Agent Of Influence

Agent Of Influence

He was a giant of Cold War journalism, reporting from the alleyways of Vienna, Budapest and Berlin and the jungles of Biafra and Paraguay. A war hero, a Nazi-hunter, a spy and a master manipulator, he also influenced several of the 20th century’s greatest thriller-writers. Jeremy Duns delves into the many worlds of Antony Terry


Tony Terry offers a light to Austrian Chancellor Leopold Figl, Vienna, 1948. (Getty Images. Original publication 'In Vienna Today—A Foreign Correspondents Life', Picture Post, 1948.)

1. THE LONDON STATION

For several years during the Cold War, including while he was writing the James Bond novels, Ian Fleming was also working for the Secret Intelligence Service, popularly known as M.I.6.

He was part of a network that at various times also counted among its members Malcolm Muggeridge, Kim Philby, George Blake and Frederick Forsyth. At one point M.I.5 had a long-term plan for John le Carré in the network, but he backed out at the last moment. Had he joined, le Carré would have worked directly for Fleming: a tantalising what-if in espionage history.

M.I.6 ran this network using the somewhat absurd codename ‘BIN’. It was first exposed by the Soviet press in 1968, when Izvestia published M.I.6 documents that listed several of its members and their accompanying code numbers, but the story quickly blew over in Britain after a flurry of scornful denials.

BIN was informally known as ‘the London Station’, and had its headquarters at Londonderry House in Victoria. At one time employing 20 officers, it was part of a larger department within M.I.6 with the title ‘Controller of Production Research’, which arranged all operations against the Soviet Union that used resources within Britain. BIN was initially overseen by Frederick ‘Fanny’ Vanden Heuvel, the dandyish son of a papal count and a friend of Fleming. Vanden Heuvel’s code number was Z-1, an indication that the department had its roots in the Z Organisation, a network of British businessmen who gathered intelligence in parallel to M.I.6 before and during the Second World War, and in which Vanden Heuvel had been a leading figure.

In line with the Z Organisation’s old role, BIN ran the ‘frequent travellers’: Brits who regularly went behind the Iron Curtain for business purposes and agreed to report what they had seen when they returned home. One of these was Greville Wynne, who would become Oleg Penkovsky’s link-man with M.I.6 in Moscow. BIN also targeted foreign diplomats and businessmen working in Britain for recruitment, and carried out the monitoring of embassies’ communications.

Finally, it developed and controlled a network within Britain’s newspaper industry. The press section had three main roles: to arrange journalistic cover for M.I.6 officers travelling behind the Iron Curtain and elsewhere; to persuade bona fide journalists to gather intelligence for them on the side; and to encourage journalists to produce articles that had a propaganda benefit for Britain.

The concept of journalists working hand in glove with intelligence agencies is a familiar one in popular consciousness, but hard evidence of it taking place in Britain was scant during the Cold War, and even now this is a relatively neglected area of research among historians of the era considering the central role journalists played in shaping perceptions through those decades. The gap is for several reasons, one of them being that the Cold War is not long dead, and has arguably been reanimated. Journalists’ involvement in espionage raises several thorny ethical dilemmas—they are supposed to be free thinkers who speak truth to power, after all, rather than deceivers in service of the secret state—but even those who weren’t engaged in the practice and disapproved had editors or proprietors who were, and who considered this their patriotic duty. Exposure of M.I.6’s work with journalists would have been breaking the Official Secrets Act, as well as risked betraying colleagues and creating a working assumption overseas that all British correspondents were spies, which might have endangered lives.

Many British journalists and former journalists wrote spy fiction during the Cold War, so one might expect the idea to have featured heavily there, especially as the genre provides ample opportunity to reveal secrets between the lines. But while characters working as correspondents for TASS or Pravda are routinely undercover KGB operatives—with the unwritten implication that this was the case in real life (as it often was)—British spy fiction of the era features very few Western intelligence operatives working under journalistic cover. Even in thrillers this topic was, if not taboo, rarely under the spotlight.

However, as the Cold War waned mentions of this activity became more common, first in vague terms, eventually in detailed accounts. There is now enough information in the public domain to piece together how this was carried out.

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One of the most significant figures recruited by M.I.6’s BIN network was Ian Fleming. Like many others, he had been involved with intelligence during the Second World War: he had been the personal assistant of Admiral John Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence (D.N.I.). Years later, Fleming would take inspiration from Godfrey when creating James Bond’s boss M, and as a result many have likened Fleming’s wartime activities under Godfrey to those of Bond under M. However, Fleming’s role at Naval Intelligence was much more akin to that of the character Bill Tanner, M’s trusty chief of staff: he drafted memos on Godfrey’s behalf, navigated Whitehall’s politics, and helped arrange and oversee operations. Fleming was a desk man, expressly forbidden from taking part in the field on the grounds that, were he to be captured by the Germans, he knew far too much.

Throughout the war, Fleming was in contact with other branches of British intelligence, including the Special Operations Executive, Bletchley Park, M.I.5 and M.I.6. He also worked with the Political Warfare Executive, a group responsible for creating and disseminating propaganda. Fleming was fluent in German, and was used in P.W.E. broadcasts ‘telling the Germans that all their U-boats leak’.

