The passing last month of the Soviet spy in MI6, George Blake, who died in Russia at the age of 98, brings an end to the era of ideologically driven Soviet espionage in the Cold War. Blake was the last remaining major agent who spied for the Soviet Union as a communist true believer – as opposed to selling Western secrets for money. Despite the media attention about Blake’s espionage since his death, a significant aspect of his case has been omitted from his obituaries and books about him: after his identification as a Soviet agent in 1961, MI6 seems to have been willing to offer Blake immunity from prosecution in return for a full, secret, confession. This never happened because, in the event, Blake voluntarily confessed – in fact he was proud of his service as a Soviet spy.
George Blake joined Britain’s foreign intelligence service, SIS, also known as MI6, in the Second World War after serving in the Royal Navy. After Russian language training at Cambridge after the war, he was posted by MI6 to Germany and then to Korea, where, just before the outbreak of war there in 1950, he was captured by North Korean forces. During his three-year captivity, he was recruited as a Soviet agent and given the KGB codename ‘DIOMID’. Blake later claimed that it was witnessing American carpet bombing in Korea that convinced him to spy for the Soviet Union.
After his release from North Korean captivity, and a period of recuperation, Blake returned to work for MI6 first in London and then overseas. He was, however, from that point onwards a Soviet penetration agent inside MI6. In that capacity, he was similar to the earlier, infamous, group of Soviet agents inside British intelligence, the five ‘Cambridge spies’— Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross.
Like the Cambridge spies, Blake’s espionage for the Soviet Union was based on an ideological commitment to communism. However, like all spies, he was also driven by his own life experiences. Blake (né Behar) was a multilingual cosmopolitan outsider to Britain. He was born in the Netherlands— two years after creation of the Soviet secret police— and later became a naturalised British subject; his mother was Dutch and his father a Spanish Jew, born in Turkey. He worked in the Dutch resistance during the war, and, after escaping to Britain, changed his surname and joined the Royal Navy. When he joined MI6 in 1944, it did not yet have enhanced background checks, later known as positive or developed vetting. His work for the Dutch resistance, and a recommendation by a respected senior Royal Navy officer, carried him into MI6. His continued employment by MI6 after his release from North Korean captivity was a dire failure of British security. However, like other moles, Blake’s espionage owed much to his ability to lie to his friends, colleagues, and even family.
While John le Carré’s novels depict betrayal as endemic to Britain’s intelligence services, in reality they rely on a high degree of trust among officers, who are entrusted with safeguarding British state secrets. That trust makes them equally vulnerable to someone willing to lie coldly to colleagues’ faces. The manner in which Blake deceived his MI6 colleagues was revealed in an unprecedented interview with former MI6 head of counterintelligence, John Quine, made as part of a British Channel 4 television pilot that never aired. Quine was friends with Blake in MI6 and later interviewed him after he was caught. He knew that Blake had a private side, but he completely hid his ideological commitment to communism. According to Quine, even Blake’s English wife did not know about his communist ‘double life’. Blake later insisted that he was never a traitor, because he never regarded himself as British. ‘To betray, you first have to belong’, he later said. ‘I never belonged’.
Among the greatest secrets Blake betrayed to the KGB from inside MI6 were the names of forty western agents working behind the Iron Curtain, who were captured, and, in some cases, executed. He also disclosed plans for one of the most ingenious UK-US joint intelligence operations of the Cold War, code-named ‘GOLD’— plans to dig a 500-meter tunnel from West to East Berlin to intercept land line communications running from Soviet military and intelligence headquarters at Karlshorst, in the East Berlin suburbs. Blake was posted to the MI6 Berlin station in April 1955, one month before the tunnel became operational. By the time the KGB staged an ‘accidental’ discovery of the tunnel in April 1956, operation GOLD had produced more than 50,000 reels of magnetic tape recordings of intercepted Soviet and East German communications.
