Recent Reading 15

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books, listed in reverse chronological order.

  • Michael Ovitz [2018]: Who is Michael Ovitz? A Memoir. USA: WH Allen.  This is a fascinating and well-written autiobiography by the co-founder and driving force behind Creative Artists Agency. CAA grew from nothing to dominate the agency business in movies and TV, and then entered M&A consultancy and advertising.  I always admired the chutzpah of this strategy and marveled at its success.  The book explains how CAA’s creative bundling of the products of its writers, actors, musicians, directors and producers enabled it to grow as an agency, and also enabled the diversification:  the expertise gained in strategizing and financially evaluating creative bundles was used to value Hollywood studios (with their back catalogues) as potential acquisition targets. Likewise, the creativity in bundling and the access to diverse talent was used to design successful advertisements.  What surprised me reading this book was that the diversification ended after just two acquisition assignments and one advertising project (Coca Cola’s polar bears).  The key reason for this seems to have been the opposition of Mr Ovitz’s partners and colleagues at CAA, despite the handsome and arguably unearnt rewards his efforts brought many of them.  No good deed ever goes unpunished, it seems.  // The book also presents his experiences as President at Disney.  Although of course we only hear his side of that story, he does seem to have been undermined from before he even began work there. // Overall, the writing is articulate and reflective, and he seems to have grown personally through his career and his apparent failures.  I greatly admire his continued desire and willingness to learn new things – new skills, new businesses, new industries, new cultures, new hobbies.  Doing this requires rare, personal courage.  Few people in American business were as willing as he was to immerse themselves in Japanese culture when doing business in Japan, for instance.  One characteristic Mr Ovitz does not ever display is smugness, and this absence is admirable.
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Recent Reading 14

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books. The books are listed in reverse chronological order, with the most recently-read book at the top.

  • Kate McClymont and Linton Besser [2014]: He Who Must Be Obeid. Australia: Random House.   The life and fast times of Eddie Obeid, perhaps, despite the strong calibre of the competition, the most corrupt person ever to be a Cabinet Minister in NSW.
  • Bob Carr [2018]: Run for Your Life.  Australia:  Melbourne University Press. A memoir mostly of Carr’s times as Premier of NSW (1995-2005), running a government which was, untypically for NSW, seemingly uncorrupt.
  • Aldous Huxley [1931]:  Music at Night and Other Essays. Flamingo reissue.
  • Keith Gessen [2018]: A Terrible Country. Fitzcarraldo Editions.  Writing as smooth as a gimlet, and extremely engrossing.
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Roger Hollis and Elli

 

The British journalist Chapman Pincher (1914-2014) became convinced that Roger Hollis (1905-1973), Director General of MI5 between 1956 and 1965, had been a Soviet agent, supposedly working for GRU, Soviet military intelligence.  Pincher wrote a book, Treachery, in 2009 to present the full case for this claim.  Most of the evidence is circumstantial and, considered individually, not greatly persuasive.  But assembled and concatenated, it is strongly compelling. Hollis as Soviet agent is certainly the simplest overall explanation for the many coincidences, Western espionage failures, Soviet espionage successes, and multiple instances of MI5 inaction and bumbling idiocy that seemed to accompany Hollis’s career.  He wielded his pocket veto so often and so successfully, there was surely something up. Opponents of the Hollis-as-spy theory need not only to find a better candidate but also to provide an alternative explanation for his career-long pattern of inactions, delays, and ditherings at some times, and fast, resolute actions at others, in each particular case objectively favouring the interests of the USSR.

One supporting sub-claim is that Hollis is the spy working inside MI5 codenamed Elli by a Soviet defector in 1945, a name also used in other decrypted Soviet communications. Apparently, the Soviets believed that the agent named Elli had some Russian family connection, perhaps pre-Revolutionary. Here is Pincher (Location 432 of the 2011 Kindle edition):

Colonel John Lash, a Russian scholar at Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), the signals interception station based at Cheltenham, assured me that ‘something Russian’ must have meant something pre-revolutionary. Otherwise, the statement would have been ‘something Soviet’. Then, in 1985, while browsing through a book called Along the Road to Frome, one of several written by Hollis’s elder brother Christopher, I made a most relevant discovery. Members of the Hollis family and other relatives believed, with genealogical evidence, that they were directly descended from the Russian czar Peter the Great, and were rather proud of it! In that book, published in 1958, Christopher had stated: ‘I did, indeed, I suppose, share with my distant and much removed cousin, Annie Moberley, a claim to descent from Peter the Great.’ In another of his books, Oxford in the Twenties, when explaining his rather peculiar looks, Christopher stated that he was ‘the inheritor of a good deal of mixed blood, but it came from Eastern Europe’.

Annie Moberley’s father, George, had been born in St Petersburg, where his forebears were well established as merchants before the revolution. He became Bishop of Salisbury and firmly believed in his descent from the heroic czar. The Hollis brothers’ mother, formerly Margaret (Meg) Church, was related to Richard Church, a dean of St Paul’s in London, whose wife was a direct descendant of a woman called Sarah Cayley, who allegedly derived from an illegitimate son of Peter the Great. The Moberleys also traced their connection with the czar through Sarah Cayley.

Christopher Hollis, who was highly intelligent, certainly believed in the royal relationship, however distant. Whether or not it was real or taken seriously by other members of the Hollis family, they all knew about it. If Roger had been Elli, he could, directly or indirectly, have revealed this Russian connection to some Soviet contact, who would have informed Moscow in one of the enciphered messages, which would explain how Gouzenko’s deskmate had heard about it.

Whether Roger believed the Russian connection or not, it is inconceivable that he failed to appreciate the danger that it might make him suspect if his MI5 superiors heard about it following Gouzenko’s statement. Confirmation of the Russian connection was the missing link in Gouzenko’s evidence, and had it been known in MI5 Hollis should surely have been closely questioned about the exceptional ‘coincidence’, along with the other matching features.

What better fit could there be for Gouzenko’s statement –‘he has something Russian in his background’? No other Elli candidate has ever fulfilled the description. Gouzenko could not possibly have known anything about Hollis or his family when, as a young cipher clerk, he had made his original statement about Elli to the Canadian authorities in 1945. It was an inexcusable gaffe by Peter Wright –later the self-styled ‘Spycatcher’ –and the other counter-intelligence investigators of the Hollis case to have failed to read the biographical books by Roger’s well-known brother, which were on the shelves of many libraries.”

Intrigued by this, I looked at Pincher’s stated sources, the two books by Christopher Hollis. These led me to other books by and about Annie Moberly (1846-1937), which I reference below. (Note that Pincher repeats the mis-spelling of “Moberly” as “Moberley” that Christopher Hollis makes in his 1958 book, which suggests that Pincher did not look far beyond Christopher Hollis’ books.) The quotation that Pincher gives from Hollis (1958) is also incomplete.  This is what Hollis wrote:

I did, indeed, I suppose, share with my distant and much removed cousin, Annie Moberley [sic] of Versailles fame, a claim which Mrs Iremonger’s The Ghosts of Versailles had not at that time exposed, to descent from Peter the Great. But even the existence of that claim had been kept from me. The exposition of it would have raised too many embarrassing questions about mistresses and illegitimacy. So I had to content myself with being Irish, and that indeed gave me a sufficient opportunity of political eccentricity.” (Hollis 1958, page 15).

