Review: Archie Henderson
The Spy and the Traitor, by Ben Macintyre (Penguin)
The names Oleg Gordievsky and Aldrich Ames are well known to aficionados of espionage. Gordievsky is the most famous spy of the Cold War and Ames its most famous American traitor.
They are contrasting characters in other ways too.
Gordievsky, whose father was a senior KGB officer and whose brother was a deep-penetration agent in the West, was a child of communism. But he became repelled by his family’s ideology. It began with the Berlin Wall which, as a young Russian agent posted to East Berlin he saw going up in 1961. Seven years later he was further appalled by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in the Prague Spring of 1968. When a Czech friend from KGB spy school defected to Canada, Gordievsky decided to throw in his lot with the West.
Aldrich Ames joined the CIA on the coattails of his father, who worked for the US spy agency. Ames became frustrated with his job and his wife, whom he divorced to marry a Colombian woman of extravagant tastes. He also started to drink heavily. His idea to spy for the other side was motivated by a need for money rather than Gordievsky’s moral reasons. At first the CIA missed identifying their mole, who was living beyond his means. In total the KGB gave him $4.6 million and he claimed the money came from his new wife’s wealthy family. In his treason, Ames gave the Soviets, and later the Russians, the names of several high-ranking spies within the KGB and the GRU, the military spy agency.
So far, so familiar. Ben Macintyre has taken to the two stories and woven them together wonderfully. How Gordievsky, after dropping many hints, was finally recruited by MI6 in Denmark and became their spy.
The British secret service hit the jackpot with Gordievsky, who was promoted to colonel and posted to the belly of the capitalist beast in London. The elaborate techniques used by MI6 to brief and debrief their agent are among the best parts of Macintyre’s book, and straight out of the fiction of John le Carre.
But the Soviets’ recruitment of Ames was beginning to pay off for the KGB, who suspected that there might be a mole in their ranks. When the evidence pointed to Gordievsky, he was suddenly recalled to Moscow. In the meantime, MI6 had worked out, and rehearsed with him, an intricate escape plan – just in case.
Gordievsky did not break under interrogation in spite of being drugged. He was allowed to live in his flat with his wife and their two daughters, but was carefully watched for any slip-up. The one thing you must say about the KGB was that it would only prosecute on firm evidence and up to that point, they believed their case was still flimsy.
Gordievsky used this free time to contact the British secret service representatives in Moscow and set up the escape. Macintyre has spoken to all the MI6 people involved with Gordievsky in London, especially the woman who was responsible for planning the escape. He also spoke to the diplomats involved and in makes for a riveting story.
Two MI6 men in Moscow with diplomatic cover used their wives, and a baby, whose dirty nappy would play a crucial role in keeping the KGB pursuers off their tail, to set the escape plan up.
To give details here would be to give away the best part of the book. But it ended well for Gordievsky because we can see photographs of him being given a White House audience with Ronald Reagan and being presented with a medal by Queen Elizabeth.
Gordievsky is now 81 and living in England’s Home Counties. He remains on his guard, especially after Russian agents murdered defector Alexander Litvinenko and almost murdered Sergei Skripal in the UK. Indeed in 2008, Gordievsky was taken to hospital having suddenly fallen unconscious. He would remain in a coma for 34 hours before coming round and surviving the ordeal.
He claimed that a Russian business associate had given him tablets for his insomnia and that these contained the classic KGB poison, thallium. An investigation into the incident was abruptly closed, but later reopened. There is still no sign of what the new MI6 investigation has discovered. We shall probably never know.
As for Ames, he is 79 and in a high-security prison in Indiana where he will stay for the rest of his life.