Smiley's people

Christopher Bigsby on cases not of single spies but battalions

November 22, 2012

There is a scene in Ian McEwan’s latest novel Sweet Tooth in which members of MI5 consider recruiting a young writer at university. He seems suitable in part because he is “a personable fellow, decently turned out”. Lest this scenario seem unlikely, I am happy to confirm it.

There was a time when it was inevitable that someone working in a university would be approached by the security services. Usually, of course, they were fishing in the seas of privately educated dipsomaniacs at the University of Cambridge who were secretly in thrall to a workers’ state that would have happily liquidated them for their sexual habits alone. Occasionally, though, they would look further afield. I only received one such enquiry. A young American female student was being considered by one of the many agencies securing freedom abroad by ensuring the election of those favourably disposed towards the US, if not their own citizens. At the other end of the line was what sounded like an art historian pickled in Pimm’s. Having explained that he was acting on behalf of the Americans, he asked a single question: “Good chap, is she?”

It is hardly surprising that the intelligence services turn to universities. The clue is in the name. The mistake sometimes is to believe that intelligence has much to do with political astuteness or even common sense. In the US, the FBI tended to recruit from the University of Notre Dame because, it being Catholic, its students were assumed to be anti-communist, although J. Edgar Hoover’s agents were easily spotted as they went about their “covert” activities. They sported crew cuts and suits as if they were Mormons in search of converts.

Closer to home, a former principal of Aberystwyth University had, it turned out, once been a Soviet spy, recruited because he was a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford - for some reason assumed by the Soviets to be the place to pick up secrets as the port was passed to the left (although not necessarily the Left). A friend of the infamous Cambridge Five spy ring, Goronwy Rees had been educated at Oxford: rivals in the Boat Race, in treachery they were a band of brothers. According to KGB defector Vasili Mitrokhin, his code names were Fleet and Gross, although quite what significance such names had is hard to guess. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact broke his links and after a distinguished war career, in 1945 he served as a senior intelligence officer in Germany, working for the political division of the military government. Ironically, his career was blighted not because of his spying, unconfirmed for many years, but by the fact that he denounced Guy Burgess of the Cambridge Five both to MI6 and in a series of anonymous articles in the press. His sin, in the eyes of the Establishment, was betrayal of a friend, just as Burgess himself accused Rees of “ratting”. One must, after all, maintain standards.

I knew an American academic who had served in the CIA before opting for sitting in a seminar room discussing the Louisiana Purchase. His job, for a while, was proposing targets for US missiles to annihilate. The catch was that he had to justify his choice in 35 words or fewer, as if this were a competition on the back of a cornflakes packet. Bad luck Omsk. Just how surreal things became was underlined by a visit he and his colleagues made to a Washington theatre. It was mid-afternoon and there was no matinee, at least no matinee open to the public. They were shown to their seats, the lights dimmed and the curtain rose. On stage was a jumble of objects - concrete blocks, old cars, piles of bricks. After a second or so the air was filled with bodies, human bodies, falling from the flies. They were corpses. When the cadaverous cascade ceased, the CIA staff were led up on stage. It was, it seemed, a demonstration of the injuries caused by encounters with solid objects following an explosion. So, having chosen Omsk, here, potentially, were its citizens. Shortly after this, my friend left the service, preferring the simple brutalities of the senior common room.

As for myself, I have only one secret and that does not involve the security services, at least not as far as I know. Many years ago I was in a lawyer’s office in New York. I was there to say hello to the brother of a university colleague. As it happened it was Christmas and the office party was under way. For lawyers, they knew how to party. For a moment, though, the person I had come to visit was busy in another room and a drunken secretary looked after me. “Do you want to see something special?” she asked. Since my fiancee was with me at the time, this was plainly not what it sounded like.

She opened the drawer of a filing cabinet and took out a file. It was a suit brought against John F. Kennedy, not long before president of the United States, in which the film star Edmund Purdom was suing for divorce on the grounds of adultery, citing Kennedy. The papers were stamped, indicating that this was a sealed file. Many years later I read a paragraph in The New York Times which reported a rumour that Kennedy had been involved with Alicia Purdom, but that there was no evidence to substantiate it. I had seen the evidence. Did I do anything? I did not, although later word leaked out.

What happened to my American friend? Years later, he died trying to rescue a child who had chosen the wrong river to swim in. A million deaths planned: one life saved. And the young American woman? I couldn’t possibly say.

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