Christopher Hollis is speaking here about his childhood.  He does not say at what age he became aware of the family claim of descent from Peter the Great.  The passage is sufficiently vague that he may only have become aware of it with the publication in 1956 of Iremonger’s book about the Versailles Incident, an incident in 1901 when Annie Moberly and a traveling companion later came to believe they had engaged in time travel during a visit to Versailles.  However, Iremonger’s book itself refers to an earlier book by Edith Olivier (1872-1948), a life-long friend of and, through Edith’s mother, a cousin of Annie Moberly, as the source, a book of essays published in 1938 (Olivier 1938).  Of course, neither Christopher Hollis nor Roger Hollis may have been aware of Olivier’s 1938 book, or her 1945 book, both of which talk about the Moberly connection to Czar Peter the Great (1672-1725).  Olivier notes that Annie Moberly kept a portrait of her Russian-born grandmother Sarah Cayley in her rooms at St Hugh’s Hall, Oxford, where she was the Founding Principal (1886-1915).   She was an Honorary Fellow and member  of the Governing Council of the Hall from her retirement in 1915 to her death in 1937. According to Anna Thomasson’s biography of Miss Olivier (Thomasson 2015, page 183), Annie Moberly was still living in Oxford in 1929. Did Roger Hollis meet with her while he was at Oxford during 1924-1926? If so, he presumably would have seen the portrait of their common ancestor Sarah Cayley on her walls.

Pincher has not revealed the full extent of Hollis-Cayley family connections in his 2009 book, perhaps because he did not know them. His case is in fact stronger than he recounts.  He is correct that Roger Hollis’ mother Mary Margaret Church (1874-1941) was related to Richard William Church (1815-1890), Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Richard was her uncle, brother to her father, Charles Marcus Church (1823-1915). And Richard had married Helen Frances Bennett in July 1853. But Mary’s father, Charles Church, Canon of Wells Cathedral, also married a Bennett sister, both daughters of Mrs Emily Bennett, nee Moberly. Emily Moberly was the daughter (one of 3 girls and 8 boys) of British-born Russian-based merchant, Edward Moberly, and Sarah Cayley (born 1764-), daughter of John Cayley (1730-1795), British Consul-General in St Petersberg.  Emily’s brother George Moberly (1803-1885), was born in St Petersberg and was later Bishop of Salisbury, from 1869 to 1885; in December 1834, he married Mary Anne Crokat (1812-1890), who was from a family of Scottish merchants long in Italy, as the Cayleys had been in Russia.

The wife of John Cayley (1730-1795) and the mother of Sarah Cayley Moberly was also called Sarah.  She was Sarah Cozens Cayley (1732-1803), who was born and died in St. Petersburg, and was a daughter of Richard Cozens (1674-1735) and Mary Davenport.  Cozens was British, and was Chief Shipbuilder to the Czar. His wife Mary was a daughter of Richard Davenport, also working as a shipbuilder for the Czar, and his wife Mary Dodd.  The eldest sibling of Sarah Cayley was Alexander Cozens (1717-1786), who was to achieve later renown as a landscape painter, as did his son, John Cozens (1752-1797).  Alexander Cozens was a godson of Czar Peter the Great, and also long rumoured to be the Czar’s illegitimate son. This may have been the source of the family rumour of Czarist descent.  The four sons of George Hollis and Mary Margaret Church, including Christopher Hollis and Roger Hollis, were direct descendants of Sarah Cozens Cayley and Sarah Cayley Moberly.  Another child of John Cayley and Sarah Cozens Cayley was Henry Cayley (1768-1850), whose children included the mathematician Arthur Cayley (1821-1895) and writer Charles Cayley (1823-1883), a close and life-long friend of poet Christina Rosetti.

The three Church brothers, Richard, Bromley, and Charles, were nephews of General Sir Richard Church (1784-1873), liberator of Greece.  Richard Church attended Wadham College, Oxford from Easter 1833, overlapping with the period that George Moberly was a Fellow at Balliol College, Oxford.  In the summer of 1833, before Richard met his wife, Helen Bennett, niece of George Moberly, Richard’s widowed mother, Mrs Church, married the widowed Thomas Crokat, future father-in-law of George Moberly.  Moreover, a third daughter of Mrs Emily Bennett, a sister to the two Bennett sisters who married the two Church brothers, married Charles Crokat, brother of Mary Anne Crokat.