GOLD was a jointly run MI6 and CIA operation. According to a CIA officer, Cleveland (‘Cleve’) Cram, who was present at the first CIA-MI6 London meeting on the operation, at an MI6 flat at Carlton Gardens, Blake was left to sort out and lock up the papers after the meeting— he was the most junior MI6 officer there. Cram, the most junior on the CIA side, suggested that they could go for lunch. Blake said he would love to do so, but would be too busy with the papers— as indeed he was, copying them for the KGB. Blake gave his KGB controller details of operation GOLD at a meeting on the top deck of a London bus.
Nearly a decade after his KGB recruitment, Blake was discovered to be a Soviet agent in 1961, on the basis of information from a CIA agent inside Polish military intelligence, Michael Goleniewski (codenamed ‘SNIPER’ by the CIA, ‘LAVINIA’ by MI6), and from intercepts obtained by Britain’s signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, as John Ferris’s recently-published authorized history shows. The fact that MI6 archives are closed to the public, unlike those of its sister service, MI5, makes it difficult to establish how MI6’s investigation into Blake proceeded. In fact, though, MI5 records reveal what MI6 was up to. When it discovered that Blake was a KGB agent, MI6 initially feared that, unless he confessed, which seemed unlikely, there would be insufficient evidence to gain a successful prosecution. It sought the advice of MI5’s head of counterespionage, Martin Furnival-Jones (‘FJ’), later MI5 Director-General: ‘Their first question was whether it would be in order at an appropriate stage in the interrogation to tell Blake, as an inducement, that he would not be prosecuted if he confessed’. MI6 thus seems to have been willing to make the same offer to Blake that MI5 would subsequently make, three years later, in 1964, to one of the Cambridge spies, Anthony Blunt, after failing to gain adequate evidence to secure a conviction from him.
Unlike Blunt, Blake never seems to have grasped that without a confession, British authorities would lack sufficient evidence against him: signals intelligence was not admissible in English courts, and information from the CIA’s Polish agent, Goleniewski, could be dismissed as hearsay, and, to counter it, would require his inconceivable testimony in court. As it transpired, after half a day’s questioning, to MI6’s surprise, Blake confessed. As described in the well-researched new book about operation GOLD by Steve Vogel, Betrayal in Berlin, Blake was offended by the suggestion put to him that he worked for the KGB not out of principle but because he had been tortured while in Korea and blackmailed after his release: ‘No, nobody tortured me! No, nobody blackmailed me! I myself approached the Soviets and offered my service to them of my own accord’. At his Old Bailey trial in May 1961, Blake was given a record sentence of 42 years in jail.
Contrary to initial fears of Britain’s spy chiefs, Blake’s discovery did not disrupt the Anglo-American special intelligence relationship. When the Director of Central Intelligence, Alan Dulles, retired in 1961 in the wake of the CIA’s bungled invasion of Cuba, at the Bay of Pigs, the MI6 Chief, Dick White, wrote to him thanking him for his magnanimity, ‘never more apparent than during your recent handling of the Blake case. I hope that you yourself realize what a splendid impression you made upon us all by your magnanimity and understanding of our difficulties’.
MI5’s liaison officer in Washington at the time delivered a letter from Dick White about the Blake case (codenamed ‘STARFISH’) to the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover. According to the liaison officer, the frequently irascible Hoover was in a ‘genuinely sympathetic and understanding’ mood. The Blake case, Hoover told him, was a ‘further illustration of how constantly on alert we had to be to the dangers which beset us. After all, he said, Christ Himself found a traitor in His small team of twelve’.
The calmer-than-expected response by the US intelligence community can be explained, in part, by an acutely embarrassing press conference that two Soviet agents and defectors from the US signals intelligence agency, the NSA, William Martin and Bernon Mitchell, had given the year before after they reached the Soviet Union. At a Moscow press conference, they publicly revealed details about how the US government was breaking the ciphers of some of their friends and allies’ communications. Among them, said Martin, were those of ‘Italy, Turkey, France, Yugoslavia, United Arab Republic, Indonesia, Uruguay… That’s enough to give a general picture, I guess’. For all the damage Blake caused, his case was less embarrassing to US intelligence than Martin and Mitchell’s defection to Moscow. Breaking into the communications of friendly countries is one of the most awkward things that can happen in international relations, as America’s more recent interception of Angela Merkel’s phone calls revealed.
