Book review: Spy Catcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, by Peter Wright

originally posted elsewhere: November 7, 2004

tl;dr: The ultimate insider's view of Britain's MI5...

Reading Spy Catcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, I was continually struck by this thought: how was it possible for Peter Wright to publish a book which exposes so much of the internal operations of Britain's MI5 domestic intelligence/security service? He names names, describes personalities in often unflattering terms, and details what were surely the most sensitive of investigations undertaken by MI5. What may be MI5's loss is the public's gain, as we get a rare glimpse at the very heart of a (by definition) highly secretive agency, charged with ensuring the security and continuance of one of the Western world's greatest democracies.

Wright is undoubtedly a brilliant man, as are his colleagues (Wright describes how one of them does crossword puzzles completely in his head). Although the book opens with his retirement day, in which he shreds his diaries, he is somehow able to reconstruct the minutest details of operations that span his 20-year career with MI5, from the mid-50s to mid-70s, as well as critical pre-World War II events that he investigated for MI5. Wright is a radio engineer by training and original profession, and he joins MI5 as their first scientist in order to bring the benefits of technology to the agency. As MI5's top scientist, he is immediately charged with carrying out their most sensitive bugging and eavesdropping operations, which indoctrinates him into MI5's most secretive activities. Eventually, he leaves scientific advocacy behind to assume a role hunting down suspected Soviet spies within MI5 itself.

Although Wright has many successes, he is never able to fully prove his most shocking assertion, which is that Roger Hollis, the head of MI5 for many years (and Wright's superior), was a Soviet spy. The circumstantial evidence Wright presents, however, is very convincing. Wright's analysis and the logic he applies are impressive because he not only looks at the various events themselves, but he constantly considers how events would have unfolded differently if his thesis were untrue.

A simple book cover consisting of a black background, with the title, subtitle, and author's name in white lettering, and an image at the top consisting of a red hammer and sickle positioned near one end of a telescope painted with an image of the Union Jack flag, and a flag of the United States near the other end

Spy Catcher is a fascinating book, for many reasons. First of all, it takes the reader deeper within an actual government intelligence agency than almost any spy novel, and it has the added benefit of being true. The case against Hollis, and other spies exposed by Wright and his compatriots at MI5, serves as a warning about the fragility of security agencies: a few well-placed enemy spies can destroy massive amounts of work. Many of these top-level spies recruited by the Soviets were left-wing students at Britain's finest universities (Oxford and Cambridge), which shows how ideology expressed in an academic environment can lead to radical behavior and revolutionary actions. However, spying on potential domestic subversives is not a pleasant task, as Wright himself admits. Spy Catcher also shows the special relationship between the U.S. and the U.K., which is not without its tensions.

Finally, Spy Catcher illustrates the need to fight back using many of the tactics of the enemy, however despicable they may be. Intelligence work is not pretty: it involves tapping communications, breaking and entering, planting agents, soliciting defectors (using whatever might best appeal to them), and trying to detect and eliminate the enemy's spies before they do the same to yours. And in the end, the intelligence information received may be completely wrong, either because of the motives of the agents who provided it (who may be double agents), or because it is the product of an enemy disinformation campaign. However, if the U.K. and U.S. had not played the spy game against the Soviets, they would have put the countries at serious risk.

Winning the intelligence game is not easy, but this was definitely an important front during the Cold War in Wright's day, and the war on terror today. The Soviets had an active disinformation campaign during the Cold War; in fact, one of the more spectacular assertions of Wright's is that the Cuban missile crisis was a Soviet disinformation exercise to distract attention from their long-range missile development programs. As Spy Catcher proves, the intelligence game is like a hall or mirrors - you're never sure if you're seeing something real or something which is exactly backwards. But, it is still important to attempt to play the game as best as one can.