Peter Wright (MI5 officer)

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Peter Wright
BornPeter Maurice Wright
(1916-08-09)9 August 1916
Chesterfield, Derbyshire, England, United Kingdom
Died27 April 1995(1995-04-27) (aged 78)
Cygnet, Tasmania, Australia
OccupationIntelligence officer
EducationBishop's Stortford College
(independent boarding school)
Alma materSt Peter's College, Oxford
Notable worksSpycatcher (1987)
Lois Foster-Melliar
m. 1938)

Peter Maurice Wright CBE[1] (9 August 1916 – 27 April 1995) was a principal scientific officer for MI5, the British counter-intelligence agency. His book Spycatcher, written with Paul Greengrass, became an international bestseller with sales of over two million copies. Spycatcher was part memoir, part exposé of what Wright claimed were serious institutional failings in MI5 and his subsequent investigations into those. He is said to have been influenced in his counterespionage activity by James Jesus Angleton, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) counterintelligence chief from 1954 to 1975.[2]


Wright was educated at Bishop's Stortford College, a boarding independent school for boys in the market town of Bishop's Stortford in Hertfordshire, followed by St Peter's College at the University of Oxford.

Father's footsteps[edit]

Replica of the Great Seal which contained "The Thing" a Soviet bugging device, on display at the NSA's National Cryptologic Museum.

Peter Wright was born in 26 Cromwell Road, Chesterfield, Derbyshire, the son of (George) Maurice Wright, who was the Marconi Company's director of research, and one of the founders of signals intelligence during World War I.

During the Second World War, Wright worked at the Admiralty's Research Laboratory. In 1946, he began work as a Principal Scientific Officer at the Services Electronics Research Laboratory.

According to his own account, his work for the UK intelligence, initially part-time, started in the spring of 1949 when he was given a job of a Navy Scientist attached to the Marconi Company. According to Spycatcher, during his stint there, he was instrumental in resolving a difficult technical problem. The Central Intelligence Agency sought Marconi's assistance over a covert listening device (or "bug") that had been found in a replica of the Great Seal of the United States presented to the United States ambassador in Moscow in 1945 by the Young Pioneer organization of the Soviet Union. Wright determined that the bugging device, dubbed The Thing, was actually a tiny capacitive membrane (a condenser microphone) that became active only when 330 MHz microwaves were beamed to it from a remote transmitter. A remote receiver could then have been used to decode the modulated microwave signal and permit sounds picked up by the microphone to be heard. The device was eventually attributed to Soviet inventor, Léon Theremin.

Intelligence career highlights[edit]

In 1954, Wright was recruited as principal scientific officer for MI5. According to his memoirs, he then was either responsible for, or intimately involved with, the development of some of the basic techniques of ELINT, for example:

  • Operation ENGULF (MI5): acoustic cryptanalysis—recording the sound of the settings of Egyptian Hagelin cipher machines in 1956.
  • Operation RAFTER (MI5): remote detection of passive radio receivers used by Soviet illegals through detecting emanations from the local oscillator, in 1958 (a technique now more commonly used to enforce payment of television licences). The program eventually expanded into airborne operations, where receivers were detected from transport planes, thus giving the general area where mobile ground detection could be initiated. This was done by flooding the vicinity with vans that at best could pinpoint buildings or blocks. However, the method was less successful against mobile receivers.
  • Operation STOCKADE (MI5/GCHQ): analysis of compromising emanation from French cipher machine cables in 1960. They used broad band radio detection of the cables, and were actually able to read the original plain text along the low-grade cipher sequence. Surprisingly, murmurs of high-grade ciphers could sometimes be read from the same cable, which after comparison to the cable fed signal, gave a path to even that cipher's plain text leakage. From 1960 to 1963 the MI5 and GCHQ could read cipher traffic to and from the French Embassy in London.

Wright worked as the first chairman of the new ROC—Radio Operations Committee—formed in 1960. The technical staffs from the earlier separate and competitive British intelligence organizations finally began to combine their efforts, thus allowing the methods used in ENGULF and RAFTER to be expanded into domestic and foreign intelligence operations that would last into the late 1960s. According to Wright, MI5, MI6, and GCHQ had not functioned together or/and shared information as effectively since the war.

In 1964 he became chairman of a joint MI5/MI6 committee, codenamed FLUENCY Working Party, appointed to find the traitor and investigate the whole history of Soviet penetration of Britain. Also from 1964, for the next six years he had regular interviews with Anthony Blunt, a member of the Cambridge Five, trying to glean more information from him about other Soviet spies.[3]

Claims about Roger Hollis, the Wilson Plot et al.[edit]

While in MI5, Wright came to be aware that the USSR's espionage agencies had been infiltrating the UK's government, military and education establishments from the 1930s by using, among other things, close-knit left-wing homosexual circles at Oxbridge, especially the Cambridge Apostles.[4] With like-minded MI5 officers, Wright became alert to the fact that some senior figures in the intelligence services, in politics, and in the trade unions were recruited Soviet agents.

