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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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

Secret documents passed to the KGB by Kim Philby displayed in Moscow

Kim PhilbyThe life of Kim Philby, one of the Cold War’s most recognizable espionage figures, is the subject of a new exhibition that opened last week in Moscow. Items displayed at the exhibition include secret documents stolen by Philby and passed to his Soviet handlers during his three decades in the service of Soviet intelligence. While working as a senior member of British intelligence, Harold Adrian Russell Philby, known as ‘Kim’ to his friends, spied on behalf of the Soviet NKVD and KGB. His espionage lasted from about 1933 until 1963, when he secretly defected to the USSR from his home in Beirut, Lebanon. Philby’s defection sent ripples of shock across Western intelligence and is often seen as one of the most dramatic incidents of the Cold War.

Now a new exhibition in Moscow has put on display some of Philby’s personal belongings, as well as a fraction of the many classified documents he passed on to his Soviet handlers during his 30 years of espionage. Entitled “Kim Philby: His Intelligence Work and Personal Life”, the exhibition is organized by the Russian Historical Society. The majority of the new documents appear to date from 1944, by which time Philby had been working for the NKVD for over a decade. Some of the documents are cables sent by Italian, Japanese or German diplomats prior to and during World War II, which were intercepted by British intelligence. Copies of some of these intercepts, which Philby passed to Moscow, are displayed in the exhibition. One document clearly bears the English-language warning: “Top Secret. To be kept under lock and key: never to be removed from this office”. Another document appears to be part of a report that Philby produced after teaching a seminar for KGB intelligence officers about how to operate in the West. It is dated 1982, by which time Philby had been living in Russia for nearly two decades.

Philby died in the Soviet capital in 1988, aged 76, and was survived by his fourth wife, Rufina Ivanovna Pukhova, whom he met after he defected to the USSR. Pukhova attended the opening of the exhibition in Moscow last week, as did over a dozen of Philby’s students at the former KGB. Russian media reported that the director and several officials of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), one of the KGB’s successor agencies, were also present during the official opening of the exhibition.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 September 2017 | Permalink

Rare case of female lone-wolf dissident republican ends in conviction in N. Ireland

Christine ConnorA British court has convicted a lone-wolf female dissident Irish republican, who plotted attacks against police officers after using Facebook to lure two men into joining a fictitious militant organization. Her two male accomplices took their own lives in recent months. The rare case centers on Christine Connor, a 31-year-old resident of Northern Ireland and self-described dissident republican.

The term ‘dissident republican’ refers to secessionist militants who campaign for the union between Northern Ireland —which currently belongs to the United Kingdom— and the Republic of Ireland, which gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1922. In 1998, after a decades-long armed campaign, the majority of Irish republicans surrendered their weapons and accepted the terms of the Good Friday agreement, which outlines a peaceful resolution to the problem of Northern Ireland’s status. But some republican activists rejected the agreement and vowed to continue to use violence to achieve the union of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. These are known as dissident republicans and typically support a number of paramilitary secessionist groups, such as the Continuity Irish Republican Army and the Real Irish Republican Army.

But Christine Connor did not belong to any of these groups. Instead, she used Facebook to create a fictitious dissident republican organization called ‘United Struggle’, and declared war on the Police Service of Northern Ireland. She then created another fictitious social media account using the image of Sanne Alexandra Andersson, a Swedish model and fashion personality. Connor then used her fake online persona to lure two men into joining the militant organization that she claimed to lead. One of them was Stuart Downes, an Englishman from the town of Shrewsbury, near the Welsh-English border. She convinced him to build explosive devices, which the police described as “sophisticated, fully functioning bombs”. In May of 2003, Connor used the devices in an unsuccessful attempt to kill two police officers in north Belfast.

The lone-wolf militant used her fake social media accounts to lure another man, an American called Zachary Gelvinger, into joining ‘United Struggle’. Gelvinger, who sent hundreds of dollars to Connor’s organization, had his home searched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and was arrested in the United Kingdom while attempting to visit Connor in prison, in July of 2013. Downes, the Englishman, was arrested by police in Shrewsbury shortly after making a phone call from a public phone box to claim responsibility on behalf of ‘United Struggle’ for Connor’s failed attempt to kill the police officers in Belfast. Tragically, Downes killed himself in June of 2016. Gelvinger, the American member of ‘United Struggle’, killed himself in May of this year.

Remarkably, neither of the two men had any connection to Northern Ireland or any previous involvement in republican politics in or out of the United Kingdom. Last month, Connor pleaded guilty to a score of offenses, including terrorism. Last Tuesday, she was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 June 2017 | Permalink

New book reveals how MI5 infiltrated the British communist party

Maxwell KnightA new biography of famed British Security Service spymaster Maxwell Knight reveals that a number of prominent British communists were secret government agents in the 1930s. After serving in the British Royal Navy during World War I, Knight was recruited by the Security Service, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, which is commonly known as MI5. He eventually rose to lead the agency’s Section B5(b), which was responsible for using agents to infiltrate political groups deemed radical by the authorities. During the interwar years, under Knight’s leadership, Section B5(b) focused largely on British fascist organizations, but also infiltrated the Communist Party of Great Britain. Knight, who died in 1968, left an indelible mark on the character and operations of MI5. He also served as a model for the character of ‘M’, the fictional director of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in the novels of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.

