"There's no statute of limitations on counterespionage, none at all."
William Hood, Cry Spy
The British government as released a trove of files that bear on some old spy cases.
The Unbelievable Story of How the CIA Helped Foil a Russian Spy Ring in London
Newly released documents reveal a real-life plot that seems ripped from a Cold War novel.
It’s an interesting story that provides a look inside intelligence operations during the Cold War.
The Portland spy case was another black eye for the British Security services.
Embarrassingly for MI5, the agency discovered that Houghton had previously been on its radar and it had made serious errors about him. In 1956, MI5 had been asked for security concerns about Houghton working at the UDE and was even sent a report from Houghton’s wife warning that he was revealing classified information. At the time, MI5’s vetting section had erroneously concluded, without serious investigation, that Mrs. Houghton was claiming this out of spite because their marriage was breaking up a striking failure for MI5.
In truth, the Soviets displayed something resembling contempt for British counter-intelligence at this time.
After their arrest, the Krogers’ fingerprints were sent to the FBI, who established their real identity as Morris and Lona Cohen, known to be two of the Kremlin’s most important underground assets in the Cold War. The Cohens were American-born KGB illegals in the United States, who had operated with an array of key underground Soviet agents, including the celebrated illegal William Fisher, who lived under an alias, “Rudolf Abel.” They had also acted as KGB couriers, passing top-secret intelligence on U.S. atomic research from agents including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. After the Rosenbergs’ arrest, followed by their trial and execution for espionage in the U.S. in 1952, the KGB spirited the Cohens out of the United States, slipping through the FBI’s hands. Now-available Soviet intelligence material shows the KGB gave them New Zealand passports. In 1954 the Cohens arrived in Britain to begin their new life, and espionage career, as the Krogers.
The KGB obtained the fake passports from Paddy Costelloa New Zealand diplomat who was a graduate of Cambridge University where he ran in the same communist circles as Phlby, Burgess, et. al.
FBI agent Robert Lamphere noted the Zelig-like propinquity of the Cohen/Krogers:
A Philby-network man issued passports for the Cohens, who were involved with Colonel Abel, Gordon Lonsdale, and possibly with the Rosenbergs.
Sending the Cohens to Britain seems highly risky on two counts.
1. They were directly associated with at least three* spy networks known to the US/UK security services: The Cambridge Ring, the Rosenbergs, and Rudolph Abel. If the FBI or MI5 followed the right thread from any of these cases they might track down the Cohens. That in turn, could jeopardized high-value operations currently underway in Britain.
Gordon Lonsdale/Konon Molody was a decidedly high-value asset. According to the Soviet archives, he was the first Soviet “illegal” to operate in Great Britain since the 1930s.
* Lona Cohen worked with a fourth network that stole atomic secrets in New Mexico. However, the FBI did not learn of this network for decades.
2. If captured, the Cohens had many secrets to bargain with should they put self-preservation ahead of ideological loyalty.
Yet the KGB sent them to London to work near the center of a majr, on-going, and prouctive operation. This suggests that the Soviets were confident that MI5 was too inept to be a danger to the Cohens and other traitors ( the polite Narrative) or that the KGB/GRU had sources within MI5 who could protect the spies. (The Chapman Pincher theory).
The Soviets usually took great pains to protect their agents and to ensure operational security. For instance, when Ursula Kuczynski Hamburger Beurton (SONJA) was sent to Moscow for training, she was ordered to leave her son behind. Her superiors feared that the boy would learn Russian words which might someday betray SONIA’s cover story that she was merely a Jewish refugee from Germany.
When Walter Krivitsky defected and was interrogated by MI5, the Soviets ceased all contacted with their Cambridge spies until they were sure that those agents were not compromised by the revelations. The same thing happened when Elizabeth Bentley went to the FBI in 1945.
The Soviet intelligence agencies were usually patient and careful. So it seems significant that they were willing to put the Cohens to work in London so quickly.
And they were not wrong. MI5 did not break the case (despite their subsequent claims to Parliament and the press). The Portland spies were discovered thanks to the defection of a Polish intelligence officer, Michael Goleniewski to CIA.
To add insult to injury, MI5 even accepted “Gordon Lonsdale” as a true identity until an FBI investigation revealed that the Canadian Gordon Lonsdale was actually the Russian Konon Molody.
First rule of counterintelligence: never say never