Barrels of fishy spies

December 5, 1997

THE RECENT release into the Public Record Office of MI5 records for 1909-19 (THES, November 28) deserves to be met with a healthy dose of scepticism.

The main class of material released (KV1) consists mostly of MI5's official in-house histories. Of these, several have passages blanked out, three have gone "missing" and one has been withheld. Full-time employees are identified, but the names of officers have long been available elsewhere; and infiltrators, narks and agents provocateurs remain anonymous. Still, we now know MI5's typists and "charwomen".

The in-house histories contain references to operational records ("subject files" and "personal files"), but anyone who wishes to check the authorised version against original documentation will have some difficulty.

Only two subject files from this period survive, together making up the second class of material released (KV3); both files have sections blanked out. Class KV2 (still unreleased) contains personal files from 1909-19, including one on Ramsay MacDonald; the press office confirms that "a small number of personal files survive and are being considered for possible release next year".

The Timewatch programme based on the released files was a sycophantic promotional film on behalf of MI5. The leading authority on early MI5 history, Nicholas Hiley, tells me that his involvement was never sought, presumably because he has critical views.

Timewatch made much of MI5's successes against German espionage, but this is hardly news, having been written as early as 1920 by Sidney Felstead with (as one of the newly released documents confirms) assistance from inside MI5. As Dr Hiley's work demonstrates, in truth MI5's achievements amounted to shooting fish in a barrel, and were largely parasitic on the work of other agencies.

The week after the MI5 material was released, Home Office files were opened that touch on an episode in MI5's first world war history not to be found in the in-house account. This is the case of the Wheeldon family, framed by an MI5 offshoot (PMS2) in 1917 on ludicrous charges of plotting to assassinate Lloyd George with a poisoned air-gun pellet while he was playing golf.

The Home Office files and other evidence reveals that the Wheeldons were fitted up by the agent provocateur William Rickard (alias "Alex Gordon"), a mentally unstable journalist with a criminal record who eventually committed himself to a mental asylum.

Intriguingly, two recent pro formas containing MI5's instructions about what can and cannot be released have been accidentally left on one of the files.

MI5 is desperate for good public relations to justify its budget. It is this, not any commitment to openness or historical truth, that determines its historical records policy.

David Turner

Oak Lodge, Chestnut Street Borden, Kent

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