Click here to print this page

Fresh light on top spy Philby
From correspondents in London

SECRET files made public for the first time today shed fresh light on the role played by British double agent Kim Philby in one of the biggest espionage scandals of the Cold War, showing he was entrusted with analysing the impact of a senior Soviet defector.

The defection in September 1945 of Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy in the Canadian capital Ottawa, led to the round-up of an 18-strong spy ring which included Alan Nunn May, a British scientist who worked on the US atom bomb during World War II and later passed on details to the Soviets.

The extent of the Soviet spying shocked public opinion as the Russians were still widely seen as allies in the struggle against Nazi Germany.

It came not long after Philby had pulled off his greatest coup: securing for himself the position of head of the newly formed anti-Soviet section of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), Britain's external intelligence agency, even though he had been secretly spying for Moscow since the 1930s.

Philby headed the famous Cambridge Spy Ring, four spies who began working for the Soviet Union in the 1930s and were arguably the most efficient espionage agents against US and British interests in the 20th century.

The files released today to the National Archives in London showed that Philby was entrusted by SIS chief Stewart Menzies with the task of drawing up an assessment of the implications of Gouzenko's disclosures for the British armed forces' Directors of Intelligence.

Philby circulated a draft copy of his paper to MI5, the domestic security agency, suggesting that it might need "tidying up".

But it received a cool response from senior MI5 officer Roger Hollis who, in a pointed memorandum drew attention to a series of "small inaccuracies".

"Perhaps you hedged on this, so as to avoid giving the Directors of Intelligence too much detailed information," he said.

There is no suggestion from the file that Hollis – who went on to become director-general of MI5 – suspected Philby of passing misinformation.

Indeed, he appeared to be more concerned that Philby was encroaching on his territory as Canada – regarded in London as a self-governing dominion within the British empire – was supposed to be MI5's responsibility.

"I feel that the question of circulating the document from your office to the Directors of Intelligence is a matter of some embarrassment," he wrote.

"The case took place in Canada and here the security rests on our office and not yours."

Years later, in exile in Moscow after having been unmasked as a KGB agent, Philby admitted that Gouzenko's defection with dozens of secret documents stuffed up his shirt had been a huge setback for the Soviets but said there had been little he could do.

"It was a disaster for the KGB and there was no way I could help," he told journalist and author Phillip Knightley.

"The Mounties had Gouzenko so well protected that it was impossible for the Russians to do anything about him, bump him off or anything like that," he said, using the colloquial name for the RCMP, Canada's national police force.

Ironically, Hollis was later to find himself suspected – wrongly most historians now believe – of being a Soviet spy as a result of a claim by Gouzenko that the Russians had another agent in British intelligence.

Gouzenko, who was 26 when he defected, died in 1982. Philby went on to become the SIS's liaison with the US Central Intelligence Agency, before becoming under suspicion of being a Soviet spy and eventually defecting to Moscow in 1963.

Philby died in 1988.

This report appears on