At the end of the war M.I.6 were interested in taking on people who already knew the espionage ropes, who had proven themselves discreet, efficient and trustworthy, and whose skills would be useful in the coming Cold War. Fleming fitted the bill. Before the war, he had been a reporter for Reuters, most notably covering the Metropolitan-Vickers Trial in Moscow, and also briefly in the same city as a ‘special correspondent’ for The Times in 1939—the latter occasion had opened connections to the espionage world that had led to his job in Naval Intelligence. Now he was to combine journalism with work for M.I.6, as in the war not as a field operative but as a desk man. In late 1945, he accepted a job at the Kemsley newspaper group, the offer having likely been facilitated through his friendship with Fanny Vanden Heuvel.

The Kemsley group included the Sunday Times, putting Fleming right at the heart of Fleet Street. Fleming wrote articles for the Sunday Times, chiefly colour pieces as he had a gift for projecting a simultaneously worldly-wise and boyishly enthusiastic view of subjects that took his fancy. From November 1953, he also compiled the paper’s gossip and miscellany column ‘Atticus’, and reviewed books. However, his main job was as ‘foreign manager’ for the whole Kemsley group, which provided copy for over 20 British national and provincial newspapers and around 600 papers overseas. Fleming managed 88 foreign correspondents, many of whom had also worked for British intelligence in the Second World War—several of whom now continued to do so in peacetime.

The group was officially called the Kemsley Imperial and Foreign Service, but was generally known as ‘Mercury’, its cable address. While M.I.6 had similar arrangements at other newspapers, Mercury was the jewel in its Fleet Street crown, and one mark of its success is how little an operation taking place at one of Britain’s best-known newspapers is known about even today.

Once Fleming had become famous, he often discussed his intelligence work during the Second World War in interviews, but he never publicly mentioned his subsequent work for M.I.6, for the obvious reason that it was ongoing and he would have been blowing his own cover. However, in his 1995 biography of the writer, Andrew Lycett quoted a private letter in which Fleming made his M.I.6 role explicit. As a member of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, Fleming was obliged to spend two weeks a year on a training course, but in 1951 he argued that he should be exempted from this on account of the clandestine aspect of his day job:

‘As foreign manager of the Sunday Times and Kemsley Newspapers, I am engaged throughout the year in running a world-wide intelligence organization, and there could be no better training for the duties I would have to carry out for the D.N.I. in the event of war. As you know, I also carry out a number of tasks on behalf of a department of the Foreign Office and this department would, I believe, be happy to give details of these activities to the D.N.I.’

‘A department of the Foreign Office’ was an unsubtle way of referring to M.I.6 in an attempt to trump the request. The ploy didn’t work and Fleming resigned his R.N.V.R. commission as a result, but it gives us clear evidence in his own hand that he was working for M.I.6 while at Kemsley—and that he was well aware he was fulfilling that role.

The phrase ‘world-wide intelligence organization’ is also telling: Fleming might have been exaggerating Mercury’s importance to get out of a training course, but one senses he was also hinting at his real pride in the network he now controlled, and the power he held through it. A 2012 article in the Sunday Times put this in striking terms:

‘On his office wall at Gray’s Inn Road was a canary-yellow map depicting the Mercury News Service—the huge nexus he set up to service the whole Kemsley group of newspapers. This was the nerve centre of Fleming operations—an ambitious, grandiose plan for world domination that would have done Ernst Stavro Blofeld himself proud.’

Fleming might well have viewed his role with M.I.6 along such lines, but other than the letter unearthed by Andrew Lycett he appears to have kept such thoughts to himself: there are no hints of it in his interviews, articles or novels. He was an important cog in the agency’s machine, but he appears to have carried out his role discreetly. A gentle nudge would have been easily understood in a network largely consisting of old hands in the intelligence game, and activities like this were arranged over liquid lunches at the club or between the lines of letters rather than in ciphers retrieved from dead drops.

An example of the routine, almost casual way in which journalists acted for British intelligence in this way can be seen in the diaries of Malcolm Muggeridge. He had worked for M.I.6 during the war, but by 1950 was an editor at The Daily Telegraph, where he performed the same role for the agency as Fleming at The Sunday Times. In January 1950, he recorded a visit to a very ill George Orwell, before adding:

‘Visited in the evening by M.I.6 character who wants cover to go to Indo-China.’

And it was as simple as that.

For Fleming, involvement with M.I.6 was mutually beneficial. Thanks to his pulling strings in the background, several M.I.6 operatives received the excellent cover of working for one of Britain’s best-known newspapers while they were carrying out secret assignments around the world. But Fleming also used the role for his own purposes, incorporating intelligence he learned or sought out from these operatives into his novels. In turn, more by accident than design, his books would come to serve as propaganda for M.I.6 in particular, and for Britain in general.

MERCURY MAP.jpg

Agent of Influence is out now: information on where to buy it is here


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