Looking through declassified MI5 files in the National Archives at Kew doesn’t feel a million miles away from being in a spy drama yourself. Whilst looking through the vast array of microfilm at a (potentially literal) murderer’s row of informants, targets and infiltrations, it feels almost perverse to not be chain smoking whilst wearing an ash grey suit. There are so many files; over 100 in this latest tranche alone, and all written in the spidery parlance of the ghost of civil servants ’ past.
The dry tone can mean that it can be quite hard to get a grip on what precisely you have in your hands. The records cover a range of subjects and span the First and Second World Wars and post-war era up to the late-1960s. Personal files include dispassionately drawn portraits of suspected ‘people of interest’ from Nazi intelligence agents, Cold War-era Soviet spies, British citizens suspected of communist leanings, and extreme right wing activists, all of whom came under the cold attention of the Security Service. The most well-known case in these files concerns the arrest of the 1961 Portland Spy Ring; one of the most infamous lapses of security in British history. The ring was made up of disparate group of double agents and traitors who during the mid to late fifties smuggled key Admiralty documents; including information on Britain’s first nuclear submarine, to the Soviet Union.
The story of their capture as laid out in the files is wonderfully John Le Carr é: Phone taps, shadowing civilians through the street, Soviet spies desperately trying to destroy microdot blueprints whilst in custody, MI5 and FBI agents working in tandem to blackmail one of the Soviet double-agents into becoming a triple agent and a CIA spy codenamed LAVINIA: it feels like it should be stamped ‘burn after reading’. More intriguingly and embarrassingly for the MI5, these files also contain information that the spy ring could easily have been stopped four years earlier. One of the ‘inside men’ for the Soviets, the British Harry Houghton, whose then wife approached the Admiralty with concerns about her husband on three separate occasions in 1955. A letter from the Admiralty to the security services from 1956 preserved in the file “alleged that her husband was divulging secret information to people who ought not to get it”. Rather than set off a full investigation, the Security Service arrived at the rather blasé opinion that “It is considered not impossible that the whole of these allegations may be nothing more than outpourings of a jealous and disgruntled wife.” His wife had some reason to be ‘disgruntled’, according to the files Houghton attempted to murder her by throwing her off a cliff, only stopped by a passing rambler. The perfect gentleman then threw gin in her face muttering “I’ve got to get rid of you, you know too much.”
There are dozens of other stories like this in the files: treason preserved as exactly and emotionlessly as a butterfly on a pin. To read the files yourself visit the National Archives for more details visit their website at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk