What to make of George Blake, associated with the Cambridge Five, who died this week in Russia at the ripe old age of 98?
Trying to understand the psychology of a mole is tougher than it first appears. The acronym MICE is bandied about in intelligence community circles because it seems to cover all the bases of why trusted people turn coat: Money, Ideology, Compromise, Ego.
From my experience with year-long interviews of three caught spies, including the notorious Robert Hanssen, and lately with a fourth spy I cannot yet name, I believe the acronym MICE does not suffice.
Human beings are far more complex than the limits of the acronym. There are deeper layers that, in fact, may be far more important. Those may not be fully clear even to the spies themselves: They are subconscious.
To simplify things for themselves, disaffected spies try to apply a veneer to their motivations that seems internally plausible. They will seize upon rationalizations that elevate their motivations to appear to serve higher purposes, which is when ideology comes into play. Ideology provides a seemingly coherent higher purpose to their life choices, a morally glorious dimension to their decisions to cross the line.
Blake once said he was greatly influenced as a young man by an Egyptian cousin who was an ardent communist. He didn’t bite at the time, he said, “but later on, in life, things changed. Many of his views acted as a time bomb, and the results under the effect of events shaped my further views.” The hinge event came in 1950, when, as an MI6 officer posted to Seoul, he was captured by invading North Korean forces.
The Long Goodbye
Blake recalled in later books and articles that had already developed an affection for Soviet communism while studying Russian at Cambridge a few years earlier. In captivity, he read Das Kapital to a fellow British prisoner who had lost his glasses and grew despondent at the war carnage around him, especially the U.S. carpet-bombing of Korean villages.
“It made me feel ashamed of belonging to these overpowering technical superior countries fighting against what seemed to me quite defenseless people,” Blake said in a 1999 PBS broadcast. “I felt I was committed on the wrong side. And that’s what made me decide to change sides. I felt that it would be better for humanity if the communist system prevailed, that it would put an end to war, to wars.”
He was no doubt encouraged in these views by his KGB interrogator.
Spiritual disaffection is a common thread among the spies I’ve personally debriefed, and consistent with most of the others, some 150 or so, since the end of World War II. Life threw them negative experiences that made them feel like failures—not competent to navigate their lives up to a level they found satisfactory. Their inner self-disappointment and self-reproach ate at them. For many, that resulted in depression, turning to alcohol, affairs, even suicide. A small number, if situated within the intelligence community, will choose the path of betrayal. It’s driven by their anger at themselves turned outward, at nearby handy targets, taking revenge against their work setting or work mates.
Another important and linked dynamic could be described in a single word: identity. Identity encompasses key ideas, such as “Who am I?” “Where do I fit in this world?” “Am I any good?” “What gives meaning to my existence?” And so forth.
I have learned that many of those who chose to cross the line did not have life experiences that gave them a firm sense of their identity. They did not feel solid within. They felt unmoored, disconnected, unappreciated, always on the outs. While they may have preserved an ability to pass as congenial or pleasant to others, within themselves they did not feel confident; it’s more like they were acting.
And so it was with George Blake. The son of a Turkish Sephardic Jew and a Dutch Protestant mother, the young man never felt at home in Britain, where his mother took him after his father died and she fled to England to escape the Nazis, changing their names to Blake.
“George appeared to suffer from his early days, not so much from divided loyalties, but from uncertainty about his roots,” the Guardian’s veteran defense and security writer Richard Norton-Taylor wrote. “He said later he had an ‘identity crisis.’ He never had roots in Britain.”
“To betray, you first have to belong,” he said many years later. “I never belonged.”
George Blake lived an amazing life filled with dramatic incidents going back to his childhood. He spied on the Nazis during their occupation of Holland. He was captured but escaped time and again. He was thrown into one after the other of stressful, traumatic and shocking events during and after World War Two, including his betrayal of the infamous CIA-MI6 tunnel under Berlin to intercept Soviet-East German communications. And somehow, he survived.
How could he have extracted meaning from all of these extreme experiences? I think his ability to make everything all add up and make sense proved to be too much for him. He needed something to believe in that would provide an anchoring attachment to channel his sense of self to something that claimed an overarching meaningfulness.
Communism was the answer for him, as it was for five other MI6 men who fell in love with Soviet Russia during the Great Depression and the rise of the Nazis and worked as double agents. Communism had the power to fix humankind and the world. Blake made it his elevated, conceptual soul-saving attachment, but it required him to not notice its contradictions and lies.
Blake was eventually betrayed by one of his own kind: a Polish defector who fled West and spilled the beans.
A huge embarrassment to the intelligence establishment, Blake was tried in secret and given an extraordinary, 42-year prison sentence. (Klaus Fuchs, the British physicist who betrayed nuclear bomb secrets to the Soviets, got only 14!) A model, kind prisoner, he was eventually sprung in an escape caper by two antiwar inmates and a jailbird who helped him get over the wall and into the hands of Soviet agents, who spirited him out of the country.
