How the UK feared KGB would use double agent to attack Harold Wilson

Officials feared the KGB intended to use the notorious double agent Kim Philby to spearhead a propaganda campaign against Harold Wilson's Labour government, according to newly released documents.

Harold "Kim" Philby, one of the Cambridge Ring of Soviet Spies. Officials feared the KGB intended to use the notorious double agent Philby to spearhead a propaganda campaign against Harold Wilson's Labour government, according newly released documents. Picture: PA/PA Wire
Harold "Kim" Philby, one of the Cambridge Ring of Soviet Spies. Officials feared the KGB intended to use the notorious double agent Philby to spearhead a propaganda campaign against Harold Wilson's Labour government, according newly released documents. Picture: PA/PA Wire

Papers released by the National Archives show the news that Philby was planning to publish his memoirs from exile in Moscow sent shock waves through Whitehall.

The head of the Diplomatic Service, Sir Denis Greenhill, warned the Russians were trying to exploit the radical mood of the late 1960s to mount a "decomposition campaign" against the government.

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As the Foreign Office accused the KGB of trying to "incite" young people in Britain to join the communist cause, Sir Denis told Mr Wilson the threat must be "taken seriously and answered effectively".

Philby, who was recruited by the Russians in the 1930s after graduating from Cambridge, had managed to join MI6 during the Second World War, rising to become one of its most senior officers while passing on its secrets to Moscow.

However he came under suspicion after his fellow Soviet spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean fled to Moscow in 1951, and in 1963 he also quietly defected to Russia.

Four years on and it came as an unwelcome surprise to officials that Philby had attempted to contact The Sunday Times - the paper which broke the news of his treachery - with a view to serialising a memoir he had written for publication in the West.

Over a boozy "dinner" in a Moscow hotel - consisting of "a bottle of vodka and two glasses" - he told the journalist Murray Sayle he had written a 55,000-word manuscript on "Anglo Soviet relations and his own career up to 1955".

Sir Denis, who was told of the encounter by the paper's editor Harold Evans, said Philby had boasted that it contained "horrifying" details of his work alongside the FBI in Washington including "names, dates, meetings etc".

"Philby told Mr Sayle that he was a member of the KGB and his purpose in life was to destroy imperialism," Sir Denis reported.

"Philby spoke confidently of his return to the UK 'after the revolution.'"

Sir Denis urged Mr Evans to have nothing to do with the memoir, saying he "deplored" the idea of doing business with a traitor "who operated under the direct control of the KGB".

However in November 1967, the Daily Express - which was deeply hostile to Labour - published comments by Philby in which he was scathing about British intelligence while comparing economic conditions in the UK to the 1930s.

The Information Research Department - the anti-propaganda arm of the Foreign Office - said it bore all the hallmarks of a "planned KGB propaganda exercise".

"The story is a frontal attack on HMG. Hence the choice of the Express which can be relied on to carry in full any damaging story," it warned.

"His remark 'I would still do it again if I were young again in Britain today. And I am sure there are (others) such (as) me' is an incitement to work for the Communist cause.

"It may also be designed to raise the question of whether there are any more Philbys, and to damage public confidence in our intelligence and security services."

In a memorandum to Mr Wilson, Sir Denis said that while he broadly agreed with the analysis, it did not bring out just "how serious a matter is really afoot".

"I believe the Russians are about to launch on a 'decomposition' campaign against the Government. In this they will attempt to draw a parallel between the situation now and the situation in the 30s," he wrote.

"This is in toto a campaign against against the Government in support of the Communist Party here which seems to me must be taken seriously and answered effectively."

Meanwhile, interest in the spy was growing across the media with David Frost reportedly angling for an interview for the newly-formed London Weekend Television, while a former CIA officer was said to be planning to make a film of his life starring Trevor Howard.

As a literary agent was employed to "hawk" Philby's book around Fleet Street, the secretary of the "D Notice" committee - which advised the press on sensitive security matters - Admiral Sir Norman Denning sought to warn off editors.

But after Paris Match acquired the worldwide serialisation rights, the editor of the Sunday Express John Junor informed him that his paper had bought the UK rights from the magazine.

Mr Junor argued it was not a breach of the D Notice advice as he would not handing money to a traitor - the payment was to Paris Match - and it was "merely reproducing in the British press material published abroad".

Sir Denis noted tartly that he was "keeping just inside 'the law' as far as D Notices are concerned".

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