After the Soviet spy Kim Philby's defection in 1963 following what Wright refers to as a tip-off by "a fifth man, still inside",[5] he became convinced that the KGB had penetrated the higher reaches of MI5. As claimed in Spycatcher, Wright had come to believe that Roger Hollis was the highest traitor in MI5. Wright went so far as to begin to make, as he himself put it, "his own 'freelance' inquiries into Hollis' background" shortly before the latter's retirement.[6]

According to Wright, his initial, unspecified, suspicion was aroused by his analysis of how a Soviet 'illegal' Lonsdale's arrest in January 1961 was handled by the KGB which appeared to have had advance knowledge thereof; Wright deduced that Lonsdale could have been sacrificed to protect a more important Soviet spy in Britain.[2] Wright's suspicions were further strengthened by Hollis' apparent obstruction of any attempt to investigate information from several defectors that there was a mole in MI5, but he then discovered that Hollis had concealed relationships with a number of suspicious persons, including:

  • a longstanding friendship with Claud Cockburn, a communist journalist who was at the time suspected of ties to Soviet intelligence; and,
  • an acquaintance with Agnes Smedley whilst Hollis was in Shanghai, at a time when Smedley was in a relationship with Richard Sorge, a proven Soviet spymaster.

Later during his investigations, Wright looked into the debriefings of a Soviet defector Igor Gouzenko, and found to his surprise that the revelations of that debriefing were not reported or recorded. After a lengthy check, he discovered that it had been Hollis who was sent to Canada to interview Gouzenko. Gouzenko had provided Hollis with clear information about Alan Nunn May's meetings with his handlers. Gouzenko also noted that the man who met him seemed to be in disguise, not interested in his revelations and discouraged him from further disclosures.

Gouzenko had not known about Klaus Fuchs, but he had named a low level suspected GRU agent, Israel Halperin, a mathematician, who was later completely cleared. When the Royal Canadian Mounted Police searched Halperin's lodgings, they found Fuchs' name in his address book. Fuchs immediately broke off contact with his handler, Harry Gold, and shortly afterward took a long vacation to Mexico. Wright alleges in Spycatcher that Gouzenko himself deduced later that his interviewer might have been a Soviet double agent and was probably afraid that he might recognise him from case photos that Gouzenko might have seen in KGB or GRU files, which would explain why Hollis was disguised.

According to Wright, the FLUENCY Working Party, an interagency committee set up to examine all the hitherto unsolved allegations about penetration of the UK's security apparatus, unanimously concluded, among other things, that Hollis was the best fit for Gouzenko's "Elli" and Konstantin Volkov's "Acting Head" allegations.[7] The committee chaired by Wright submitted its final findings shortly after Hollis retired in late 1965 as MI5 Director-General, but investigation of Hollis was not sanctioned by his successor Martin Furnival Jones, who nevertheless sanctioned the investigation of his deputy, Michael Hanley.[8] A retired civil servant, Burke Trend, later Lord Trend, was brought in during the early 1970s to review the Hollis case. Trend studied the case for a year, and concluded that the evidence was inconclusive for either convicting or clearing Hollis; this was announced by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in March 1981.

Peter Wright, on the basis of his interviews with Sir Dennis Proctor and his friends, also alleged in his book that Proctor, former Permanent Secretary at the UK Ministry of Power, was at the very least, by Proctor's own account, an unwitting source of secret information to the Soviets via his close friend and Soviet spy Guy Burgess, from whom he had kept no secrets which, in Proctor's opinion, obviated the necessity to recruit him.[9]

Wright's sights were also focused on Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, suspicions about whom were initially triggered amongst the MI5 management shortly after his appointment as prime minister in 1964 by James Jesus Angleton, Deputy Director of Operations for Counterintelligence at the CIA. The investigation into Wilson's background by MI5, however, failed to produce any conclusive evidence.

When Wright retired in 1976, Harold Wilson was again prime minister. Dame Stella Rimington, MI5 Director General from 1992 to 1996, who was in MI5 while Peter Wright was still working there, wrote in 2001 that she believed that in a Panorama programme in 1988, Peter Wright had retracted his allegation made in his book about the MI5 group of thirty officers who plotted to overthrow Wilson's government.[10] She also criticised Wright who, according to her, by the time she knew him well was "a man with an obsession, and was regarded by many as quite mad and certainly dangerous"; she alleged that he was a disruptive and lazy officer, who as special advisor to the Director had a habit of taking case files that interested him from other officers, failing to return them to their proper place and failing to write up any interviews he conducted.[10]

The case made by Wright against Roger Hollis was brought up to date by Chapman Pincher[11] in his Treachery: Betrayals, Blunders, and Cover-ups: Six Decades of Espionage Against America and Great Britain (2009).[12]

Retirement, Spycatcher publication, and later life[edit]

Upon his retirement in 1976, Wright was denied a full pension on a technicality and emigrated to raise horses on a farm in Tasmania, Australia.[13]

In the early 1980s, Wright cooperated in the writing of Chapman Pincher’s Their Trade Is Treachery (1982) and received £30,000 for this collaboration.[14][15]

