Originally published in The Conversation, September 20 2018
According to The Times the late Michael Foot, the former leader of the Labour Party, was a Soviet “confidential contact” on the payroll of the KGB to the tune of £37,000 (in today’s money). This might come as something of a shock to followers of British espionage news, who have long assumed that such claims were nonsense – especially after this was found to be the case in the High Court in 1995.
This latest fuss precedes the publication of a biography of the KGB defector, Oleg Gordievsky, by Times journalist and spy writer Ben Macintyre. From 1974, Gordievsky leaked KGB secrets to British intelligence before defecting to the West in 1985. Among his many revelations to the British secret services were the claims regarding Foot.
Gordievsky first publicised his allegations against Foot (supposedly codenamed “Boot” by the KGB) in his 1995 autobiography. The Labour leader denounced them as a “big lie” and successfully sued The Sunday Times, which had serialised the work, for libel.
Now, 23 years later, anonymous intelligence officers have spoken to Macintyre, confirming that MI6 took the issue seriously and feared a scenario – Foot becoming prime minister – where they would be forced to inform the Queen. This has proven sufficient for The Times to contend that they had been right all along: “Foot served as a confidential contact for the KGB.”
Of course, the problem is that we are required to place our faith in claims of retired or anonymous spies. While both the Security Service (MI5) and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) have steadily begun declassifying historical files, MI6 has released very little. So, we can’t check what MI6 actually believed about Foot. Nor has MI5 released any files it might have held on the case.
In terms of Soviet evidence, over the years there has been some limited access granted and carefully selected releases provided by the Russian Federation, but in recent years this has dried up. So what we are left with is rumour.
Gordievsky, master spy
Without documents, be they British or Soviet, we need to assess Gordievsky’s credibility as the progenitor of these claim. Gordievsky was a senior KGB officer, head of its London station from 1982. Yet, at great risk to both himself and his family, he also acted as a double agent, passing secrets to MI6 from 1974 onwards. In May 1985, he was recalled to Moscow and interrogated, having come under increased suspicion from his superiors. Later that year, he escaped to the West.
A glorious catch for Western intelligence, he was to provide considerable insights into the KGB and its secrets. He confirmed, for instance, that John Cairncross was the “fifth man” of the Cambridge “Ring of Five”.
As the The Times has noted, MI6 was very impressed by him and placed great faith in his revelations. One officer recalled that: “Oleg was completely reliable, honest and driven by the right motivations.” Given his record, that faith is unsurprising. Yet was he always perfect in his judgement and recollections? Specifically for us, did he get it right about Foot?
According to other former Soviet intelligence officials, the answer is complex: Gordievsky reported what was indeed in the KGB’s historical files from London. But the reports from London upon which those files are based included a good deal of salesmanship.
Gordievsky is not telling lies. He merely reflects all the ridiculous fuss inside the KGB kitchen and makes it sound very serious. Inside the secret services, and not just the KGB, there is always a lot of fantasy.
KGB officers, it transpired, inflated the extent of dealing with high-profile British figures. “If we had no real agents, we mentioned agents of influence instead,” Lyubimov told The Independent in 1995. Why? To get a pat on the back from Moscow. As Viktor Kubeykin, another London-based KGB Officer, told the same newspaper:
It was all just a camouflage for doing nothing, a bureaucratic game. The more people you mentioned, the more credit you got, the higher your promotion.
Critically, Lyubimov denied providing Foot money, adding: “I met hundreds of people … The idea that Foot was any kind of agent is a ridiculous smear.”
So, if the contents of the KGB archives was reported accurately by Gordievsky, and assuming Lyubimov and Kubeykin were being honest, what does this tell us? Essentially, that Gordievsky believed his predecessors in London and that MI6, in turn, believed Gordievsky. But the truth is that, until archival evidence becomes available, it is very difficult to draw any firm conclusions. We also don’t really know what MI6 made of this – we only know what some anonymous individuals have informed a journalist.
Given all this, surely we should have access to the MI6 records which could clear at least some of this up? The arguments against the release of such files is, typically, that to do so would jeopardise national security. Apparently even Cold War files dating back decades (indeed, many withheld files are as old as MI6 itself) need to remain withheld – yet can be openly discussed in the press.
And, as the late Bletchey Park veteran and senior civil servant Sir Stuart Milner-Barry argued in 1985, often the case to maintain “ancient secrets” (in that instance technical cryptanalytic secrets from the World War II) is “just not credible”.
If Milner-Barry’s assessment was true in 1985, so it remains in 2018. The fact is that we have already seen the publication of monumental authorised intelligence histories, including one of MI6 by Keith Jefferyand MI5 by Sir Christopher Andrew, laying bare many historic secrets. There have also been mass releases of historical intelligence files, albeit from earlier periods and largely not from MI6. Of course, there are times when it is right and responsible to withhold “ancient secrets”. But it is hard to see how cases such as this – from more than three decades ago, where the accused has died and anonymous MI6 officers have elected to air the case in public – are among them.
The intelligence services need to be more open about their past than they are at present. They have come a long way since the 1980s, but there is much further to go. Keeping “ancient secrets” of this nature does not serve the public interest. Rather, as this instance demonstrates, they can provide a shield to destroy a reputation without the tiresome bother of presenting evidence.