Book Review: Spycatcher – By Peter Wright


From the inside front and back flaps of the book.

“Mr. Wright’s testimony can only be described as convincing. His first-hand description of illegality and incompetence within the Security Service is deeply shocking.” – From The Independent, a British newspaper, after having read a stolen copy of the manuscript of this book.

“Peter Wright was a key figure in British intelligence for nearly a quarter of a century. This book, which the British government has gone to great lengths to keep from being published, is a memoir that recounts his extraordinary career in that wilderness of mirrors, the world of espionage. It is uncensored, remarkably candid, and enormously revealing about the real spy business that most of us know principally from fiction.

Peter Wright initially joined Britain’s Secret Service, known as MI5, in 1955 in the capacity of the organization’s principal scientist, and devoted himself in the early years to the invention of various gadgets for use in the espionage trade. Along the way, he demonstrated a flair for the art of counter-intelligence. He went on to become, for nearly two decades, the central figure in Britain’s relentless and sometimes humiliating efforts to detect and expose Soviet espionage. From that vantage point, the reader is treated to a unique perspective on the likes of Philby, Maclean, Burgess, Blunt, and a host of other exposed spies and alleged defectors.

The identity of the so-called Fifth Man Soviet spy has puzzled and fascinated many for decades. In Spycatcher, Peter Wright shares his conviction that the Fifth Man was none other than Sir Roger Hollis, long the head of MI5 itself! The story of how he and many of his MI5 colleagues came to this conclusion makes for some of the best reading found anywhere in this vast literature on espionage.

As a result of a great many trips Peter Wright made to the United States in his capacity as Britain’s principal liaison with American intelligence officials, his book is replete with sharply etched and sometimes humorous anecdotes about such notables as J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Helms, Billi Sullivan, William Harvey, and, above all, James Jesus Angleton. Wright’s insights about the CIA and the FBI, their relationships with each other, with the rest of the US government, and with America’s allies is riveting stuff.

American interest ought to be especially aroused by Peter Wright’s charge that there was a conspiracy within MI5 to overthrow the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the mid-1970s, and that it was instigated from within the CIA.

Wright’s memoir is also of interest because it is a first-hand account of the bugging of embassies (of friend and foe alike), as well as other aspects of electronic eavesdropping, codebreaking, and “wet” affairs (assassinations). But the most important aspect of this book is that it offers a rare inside glimpse of the real day-by-day going-on within the intelligence world over a long period of time from a very high level, authoritative voice.”

Why did I choose to read this book?

Firstly, I have a great uncle who goes by the same name and whom I know little about, since he upped sticks and moved Down Under a long time ago. Stupidly I thought it must have been written by him. Mind you, from the first glance, they look remarkably similar, it’s just this one is a lot older than my great uncle.

Secondly, I was writing a space spy type of story for my portfolio at university in my third year. This was one of my starting points in my research in which reading ALWAYS plays a vital part.

What do I think about this book?

Bearing in mind there is very little information about these security government organizations because of the potential risk to our national security, and the very nature of discretion, I have not much to go on and the book cover’s flaps do the book justice.

From a book structure point of view, the book is written in a free-flowing thought process which sometimes fails to make the information written make any logical sense. I imagine this is has been written from the paranoid perspective of someone who has been searching for a leak, has never found it and still haunts him even in retirement. He makes various good points and elaborates on them, just at different points in the book when they should have been put together. I’m not keen on ruining the read for you, as it would be better if you bought a copy and discovered it yourself.

What I find admirable about Wright is his determination to try and make technological updates within the organization, it’s a problem that most organizations find difficult even today. They get comfortable with what they find is normal and refuse to accept change. Even though Wright is no longer around, most of the advice he writes in his book could be applied to any organization, but can be implemented at a faster rate than it was when he  was at MI5.


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