Making of a mystery man

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 May, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 May, 1995, 12:00am

THIS biography, sub-titled 'Sir Dick White and the Secret War 1935-90', deals with the man who, extraordinarily, was head of Britain's Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in succession. He was thus intimately involved with such figures as Burgess and Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Blake.

There is no irony or sarcasm intended in the author's description of Sir Dick White as the perfect English spy: he obviously sees him as such. I doubt whether many readers will.

Sir Dick was obviously honest, diplomatic, ingratiating, a good committee man and lived in difficult times (he died in 1993). But the image that projects from these pages is of a man who was blinkered, inept, ill-informed and had a quite amazing capacity for getting things wrong.

He was a schoolteacher when he was first recruited into MI5 before World War II. This was a time when it was staffed by just a handful of officers, so he was well-placed for promotion during the inevitable vast expansion of the wartime years.

By the time he became Director-General in 1952, Burgess and Maclean had already defected to the Soviet Union and blunder after British blunder was being uncovered. Relations with the Americans were fraught as United States officials were apoplectic over British security lapses which apart from anything else had given Moscow the secrets of the atomic bomb.

It was White's biggest achievement over the succeeding years to mend fences with the US.

Only four years after taking control of MI5, White was asked to switch to MI6 to concentrate on external espionage rather than internal security.

Here again, it was as matter of trying to put order into a shambles. Included among his troubling inheritances were the rackets carried out worldwide where cash was paid to 'informants' who evaporated when their reports were checked. The worst offenders, according to this book, were in the Far East.

'The outstanding failure, White recognised, was in Hong Kong. John Collins, as SIS station chief having spent vast sums, claimed to have developed a registry of personality profiles from a network of informers and penetration agents.

'But, consistently, Collins had failed to produce worthwhile intelligence.

'His penetration of communist China was wholly unsuccessful, no important source was ever recruited in Peking [Beijing]; and all SIS' agents inserted into the country either disappeared or returned unsuccessful.' Forty-seven agents recruited in Hong Kong were subsequently sacked.

It could be argued that it was White's misfortune to have been in the hot seat, whether at MI5 or MI6, at a time when old scandals emerged into the light, although his handling of Philby and Blunt, for example, seems inept. But that, of course, is with hindsight.

The career of Sir Dick White makes, a good framework on which to hang the many anecdotes of British intelligence services, and this the book achieves competently enough. What it does not do at any point is give any feeling of the personality of the man.

He remains as much in the twilight now as when he was operational.

The Perfect English Spy by Tom Bower