While MI6’s existence at the time was officially secret. This secrecy meant that that US media revealed more about Blake than Britain’s own media outlets. The Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, complained in his diary after Blake’s conviction that the public ‘do not know and cannot be told that he belonged to MI6, an organisation which does not theoretically exist. So I had a rather rough passage in the House of Commons…’.
Most of the story of Blake’s betrayal of operation GOLD did not become public until after he made a remarkable escape from London’s Wormwood Scrubs prison five years later, in October 1966, which he carried out during the prison’s weekly movie screening, later crossing to the Continent hidden in a camper van, and then reaching Moscow. He left behind his wife and three children.
Blake’s escape over Wormwood Scrubs’ walls propelled him into the public eye. Sir Alfred Hitchcock realised that Blake’s story, with the Berlin tunnel and spectacular prisoner escape, had all the ingredients for a smash-hit film. Hitchcock planned to make a sensational film about it, The Short Night, featuring a Psycho-style attempt to kill the naked heroine in a gas filled sauna, but the film was dropped after Hitchcock’s death. Blake’s espionage also captured imaginations in the literary world. Speaking at the time of his escape, the spy author (and former MI5 and MI6 officer), John le Carré, who also died last month, said:
‘There is enormous propaganda value for the Russians in his escape. It highlights the inefficiency of Britain’s prisons in that, after the full weight of British justice had been massed to sentence him for 42 years, he could only be kept inside for five. But, more importantly, it further discredits the Western secret service agencies in Western eyes. It must give the Russians great pleasure.’
The main attempt to dramatize Blake’s escape ended in theatrical mayhem. After the Cold War, Simon Gray wrote and directed Cell Mates, starring the hugely talented Stephen Fry (Blake) and Rik Mayall (Sean Bourke, who helped to spring Blake from jail). Fry, badly miscast, caused pandemonium by quitting after three days. Gray accused him of acting ‘in the most cowardly fashion’; Fry contemplated suicide. It was seventeen years before Fry returned to the London stage. According to his website, ‘The experience still haunts him, but the depression has now faded to embarrassment and the anger to forgiveness.’
Blake and Soviet intelligence undertook stage management of their own. In an interview Blake gave to the Soviet newspaper Izvestia three years after he reached Russia, he claimed that he had told the KGB about the Berlin tunnel even before it was constructed, boasting that it was ‘doomed to failure’ from the outset. Western commentators then widely assumed the intercepted Soviet communications must have been deliberately planted by Soviet intelligence. The best-selling British spy writer, Chapman Pincher, claimed the operation GOLD ‘produced nothing but a carefully prepared mass of misinformation’. However, as Vogel’s book shows, all the intercept communications were genuine. The KGB did not interfere either with the tunnel’s construction or with its early operations, partly for fear of compromising Blake, who was by far its most important British agent at the time. Awkwardly for the Kremlin today, it also seems that, while the KGB successfully protected the security of its own communications, it was less concerned about the interception of the communications of its rival service, the GRU (Soviet military intelligence), and the Red Army.
Once in Russia, Blake’s public life was carefully directed by the Kremlin. Unlike his fellow Soviet spy in MI6 and defector, Philby, who was never made a KGB officer, only ever an agent, the Kremlin rolled out the red carpet for Blake: he was made a KGB colonel, assumed a new identity, awarded the Order of Lenin, and given a pension and an apartment in Moscow. He divorced his wife, remarried, had a son and grandson in Russia, helped to train Soviet agents, and on his eighty fifth birthday, in 2007, received the Order of Friendship from President Putin.