One of the 15 children of Bishop George Moberly and Mary Anne Crokat was Charlotte Anne (“Annie”) Elizabeth Moberly (1846-1937), who wrote a book about her father, Dulce Domum (Moberly 1911).  As mentioned above, she was a participant in a supposed episode of time travel, the Versailles Incident (aka the Ghosts of Petit Trianon Incident) of 1901.  (Edith Olivier, in her memoir of 1938, also recounts an episode she, Edith, also had of supposed time travel, this time on Salisbury Plain.)  Both Christopher and Roger Hollis were first cousins twice removed of Annie Moberly, and the Crokat-Church and Crokat-Bennett marriages means the families were triply connected.  Moreover, the father of Christopher and Roger Hollis, the Right Reverend George Hollis (1868-1944), was also an Anglican clergyman and Bishop of Taunton, from 1931-1944.  One would expect that Bishop George Hollis knew his father-in-law Charles Church and knew of wife’s other ecclesiastical relatives, Richard Church (who was a prominent Anglican writer) and Bishop Edward Moberly; although much younger, he may also have met them. (Edith Olivier was also from an Anglican Church family, as the daughter of a Canon and the grand-daughter of a Bishop, Robert Eden.)

Of course, none of these connections or the fact of his brother’s knowledge prove that Roger Hollis knew that his ancestors had been merchants in Russia in the 18th and early 19th centuries, or that he had heard the claim that his family were illegitimate descendants of Peter the Great.  But the likelihood that he did not, it seems to me, is significantly less than the likelihood that he did.

 

References:
J. A. Hamilton, ‘Moberly, George (1803–1885)’, rev. Geoffrey Rowell, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/18862, accessed 6 Aug 2017]

Christopher Hollis [1958]: Along the Road to Frome. London, UK: George G. Harrap.

Christopher Hollis [1976]: Oxford in the Twenties. Recollections of Five Friends. London, UK: Heinemann.

Lucille Iremonger [1956]: The Ghosts of Versailles. Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain and their Adventure. London, UK: Faber and Faber.

C. A. E. Moberly [1911]: Dulce Domum. George Moberly, His Family and Friends. London, UK: John Murray.

G. Martin Murphy, ‘Church, Richard William (1815–1890)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/5389, accessed 6 Aug 2017]

Edith Olivier [1938]: Without Knowing Mr Walkley. London, UK: Faber and Faber.

Edith Olivier [1945]: Four Victorian Ladies of Wiltshire. London, UK: Faber and Faber.

Chapman Pincher [2011]: Treachery: Betrayals, Blunders and Cover-Ups: Six Decades of Espionage. Mainstream Digital.  Digital edition of book published in 2009.

Kim Sloan, ‘Cozens, Alexander (1717–1786)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2007 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/6546, accessed 26 Aug 2017]

Anna Thomasson [2015]: A Curious Friendship: The Story of a Bluestocking and a Bright Young Thing. London, UK: Macmillan.

Dick White, ‘Hollis, Sir Roger Henry (1905–1973)’, rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2011 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/31249, accessed 6 Aug 2017]

Recent Reading 13

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books. The books are listed in reverse chronological order, with the most recently-read book at the top.

  • Dan Shanahan [2017]: Camelot Eclipsed: Connecting the Dots.  Independently published.
  • China Mieville [2017]:  October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. UK:  Verso.
  • Joshua Rubenstein (Editor) [2007]: The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov. USA:  Yale University Press.
  • Henry Hemming [2017]: M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster.  UK:  Preface Publishing.
  • Evelyn Waugh [1935]:  Edmund Campion, Jesuit and Martyr. UK:  Longmans.
  • Alison Barrett [2015]:  View from my Tower: Letters from Prague, March 1985 – May 1988.   A fascinating series of letters from wife of the British Ambassador to members of her family about her time in Prague, in the period of stasis just before the Velvet Revolution.
  • John O Koehler [2008]:  Stasi:  The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police.  USA:  Basic Books.
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Recent Reading 12

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books. The books are listed in reverse chronological order, with the most recently-read book at the top.

