Written by Andrew Williams

On a bookshop shelf the title might suggest a novel of the seventeenth century, when men in Puritan black burned women in the name of God. But Witchfinder is a story of a hunt for Soviet spies and former communists in the British establishment in the 1960’s. No one died at a stake, but lives were lost, careers ruined and democracy undermined, and the judgement of the spy catchers responsible for the investigation was clouded by the same sort of prejudice and paranoia, rude passion and ambition that drove the witch burners three and fifty hundred years ago.

The spy catchers’ hunt for the enemy within was sparked by two defections, one to the Soviets, the other to the West. In January 1963 Britain’s ‘greatest traitor’ escaped to Moscow. Kim Philby had been forced out of MI6 more than ten years before and named in Parliament and the papers as a suspected double agent, and yet he had remained at liberty. Was he protected by another double agent at the top of British intelligence? MI5 spy catcher, Peter Wright believed so and his chief suspect was no less a figure than his own Director General.

The popular image of the spy catcher is of an elderly, tubby gentleman called George Smiley, patient, dispassionate, with the ‘cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin’. Peter Wright was a very different character. He was a man of strong prejudice, contemptuous of many of the people he investigated and resentful of his superiors. Was the master spy at the top of the British intelligence services the Director General of MI5? ‘I knew my choice would be based on prejudice’, he confessed in his memoirs.

But Wright could count on support from a powerful ally. CIA counter-intelligence chief, James Angleton had begun his own trawl for double agents in the Unites States. A master spy at the top of British intelligence was entirely consistent with his grand theory that the West was losing the Cold War because it was being subverted by large networks of Soviet spies on both sides of the Atlantic.

Defectors, a former Chief of MI6 observed, are like grapes - the first pressing is always the best. After weeks of debriefing a defector has no more information to offer and is put out to grass.  The months of danger and excitement, of being feted by your new country, senior intelligence officers hanging on your every word, the money, the medals, all the accolades are over. Once squeezed a defector is nothing. Golitsyn understood that very well, and to protect his position he made sure the river of ‘intelligence’ never ran dry.

It started to flow in 1961 when he offered himself to the CIA and was interrogated by Angleton for the first time. He confirmed the existence of a ‘Ring of Five’ spies recruited in Britain in the 1930’s and that one of its members was Kim Philby: First pressing very fruitful. Angleton declared him to be the most valuable defector to reach the West and rewarded him well for his contribution. But how could Golitsyn keep it up?

The answer was to invent a grand conspiracy. Golitsyn sought with ‘messianic zeal’ to persuade the Americans and the British that – in the words of MI5’s official historian - ‘they were falling victim to a vast KGB deception from which only he could save them’. The West was losing the Cold War because the Soviets had agents inside governments, intelligence agencies, the military – everywhere. The tentacles of the Soviet Octopus were reaching across the globe.

Golitsyn knew his story chimed with Jim Angleton’s own assessment of the Russian espionage threat to the United States. He was simply telling the American witchfinder what he wanted to hear. ‘Both the CIA and FBI are doomed without my help’, he declared. Did he believe it? He may have done. One British intelligence officer who knew him described him as a ‘pyschopath’ who believed he was God’s gift to the Western world.

And Golitsyn was permitted access to the MI5 files of those who might fit the profile of a KGB mole. Peter Wright recalled in his autobiography Spycatcher that Golitsyn ‘pointed his finger like the witchfinder at two files’ and intoned darkly, ‘Your spies are here. My methodology has uncovered them’. During the ‘almost hysterical months of 1963’ Angleton’s pet defector encouraged Wright and the other spy catchers at MI5 to believe that ‘treachery lingered in every corridor’. Golitsyn persuaded his paymasters that he was the only man who understood the KGB well enough to locate them, and his chief supporters, Angleton and Wright, made excuses for his mistakes because he served their purpose. When asked in 1965 why it had taken Golitsyn three years to come forward with a piece of intelligence, Angleton explained that he ‘was afraid of being laughed at’. For reasons that are still not clear that seems to have been accepted as an adequate explanation: he was still helping MI5 with its investigations five years later. 

For almost a decade the British intelligence services were compromised by a deeply damaging and ultimately futile hunt for the Soviet enemy, not just within Sep its own ranks but in government, parliament, the Civil Service, the military and academia too. Hundreds of persons ‘of interest’ were investigated including the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. Golitsyn was instrumental in turning the hunt for a mole in MI5 into a witch hunt for former communists and their ‘fellow travellers’.  The authorised history of MI5 describes the investigation as ‘the most traumatic episode’ in the Cold War history of the British intelligence service. That is the story I endeavour to tell in Witchfinder.

A brilliant novel of espionage and betrayal from 'one of Britain's most accomplished thriller writers' (Daily Mail)
If a good spy novel needs anything, it's uncertainty, a hall of mirrors; and Witchfinder delivers it in spadesGreat stuff. (Dominick Donald, author of Breathe)

[...] the most authentic spy novel ever written [...] an utterly fascinating account of a very dangerous time in British history when elements of the Secret State were out of control. (Edward Wilson)

Hodder & Stoughton (Ebook 19 Sept. 2019
Hbk 19 Oct. 2017)

Andrew Williams

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