From his vantage point in Russia, his final escape destination, Blake had a ringside seat to witness how communism evolved over the years, with its many failures, assaults on human freedoms, and other indications of dysfunction. How did he manage to explain all this to himself in the latter years of his life?
I’m sure he was a bundle of cognitive and moral dissonance.
On the one hand, he probably clung to his position of being a “true believer.” On the other hand, I imagine he also felt like a naîve fool for trusting so much in what eventually proved to be sunlit childish dreams.
Or maybe George Blake attained some of the wisdom that comes with age. Perhaps, as he replayed the tapes of his life, he allowed himself to be more forgiving of himself. Perhaps, he allowed himself to be yet one more complex, confused and conflicted human being—just trying to survive—just like everyone else.
He wearied of questions from Western reporters about his motivations.
“it is no longer of particular importance to me,” he told BBC Security Correspondent Gordon Corea, author of several books on British intelligence and the Cold War, “whether my motivations are generally understood or not.”
And now he’s gone. But not quite an enigma after all.
George Blake, last in line of Cold War spies who betrayed Britain, dies at 98 (Reuters)
George Blake, who died in Russia on Saturday at the age of 98, was the last in a line of British spies whose secret work for the Soviet Union humiliated the intelligence establishment when it was discovered at the height of the Cold War.
Britain says he exposed the identities of hundreds of Western agents across Eastern Europe in the 1950s, some of whom were executed as a result of his treason.
His case was among the most notorious of the Cold War, alongside those of a separate ring of British double agents known as the Cambridge Five.
Unmasked as a Soviet spy in 1961, Blake was sentenced to 42 years in London’s Wormwood Scrubs prison. In a classic cloak-and-dagger story, he escaped in 1966 with the help of other inmates and two peace activists, and was smuggled out of Britain in a camper van. He made it through Western Europe undiscovered and crossed the Iron Curtain into East Berlin.
He spent the rest of his life in the Soviet Union and then Russia, where he was feted as a hero. . . . (read the rest)
One day in 2010, I travelled to Wokingham in Berkshire to visit a retired lathe operator called Alexander Koppel.
He lived in a small, neat bungalow and was in every way an unobtrusive man but over the next few hours he told me an astonishing story of betrayal, resistance and patriotism.
For while living as a refugee in post-war Britain he had been recruited by MI6 and sent on a mission to Soviet-occupied Estonia.
But Operation Jungle, which was aimed at boosting the anti-Communist resistance, was doomed to failure from the start.
Koppel and his fellow agents were betrayed before they set off across the Baltic in a blacked-out speedboat.
They were captured by the enemy and those that weren’t shot were taken to the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the KGB in Moscow and home to an infamous jail where spies, political dissidents and various enemies of the state were imprisoned, interrogated, and tortured. . . . (read the rest)
George Blake obituary (Guardian)
. . . . Blake was convicted of spying in 1961 after a trial conducted mainly behind closed doors. In defiance of convention, Lord Parker, the lord chief justice, handed down maximum consecutive, rather than concurrent, sentences, sending Blake down for 42 years. An astonishing exchange that only came to light only in 2016 may help to explain the severity of the sentence. Parker phoned Harold Macmillan, the prime minister, to consult him before passing sentence. Yet even Macmillan expressed surprise, noting in his diary the next day: “The LCJ has passed a savage sentence – 42 years!”
Parker’s phone call to Macmillan emerged after the publication of the paperback edition of Thomas Grant’s biography of Jeremy Hutchinson, the barrister who defended Blake. Grant described Parker’s approach as a miscarriage of justice. More pragmatically, at the time many in MI6 were unhappy with the severity of the sentence, believing it would discourage any future spies from confessing. . . . . (read the rest)
George Blake exemplified the desolation, waste and treachery of the cold war (by author Stephen Dorril/Guardian)
The death of the former senior MI6 officer George Blake brings to a close a cold war chapter of betrayal and treachery inside the intelligence service. The life, career and activities of his fellow officer and traitor Kim Philby are well known and endlessly pored over. In recent years, Blake’s treason has been subject to the same process but in less detail, partly because his status is perhaps less exalted than Philby’s.
Why is that?
Philby was part of the new generation of MI6 officers who entered the service after private school and university, often Cambridge. Easing out the old guard of anti-Bolsheviks with armed service backgrounds, this educated elite would by the mid 1950s dominate MI6 and its senior posts, as they did the postwar Foreign Service.
Blake was never part of this class-ridden inner circle. Philby was at the centre of it, which is why his betrayal of close friends, who had stuck by him, refusing to accept accusations that he was “the Third Man”, was such a deep and paralysing wound.
Nicholas Elliott, who would bungle the interrogation of his friend Philby and, in effect, allow him to escape to Moscow, was less surprised by Blake’s treachery. Blake – born in Rotterdam to a Dutch mother and an Egyptian Jewish father – was never considered one of them. Some senior officers would say he had a chip on his shoulder. . . . (read the rest)