Thatcher Struggles to Keep Spy Agency’s Role Secret

Times Staff Writer

The cloak of security that for nearly 80 years has kept the British intelligence service one of the world’s most secretive espionage agencies is slowly beginning to slip away despite strenuous efforts by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government to keep it in place.

So far, these efforts have led to a major domestic political row, the investigation of a respected member of the House of Lords for possible leaking of intelligence material, two court cases and a flurry of parliamentary skirmishes that culminated Wednesday in a full debate.

At the heart of the issue is a breakdown of the time-honored code under which British agents never reveal details of their work, no matter how much time has elapsed.


Books by Outsiders

Books have been written about Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, but always by outsiders.

Several former agents such as Ian Fleming, W. Somerset Maugham and David Cornwell, who writes under the name John le Carre, have also woven successful fiction by drawing heavily from their years in British intelligence, but their collective work never overtly compromised the factual secrets of the Secret Intelligence Service.

Today, Britain is so protective of its Secret Intelligence Service that there is no official acknowledgement that it even exists.

Its headquarters is not officially listed, and all government papers dealing with either the intelligence wing, know as MI-6, or the counterespionage branch, called MI-5, remain classified as secret, no matter how old.

2 Accounts Written

Now, however, two former agents have written factual accounts that, in Thatcher’s opinion, seriously threaten the service’s secrecy.

In Dublin on Tuesday, the Thatcher government lost a legal attempt to block distribution in the Irish Republic of the wartime remembrances of a former counterintelligence agent, Joan Miller, entitled, “One Girl’s War.”


Miller died two years ago in Malta, and her manuscript was purchased by an Irish businessman after British publishers were warned that it violated the law on secrecy of the intelligence services.

After discovering that it has been published, Thatcher’s attorney general, Michael Havers, won an injunction last week from a Dublin court temporarily blocking further distribution of the book.

Injunction Lifted

But the injunction was lifted after the Irish judge ruled that British security restrictions were no reason to contravene the freedom of expression guaranteed under the Irish constitution.

In what Thatcher views as a potentially far more serious security breach, her government is trying to block publication of another book in Australia, written by former MI-5 agent Peter Wright and entitled “Spycatcher.”

In his book, Wright reportedly contends that the director general of MI-5 from 1956-65, Roger Hollis, was actually a Soviet spy.

To press the government’s case for banning publication on security grounds, Thatcher has sent her Cabinet secretary, Robert Armstrong, to Sydney.

Embarrassing Revelations

However, British reluctance to produce evidence to support its case has exasperated the Australian judge, and meanwhile, other revelations have tumbled out to embarrass Thatcher.

When the Times of London reported that Wright had been a ghost co-author of a book published in 1981 by a British journalist that makes essentially the same accusations against Hollis, Neil Kinnock, leader of the opposition Labor Party, demanded an explanation.

Embarrassingly, Armstrong was forced to retract portions of his testimony to the Australian court because of apparent differences within Thatcher’s Cabinet on the issue.

But after learning that Kinnock had telephoned the defense lawyers in the case, Thatcher launched her counterattack, accusing the opposition leader of working against the government on an issue of national security and implying that he might be a security risk.

New Panel Rejected

After a stormy four-hour debate in Parliament on Wednesday, lawmakers traded accusations before deciding by a 232-24 vote against establishing a committee to monitor the affairs of the intelligence services.