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How A KGB Double Agent Saved Britain And Won The Cold War For The West


In his new book The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, veteran espionage historian Ben MacIntyre confirms a troubling decision—or lack thereof—that some had suspected for years. This is the fact that in 1983 the man overseeing both British spy services MI6 and MI5, head of British Civil Service Robert Armstrong, knew that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s main opponent in the upcoming election was a KGB agent and did not tell her.

Labor Party leader, member of Parliament, and former employment secretary Michael Foot had been a paid KGB agent for decades, and was still on the KGB books as an agent of influence when he headed the British Labor Party and ran against Thatcher for leadership of England in 1983. Foot would have become prime minister if Labor had won.

MI6 told MI5, its domestic sister agency, and MI5 told Armstrong, but Armstrong kept Foot’s duplicity to himself. Nobody informed Thatcher. According to MacIntyre:

[Armstrong] did not tell Margaret Thatcher or her other top advisers; he did not tell anyone in the Civil Service, the Conservative Party, or the Labour Party. He did not tell the Americans, or any other of Britain’s allies. He did not tell a soul. Having been passed the unexploded bomb, the cabinet secretary put it in his pocket, and kept it there, in the hope that Foot would lose, and the problem would defuse itself. [MI6 operative] Veronica Price was blunt: ‘We buried it.’

With what seems in hindsight a misguided sense of higher duty and a display of undemocratic arrogance, Armstrong put the British Commonwealth in the position of possibly electing a genuine KGB agent as prime minister—a fact its intelligence services knew and did nothing about. MacIntyre confirms this state of affairs from multiple sources. Thankfully, Thatcher and the Tories won in 1983.

How did MI6 know Foot was a KGB agent? Because the KGB deputy station chief in London Oleg Gordievsky told MI6 he was. Not only that, Gordievsky accompanied the news with specific information from a fat file he’d examined at length in the Lubyanka, the KGB’s headquarters and torture prison, leaving no doubt that Foot was a rat. Why did Gordievsky do it? Because Oleg Gordievsky was a British spy. He’d been working for MI6 for years at that point.

Gordievsky learned that Foot had been paid large sums by the KGB in the 1960s, most of which he used to fund the Democratic Socialist magazine Tribune. In return, Foot delivered information on Labor Party activities along with government intelligence once he became privy to it, and put out whatever propaganda Moscow required of him. Foot’s traitorous complicity with Moscow was revealed in the mid-1990s, when Gordievsky published his highly readable memoir, Next Stop Execution.

When Gordievsky’s book came out in 1995, the British left, including its media adjuncts, stonewalled or soft-pedaled the story, downplaying the importance of the spying Foot did, and proclaimed in essence that he was more a fellow-traveler than a source of intelligence.

Right. If it could speak from where it is undoubtedly locked in Vladimir Putin’s GRU closet, Foot’s Lubyanka file might beg to differ. The fact that Thatcher and the British public weren’t told about Foot in 1983 is even more troubling. A Britain without Thatcher and with a KGB agent as prime minister would likely have led to a very different outcome for the Cold War.

Would Armstrong have mentioned the fact even then? And would it have mattered at that point? Thank God the West didn’t have to find out.

Troves of Information

Yet this is only one portion of the astounding and inspiring story of KGB turncoat Oleg Gordievsky that MacIntyre tells in The Spy and the Traitor. Unlike much espionage history, which is often filled with sturm und drang signifying little, the information Gordievsky supplied MI6 was of worldwide political importance. He was a KGB deputy station chief in London who was a British double agent serving at the climax of the Cold War in the 1980s. Gordievsky provided troves of information to MI6, much of which was later shared with the CIA.

He supplied MI6 with lists of KGB operatives (including sleeper agents) in the UK. He outed all KGB agents in Britain (including the MI6’s own nascent spy, Michael John Bettany), one in France, and two in Denmark—which led to multiple arrests and the thwarting of much damage to the West. He explained to MI6 exactly how Soviet intelligence worked and how people within its labyrinthine walls thought. Most importantly, Gordievsky was able to lucidly report on the mindset of supreme Soviet leadership, including Yuri Andropov and later Mikhail Gorbachev, and his reports had a significant influence on Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Thatcher called him “Mr. Collins.” She eagerly read his reports and worried about him in his precarious position in the Soviet embassy. The Soviets did not merely imprison their traitors in the ranks. One slip, and Thatcher’s Mr. Collins would be dead. As MacIntyre reminds us, the rumor has always been that MI6-CIA agent Oleg Penkovsky, betrayed by British-spy-turned-Soviet-agent George Blake, had been cremated alive in 1963 by the KGB after they were done torturing him.

In December 1984, Gorbachev made a state visit to England, where he met with Thatcher for extended sessions at the prime minister’s country estate, Chequers. Gordievsky as KGB intelligence point-man in England was feeding British-supplied talking points to Gorbachev and his staff the whole time. These were adopted sometimes word-for-word, allowing Thatcher to shape the diplomatic agenda for the Chequers meetings, get her desires addressed, and avoid pitfalls and problematic areas with the Soviet delegation.

MI6 obtained the Foreign Office briefing document drawn up for Geoffrey Howe, the foreign secretary, listing the points he would be raising with Gorbachev and his team. This was then handed over to Gordievsky, who dashed back to the KGB station, hurriedly typed it up into Russian, and handed it over to the reports officer to put into the daily memorandum.

‘Yes!’ said [KGB London station chief Leonid] Nikitenko, when he read it. ‘This is just what we need.’

