Everyone's got it wrong: Mrs Norwood is not a traitor, but a national hero

THERE IS a scene in one of John Le Carre's spy novels when Connie Sachs, who works in archives in Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), captures the approaching twilight of Empire better than many an academic history.

"Poor loves," Connie says of the post-war generation of British intelligence officers. "Trained to Empire. Trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away." Connie, if she were with us, would be shaking her head in bewilderment this week at the media frenzy after the publication of Professor Christopher Andrew's book, The Mitrokhin Archive, and the outing of some elderly British traitors."Poor loves," she would say. "Made to shoulder the guilt for our decline. Had to be someone's fault. Blame it on them. Makes everyone else feel better. And the newspapers love it." Perhaps, Connie, perhaps.

But don't forget that the fuss about Melita Norwood, the 87-year-old great-grandmother, was set in motion by SIS itself. A Russian defector, Vasili Mitrokhin, smuggled out from the KGB archives thousands of notes he had made from secret files during his working life. He sat on them after his retirement in 1985, waiting to see what was going to happen to the Soviet Union. When it collapsed, he turned up at the British Embassy in Riga with samples, and defected. SIS sent into Russia one of its officers who, risking his life because he did not have diplomatic cover, went to Mitrokhin's dacha and brought his material to the British embassy and then to London. All this was a great coup for SIS.

It could have told a real James Bond story to boost its flagging public image. But SIS was remarkably shy about publicising this part of the operation. In the spy world facts are hard to come by, but the rumour explaining this shyness has it that the officer who brought out Mitrokhin's material was Richard Tomlinson, now notorious as an SIS dissident, who broke the Official Secrets Act, was prosecuted, served a prison term, and is now being hounded around the world by SIS as he tries to tell his story.

So, instead, SIS turned to Professor Andrew, an academic who has written - usually in glowing terms - about SIS. It made Mitrokhin and his archive available to Andrew to turn into a book.

Originally Mrs Norwood played a minor role in the story because, although identified, she had not been prosecuted. If she was so important, the reader might well ask, why had the Government not charged her with espionage? The SIS operation to burnish its image now took a wrong turn. The media loved the "granny spy" story and turned on SIS and the Security Service MI5 for not having caught her earlier. When ministers and ex-ministers tripped over each other in their anxiety to shout, "Nobody told me about her", questions were raised about the accountability of both services. They could have told the truth and replied, "Well, we didn't tell you about her because she wasn't important enough", but that would have detracted from the whole story. Instead there was a concerted effort to suggest that she was very important indeed. On the BBC, the former Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, said that Mrs Norwood's espionage had put Britain "in great peril".

To decide whether this was true we need to flash back to Los Alamos, one day in December 1943. The Danish physicist Niels Bohr has just arrived in the US to join other physicists working on the first atom bomb. Bohr, greeted by J Robert Oppenheimer, immediately blurts out, "Is it big enough?" - big enough to make nuclear war impossible? It turns out that it was. No country has dropped an atomic bomb on another since 1945 - but only because both superpowers soon had a bomb and the doctrine of MAD (mutually assured destruction) meant that as long as neither leader went crazy and pressed the button, the world could sleep safely each night.

Did Mrs Norwood make this possible? Of course not. The most serious accusation against her is that she enabled the Soviet Union to develop the bomb earlier than the West expected. But the Russians would have got the bomb on their own anyway. They did not lag behind in nuclear research before the war and had it not been for the German invasion they might well have achieved a chain reaction before the Americans did in December 1942. As for betraying atomic secrets to them, the chances of keeping secret the most important single piece of information about the bomb - that it worked - were absolutely nil after Hiroshima. The American government itself thus gave the Soviet Union more than all the atomic spies put together.

The Americans followed up this unavoidable gift with a gratuitous one. In August 1945, they released the Smythe Report on Atomic Energy for Military Purposes. The Soviet Union bought a copy, rushed through a translation and distributed 30,000 copies to Soviet industry within six months. This does not excuse the activities of the atom spies - the scientists Fuchs, Nunn May, Pontecorvo, Theodore Hall, and the couriers and non-scientific spies, Maclean, the Rosenbergs, the Krogers, Ursula Buerton, and now Melita Norwood. But we should ask: Why were there so many of them? The scientists believed that developments in nuclear physics were so important to the future of the world that they should not be the monopoly of one nation, but should be shared by all.

By 1954, even Churchill had come to recognise this. According to a Cabinet paper, he said that the tragedy was that the West did not tell the Soviet Union everything it knew about the atomic bomb when the United States still had the monopoly.

Mrs Norwood has said that she felt that the USSR was slipping behind, and that this was dangerous for peace. As Stalin put it, when the Americans used the bomb on Hiroshima, "the equilibrium has been destroyed". Once the equilibrium was restored, it was a nuclear stand-off, reasonably predictable most of the time, but given to the occasional dangerous hiccup, such as the Cuban missile crisis when, in October 1962, President John F Kennedy and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev took the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust.

Writing about it on the 30th anniversary, Robert McNamara, US Defence Secretary at the time, explained what went wrong in chilling detail: "American warheads at that time did not contain the electronic device which prevents a local commander from launching his missiles without an OK from the President himself. Nowadays `Football' provides electronic safety codes."

That was not so in 1962, in either American or Soviet warheads.

"Kennedy recognised that in the face of a conventional Soviet attack on Western Europe, although local commanders did not have the authority to use their nuclear weapons, none the less rather than be overrun by the Red Army, a local US commander might initiate the use of nuclear warheads," he said.

In short, a nuclear exchange that would have ended our world could have been started by an American army captain in Germany or a Red Army sergeant in Cuba. It was an acceptance of this likelihood that helped to push Kennedy and Khrushchev into an agreement. Once this was sorted out with an electronic key that prevented anyone except the national leader from initiating a nuclear war, the balance of atomic power has maintained peace.

We are still in the dark about whether Mrs Norwood really made a contribution to establishing this balance of power. If she did, you could argue that she deserves a medal - and not just a Soviet one.

`New Statesman'