- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2009

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

By Matthew M. Aid
Bloomsbury Press, $30, 423 pages, illus.

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.


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.

And even these canned histories have their flaws. Mr. Aid cites an internal history of the Gulf of Tonkin incident as “intelligence disaster of epic proportions.” These murky encounters between two U.S. destroyers and North Vietnam patrol boats in August 1964 resulted in Congress giving President Johnson a blank check to use to wage war. But just where was the “intelligence failure?” Such indeed was the conclusion of an NSA “historian.”

Unfortunately, his study was so one-dimensional as to be worthless. To be sure, NSA listening stations scattered over the Pacific lagged in capturing and interpreting North Vietnamese radio transmissions. No matter. LBJ and his advisers had been itching for a pretext to gain congressional support for an expanded war, and especially with the 1964 presidential election only weeks away.

Years ago, in researching a book on Tonkin, I interviewed Capt. John Herrick, the commander of a task force comprised of the Maddox and Turner Joy. In the hours after a chaotic night time encounter, Herrick told me of his feverish efforts to compile a credible after-action report from confused accounts by crew members and sonar operators. He repeatedly told superiors that he was uncertain as to whether destroyers had been attacked and he suggested that they hold off any action until he could report. As the last of several such messages went off, Herrick looked into the sky and saw American planes bound for a bombing mission against Haiphong.

But to blame NSA for Tonkin fits the story line of a book whose chapter titles include “The Inventory of Ignorance,” “Errors of Fact and Judgment” and “The Wilderness of Pain.” A credible “inside story” of NSA remains to be written.

In his acknowledgment and source notes, Mr. Aid chose not to mention an episode in his background that conceivably influenced his attitude toward NSA. In 1985, as an Air Force staff sergeant serving at an NSA listening post in Chicksands, England, Mr. Aid was found to have concealed top-secret/code-word documents in his locker. He was court martialed for unauthorized possession of classified materials and impersonating an officer. He was jailed for more than a year.

Did this transgression sour his view of NSA? In an e-mail, he told me that the episode was “water under the bridge and did not in any way ‘color’ what I wrote about NSA.” The documents related to his work as a Russian linguist that he had taken home for study. He said he claimed to be an officer to “impress” a girl.

A retired NSA officer who brought the court-martial to my attention questioned whether Mr. Aid was in a position to be a credible critic of “intelligence failures.” Mr. Aid would have been wise to cover his flanks by mentioning the incident in his book.

Joseph Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is Joseph G894@aol.com.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide