Sunday, November 30, 2008

A question about Sir Roger Hollis.

Roger Hollis was the Director General of MI5 (Britain's counterintelligence service) for nine years starting in 1956. His period as DG is, I believe fairly, considered to be a very, very low patch for that organization.

In the 1980s, two books came out which made a damning case for the theory that Hollis was a Soviet mole. I won't go into details today, but suffice to say that much in his past and in his conduct as DG is startling and lends great credence to worries about his loyalty. (It is difficult, for example, to picture a man who knew Agnes Smedley would get past a vetting, had it been known, let alone making it to DG.) It's a fascinating case and I may blog about it some other day.

What baffles me is the notion that Hollis has been cleared by the revelations of KGB* defectors Oleg Gordievsky and Yuri Modin; they go on about how he wasn't the famous "Fifth Man", even though it is now known that the "Fifth Man" was John Cairncross. What has been made clear by the excellent work of Peter Wright and Chapman Pincher is that if Hollis was a Soviet spy then he was a GRU spy, not KGB. The famous Cambridge spies (Philby, Burgess, McLean, Blunt and Cairncross were all a Cambridge men of a specific time and background, and all were KGB agents.) These men would have no direct knowledge of any such GRU agent. The GRU and the KGB had often notoriously bad relations, so information would not be mixed freely. And the GRU is still a going concern, whereas KGB has, in the American model, split off into two separate organizations (the SVR and the FSB, roughly corresponding to CIA and FBI, respectively) .. and has leaked far more information since the end of the Cold War than its military counterpart, some of which is quite accurate. Some.

My own take? I take Option A: Hollis was a spy; if I blog on this later I will note why**. Option B: (only shortly behind A) is that Hollis was a skilled bureaucrat who rose many, many levels about his level of professional, but not political, competence. He was cunning and ambitious enough to rise to the top, but nowhere near smart enough to actually do a good job there.

* - The Soviet spy service went through a myriad of forms and names during its history. I use its best-known and modern label, the KGB, to cover all periods of time merely for convenience sake.

* - Just one short note: To me the most damning this is his debrief of Igor Gouzenko; Hollis was the Five man sent out to conduct it. His report back in London was painfully short and downright deceitful: it ignored all of the information most important to Five (including and especially information on a GRU mole in British counter-intelligence, complete with codename and background information). If Hollis was merely an incompetent then the report would have just been bad, not a tissue of lies and concealment. If he was ambitious, then the opportunity to unmask a mole would have been sweet. (There are, however, two strong counter-arguments to that argument. First, there was a comparatively pro-Soviet labour government in place, one with fresh and very angry memories of the Zinoviev letter. Pissing on the Russians might have been a career-killer at a stage when Labour was cheerfully selling jet engines to make the first combat-effective MIGs. Second, Gouzenko's information on the mole matched up to a great extent with Hollis himself. If Hollis wasn't a GRU agent one could still see him covering all that up in order to save his career.)

No comments: