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 (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.[1]


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.[2]

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.[3] 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",[4] 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.[5]

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.[1] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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.[9]

The case made by Wright against Roger Hollis was brought up to date by Chapman Pincher[10] in his Treachery: Betrayals, Blunders, and Cover-ups: Six Decades of Espionage Against America and Great Britain (2009).[11]

Later life and legacy[edit]

Because of the interest in Wright's activities and because of a dispute regarding his pension, in 1985, Wright decided to publish his memoirs, Spycatcher, in Australia in order to make ends meet. The British government did all it could to suppress publication, arguing that such a publication would be in violation of the Official Secrets Act. They brought an injunction against Wright in Sydney. The Australian court, however, ruled against the British government. Wright was represented in court by Malcolm Turnbull, (later Prime Minister of Australia).

During the trial a witness, Sir Robert Armstrong, used the phrase "Economical with the truth" in response to Wright's claim that he was telling the truth.[12]

With trans-Atlantic repercussions, Spycatcher first revealed the details and name of the Venona project, a cryptographic collaboration between the UK and US that had succeeded in deciphering more than 2000 messages from Soviet agents in the two countries and elsewhere. Wright's revelations led to the public release of the Venona messages in 1995. The released texts incriminated a number of public figures who had previously been defended as victims of McCarthyism by left-wing historians, causing considerable reassessment of the period of the second Red Scare (1947–1957).

The publication of Spycatcher temporarily unlocked the doors of official secrecy as far as former intelligence officers were concerned. With the enactment of the Official Secrets Act 1989, an absolute prohibition on revelations by serving or former intelligence officers was imposed.

Spycatcher became a best-seller. Wright went on to publish The Encyclopaedia of Espionage in 1991, which had little impact. By this stage of his life he had become increasingly reclusive, suffering from diabetes and heart trouble. A year before his death in Tasmania on 27 April 1995 aged 78, he was diagnosed as having Alzheimer's disease.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Obituary: Peter Wright The Independent, 28 April 1995.
  2. ^ Peter Wright. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, 1987, p. 224.
  3. ^ Peter Wright. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, 1987, p. 221.
  4. ^ Peter Wright. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, 1987, p. 174, 194-195.
  5. ^ Peter Wright. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, 1987, p. 288.
  6. ^ Peter Wright. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, 1987, p. 293.
  7. ^ Peter Wright. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, 1987, p. 297.
  8. ^ Peter Wright. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, 1987, p. 262-263.
  9. ^ a b Stella Rimington. Spies like us The Guardian, 11 Sept 2001.
  10. ^ Chapman Pincher was Fleet Street's spycatcher. His secret? A good lunch The Guardian, 1 July 2011.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ reserved., Phrase Finder is copyright Gary Martin, 1996-2016. All rights. "Economical with the truth - meaning and origin". Retrieved 2016-07-30.


  • 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

External links[edit]