Spies, spooks and whistleblowers: from Kim Philby to Edward Snowden

Espionage at the very heart of the government has always occurred. Johanna Lowry-O’Reilly looks at some of the more famous cases in the United Kingdom.

Russian spies Morris and Lona Cohen, who worked in London under the assumed names Peter and Helen Kroger.

The 1940s, 50s, and 60s provided three decades of “spy fever” which have fuelled popular imagination, literature and cinema for nearly 80 years.

Those involved were the forerunners of the mass data leakers and “whistleblowers” of the 21st century such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

In America, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the electric chair in 1953 for passing atomic secrets from the Los Alamos programme to the Soviet Union. Earlier Klaus Fuchs , a German physicist and refugee who adopted British citizenship, confessed to leaking details of the Manhattan Project which produced the first atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the US for passing nuclear secrets to the USSR.

The KGB agent Rudolf Abel — whose story was told in the Tom Hanks/Mark Rylance film Bridge of Spies — was involved in providing courier services for leaked nuclear secrets and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

In England, there were a host of spy trials throughout the 50s and 60s. The Portland Ring, which had penetrated the British Navy, included Peter and Helen Kroger, veteran Russian agents who had previously been based in the US before relocating to Ruislip in Middlesex via Moscow and posing as antiquarian booksellers.

They served half of 16-year sentences before being exchanged for British spy Gerald Brooke. They lived off their KGB pensions until their deaths in the 1990s and were decorated with the Order of the Red Banner (the same honour given to master spy Kim Philby) and were also declared Heroes of the Russian Federation by Boris Yeltsin.

Other contemporaries of the Krogers included Gordon Lonsdale, real name Konon Molody, who was sentenced to 25 years after being arrested trading secrets on Waterloo Bridge.

Meanwhile double agent George Blake was given the heaviest modern sentences for espionage — 42 years — following a trial which took place in camera at the Old Bailey.

George Blake, left, escaped from Wormwood Scrubs prison with the help of Limerick man Sean Bourke, right.

Blake had served five years before escaping from Wormwood Scrubs prison in West London. His escape was assisted by Sean Bourke, from Limerick, who was serving seven years for sending an explosive device to a detective. Bourke got Blake over the wall and helped him to flee to Moscow where he also lived for 18 months on a Russian pension.

Bourke returned to Ireland and survived two attempts by the British to extradite him before eventually dying from a coronary thrombosis . Even following the coroner’s verdict a former KGB general suggested that Bourke’s death was a long-term consequence of poisoning ordered by Aleksandr Sakharovsky, a head of Soviet security services who had been responsible for the careers of Gordon Lonsdale and Rudolf Abel in Moscow. Blake, the man that Bourke broke out, became friendly with other double agents Donald Maclean and Kim Philby.

He survived them both and lives there still, aged 94.

But the most famous group remain the Cambridge Spy Ring:

Kim Philby

The model for Bill Haden — “Gerald the Mole” — in John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Born in the Punjab where he acquired his Kiplingesque nickname.

Graduated at Trinity College, Cambridge as a scholarship boy in 1933. Worked within British Intelligence but turned double agent in 1935. Was a war correspondent with The Times and The Telegraph before joining the Special Operations Executive specialising in propaganda and counter-intelligence. He became head of British intelligence in Washington after the war where he worked alongside other traitors Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.

Their defection threw even more scrutiny upon Philby and, although he was officially declared innocent of being “The Third Man” in a House of Commons statement in 1955 he defected to Moscow from Beirut, where he was working as an Observer journalist, in 1963. He died of a heart attack in 1988.

Guy Burgess

Old Etonian and Trinity College, Cambridge graduate recruited by fellow homosexual and Soviet talent spotter Anthony Blunt. Worked with BBC, becoming producer of The Week in Westminster. Became an assistant to a Foreign Minister in the new Labour government in 1946. Defected with Donald McLean, in 1951 after being tipped off by Philby that MacLean was about to be named as a spy.

He died of acute liver failure at the age of 52 in 1963.

Donald McLean

Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Son of a British MP who openly declared his Marxism at university. Became head of the Foreign Office’s American desk. Was outed as a Soviet spy when messages between New York, Washington, and Moscow were decrypted in 1951, Disappeared with Guy Burgess for five years until premier Nikita Khrushchev revealed the whereabouts of the “missing diplomats” in 1956. McLean died from pneumonia in 1983. His ashes were scattered at a village churchyard in Buckinghamshire.

Anthony Blunt

Trinity College, Cambridge. Distant cousin of the 30s British fascist Oswald Mosely. “Talent spotter” for the Cambridge spy ring who was given immunity from prosecution. Finally unmasked by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and stripped of his knighthood.

Blunt as surveyor of the Queens Pictures and the world expert on the French artist Nicolas Poussin. Blunt was gay, which was a criminal activity in Britain until 1967 when the Sexual Offences Act made 21 the legal age of consent between adults in private.

Wartime service included being rescued from the Dunkirk beaches in 1940. MI5 confirmed Blunt’s treachery in 1963 after years of suspicion and he gave up four fellow agents during interrogation.

Died at home in London in 1983.

John Cairncross

Trinity College, Cambridge. Scots-born. Entered British Civil Service and joined Foreign Office before working in the code and cypher school at Bletchley Park.

Passed full intelligence transcripts to a KGB handler in London which allowed the Soviets to confirm that the British had broken German codes. Forwarded detailed information on Operation Citadel, the last great German attack in the East at Kursk. During his espionage career provided more than 5,000 documents to the Russians. Revealed as a spy after MI5 found a handwritten letter from him in Guy Burgess’s flat. Publicly Identifed as “The Fifth Man” in a book in 1979.

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