MI5 releases new information about Soviet ‘Portland Spy Ring’

DocumentFiles released on Monday by the British government reveal new evidence about one of the most prolific Soviet spy rings that operated in the West after World War II, which became known as the Portland Spy Ring. Some of the members of the Portland Spy Ring were Soviet operatives who, at the time of their arrest, posed as citizens of third countries. All were non-official-cover intelligence officers, or NOCs, as they are known in Western intelligence parlance. Their Soviet —and nowadays Russian— equivalents are known as illegals. NOCs are high-level principal agents or officers of an intelligence agency, who operate without official connection to the authorities of the country that employs them. During much of the Cold War, NOCs posed as business executives, students, academics, journalists, or non-profit agency workers. Unlike official-cover officers, who are protected by diplomatic immunity, NOCs have no such protection. If arrested by authorities of their host country, they can be tried and convicted for engaging in espionage.

The existence of the Portland Spy Ring has been known since 1961, when British authorities arrested five people throughout England. Two of them were British citizens, Harry Houghton, a clerk at the Royal Navy’s Underwater Detection Establishment facility in Dorset, England, and his mistress, Ethel Gee. Their Soviet handler was Konon Molody, a Soviet intelligence officer who was posing as a Canadian, under the name Gordon Lonsdale. Also arrested was a married couple from New Zealand, Peter and Helen Kroger. But in reality they were Americans, whose real names were Morris and Lona Cohen, and had worked for Soviet intelligence since the late 1930s. Collectively, the five were referred in media reports as members of the Portland Spy Ring.

The newly declassified files about the spy ring were released by the Security Service, known commonly as MI5, Britain’s primary counterterrorism and counterintelligence agency. They reveal how British authorities managed to bust the Portland Spy Ring. According to the files, the initial tip-off came from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The American agency had managed to recruit Michael Goleniewski, codename SNIPER, a Polish military counterintelligence officer, who led the technical office of Poland’s military intelligence. In the spring of 1960, Goleniewski told the CIA that Polish intelligence were running a British agent who was recruited while serving in the office of the naval attaché at the British embassy in Warsaw. The CIA shared the information with British intelligence, who soon identified the agent as Harry Houghton in Dorset. MI5 agents followed Houghton and his girlfriend, Ethel Gee, as they met with a successful Canadian businessman in London, Gordon Lonsdale (real name Konon Molody). Molody had grown up with a family member in California in the 1930s, and spoke fluent English. He had joined Soviet intelligence during World War II and sent to Britain posing as a Canadian. When he arrived there, in 1954, he established the KGB’s first known illegal residency in the British Isles.

In turn, Molody led MI5 to Peter and Helen Kroger from New Zealand (real names Morris and Lona Cohen), who were posing as antique book dealers. The couple acted as couriers, radio operators and technical support officers for Molody. They were born in the United States and had been recruited by Soviet intelligence in the 1930s. It is now known that they had contacts with several other Soviet illegals in America, including Rudolf Abel (real name William Fisher) who was captured by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1957. The couple had left the United States on orders of the KGB in 1952 and reappeared in the United Kingdom using New Zealand passports and new names.

The newly declassified documents show that MI5 decided to move against the five members of the Portland Spy Ring after Goleniewski became an open defector and was exfiltrated to the United States by officers in the CIA’s Berlin station. British authorities feared that Goleniewski’s open defection would prompt the Soviets to pull out Houghton, whose identity was known to Goleniewski. Houghton and Gee were sentenced to 15 years in prison. They were released in 1970, married the following year, and died in the 1980s. Molody was sentenced to 25 years in prison but was released in 1964 and exchanged for Greville Wynne, a British spy captured in the USSR. The Cohens received 20 year sentences, but were released in 1969 and exchanged with Gerald Brooke, a British teacher who was arrested in the USSR for smuggling anti-communist literature and trying to organize dissidents inside the country.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 November 2017 | Permalink

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CIA believed Yugoslavia was on the brink of going nuclear in 1975

Josip Broz TitoThe United States Central Intelligence Agency believed that Yugoslavia was on the brink of becoming a nuclear-armed state in 1975, due partly to assistance from Washington, according to newly declassified documents. The documents, which date from 1957 to 1986, were unearthed by Dr Filip Kovacevic, a Montenegrin expert on American foreign policy who teaches at the University of San Francisco in California. He accessed the documents in October of this year, after filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the CIA in 2016. In response, the spy agency sent Dr Kovacevic eight different files consisting of 84 pages of formerly classified scientific studies, analytical estimates and other reports.

The documents show that the CIA placed the beginning of the Yugoslav nuclear program at the end of World War II. At that time, the multi-ethnic Balkan country became the focus of an intense campaign for influence by the two emerging superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. But Yugoslavia’s communist leader, Josip Broz Tito, opted for a policy of nonalignment, refusing to side with Washington or Moscow. It was at that time that Tito began to explore the creation of a nuclear arsenal, which he hoped would enable Yugoslavia to remain independent amidst the pressures of the Cold War. Interestingly, his plans were quietly supported by the US, which invited Yugoslav physicists and engineers to study and conduct research at American universities. Washington also sent teams of geologists to conduct surveys across Yugoslavia in 1952. These and subsequent surveys detected substantial uranium deposits in northern and southern Yugoslavia, which were deemed sufficient to fuel several nuclear bombs. Two decades later, an American manufacturing company, Westinghouse Nuclear, was contracted by Belgrade to build Yugoslavia’s first nuclear power plant in Slovenia.

The papers unearthed by Dr Kovacevic suggest that in 1975 the CIA was convinced that Yugoslavia was technically and financially capable of building an atomic weapon within four years. In a study entitled “Prospects for Further Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons”, the spy agency said that Belgrade had made remarkable technical strides in the area of nuclear research and production in 15 years, partly with America’s support. The only question was whether the Yugoslav leadership would decide to go nuclear, something that the CIA’s analysts warned that it would be difficult to ascertain, as President Tito was unpredictable in his decision-making. Eventually, the Yugoslav leader opted to beef up his country’s conventional forces instead of going nuclear. As Tito’s health worsened in the latter half of the 1970s, ethnic rivalries between competing officials took center stage, and the nuclear weapons question lost its immediacy. Tito died in 1980, and almost immediately the country began to sink under the weight of deepening ethnic tensions.

According to Dr Kovacevic, the CIA documents show that the agency kept close tabs on Yugoslavia’s nuclear ambitions throughout the Cold War. Moreover, CIA analysts appeared to have detailed, accurate and up-to-date information about the Yugoslav nuclear program, on which they based their —broadly accurate— estimates. Crucial pieces of information came from the CIA’s “well-organized network of informants” who were placed “across the country’s institutions” and provided the US with highly dependable intelligence on Tito’s nuclear plans, said Dr Kovacevic.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 November 2017 | Permalink

MI6 chiefs used secret slush fund to finance operations, document shows

Sir Stewart MenziesSuccessive directors of the Secret Intelligence Service used a secret slush fund to finance spy operations without British government oversight after World War II, according to a top-secret document unearthed in London. The document was found in a collection belonging to the personal archive of the secretary of the British cabinet, which was released by the United Kingdom’s National Archives. It was discovered earlier this year by Dr Rory Cormac, Associate Professor of International Relations in the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Nottingham in England. It forms the basis of an episode of BBC Radio 4’s investigative history program, Document, which was aired last weekend. In the program, the BBC’s security correspondent Gordon Corera explains that the discovery of the secret slush fund reveals new information about the activities of the Secret Intelligence Service. It also raises questions about the underground activities of British spies in the Middle East following the British Empire’s postwar retreat.

Historically, the activities of the Secret Intelligence Service —known commonly as MI6— have been indirectly supervised by the British Parliament and its committees, which fund the agency through a secret vote. The use of the agency’s funds to carry out operations is also monitored by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who exercises political control over MI6. However, the document uncovered by Dr Cormac shows that, for many years, successive directors of the secretive spy agency financed operations using a sizeable personal fund, the existence of which was not disclosed to the government. The document describes a meeting held in 1952 between Sir Stewart Menzies, who was then the outgoing director of MI, and the permanent secretaries —essentially the top-ranking civil servants— to the Foreign Office and the Treasury. The meeting was held to prepare the ground for Sir Stewart’s retirement and to facilitate the smooth handover of power to his successor, Major-General Sir John Sinclair, who became director of MI6 in 1953. Read more of this post

Cold-War-era Soviet spy George Blake issues rare statement from Moscow

George BlakeOne of the Cold War’s most recognizable spy figures, George Blake, who escaped to the Soviet Union after betraying British intelligence, issued a rare statement last week, praising the successor agency to Soviet-era KGB. Blake was born George Behar in Rotterdam, Holland, to a Dutch mother and a British father. Having fought with the Dutch resistance against the Nazis, he escaped to Britain, where he joined the Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, in 1944. He was serving in a British diplomatic post in Korea in 1950, when he was captured by advancing North Korean troops and spent time in a prisoner of war camp. He was eventually freed, but, unbeknownst to MI6, had become a communist and come in contact with the Soviet KGB while in captivity. Blake remained in the service of the KGB as a defector-in-place until 1961, when he was arrested and tried for espionage.