  • Edward Fulbrook [2016]:  Narrative Fixation in Economics. UK:  College Publications.
  • Pamela Vass [2016]:  The Power of Three:  Thomas Fowler, Devon’s Forgotten Genius. UK: Boundstone Books.
  • Charles Babbage [1835]:  On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures. UK:  Charles Knight.
  • Timothy James Burke [1996]:  Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women:  Commodification, Consumption and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe. USA:  Duke University Press.
  • Petina Gappah [2016]:  Rotten Row. UK:  Faber & Faber.
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Ends and Means

I have just read the memoir of Michael Hayden, USAF General and former head of both NSA and CIA. The book is interesting and mostly well-written.  It appears, as much as such a memoir could be, honest and truthful.
The torture of detainees undertaken by CIA personnel took place before Hayden was Director, so he could absolve himself of it completely.  But, as he did while Director and subsequently, he defends strongly and bravely his CIA staff, who acted under what they believed were legal orders and within what they believed to be constitutional limits.  This defence is admirable.
How one could imagine that torture would be legal under a constitution which prohibits cruel or unusual punishments remains one of the great mysteries of our age.  Hayden, however, also defends the torture itself.  He does so on grounds of effectiveness, grounds which are demonstrably, and which have repeatedly been demonstrated to be, spurious.  It is no good Hayden, or any other official paid by the public purse, saying “trust me, I know”.  We live in a democracy, and we need, we citizens ourselves, to see the evidence.  It has not ever been provided, at least not definitively and uncontestably.
Such a defence is essentially that the end justifies the means.  As a Roman Catholic, Hayden should appreciate the counter-argument that rebuts this defence: that certain means may vitiate, or irredeemably taint, the ends.   So, even if using torture were to be more effective than not using it, we still should not use it.   We should not because torture is contrary to our values as a humane, civilized, society, respectful of  human dignity, and because using it undermines any claims we may have to moral superiority over our terrorist enemy.
Like players cheating in sports, support for torture shows what sort of person you are, and what values you consider important. Hayden seems like an intelligent, thoughtful, and humane person, so it is a great pity that he, and others in the Bush 43 administration, came to view torture as acceptable. Not everyone in CIA thought so, which was, indeed, how we citizens came to learn about the secret detention camps and the torture in the first place.
Reference:
Michael V Hayden [2016]: Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror.   New York: Penguin Press.

Transitions 2015

People who have passed on during 2015, whose life or works have influenced me:

  • Yogi Berra (1925-2015), American baseball player
  • Ornette Coleman (1930-2015), American jazz musician
  • Robert Conquest (1917-2015), British kremlinologist
  • Malcolm Fraser (1930-2015), Australian politician
  • Jaako Hintikka (1929-2015), Finnish philosopher and logician
  • Lisa Jardine (1944-2015), British historian
  • Joan Kirner (1938-2015), Australian politician, aka “Mother Russia”
  • Kurt Masur (1927-2015), East German conductor
  • John Forbes Nash (1928-2015), American mathematician
  • Boris Nemtsov (1959-2015), Russian politician
  • Oliver Sacks (1933-2015), British-American neurologist and writer
  • Gunter Schabowski (1929-2015), East German politician
  • Alex Schalck-Golodkowski (1932-2015), East German politician
  • Gunther Schuller (1925-2015), American composer and musician (and French horn player on Miles Davis’ 1959 album, Porgy and Bess).
  • Brian Stewart (1922-2015), British intelligence agent.
  • Ward Swingle (1927-2015), American singer and jazz musician.

Last year’s post is here.

