- Mass Market Paperback: 10 pages
- Publisher: Dell; 1st edition (July 1, 1988)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0440201322
- ISBN-13: 978-0440201328
- Product Dimensions: 1 x 4.2 x 6.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #650,933 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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SpyCatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer Mass Market Paperback – July 1, 1988
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
"Spycatcher" 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. "Spycatcher" also shows the special relationship between the U.S. and the U.K., which is not without its tensions.
Finally, "Spycatcher" 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 "Spycatcher" 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.
I am actually glad that I read other books such as "My Silent War," "The Philby Files," "Anthony Blunt," "Philby: The Long Road to Moscow," "Crown Jewels," etc. first, because by the time I read "Spycatcher," I was thoroughly familiar with the multifarious cast of characters. However, as much as I enjoyed the other espionage books, "Spycatcher" surpasses them in one respect: it gives details of tradecraft that are impossible in an account of Kim Philby or Anthony Blunt who, by necessity, had to keep silent about the finer particulars of their work in intelligence (whether Soviet or British). Peter Wright lets the reader peek over his shoulder as he installs sophisticated bugs behind convincing false doors at midnight. He also gives the reader a good chuckle when such operations go disastrously awry and floors collapse or cables are cut, and the work has to begin all over again.
The author also writes a wry account of brazen Russian agents importuning numerous passers-by in various London parks in an effort to "turn" them into Soviet assets, until the British police, at Wright's instigation, out-brazen the agents by threatening to arrest them for harassing Her Majesty's subjects. He also informs us of MI5's system of Watchers, who were posted all over London and its environs, and whose chief duty was to tail diplomats and cypher clerks from the Soviet embassy. (A memorable moment occurs when 105 Russians are declared PNG and expelled from Britain in 1971--an event I recall seeing on television).
Peter Wright relates a particularly poignant anecdote of Klop Ustinov (actor Peter's father), who had served British Intelligence so faithfully and effectively (at great peril) throughout World War II, and who was living in penury without a pension until Wright brought the matter to the attention of the director (Wright was cheated out of most of his own promised pension at the end of his career, and Desmond Bristow of MI6 also tells of similar ingratitude on the part of the Intelligence Services in "A Game of Moles.").
As for the allegations about Roger Hollis, the director of MI5, being a Soviet agent, the criticism of this theory usually cites the fact that Hollis never confessed, and therefore the charges are groundless. The same could be said of Kim Philby, who never confessed (despite Nicholas Elliot's claims to the contrary--with the window conveniently open so that the recorded "confession" was inaudible because of the Beirut traffic noises). Philby even wrote an article stating that a spy should never confess, because the case against him had to be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt in order to be prosecuted under British law. Whether Hollis was a Soviet agent or not (Desmond Bristow, who believed that the British intelligence agencies were riddled with Soviet penetration agents echoes Wright's suspicions in "A Game of Moles."), Peter Wright builds an intriguing circumstantial case against him, noting that the leaks to the Russians and the ruined operations stopped after Hollis had retired. Wright suggests that the Intelligence services had no interest in pursuing the matter to the end because of the embarrassment caused by the discoveries that Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt, Cairncross, Blake, et al, were Soviet penetration agents. As far as Wright is concerned, the case against Hollis was not proven but the suspicion remains.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
It is, first, acceptably written for a book of its kind, with a simple, easy-to-read narrative.