Now Preface Publishing has issued a new biography of Knight, authored by British author Henry Hemming. The book, entitled M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster, is largely based on the diaries of Knight. It reveals the identities of a number of MI5 agents that worked for the late spymaster in Section B5(b). They included British intellectuals, artists, activists and at least one barrister, Vivian Hancock-Nunn. A leftwing legal counsel, Hancock-Nunn provided pro-bono legal services to the publications of the Communist Party of Great Britain. However, is is now believed that he was agent M/7, run by Knight’s Section B5(b). Another agent, codenamed M/1 by Knight, was Graham Pollard, son of a highly respected British historian, who broke ranks with his wealthy family to join the Communist Party in the 1920s. By 1933, Pollard was a prominent and influential member of the Party, and regularly penned fiery articles in the Daily Worker, the Party’s newspaper. Hemming’s book, however, reveals that Pollard was an agent of MI5, who went as far as marrying a prominent communist activist in order to build his cover.

Hemming notes that some of the most prolific agents run by Knight were women. Three of them, Kathleen Tesch, Olga Grey and Mona Maund, infiltrated various levels of the Communist Party, which was known for its relatively inclusive treatment of women at the time. Knight relied on them for regular reports about the Party’s activity, despite the objections of his superiors, who believed that women should have no place in intelligence operations. The book’s author also notes that he was not able to confirm the identities of these agents in MI5 archives, because they remain classified. However, he told British newspaper The Guardian that he was “99.9 percent certain” of the accuracy of his information.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 May 2017 | Permalink

British tip helped French police foil ‘imminent’ terrorist attack

DGSEA tip from British intelligence helped French counterterrorist officials arrest two men who are thought to have been in the final stages of planning a large-scale terrorist attack, according to French media. Government sources in Paris say officers from the country’s domestic intelligence agency, DGSE, arrested two men on Monday. Both men are reportedly French citizens from France’s northern regions. They were residing in the southern port city of Marseilles, where they were arrested by the DGSE. They were later named as Merabet Mahiedine, 29, and Clement Baur, 23. It is alleged that Mahiedine has North African roots, but that Baur is a Caucasian convert to Islam. Both were allegedly known to French police for having repeatedly stated views in support of radical Islamist policies.

According to France’s Minister of the Interior, Matthias Fekl, the two men were planning to carry out a large-scale armed attack in Marseilles this week, which is the last before the long-awaited presidential election in the country. Some sources in the French intelligence community claim that the two men planned to kill one of the major candidates in the election. A number of reports suggest that their target was François Fillon, a conservative presidential candidate who served as Prime Minister from 2007 to 2012 under President Nicolas Sarkozy. It is not known why Fillon may have been targeted, though some observers speculate that radical Islamists seek to promote the aspirations of Fillon’s main rival, the far-right candidate Marine LePen, whom they see as someone whose policies would further-radicalize Muslims in France and North Africa.

Reports in the French media state that DGSE officers confiscated several guns and significant quantities of bomb-making material that were found in an apartment belonging to one of the two men. Meanwhile, an aide to Mr. Fillon told the Paris-based newspaper Le Figaro that the primary tip that led to the arrest of the two men in Marseilles came from British intelligence. The subsequent capture of the two men prevented an attack that would have almost certainly taken place “in the next couple of days”, according to sources in Paris.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 April 2017 | Permalink

Russia possibly tried to kill Montenegro PM, says British foreign secretary

Boris JohsonBoris Johnson, the British foreign secretary has said in an interview that Russian spies may have orchestrated last year’s failed attempt to kill the then-prime minister of Montenegro, Milo Dukanović. Mr. Johnson, a senior figure in the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom, was a major contender for the prime minister’s position in 2016, after the administration of David Cameron collapsed under the weight of the Brexit vote result. Speaking on Sunday morning to reporter Robert Peston, of Britain’s ITV television network, Mr. Johnson said that the West should “engage” with Russia, but warned that it should also “beware” of Moscow’s “dirty tricks” in Europe and the United States.

The British foreign secretary spoke following reports that British intelligence services called an emergency meeting with representatives of the country’s major political parties, in order to warn them that Russia planned to use cyber-attacks to disrupt regional and national elections in the country. Mr. Johnson said that the government had “no evidence the Russians are actually involved in trying to undermine our democratic processes at the moment”. But he added that there was “plenty of evidence that the Russians are capable of doing that. And there is no doubt”, he went on, “that they’ve been up to all sorts of dirty tricks”. Some of those “dirty tricks”, said Mr. Johnson, targeted the former Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro, where last year there was “an attempted coup and possibly an attempted assassination”.

The British politician was referring to allegations made last October by authorities in Montenegro that “nationalists from Russia” and Serbia were behind a failed plot to kill the country’s then-Prime Minister Milo Dukanović and spark a pro-Russian coup in the country. The allegations surfaced after 20 Serbians and Montenegrins were arrested by police in Montenegro for allegedly planning a military coup against the government. The arrests took place on election day, October 16, as Montenegrins were voting across the Balkan country of 650,000 people. The plotters had allegedly hired a “long-distance sharpshooter” who was “a professional killer” for the task of killing Đukanović. After killing the Prime Minister, the plotters planned to storm the parliament and prompt a pro-Russian coup in Montenegro, according to authorities. In response to allegations that the coup had been hatched in neighboring Serbia, Serbian Prime Minister Vučić said that he would not allow Serbia to “act as the puppet of world powers”, a comment that was clearly directed at Moscow. Russia vehemently denied the allegations.

Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson is preparing to visit Moscow in a few days to meet with his Russian counterpart, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov. He told ITV that he planned to deliver his “personal feeling” to Mr. Lavrov, which “is one of deep, deep sadness” about Russia’s foreign policy under President Vladimir Putin.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 March 2017 | Permalink