Guy Burgess and Bosie Douglas

I am reading Andrew Lownie’s fascinating new biography of Guy Burgess, member of the Soviet spy circle, the Cambridge Five. Lownie’s book contains something very curious. (I am reading a Kindle edition, so can only give chapter references.)
In Chapter 20, Relationships, we read in paragraph 1:
“In June 1945 [Peter] Pollock returned to Britain.”
Pollock had been away several years, fighting with the British Army in North Africa and in Italy, and having been captured and held as a POW in Italy. In Paragraph 4, we read:
“That summer Pollock and Burgess had seen much of Brian Howard and his boyfriend, Sam, staying with the couple at their home in Tickerage, East Sussex. On one occasion, they had visited the elderly Lord Alfred Douglas in Brighton, as Burgess wanted to show off Pollock and prove he was even more attractive than the famously attractive Douglas in his youth.[Footnote 5]”
The source (footnote 5) is given as: “Pollock taped interview, by kind permission of Miranda Carter.” Pollock died in Tangier on 28 July 2001.
But, according to Wikipedia, Bosie Douglas died on 20 March 1945, so Pollock and Burgess could not have visited him in summer 1945. Was Pollock mis-remembering the year they met, or deliberately lying about meeting Douglas? In either case, the date of Douglas’s death is surely something Lownie could have checked, rather than repeating Pollock’s statement without critical commentary.
Although the content of the book is superb, the book shows the weaknesses of a text written over a long period (30 years), together with some fairly mediocre editing. On several occasions, the author mentions something without explaining it, forgetting that what he knows is different to what the reader knows. Sometimes explanations are given at the second or later mention, instead of at the first. When Lownie mentions “Johnny Philipps, a rich gay bachelor who lived in Albany”, for example, he does not explain what or where is Albany. Only in a later chapter when talking of someone else do we learn that the Albany was “a fashionable set of apartments off Piccadilly.” Likewise, the Venona transcripts are mentioned in Chapter 26, but only explained in Chapter 28. At one point, we learn that Burgess earnt some GBP 800 pa from a Canadian Trust Fund. Nothing is said about this fund, nor how Burgess came to be a trustee of it, although there is an earlier mention of a trip he took in 1930 with his mother and brother to visit Canada, before going up to Cambridge.  The 1959 TV interview which Burgess gave to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which was only rediscovered in 2015, the only TV interview he ever gave, is mentioned (at location 5566). But Lownie seems to have missed Burgess’ statement in that interview that, “I’m a quarter Canadian myself.”  Which grandparent was Canadian? In Chapter 40, in another example, there is a throwaway reference to a Moscow party given by “the Burchetts”. Australians of a certain age would catch the reference to left-wing journalist Wilfred Burchett, who lived in Moscow in the 1950s, but who else would?
Another instance of poor editing is the description of Novodevichy Cemetery in Chapter 37. Burgess moved to a flat near the cemetery in 1956. Lownie describes the cemetery thus: “where amongst others were the graves of Chekhov, Gogol, Khrushchev, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Stalin’s wife . . . “. That “were” points to the time Burgess moved nearby. But, Khrushchev only died in 1971, and Shostakovich in 1975, both well after 1956; indeed, well after 1963, when Burgess himself died. I imagine that such poor editing must be an embarrassment to an author whose day job is acting as a literary agent for other authors.  Or is Lownie another author confused about the working of tense in English?
And perhaps taking so long to write a non-fiction book means not enough advantage has been taken of the Web. For instance, is the young German actor named George Mikell mentioned in Chapter 26 the same person as the Lithuanian-Australian actor named George Mikell who has a website? Is the drifter of no fixed abode named James Turck mentioned in Chapter 29 the same James Turck (1924-2011) who acquired an MBA from Columbia and a seat on the American Stock Exchange? I find myself Googling every name mentioned, so I am surprised the author has not done so too.
Overall, the book is fascinating and riveting despite the sloppy writing and apparent lack of editing. Lownie makes a convincing case for the importance of Burgess as a Soviet agent, detailing the documents he was able to provide to his handlers at each stage of his career. Whether Burgess was MORE important than his fellow spies could not be assessed from a life of just one of them. My one major disappointment from the book was the absence of any discussion of the theory that one or more of the Cambridge Five were known to Britain’s senior spy-masters, long before their departures East, to be Soviet agents and were allowed to remain in place. If you want to deceive your enemy you need to communicate through channels your enemy will likely believe, and that may mean using their own loyal agents (or people they believe to be their loyal agents). Such channels are even more necessary if you mostly communicate to deceive but occasionally want, or may need, to send truthful messages.
Indeed, this hall of mirrors might even have further mirrors, if one or more of Burgess, Maclean, or Philby were themselves witting in this deception, and sacrificed their public reputations, their pensions, and their quiet English country-side retirements to serve the land of their birth even beyond their defection. Lots of Britons gave their lives to defend their country in WWII, so the Cambridge spies may have done similarly.  To my mind, such knowing and self-sacrificing deception by these upper-class Englishmen, students of great public schools and habitués of fashionable London clubs, is immensely more plausible than any other explanation I have seen for their treason. Does MI6 hold secret medals for them all in a hidden safe in its Ziggurat-on-Thames?
Reference:
Andrew Lownie [2015]: Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess. London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton.

