Book Review: Spycatcher

Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer
by Peter Wright, Former Assistant Director of MI5, with Paul Greengrass
Hardcover: New York, Viking Penguin, 1987. ISBN 0-670-82055-5

From the jacket:

"Uncensored, remarkably candid, and enormously revealing about the real spy business that most of us know principally from fiction ... as Britain's principal liaison with American intelligence officials ... Wright's insights about the CIA and the FBI ... is riveting stuff ...American interest ought to be especially aroused by Peter Wright's charge that there was a conspiracy within MI5 to overthrow then Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the mid-1970s, and that it was instigated from within the CIA ... But the most important aspect of this book is that it offers a rare inside glimpse of the real day-by-day goings-on within the intelligence world over a long period of time from a very high-level, authoritative voice."

Seventeen years after its attempted suppression by the British government, its overseas publication in the Commonwealth and in America, and its twenty-week stay on The New York Times bestseller list, Spycatcher is no longer the shocker it once was.  These days, we’re more worried about more recent failures in the intelligence community, and nuclear weapons are more likely to be detonated from a suitcase than an ICBM.  The deadly game of Cold War cloak-and-dagger work now seems a distant memory.

Spy mindset

But the spy mindset captured in the book is very telling.  In Spycatcher, Peter Wright describes how British intelligence obtained the settings of the cipher machines at the Egyptian Embassy by listening to the mechanical sounds as the operator set up the the machine at the beginning of each day.  Cryptographer Adi Shamir (the "S" in RSA) cites this incident as part of his inspiration for acoustic cryptanalysis, in which analyzing the sound of a CPU helps to initiate a timing attack against RSA.

Indeed, the codebreaking and electronic surveillance techniques from decades ago are ingenious.  For example, they crack a one-time pad by stealing it from the safe deposit box where the agent has stored it, and making a copy.  They tap the faint cleartext echoes transmitted on the electrical line by cipher machines that haven’t been sufficiently isolated.  The home in on the powerful radio signals transmitted by spies, who needed that power in order to reach Moscow.  The ciphers were primitive, but the general techniques of cracking the weakest link are still very much a part of information security today.

Spycatcher is a very technical and factual book, filled with the details of electronic gadgetry, acronyms, reports, and code names.  Sometimes, it seems to be introducing a new person every two paragraphs.  It’s not that easy to get through the book, as the prose is quite dense.  Fortunately, the book is multifaceted, and it changes focus whenever Wright’s career in MI5 changes direction.  He begins with gadgetry, moves on to code-breaking and radio surveillance (often piggybacking on telephones), and tells anecdotes of field operations in the colonies in the dying days of the Empire.  Readers interested in any of these topics can find several dozen pages of first-hand information.


The heart of the book is on Wright's work in counterintelligence.  As operations kept going wrong, and pieces of the puzzle began to fit together, Wright focuses on Roger Hollins as a suspected Soviet agent.  He would be the Fifth Man, the only man remaining at-large from a busted five-person Soviet spy ring that had placed men at high levels of British government.  But since Hollis was the Director of MI5, Wright was never able to prove his allegation.  The identity of the Fifth Man remains unknown today.  In the world of double-agents and barium meals (disinformation), colleagues turn out to be enemies, enemies turn out to be friends (most notably in the CIA), and the truth only becomes murkier once the subject goes to the grave.

Wright wrote this book after retiring with some bitterness after what he considered to be a failed career.  He left at a time of rapid change due to computerization, receiving a pittance for a pension since he joined MI5 midway through his career, before pension-preserving civil-service transfers were available.  With the publication of this book, he made millions and was able to enjoy retirement in comfort in Australia.  Nevertheless, as he makes clear, the life of a spy is a lonely one.

In particular, Wright’s role in counterintelligence led him into great conflict with colleagues, many of whom felt that he was on a witch hunt for moles in the organization.  He often broods on the lives ruined by his work, including those who were able to prove their innocence only by revealing some other secret that destroyed their government careers.  He notes several times that the homosexual liaisons common among the Oxbridge elite gave the Eastern bloc great leverage in obtaining agents.  In the much less tolerant climate of the day, many people found it more palatable to betray their country than to be outed.

Disdain for MI6 and Americans

Still, the book is not without humor, especially when gleefully telling tales of incompetence from MI6.  Of course, an MI5 man would say that about MI6:

  • "One of their training operations ... The MI6 search party ... picked the lock of the flat one floor above ... the man inside ... protested his innocence, but believing this to be part of the ruse, the search party consulted the MI6 textbook marked 'persuasion,' and went to work as only enthusiastic amateurs can ... He was, in reality, a jewel thief ... believing that his captors were visitors from a vengeful underworld." (p. 71)
  • "The night before I returned to London, Angleton and I went to dinner at a small Chinese restaurant in Alexandria, where his son ate regularly. It was one of Angleton's favorite haunts when he felt the need to talk. We could be assured of privacy, he told me, because the Chinese kept the Russians out." (p. 306)

The deception practiced by intelligence agents is, after all, a game, albeit with deadly danger around every corner. Just two months ago in October 2004, Frits Hoekstra came forward to expose the Marxist-Leninist Party of the Netherlands, a Communist Party of the Maoist persuasion, as an operation of Dutch Intelligence.

Wright is quite disdainful of American intelligence services in general.  He was disgusted by Hoover's FBI headquarters: "Antiseptic white tiles shone everywhere ... the obsession with hygiene reeked of an unclean mind."  He attributes the many failings of the American intelligence services to their lack of an established tradition and hence falling prey to the newcomer’s willingness to take foolhardy risks.  Wright he positively bristles at the Americans' condescension and treatment of the Brits as the "junior partner" in the special relationship.

Wright became good friends with several American Anglophiles who championed British Intelligence, and he doesn't hesitate to credit the American services for information that helped him in his counterintelligence efforts.  But it seems that ever since the days of McCarthyism, Wright has been soured by the American tendency to go to extremes in the pursuit of ideological purity.  When he questions his own efforts, for example, he wonders if he's becoming a McCarthyite, and he points to CIA "methods of imprisonment and physical pressure which would never have been tolerated in MI5."  Have these excessive practices been toned down in American intelligence?  And were the British really so squeaky-clean, or was Wright hiding something?

Because of the highly detailed nature of the book, there are a number of factual errors, and experts began jabbing at the book even before publication.  One error that could’ve been caught by even a non-expert copyeditor is the fact that the book refers to the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze as both a battleship and a cruiser.  But with names and details splashing around like a waterfall, the casual reader will be resorting so much to skimming that he will not even notice the inaccuracies.


Wright’s book gives the reader a good overview of the spy life.  There’s the sadness, the doubting, the disappointment after a failed operation, the joy of discovering a new way to tap into the other side's communications, and, indeed, the chilling uncertainty of having a colleague die of a very unusual disease

"He told me there was no way of proving it without doing a lot of scientific work ... and it was agreed that nothing could be done unless we had further evidence of the Russians' using such a drug to assassinate people ... Needless to say we had no further example of anybody who was in a vulnerable position dying of lupus.” (p. 363)

In retrospect, it is quite surprising that such a book could make it to the New York Times bestseller list.  Were Americans really so interested in events in British intelligence?  Undoubtedly, the publicity over the British censorship helped.  I suspect a large number of the copies sold, at least in the US, ended up on shelves largely unread.

But if you’re interested in the topic of Cold War spying, Spycatcher is worth a read.  It comes from a man with a great deal of experience, and supplies a number of anecdotes about many different types of intelligence work.