25 October 2006

Mark Urban on Michael John Smith

In 1997 Mark Urban had his book UK Eyes Alpha: Inside British Intelligence published by Faber and Faber. One of the chapters included his version of the story about my case, which I print below. The Mark Urban account clearly follows the prosecution’s account of my case, which claims that I was working with classified documentation at GEC Hirst Research Centre, a point that he then contradicts when he states that I was ‘confined to non-sensitive work’.

Chapter 17: 1992 Time for Revenge
On 8 August 1992 a telephone call to the Kingston upon Thames home of Michael Smith, an electronics engineer working for GEC, summoned him to a nearby phone box. The caller, an MI5 officer putting on a Russian accent, told him, ‘I am George speaking. I am a colleague of your old friend Viktor; do you remember him?’ Smith replied that he did, then agreed to go to a call box where a meeting would be arranged. ‘Viktor’, or Colonel Viktor Oshchenko, a KGB officer specializing in scientific and technical intelligence, had defected to Britain shortly before. Smith walked into a trap. When he arrived at the telephone box, Special Branch officers arrested him and bundled him into an unmarked car.

When Special Branch officers searched Smith’s house, they found £2,000. There was also a letter dating from 1990 that government lawyers subsequently produced as evidence of Smith’s ‘reactivation’ as a Russian spy. Notes and classified papers were found hidden in his car.

Smith at first denied the charge of espionage, but his story changed from one day to the next as Special Branch interrogators revealed the extent of their knowledge. By the time of his trial in autumn 1993, Smith’s defence involved admitting to receiving payments of £19,000 for confidential information, but claiming that he believed he was acting on behalf of a commercial competitor rather than a foreign power. The court did not buy this argument; he was found guilty and sentenced to twenty-five years in jail, which was reduced to twenty years on appeal. The case prompted much newspaper hype: the London Evening Standard labelled Smith as ‘the most treacherous spy since Blake, Philby, Burgess and Maclean’. The whole affair seemed an unpleasant flashback to the Cold War spy game that many people assumed had ended.

By some accounts Oshchenko recruited Smith as far back as 1972, when the KGB officer had been working at the London rezidentura. He was an ideological spy, who had joined the Kingston Young Communists. Claims at his trial that he had done so to meet girls produced howls of laughter. From 1976 Smith had worked at Thorn-EMI on classified projects such as developing the trigger mechanism for Britain’s WE-177 nuclear bomb. Two years later Smith’s security clearance was pulled after Special Branch discovered his Communist links. During his time on classified projects, Smith had travelled to Portugal; it was claimed at his trial that this was for training in KGB spycraft.

Smith tried to regain his security clearance, but failed, and when he joined the GEC Hirst Research Centre in 1985 he was confined to non-sensitive work. In May 1992 GEC made Smith redundant.

The case posed several questions, notably how long the Security Service had known about him. If Smith had been a KGB asset since the late 1970s, wouldn’t Gordievsky have known about him? Spokesmen for Russian intelligence implied that they believed Oshchenko to have been a British agent before his defection. The Security Commission report on the case, completed in July 1995, indicated that if Oshchenko had betrayed him, it was not during the agent’s early career. Smith’s security clearance was only withdrawn in 1978 after notes about his Communist Party membership were found in MI5. They had been placed in the organization’s registry seven years earlier in a different Michael Smith file. Despite the disastrous potential of this error it is unlikely that the loss of the information on the WE-177 fuse, essentially a low-tech device, represented a grave national blow. Far from being a superspy, Smith was a sad case who thought he could get away with selling useless material to support his hobbies: much of his KGB money went on a synthesizer and a computer. It was a measure of the KGB’s shortage of quality agents that they were prepared to pay him.

The court was informed by the prosecution that the Hirst Centre operated at the ‘leading edge of technology’, but there was some doubt about whether the case was suitable for trial under the Official Secrets Act. To questions as to whether his client could be tried under the Act, Rock Tansey, Smith’s barrister, quoted Thatcher as saying that Russia was no longer an enemy. An equally good case could have been made that the low-grade civilian material Smith supplied was not damaging to national security. In the event, however, the security establishment wanted their prosecution and they got it, with a heavy sentence thrown in for good measure. Smith’s trial formed part of a wave of arrests, defections and expulsions that marked an outbreak of Cold War spy fever.

Following the 1991 Moscow coup the KGB was broken up. The overseas espionage arm, the First Chief Directorate, was made into an independent service, the SVR. The sigint arm was also given independence, leaving the internal role of the old KGB to a new Ministry for Security or MBR. The military intelligence service, the GRU, remained unchanged. Russian intelligence chiefs stressed that they wanted international co-operation against drug traffickers, nuclear bomb smugglers and Islamic fundamentalists. In September 1992 Yevgeni Primakov, head of the SVR, described budgetary cuts in his organization and offered a ‘no-spy’ deal to Western countries. Such offers presumably did not include Aldrich Ames, Primakov’s best (and probably only) agent in the CIA.

As a concession to the changing times, MI6 even declared one of its Moscow-based officers to the authorities. Controller Sovietbloc, one of its six geographic divisions, was no longer Sovbloc but Controller Central and Eastern Europe; in the Service, both the individual holding the post and the division itself go by the same acronym, in this case CCEE. The name may have been changed to reflect the collapse of Communism, but attitudes at the top of the organisation had not. Colin McColl, Chief of SIS, and his fellow senior officers, sensing their advantage, responded to Primakov’s outwardly friendly noises by pursuing the crumbling Russian foreign intelligence service with renewed aggression. One SIS officer notes, ‘They were obsessed with the idea of revenge for Philby, and they got their chance.’

Oshchenko’s real prize was a spy ring in France; he had been working at the Paris rezidentura up to his defection. Several well-placed agents were uncovered, including an engineer at a nuclear research establishment who had been passing details of French atomic bomb tests. During 1991-2 a series of defections enabled Western counter-intelligence services to roll up many of Moscow’s spy networks. SIS played a central role in this.

In addition to Oshchenko, Mikhail Butkov, a senior SVR officer in Oslo, defected to Britain during 1991, and in 1992 a GRU officer who has not yet been named came across. …

1 comment:

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