Recent Reading 11

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books.
Francis King [1970]:  A Domestic Animal. Faber Finds, 2014.  A well-written account of unrequited love that becomes an obsession.  Both the plot and the dialogue are, at times, unbelievable, although the obsession and the emotions it provokes in holder and object are very credible.
Continue reading ‘Recent Reading 11’

Predicting your opponent's behaviour

I have argued before that I believe few organizations did as much to prevent the Cold War turning into a hot one than the various intelligence agencies, CIA and KGB among them.   The reason for this is that each side lacked accurate knowledge of the true beliefs and intentions of the other side, and the intelligence agencies were at the forefront of identifying, calibrating and verifying those beliefs and intentions.
A good example was the series of NATO military exercises in 1983 which the USSR erroneously feared would be a cover for a pre-emptive nuclear strike against them.   To preclude that possibility, the Soviet leadership came very close to launching their own pre-emptive nuclear strike.  New evidence has come to light about the mis-understandings that each side had about the other, as reported here:

A classified British Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) report written shortly afterwards recorded the observation from one official that “we cannot discount the possibility that at least some Soviet officials/officers may have misinterpreted Able Archer 83 and possibly other nuclear CPXs [command post exercises] as posing a real threat.”   The cabinet secretary at the time, Sir Robert Armstrong, briefed Thatcher that the Soviets’ response did not appear to be an exercise because it “took place over a major Soviet holiday, it had the form of actual military activity and alerts, not just war-gaming, and it was limited geographically to the area, central Europe, covered by the Nato exercise which the Soviet Union was monitoring”.
Armstrong told Thatcher that Moscow’s response “shows the concern of the Soviet Union over a possible Nato surprise attack mounted under cover of exercises”. Much of the intelligence for the briefings to Thatcher, suggesting some in the Kremlin believed that the Able Archer exercise posed a “real threat”, came from the Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky.
Formerly classified files reveal Thatcher was so alarmed by the briefings that she ordered her officials to “consider what could be done to remove the danger that, by miscalculating western intentions, the Soviet Union would over-react”. She ordered her officials to “urgently consider how to approach the Americans on the question of possible Soviet misapprehensions about a surprise Nato attack”.
Formerly secret documents reveal that, in response, the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence drafted a joint paper for discussion with the US that proposed “Nato should inform the Soviet Union on a routine basis of proposed Nato exercise activity involving nuclear play”.

I wonder if the UK Government communicated anything to the Soviets about the exercises not being a cover for a surprise attack.   And, if so, was their message believed?  Of course, as I’ve discussed before, merely telling your enemy something does not mean that they will believe that something, and nor should it.  And this is why Governments need subtle, strategic analysis of intelligence, not merely the raw data.  The case of Yuri Nosenko is a good example where what the other side believes you believe has consequences, and these consequences need to be considered when deciding what to believe.  And for this reason, clever espionage agencies try to ensure the existence of channels of communication to the enemy which the enemy trusts, so that messages sent through the channel are likely to be believed.   Perhaps, for example, British intelligence knew that Kim Philby and his Cambridge colleagues were Soviet agents many years before they fled to the USSR.