By IAN ALLEN
British counterintelligence officials decided to conceal from their American counterparts a report detailing Soviet spy penetration of the UK, because it showed London’s permissive attitude towards intelligence infiltration. The secret report, entitled “Survey of Russian Espionage in the UK 1935-1955”, was authored by the D Branch of MI5, which was tasked with countering Soviet intelligence operations on British soil. It was declassified on Monday by Britain’s National Archives, 55 years after it was initially authored.
The survey was apparently commissioned following the embarrassing defections of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, MI5 and MI6 officers respectively, who escaped to Moscow in 1951, after several years of spying for the Soviet Union. Its pages detail the cases of over 50 Soviet intelligence operatives and double agents who were believed at the time to be mostly at large in the UK or abroad. But senior MI5 officials decided to limit the report’s distribution, fearing that it revealed too many weaknesses in Britain’s counterintelligence posture. Instead, they decided to print only about 25 copies of the report, which were to be distributed strictly within MI5. They also decided to conceal the report from their NATO allies, particularly from the United States, which had in the past criticized the UK for not taking aggressive enough measures against Soviet intelligence activities. A handwritten note on the back of the declassified report states that “It must certainly not go to the Americans, since it reveals an alarming number of known spies still walking about as free men”. Another handwritten note questions whether the report should mention the case of Kim Philby, a British intelligence agent who was suspected at the time (correctly, as it turned out) of collaborating with Burgess and Maclean. The apparent reason for the hesitation was that mentioning Philby’s name might offend MI6, Britain’s external intelligence agency, which employed Philby at the time. Philby later defected to the Soviet Union, following in the footsteps of Burgess and Maclean.