After a mostly closed-door trial, Blake was sentenced to 42 years in prison, which at that time was the longest prison sentence ever imposed in Britain. However, he managed to escape in 1966, with the help of Irish republican prisoners in London’s Wormwood Scrubs prison, where he was serving his sentence. With the help of Soviet intelligence, Blake made his way to France and from there to Germany and East Berlin, hiding inside a wooden box in the back of a delivery van. He eventually resurfaced in Moscow, where he has lived ever since, in a small, government-provided dacha (Russian cottage) located on the outskirts of the Russian capital.

Last Friday, Blake issued a statement on the eve of his 95th birthday. The statement was posted on the SVR’s official website and published by several Russian news agencies. The convicted spy said that he placed his hopes for the peace of mankind on the “men and women” of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service —the main institutional descendant of the Soviet KGB. Blake praised the SVR’s officers as “heroes” who are engaged in “a true battle between good and evil” at a time when “the danger of nuclear war and the resulting self-destruction of humankind” is a real threat. The spy added that the prospect of nuclear annihilation has been “put on the agenda by irresponsible politicians”, in what Russian news agencies interpreted as a comment that was directed against United States President Donald Trump.

The end of Blake’s statement is followed by a second statement, written by the Director of the SVR, Sergei Naryshkin. Naryshkin, who was appointed to his current post by Russian President Vladimir Putin a year ago, congratulates Blake on his 95th birthday and calls him a “reliable old comrade” and “a man of great wisdom”. Blake is “a proficient teacher”, says  Naryshkin, who has been a longtime role model for the officers of the SVR.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 November 2017 | Permalink

Major symposium on Dutch double spy Mata Hari to take place in London

Mata HariA symposium about the life, activities and legacy of World War I-era double spy Mata Hari is to take place in London this month, on the 100th anniversary of her death by execution. Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Holland in 1876. In 1895 she married Rudolf MacLeod, a Dutch Army Captain of Scottish descent serving the Dutch colonial administration of what is now Indonesia. She eventually divorced the alcoholic and abusive MacLeod, who was 20 years her senior, and joined the circus in Paris. Eventually she became wildly popular as an exotic dancer, a position that placed her in direct and close contact with several influential men in France, including the millionaire industrialist Émile Étienne Guimet, who became her longtime lover. Several of her male devotees came from military backgrounds from various European countries. Most historians agree that by 1916 Mata Hari was working for French intelligence, gathering information from her German lovers. However, in February of the following year she was arrested by French counterintelligence officers in Paris and accused of spying on behalf of the German Empire. French prosecutors accused her of having provided Germany with tactical intelligence that cost the Triple Entente the lives of over 50,000 soldiers.

On October 28, an international symposium will take place at City University, one of 28 colleges and research centers that make up the University of London. Entitled “The Legacy of Mata Hari: Women and Transgression”, the symposium will bring together historians, museum curators, as well as intelligence and military experts who have spent decades studying the story of Mata Hari. They include her biographers from Holland, historians from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, German and French military intelligence historians, as well as a representative from the Spy Museum in Washington, DC. The symposium’s host and keynote speaker is Dr Julie Wheelwright, Lecturer in Creative Writing (non-fiction) and director of the Master’s program in Creative Writing at City University. Dr Wheelwright is considered one of the world’s foremost specialists on Mata Hari and is author of the 1992 book The Fatal Lover: Mata Hari and the Myth of Women in Espionage.

