- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2009

TREACHERY
By Chapman Pincher
Random House, $36, 679 pages, illus.

THE SECRET SENTRY: THE UNTOLD HISTORY OF THE NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY
By Matthew M. Aid
Bloomsbury Press, $30, 423 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY JOSEPH GOULDEN

Given that Chapman Pincher was born in 1914, longevity alone makes him the dean of British nonfiction spy writers. But as those of us of a certain age realize, senior status by itself does not equate with infallibility. As I plowed through Mr. Pincher’s massive work, the thought came through my mind time and again, “This man is flogging a well-beaten horse” — the contention that Sir Roger Hollis, the head of MI5, the British domestic security service from 1956 to 1965, was a Soviet agent.

Mr. Pincher told essentially the same story in “Their Trade Is Treachery,” published in 1981. His primary source, then unnamed, was former MI5 officer Peter Wright, who in 1987 published his own controversial book on Hollis, “Spycatcher.”

Hollis was hauled out of retirement to testify at one of several inquires about MI5 security. The conclusions were that the Soviets indeed had penetrated MI5, but that the charges against Hollis were not supported by the evidence. Dissenters remain unconvinced, of course, both in Britain and the United States. And indeed, Mr. Pincher lists no fewer than 52 “anomalies” in Hollis‘ career that point to his guilt. (“Anomalies” is spookspeak for suspicious inconsistencies or events.) Some are thin gruel — of the “Hollis should have known” variety.

Others are more disturbing: for instance, the fact that throughout Hollis‘ career, MI5 “secured no Russian defectors of consequence, and there is evidence that some of those who wished to defect were afraid to do so because they believed the British service to be penetrated.”

The great “British mole hunt” began in 1945, when Lt. Igor Gouzenko, a defected Red Army code clerk in Canada, said that MI5, the British internal security agency, had been penetrated by a Soviet agent who had unfettered access to sensitive files. Gouzenko’s leads on other Soviet agents, including two members of the Canadian parliament, proved on target. But his lead about the MI5 mole was tantalizingly sketchy. A series of intelligence mishaps in succeeding years heightened concern about a Soviet penetration.

My problems with Mr. Pincher’s work are many. He does not burden readers with chapter notes, so one is expected to accept his text at face value. Adding notes, he writes, “would unnecessarily bulk” an already large book. Perhaps, but serious readers would like to see them. More glaring, he is most selective in the evidence he chooses to present. If you bother to read this book, seek out also Nigel West’s 1997 book, “Mole Hunt,” that is, by far, the more balanced book. (Mr. West’s nominee for the Soviet mole was Graham Mitchell, Hollis‘ deputy.)

To be sure, a series of governments obfuscated security failures in MI5, foremost being the failure to detect the Philby spy ring and prevent its principals from fleeing behind the Iron Curtain. In Britain — and elsewhere, certainly — governments reflexively lie to protect themselves.

In this instance, misguided secrecy soured the relationship between American and British intelligence for decades. One can read Mr. Pincher’s evidence and conclude that Hollis was unqualified to be an intelligence officer, much less the head of a sensitive service. Indeed, Mr. Pincher describes him as “a university dropout with no foreign languages, little field experience, an appalling counter-espionage record, a negative personality, mediocre qualities of leadership, doubtful health, and a mistress installed in his office… [nonetheless the man] in charge of the nation’s first line of defense against spies and saboteurs.”

But a Soviet agent? An ineffectual spymaster, by many accounts, but treason remains unproven.

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Unlike Mr. Pincher, Matthew Aid presents an impressive array of chapter notes in his “history” of the National Security Agency, some 97 pages, which are chiefly references to documents he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. In his instances, my qualms concern (a) the historical value of the documents and (b) the interpretation he chose to make of them.

The documents, in essence, are what NSA chose to reveal about itself, and from decades of writing about the intelligence community, I can attest that the alphabet-agencies are chary when it comes to the release of information. On examination, much of what Mr. Aid cites are bureaucratic histories and thumbnail profiles of the persons who have run NSA over the years.

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