Degrees of treachery

九月 24, 1999

British universities still have to safeguard against spying, argues Christopher Andrew

Three years ago a colleague at another university who had carried out historical research in the misnamed German Democratic Republic told me he had been to Berlin to consult his Stasi file. He had not been surprised to read that many of his East German colleagues had informed on him; all had been under heavy pressure to do so. What did shock my colleague, however, was discovering two fellow British academics among the Stasi agents who provided the information in his file.

British students who attended Humboldt University in East Berlin, Karl Marx University in Leipzig (alma mater of Robin Pearson) and other East German universities are likely to be prompted to inspect their own files in the old Stasi headquarters in Berlin by the revelations of the past week. Some are likely to discover that those who informed on them included a British classmate or lecturer. Over the next few years we shall hear more of the kind of cases that have been front-page news this week.

Those who go to inspect their files at Stasi headquarters can now wander through the large, wood-panelled suite of rooms formerly occupied by the repellent, long-serving Stasi chief Erich Mielke, East German minister of state security from 1957-1989.

Behind Mielke's desk is the safe where he once kept compromising files on Erich Honecker and other East German leaders. Nearby is his conference room, with a long table around which he and his subordinates regularly congratulated themselves on the inexorable growth of their preposterously large army of Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter. East Germany eventually had seven times as many informers per head of population as Nazi Germany.

Doubtless schemes were discussed to encourage naive modern language departments in British universities to send students to study German in East German universities. From the day they arrived, every single student was under observation to assess his suitability for recruitment using methods ranging from ideological appeals to seduction and blackmail.

The recruitment of students and new graduates at British universities by Soviet Bloc intelligence agencies began more than 60 years ago. The first major successes occurred in the mid-1930s, with the recruitment at Cambridge of the "Magnificent Five": Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross.

KGB files credit their recruiter, Arnold Deutsch, with the recruitment of 20 agents and contact with a total of 29 during his British posting in the mid-1930s. No recruiter since at any British university has come close to equalling his success.

But, thanks to papers collected by Soviet dissident Vasili Mitrokhin we now know that a series of undercover KGB officers studied at British universities during the Cold War. In 1966, using false identity papers, a KGB scientific and technological intelligence officer, A. V. Sharov, began postgraduate research in engineering at London University. He took his PhD in person in 1971.

We have also discovered that probably the most important intelligence officer at a British university during the Cold War was Gennadi Fyodorovich Titov, a postgraduate at University College, London - again with false identity papers - in the mid-1960s. Titov went on to become KGB chief in Norway in 1971 at the age of 39. In 1984, he was promoted to the rank of KGB general, later rising to number three in the KGB hierarchy.

Since the 1980s, the most worrying penetrations of British universities have been by Middle Eastern intelligence agencies, Iraq and Iran chief among them. In 1984, for example the Iraqi Rihab Taha gained her PhD from the University of East Anglia for a dissertation on plant pathogens - diseases that attack wheat and other crops. After her return to Iraq she organised a germ warfare plant at al-Hakam, 80 miles west of Baghdad. UN weapons inspectors after the Gulf War nicknamed her "Dr Germ".

So, what lessons should British universities be taking to heart this week? Hopefully the main one has been learnt. It is difficult to believe any British university would still be naive enough to send undergraduates to language courses at universities in one-party states such as Cuba, where they would run the same risks as those who studied during the Cold War in Leipzig and East Berlin.

The penetration of British universities by intelligence officers from hostile foreign intelligence agencies is a much more difficult matter. Universities cannot and should not carry out security checks on well-qualified foreign applicants. Keeping track of foreign agents in British universities is the business of the security service, not of universities.

But universities do have to accept that MI5 has from time to time good reason to investigate the activities of foreign students and even those British lecturers who disgrace their profession by informing foreign intelligence agencies about their colleagues and students.

Christopher Andrew is professor of contemporary history at Cambridge University and co-author, with Vasili Mitrokhin, of The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West, Penguin, Pounds 25.

Should British universities send undergraduates on exchange visits to one-party states such as Cuba and China? Email us on soapbox@thesis.co.uk

Do you know the identity of Gennadi Titov, who studied at UCL in the 1960s, or A. V. Sharov, who took a PhD in engineering at London University in 1971? Email soapbox@thesis.co.uk

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