The organizers of the symposium say that recently unearthed personal letters by leading figures in Mata Hari’s life, as well as newly declassified government documents, present researchers with a unique opportunity to reassess the Dutch double spy’s character, motives and legacy. Another purpose of the symposium will be to explore the reality and stereotypes of the use of female sexuality in espionage, the role of women in war and intelligence, as well as the historical contribution of women spies in World War I. Several other events are planned on the occasion of the centenary of Mata Hari’s death across Europe, including a major new exhibition about her in her home down of Leeuwarden in Holland’s Fries Museum, which is scheduled to open later this month.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 October 2017 | Permalink

Researcher seeks access to classified US document about Gandhi killing

Mahatma GandhiA researcher is seeking access to a potentially revealing classified telegram sent by a United States diplomat who witnessed the assassination of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. Gandhi, the leader of the Indian movement for independence, and a towering civil rights figure of the 20th century, was assassinated on January 30, 1948, as he was about to hold a prayer meeting in downtown New Delhi. His assassin, Nathuram Vinayak Godse, was a member of a Hindu nationalist paramilitary group, who blamed Gandhi for the bloody partition of India. He and a co-conspirator, Narayan Apte, were arrested for Gandhi’s murder and put to death in 1949.

But there are many who claim that Gandhi’s assassination resulted from a far larger conspiracy, involving many more people and groups, but was covered up. One such proponent is Mumbai-based researcher Dr Pankaj Phadnis, who has been pushing for a new official investigation into Gandhi’s assassination since 1996. Last week, Dr Phadnis petitioned India’s Supreme Court, arguing that an American intelligence officer was present during Gandhi’s assassination and filed a report that may point to a broader conspiracy to kill the Indian civil rights leader. Dr Phadnis also argues that American intelligence agencies may have been involved in a secret effort to protect Gandhi from physical danger.

The Mumbai-based researcher told the Indian Supreme Court that he was able to obtain access to American diplomatic documents during one of his recent visits to the US National Archives and Research Administration in Washington, DC. Among them were telegrams sent to the Department of State by the US embassy in New Delhi before and after Gandhi’s assassination. The two most telling telegrams, said Dr. Phadnis, were written shortly after the assassination by a longtime American diplomat, Herbert Tom Reiner. According to many eyewitness accounts, including Reiner’s own, Reiner was present during Gandhi’s assassination, and was standing no more than five feet from the Indian leader when he was shot by Godse. The American diplomat helped apprehend the assassin before he and others surrendered him to the authorities.

Reiner submitted two telegrams to Washington as soon as he returned to the US embassy following Gandhi’s assassination, which Dr Phadnis was able to access. But a third one, sent at 8:00 p.m. that same evening, remains classified and out of the reach of researchers. Dr Phadris said he filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the US government and is expecting an answer. Now he is trying to get the Indian courts to agree that the existence of new evidence, including Reiner’s telegrams, justify the reopening of the probe into Gandhi’s assassination.

Reiner left India in the summer of 1949 and served briefly as assistant attaché in Budapest, Hungary, before being transferred again, this time to Seoul, South Korea. He then held posts in Sierra Leone, South Africa and Canberra. He died in 1999 in the US state of Massachusetts.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 October 2017 | Permalink

“External attack” may have caused crash that killed UN secretary general in 1961

Dag HammarskjöldA deliberate attack by another aircraft may have caused the plane crash that killed the United Nations Secretary General in 1961, according to a report commissioned by the intergovernmental organization. On September 17, 1961, a Douglas DC-6 transport aircraft carrying United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld crashed in the British-administered territory of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). The crash killed everyone onboard. At the time of his death, Hammarskjöld was flying to the Congo’s mineral-rich Katanga region to meet European-supported chieftains who in 1960 had seceded from the nationalist government of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Ironically, Lumumba had been assassinated in a Western-backed coup exactly eight months before Hammarskjöld’s death.

Three successive investigations into the crash, conducted by the Rhodesian Board of Investigation, the Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry, and the United Nations Commission of Investigation, pointed to “pilot error” as the most likely cause of the tragedy. However, research carried out in recent years, including by the Hammarskjöld Commission, which was composed of a diplomat and three judges from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Sweden, has shown that the crash could have been the result of deliberate actions. In February of this year, following a recommendation by a UN-appointed three-member expert panel, the organization tasked Mohamed Chande Othman, a former Tanzanian chief justice, to research the topic in depth. Othman reportedly delivered his final report to the UN Secretary General António Guterres in August. However, it has not yet been made public.

On Tuesday, however, British newspaper The Guardian said it had seen an executive summary of Othman’s report. Read more of this post