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SPYCATCHER: THE CANDID AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A SENIOR INTELLIGENCE OFFICER by Peter Wright (Viking: $19.95; 392 pp.)

August 09, 1987|Ted Allbeury | Allbeury, a former counterintelligence officer for MI-6, is a British spy novelist

A middle officer's account of his service in MI-5, Britain's equivalent of the FBI, "Spycatcher" forwards few novel, Earth-shattering revelations. And yet the book has stirred a controversy that has come, in Britain, to rival Irangate. Thatcher's government has suppressed the book in the United Kingdom, spent nearly half a million pounds to try to prevent its publication in Australia (so far unsuccessfully) and even brought a legal suit to try to prevent it from appearing in the United States.

There are those who think that the British government has made a fool of itself by trying to ban the book's publication. These critics have misunderstood, deliberately or otherwise, the government's motive. The ban was not sought primarily because the information in the book was of high security. While revealing information far more explicit than fictional works by former members of British intelligence, such as Ian Fleming, W. Somerset Maugham and David Cornwell (a.k.a. John Le Carre), "Spycatcher" contains little that hasn't been written about before.

The real problem was breach of faith. Wright, as an officer of one of the intelligence services, signed, when he was recruited, his acceptance of the Official Secrets Act. That act prevents a signatory from revealing, at any time, details of his work. In other words, it is a straightforward and clear contract of service. Wright broke the contract.

The government is concerned that others should not take such a cavalier attitude to breaking their word. Wright claims that his reason for so doing is to let the public know that illegal and reprehensible things have been done by officers of MI-5. He presents himself as a public-spirited man. But Wright is in his late 70s: His upsurge of righteousness seems a little late to me. Did the perfectly legitimate wish to earn money play no part in the writing of this book? And is it not anomalous that Wright was himself the instigator or perpetrator of many of those events about which he complains?

But is it fair to judge a book by its author and his ethics? I recommend this book as being compelling reading from beginning to end. Its flaws are deep but not fatal, its virtues rare in such books, and all the more welcome. But then, like the Surgeon General, I have to warn you not to inhale.

"Spycatcher" details the day-to-day intelligence activities of MI-5, from the bugging of embassies of both friends and foes to plots to assassinate heads of foreign governments.

Responsible for the internal security of Britain, MI-5, like the FBI, acts against foreign intelligence organizations and native subversives. MI-6, the organization in which I served, is, like the CIA, responsible for the other side of the coin--espionage and the penetration of foreign espionage services. There is some cross-fertilization between both organizations and their American counterparts.

Wright claims that he and other members of MI-5 "bugged and burgled our way across London at the State's behest." He suggests that MI-5 chief Roger Hollis, now dead, was the Soviet agent long suspected to be at the head of British intelligence. MI-5, he says, was frequently incompetent and characterized by systematic abuses of power and illegal acts, including efforts to spy on and overthrow Harold Wilson when he was prime minister (Wilson and some of his colleagues were considered "unreliable" by factions in counter-intelligence).

There are echoes of Watergate and Irangate throughout the book. Both Gordon Liddy and Ollie North would feel at home with its revelations, even if they may not admire its motives.

One of Wright's claims that has evoked most heat from the Labour Party is that senior members of the Party were considered suspect or unreliable by MI-5. Millions of Britons see on TV the annual conference of the Labour Party where the platform join hands and sing "The Red Flag" with their delegates. Just before the recent election the Party's symbol was changed to our national flower--the rose. A red rose of course. But it didn't deceive the electorate at all.

Wright waxes indignant about the four men in the notorious "Cambridge Spy Ring," which includes Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt. He bemoans, for example, the fact that Philby, the MI-6 station chief in Washington whom many called the most damaging spy in British history, was allowed to resign in 1962. "I realized for the first time that I had joined the looking glass world, where simple but unpalatable truths were wished away. It was a pattern which was to be repeated time and time again over the next 20 years."

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