However, life for western agents who defected to the Soviet Union was not what the Kremlin wished to portray. Once in Moscow, for example, the Cambridge spy, Burgess, was homesick, insisted on wearing his stained Old Etonian tie, hung around in Moscow hotels and the ballet in the hope of talking with tourists, and drank himself into an early grave. Philby, who after reaching Russia had an affair with the wife of his fellow Soviet agent, Maclean, was not allowed into KGB headquarters until 1977, fourteen years after he arrived in Moscow. A later CIA defector, Edward Lee Howard, would drunk-dial former CIA colleagues from Moscow every New Year’s Eve, despondent and lonely, before eventually falling to his death down the backstairs of his Russian-intelligence-supplied dacha.
In 1975 Blake and Philby had a spectacular falling-out. During a convivial weekend at Blake’s KGB-supplied dacha, Philby’s son, John, took a series of photos which he promised would remain strictly private. One of the photos, however, appeared on the front page of the Daily Mail under the banner headline ‘TRAITORS. MAIL WORLD EXCLUSIVE: Philby and Blake, both now with Russian wives, meet near Moscow to talk over the legacy of betrayal’. The photo showed both with glum expressions, ‘pathetically anxious to dispel any impression that they are treated as third class citizens.’
Blake was so outraged that he refused to speak to Philby again, though he did turn up at his funeral in 1988. Blake became obsessed by conspiracy theories which he believed explained why he had been punished so much more severely by British justice than Philby and Blunt: ‘It was probably because I was of foreign origin, and I could easily be made an example of… They were members of the Establishment and I was not’, his excellent biography by Roger Hermiston notes. In reality, Blake only had himself to blame for his severe treatment by British justice. If he had not made a voluntary and unconditional confession, he could not have been convicted, and MI6 would probably have made the same bargain with him that MI5 made with Blunt.
Blake’s death last month reminded the disgraced and jailed MP and cabinet minister, Jonathan Aitken, of a debate that happened at Wormwood Scrubs in the mid-1960s, organized by chairman of the Daily Mirror, Hugh Cudlipp, in which Aitken and the philosopher Derek Parfit argued that English private school was worse than prison. Aitken, both an Old Etonian and Old Belmarshian, after his imprisonment in Belmarsh prison for perjury, says Blake was the star of the prison debating team, which won by a long stretch, and had warned in his speech that if his 42-year sentence was not cut, he would do it himself. ‘What do you think he meant by that?’, Cudlipp asked Aitken as they left. ‘Is he planning to escape?’ Soon after, Blake went over the wall, making it one Cudlipp scoop that got away. This was when Jonathan Aitken was still a prison visitor, rather than prisoner himself.
News of Blake’s death has prompted an outpouring of hagiography and even deception by Russia’s foreign intelligence, the SVR, which sees itself as the KGB’s heir, and, in 2020, celebrated the latter’s centenary anniversary founding. However, recent humiliations of Russian intelligence, like its attempted assassinations of Sergei Skripal in Britain or Russian political dissident Alexey Navalny, have led the Kremlin to return to its supposed past glories. An SVR press release about Blake, which describes him as a ‘legendary intelligence officer’ for Russian foreign intelligence, claims that his betrayal of the Berlin tunnel allowed the KGB to ‘misinform the enemy’. The reality— that it did not— is too embarrassing for the SVR to admit.
Blake was the last in a long line of ideologically committed Soviet agents in the twentieth century. In the later Cold War, and after it, most spies who betrayed America have been motivated by money, not ideology. The same is probably true for spies in other western governments. That does not, however, make them any less potentially devastating. In 2018 alone, three former US intelligence officers (from the CIA, FBI, and DIA) were convicted of spying for China. The French foreign intelligence service has similarly uncovered two former officers spying for China, who have been convicted in 2020.
Amid the new ‘Cold War’ between the West and China and Russia, it is not inconceivable there are currently serving penetration agents— latter day Blakes or Philbys motivated by money rather than ideology—in western services. Blake’s story reveals the damage that such agents can cause Western governments. When an intelligence officer entrusted with state secrets regards his or her true loyalty to another country, the damage to national security is limited only by the number of secrets to which they have access and can steal.