The UK government in 1985 attempted to ban the publication of Wright′s memoirs by Heinemann in Australia.[16] In 1987, the Supreme Court of New South Wales in Sydney ruled against the British government, Wright being represented in court by Malcolm Turnbull, later prime minister of Australia.[16] Turnbull′s tough questioning of Robert Armstrong, Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet secretary, led Armstrong to admit in court that a letter he had written was ″economical with the truth″.[17] The subsequent appeals against the decision were definitively dismissed in 1988, the High Court of Australia concluding in its decision on the case: ″[...] The appellant's claim for protection (whether injunctive or by way of accounts or damages) ought to have been refused simply on the ground that the Court would not, in the absence of statutory direction, protect the intelligence secrets and confidential political information of the United Kingdom Government.″[18] By then, the U.S. edition of the book was already an international best-seller.[15] Spycatcher sold nearly two million copies and made the author a millionaire.[14]

According to the documents released in 2015, the Australian government, then led by Bob Hawke, heeded the advice from British counterparts and lent support to the UK government′s bid to suppress publication, despite being aware that Australia’s national security was not ″directly threatened″ by anything in Wright′s manuscript.[17] A memorandum prepared by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet said among other things: ″The British are seeking to avoid discussion of any of Wright’s specific allegations, arguing that, for the purposes of the trial, they can all be assumed to be true and even then Wright’s breach of confidentiality would be a breach of contract and inequitable.″[17]

In the opinion of the official historian of MI5, Christopher Andrew, Turnbull’s ″brilliant″ handling of the Spycatcher case humiliated British establishment and triggered much-needed intelligence service reform.[17] In 2011, Turnbull said that ″Margaret Thatcher’s iron will made Spycatcher a global bestseller″.[19][17] The affair influenced the framing of the official secrets legislation of 1989 by hastening it and probably making its provisions more severe.[14] In 1991, the European Court of Human Rights found that the attempts of the British government to ban the book had violated the right to freedom of speech.[20]

Wright went on to publish The Encyclopaedia of Espionage in 1991 and reportedly was writing a fictional spy thriller at the time of his death.[15]

He died in Tasmania on 27 April 1995, aged 78. The obituary in The Independent opined: ″No British intelligence officer other than Kim Philby caused more mayhem within Britain's secret services and more trouble for British politicians than Peter Wright.″[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "No. 45554". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 December 1971. p. 9.
  2. ^ a b Obituary: Peter Wright The Independent, 28 April 1995.
  3. ^ Peter Wright. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, 1987, p. 224.
  4. ^ Peter Wright. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, 1987, p. 221.
  5. ^ Peter Wright. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, 1987, p. 174, 194-195.
  6. ^ Peter Wright. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, 1987, p. 288.
  7. ^ Peter Wright. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, 1987, p. 293.
  8. ^ Peter Wright. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, 1987, p. 297.
  9. ^ Peter Wright. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, 1987, p. 262-263.
  10. ^ a b Stella Rimington. Spies like us The Guardian, 11 Sept 2001.
  11. ^ Chapman Pincher was Fleet Street's spycatcher. His secret? A good lunch The Guardian, 1 July 2011.
  12. ^ Treachery: Betrayals, Blunders, and Cover-ups: Six Decades of Espionage Against America and Great Britain. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-1-4000-6807-4. Revised edition published 2011, in the UK by Mainstream. ISBN 978-1-84596-769-7.
  13. ^ a b Obituary: Peter Wright. The Independent, 28 April 1995.
  14. ^ a b c Peter Wright. The Telegraph, 28 April 1995.
  15. ^ a b c Peter Maurice Wright. Britannica
  16. ^ a b From Spycatcher to prime minister: the Malcolm Turnbull I knew. The Guardian, 14 September 2015.
  17. ^ a b c d e Australia backed UK on Spycatcher secrecy despite book posing no direct threat. The Guardian, 26 October 2015.
  18. ^ Attorney-General (UK) v Heinemann Publishers Australia Pty Ltd ("Spycatcher case") [1988 HCA 25; (1988) 165 CLR 30; (1988) 78 ALR 449; (1988) 62 ALJR 344; (1988) 10 IPR 385 (2 June 1988)]
  19. ^ Spycatcher sequel: Gillard is doing a Thatcher on WikiLeaks, says Turnbull. The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 April 2011.
  20. ^ 1988: Government loses Spycatcher battle. / In Context, BBC.


  • Penrose, Barrie & Freeman, Simon (1987), Conspiracy of Silence: The Secret Life of Anthony Blunt, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.
  • Pincher, Chapman (2009). Treachery: Betrayals, Blunders, and Cover-ups: Six Decades of Espionage Against America and Great Britain. New York: Random House ISBN 140006807X.
  • Turnbull, Malcolm (1989), The Spycatcher Trial: The Scandal Behind the #1 Best Seller, Topsfield, Massachusetts: Salem House Publishers, Mass Market Paperback; ISBN 1863300082.
  • West, Nigel (1987). Mole Hunt. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson ISBN 0340419849. Nigel West is the pen-name of Rupert Allason.
  • Wright, Peter (1987). Spycatcher. New York and London: Viking Penguin Inc. ISBN 0670820555

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