Geoffrey Howe’s Foreign Office briefing had become Mikhail Gorbachev’s KGB briefing. ‘In it went, verbatim.’

Gordievsky also played a significant part in British internal politics.

At the height of the miners’ strike in 1984–85, Gordievsky learned that the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) had contacted Moscow to request financial support. The KGB opposed funding the miners. . . But the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party thought otherwise, and approved the transfer of more than $1 million from the Soviet Foreign Trade Bank (in the end, the Swiss receiving bank became suspicious, and the transfer never happened).

KGB-funded or not, Thatcher knew the miners’ leadership had asked for covert Soviet aid, and this no doubt increased her resolve to face down the radical strikers.

Nuclear Showdown

Gordievsky was also essential in the development of Thatcher and Reagan’s understanding of the Soviet mentality toward nuclear weapons. The current received wisdom (I recently came across it in the history book of my ninth-grade daughter, for example) is that Reagan moderated his stance toward the Soviet Union after being scared by a war game exercise that went wrong.

According to this historian’s conjecture and disarmament lobby talking point, a poorly identified unit in the NATO war game code-named ABLE ARCHER seemed to be headed toward Soviet territory. This caused the Soviets to believe that the United States was launching a disguised nuclear attack, and almost led to a retaliatory strike and World War III, if the Russians hadn’t been so forbearing. The reasoning goes that the Russian reaction to ABLE ARCHER caused Reagan to back down from his bellicose rhetoric and take a more conciliatory approach to the Soviet Union.

The truth is more interesting, if less fraught. Gordievsky’s intelligence proved to Western leaders that former KGB head and professional paranoid Yuri Andropov had believed in his heart that the West might strike first with nuclear weapons and was even preparing to do so. After Andropov’s death, his obsession lingered in the Moscow bowels of the institution he had directed, even though, as Gordievsky also reported, no agent on the ground thought the West had any intention to strike first. Thatcher and Reagan understood their Soviet counterparts far better than they were understood in turn. And this put them in a position to win the Cold War.

Gordievsky was directly consulted about these matters. In September 1986, prior to the October Reykjavík summit between Reagan and Gorbachev, CIA director Bill Casey flew to London to ask Gordievsky what he thought the Soviet reaction would be to a proposal by Reagan to share Strategic Defense Initiative technology, once it was developed, with Russia.

‘You are Gorbachev,’ [Casey] said. ‘And I am Reagan. We would like to get rid of nuclear weapons. To inspire confidence, we will give you access to Star Wars. What do you say?’

“Nyet!” Gordievsky responded with the certainty of a long-experienced KGB man. The Soviets would always believe the United States was holding something back to give themselves an advantage. Casey replied that Reagan was going forward with the SDI regardless.

‘All right,’ said Gordievsky. ‘Then keep it up. You keep up the pressure. Gorbachev and his people know they can’t outspend you. Your technology is better than theirs. Keep it up.’ Moscow would beggar itself trying to match Star Wars, he added, pouring money into a technological arms race it could never win. ‘In the long term SDI will ruin the Soviet leadership.’

Gordievsky was, of course, dead right in his assessment, as subsequent events showed. What’s more, by tipping off Casey (and thus Reagan) to the exact cards the Soviets held in the geopolitical poker game at Reykjavík, Gordievsky contributed in an important manner to the downfall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

Dead Drops, Car Chases, and Radioactive Dust

Gordievsky’s betrayal to the Russians and subsequent flight across the eastern Soviet Union is the subject of the final chapters of the book. They are riveting, especially if you don’t know the outcome (you might want to stop reading here if you don’t).

The escape operation was called Operation PIMLICO and MI6 operatives in the U.S.S.R. had been practicing it for years in anticipation of one day exfiltrating Gordievsky. Still, much depended on luck and timing. What’s more, Gordievsky had to make the heartbreaking choice of whether to leave behind his wife and two young daughters. It was years later that Western intelligence and Gordievsky learned that he had been sold out by American CIA officer and traitor Aldrich Ames—who, as Ames would be the first to admit, was spying entirely for money.

Gordievsky never took a penny from MI6 until after he had defected to the U.K. His actions were motivated by a hatred of the tyranny of the Soviet system, and the degraded condition in which it left its citizens. His doubts began when Russian tanks crushed the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, and grew stronger the more contact he had with the West.

Gordievsky, now a British citizen, is a bit of a cultural snob, a lover of great classical music and good books—things denied to the citizens of the U.S.S.R. This denial led to a downtrodden state of the soul, a state of being that Gordievsky terms “Homo sovieticus” in his memoir. Gordievsky wanted the nation of his birth to be free. He at least helped to end its slavery to Marxism, if not to KGB thug rule.

After six years, Gordievsky’s wife and children were able to leave Russia and join him, but the betrayal was too severe and the separation too long for his marriage to survive. Unfortunately Gordievsky’s previously happy family was yet another victim of Cold War espionage and communism.

Gordievsky’s escape via Finland is wonderfully chronicled by MacIntyre. It includes dead drops, car chases, and even radioactive dust sprinkled on shoes. Toward the end, MacIntyre gives his own impression of Gordievsky, with whom he spent countless hours in interviews and conversation.

He is sometimes hard to like, and impossible not to admire. He has no regrets, he says, but from time to time he will break off in mid-conversation and stare darkly into a distance only he can see. He is one of the bravest people I have ever met, and one of the loneliest.