Burned after reading:  How MI5 double-crossed Canada

Category:  Historical Reprints.
Source:  “Burned after reading: How MI5 double-crossed Canada”
By Doug Saunders.  LONDON — From Tuesday’s Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Oct. 06, 2009 12:00AM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Sep. 06, 2012 3:45PM EDT

Burned after reading:
How MI5 double-crossed Canada

By Doug Saunders


In September of 1945, the Cold War spy story of the century broke when the cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko fled the Soviet embassy in Ottawa with hundreds of pages of documents tucked under his shirt revealing details of the theft of atomic secrets.

But the revelations in those pages had often failed to result in action because of the presence in Canada, secret until now, of top officials from the British intelligence agency MI5. Their presence in Ottawa, and therefore the presence of the network of KGB spies who had penetrated MI5’s senior ranks, turned an atom-spy bonanza into a fiasco.

At the height of the Gouzenko affair, prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was effectively double-crossed by master spy Kim Philby, the KGB double agent who ran MI5’s counter-espionage program through the 1940s and 50s, and who personally managed to control and often bury all of the information emerging from Ottawa.

That is one of the revelations in a new official history of the MI5, Britain’s international spy service, which draws on previously unseen archives to reveal a number of new details in the long and complex relationship between Ottawa’s and London’s spooks.

The 1,032-page The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 also reveals that MI5 had tested and researched Canada’s practice of purging gays from the public service and found it ineffective and pointless.

The MI5 ran major operations within Canada, without the knowledge of Canadian politicians or the public. In the 1950s, the British Commonwealth secretary wrote in a memo reprinted in the book that it was “particularly important to avoid saying that we have or did have security officers in Canada.”

While allegations of MI5 operations in Canada have been reported by former agents before, most of the details and workings of Mr. Philby’s ties to the RCMP effort had not been known, the book’s author, Cambridge University historian Christopher Andrew, said in an interview yesterday. “It really did surprise me, as well, the interplay between Canada and Britain, and the scope of the deception there.”

The opportunity to blow the cover on a continent’s worth of Russian spying was diminished because Mr. Philby saw all the information available to senior officials, including Mr. King, and ensured that it was not seen or acted upon by Western intelligence agencies. He also gave it to the Kremlin.

Roger Hollis, the head of MI5, personally went to Canada during the crisis and secretly set up an operation there designed to get the necessary information to permit the arrest of the spies and agents who had passed atomic secrets to Russia. All his information went through Mr. Philby, the head of counterespionage Section IX.

Mr. Hollis was present during all the RCMP interrogations of witnesses in Canada, and examined all the RCMP evidence. Yet suspects kept disappearing to Russia or failing to keep their rendezvous with KGB officials because, as MI5 only discovered years later, Mr. Philby was using the RCMP information to warn them.

(The book also thoroughly disproves an old rumour, repeated in several bestselling British books, that Mr. Hollis was himself a Russian spy).

At one point, according to documents unveiled in the book, the Canadian prime minister arrived in Southampton, England, aboard the Queen Mary. There he was contacted by Mr. Hollis, who asked him whether he should arrest Alan Nunn May, a Cambridge physicist who had worked at the then-secret Chalk River research reactor in Canada, and the man whom Mr. Gouzenko had named as the source of the nuclear-weapon secrets.

Aboard the vessel, Mr. King agreed with U.S. president Harry Truman that Mr. May should not be arrested until he was seen making a rendezvous with a known KGB agent outside the British Museum, a meeting that was to take place the next day. It never happened, because the Canadian PM’s request to monitor the British Museum meeting was channelled through Mr. Philby, who ensured that it never took place. Mr. Philby also buried the revelation that the Canadian Communist Party was acting as a KGB hiring agency, and major details of the types of spying being conducted by the Russians.

Mr. May was not arrested until nearly a year later, and only on far weaker evidence. He served six and a half years in prison on espionage charges. Kim Philby would operate at high levels in MI5 and the top-secret MI6 with relative impunity until he was caught and fled to Moscow in 1963.

By that time, Canada had become a subject of interest for another reason.

Ottawa’s practice of vetting the sex lives of everyone employed by the government, beginning in 1955 and extending well into the 1960s, resulted in almost 9,000 Canadians, including top officials, losing their jobs and often having their lives ruined after being investigated and fired for the “character defect” of homosexuality.

In 1963, a senior RCMP official identified as “Mr. Kelly” briefed Commonwealth intelligence leaders about what he considered Canada’s success, according to MI5 files.

“A considerable number of high officials and armed forces officers have been purged,” he reported.

“One very senior Foreign Affairs official was thought to have had homosexual associations with one of [Britain’s]ambassadors. …

“Shoals of people have been brought back from behind the Iron Curtain.”

Some MI5 officials took up the case, arguing that homosexuals may “be of an unstable character,” that they “stick together and are backward in giving information,” and that because their relationships were illegal at the time, they were vulnerable to blackmail.

A 1957 British government investigation disproved the first two arguments.

But after Mr. Kelly’s presentation, the spy service decided to investigate the Canadian technique. MI5 agents spent 1964 and 1965 monitoring the telephone calls of four “suspected homosexuals” in the public service.

The result, they reported, was disappointing: While one of the four men had spent hours talking in incomprehensible gay slang “of a revolting nature,” the other three proved perfectly discreet and the security service “saw no reason to follow the Canadian example.”

Agencies requesting bans on hiring of homosexuals were quietly rebuffed, and while sexuality remained part of MI5’s vetting process until the 1970s, no purges were carried out.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s