviets, of course, but also the French, sometimes, and restive colonial populations.) 

Wright explained how British intelligence worked while he was there, in the process revealing some operations that the British government would really rather have left politely shrouded, such as the plot to kill Nasser. 

He also discusses the sad fact that several Russian intelligence agencies had agents within MI5. Some officials were reluctant to believe that they could have been played; some officials were the moles and had enough power to hobble investigations. In his book Wright cheerfully named names, not all of whom were acknowledged to be Russian agents at the time. There were next to no prosecutions. The guilty parties either legged it for Russia or were too well connected to be held accountable for mere treason.

~oOo~

I gather the motivation for writing this book was that Her Majesty’s Government decided to screw Wright over on the matter of his pension. Having been poor as a teen and having seen the life of genteel poverty led by his friend and former intelligence agent Klop Ustinov {actor Peter Ustinov’s father), Wright decided to write a tell-all from the safety of Australia. Since the book had a number of revelations embarrassing to Her Majesty’s Government, the aforesaid government did its best to squash publication. Result: the book became a best-seller. This was long before the term Streisand Effect” was in common use. 

The book is told in an engaging manner, perhaps thanks to Wright’s co-author. It does not paint a particularly complementary picture of MI5 in particular, of the British intelligence community in general, or indeed of most Western intelligence agencies of the time. Wright does respect the Soviets, who ran spy rings in the UK that flourished for decades [1]. Curiously, Wright always seems to be cast in a favourable light in his disputes with his former co-workers. I wonder what the odds are that he was generally right, given that he’s the author of this book. Well, no doubt had he often been wrong, he would want to conceal his track record, not publicize it. 

It’s all very entertaining, unless for some reason you have some odd belief that spy agencies shouldn’t be infiltrated by foreign agents. No biggie; this sort of thing has been a commonplace in Britain since the first druid fed info to the Romans. The important thing is that the British class structure remain unshaken, not that senior officials do their jobs competently.

Spycatcher is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK). I did not find Spycatcher at Barnes & Noble, Book Depository, or Chapters-Indigo.

1: There might be an observer effect, in that Soviet bumblers wouldn’t be as vexing or take as much of his attention as did the long-running rings.