Sensational! Kim Philby, the man variously described as the spy who betrayed a generation ... the worst traitor in British history ... the man who nearly wrecked the CIA ... to come back to Britain to see out his old age? Did we really want this former Secret Intelligence Service officer, who defected in 1963 after secretly working for Moscow for 30 years, to exchange his KGB pension and Soviet honours for a cottage in the Cotswolds, the Times crossword and the county cricket scores?
Whose idea was this? What did the offers involve? Who made them? I had met Wolf a couple of years ago in Germany and, since he was in London last week to promote his book, I sought him out to discuss the matter.
"Philby came to East Germany for a couple of visits," Wolf said. "I was responsible for his security arrangements and I entertained him - we did a bit of cooking together at my place in the country. He had a KGB escort, and I think now it was him rather than Philby who told me about the offers for Philby to return to Britain."
This requires a pause for thought. In the 25 years he spent in the Soviet Union before his death in 1988, Philby kept his Moscow address secret. He steered clear of Westerners. If he bumped into a Western journalist or diplomat or businessman at the theatre or ballet he left immediately. If he wanted to go to a restaurant, his KGB minder arranged it, usually reserving a private room.
True, he did exchange letters with people in London, but SIS would hardly have made him an offer to re-defect in the mail when, as he wrote to me: "Our letters will, of course, be read at both ends." So the "several offers" must have been made in person by someone who had access to Philby more than once, someone he knew well.
ONLY one man fits the bill: the author Graham Greene. Greene, who had been a colleague of Philby's in SIS, had been writing to him since 1969. Then in 1986 Greene went to Moscow and the two old spies got together for a reunion in Philby's flat. Five months later Greene went back, then again in September 1987 and again in February 1988. Each time he saw Philby. From a spate of recent biographies of Greene, we now know that he reported on all these visits to SIS. Moreover, Greene has said that Philby would have expected him to do just that: "I knew that Kim would know that I would pass it on to Maurice Oldfield [then head of SIS]..."
Greene would never have made the offer to Philby without authorisation and it appears most likely that it was Oldfield who gave him the go-ahead. Greene even gave a tantalising hint of the operation in interviews with his biographer, Professor Norman Sherry, who says: "He told me he had dreamed of seeing Philby come walking towards him down the street in Britain. I suspect that this was not a dream but Greene's roundabout way of saying what he had been up to with Philby."
For SIS the temptation of Philby would have been an attractive operation with a reasonable chance of success. Philby would have wanted immunity from prosecution though that would not have been a problem - there was the precedent of Anthony Blunt, Keeper of the Queen's Pictures and former KGB agent, granted immunity in 1964.
In return, SIS would have won a propaganda round. Imagine the headlines: "British defector chooses freedom", "Can't stand Communism, says former traitor". And the knowledge Philby would have brought back about KGB tradecraft, debriefing procedure, command structure, weaknesses and strengths would have been invaluable.
Wolf's eyes gleamed with appreciation of the cunning of the British ploy. "I thought the offers must have come from British journalists," he said. "I believed, wrongly you say, that Philby saw a lot of them. I never thought of Greene, but it does make sense."
Since it is not every day that one gets a chance to chat with Communism's greatest spymaster, we moved on to other matters. After all, Wolf is widely held to be the model for John le Carre's fictional KGB boss Karla although le Carre denies this and Wolf himself says he prefers Graham Greene. I brought up the old story about the KGB head in Washington who, given the choice of a mole in the National Security Council or a lifetime subscription to the New York Times, opted without hesitation for the New York Times. What did Wolf think about that?
"AN INTELLIGENCE chief should always read the newspapers very carefully, firstly because a lot of agents lift material for their reports from newspapers anyway, and it is useful to be able to spot those who do. Secondly, newspapers are often better sources than agents. I used to take the New York Times, the Paris edition of the International Herald Tribune, Le Monde, the Times and a lot of West German newspapers and magazines, including the tabloid Bild-Zeitung. All excellent sources of intelligence."
When I asked whether computers have taken over from the old-fashioned spy, Wolf drew my attention to the case of the Goslars, an East German husband and wife team who had been smuggled into West Germany via London, where they had been known as Mr and Mrs Antony Roge. "After they had been caught we learned that a West German computer programme trawled through resettlements in West Germany from abroad and highlighted any unusual cases. The Goslars registered on that, and after that it was just a matter of keeping them under surveillance and searching their apartment when they were out."
Exit James Bond, enter IBM?
"Not entirely," Wolf replied. He explained how smart West German counter- intelligence officers learnt to spot East German agents trying to infiltrate West Germany, even when their papers looked perfect. Apparently, East German barbers never could keep up with Western styles and their haircuts screamed "East German". Alerted by immigration officers, undercover policemen would follow a suspect from the West German railway station. Wolf reports: "Few of our agents could resist a detour to the shops near the station to look at the goods in the windows. It was the final giveaway."
I was anxious to tie up some loose ends. For instance, what happened to Ruth Kuczynski, alias Ursula Beurton, alias Ruth Werner, code-named Sonya, the German super- intelligence officer who ran the atom spy Klaus Fuchs while looking after her three babies in a cottage in the Oxford garden of a distinguished but unsuspecting judge.
"Still alive and well and living in Berlin," Wolf said. "She's in her late eighties and as mentally alert as ever. What a life she had - Shanghai, Manchuria, Poland, Switzerland, Britain. A genuine master spy, perhaps the best the Soviets ever had."
And George Blake? He was the SIS officer who betrayed the Berlin tunnel, a joint SIS/CIA operation to tap into the main telephone lines from Soviet military headquarters in East Germany to Moscow. "I see him now and then, and George is fine," Wolf said. "He was a good intelligence officer, fearless and enterprising, though not as intellectual and analytical as Philby. Since the collapse of Communism, Blake has become religious. I saw a photograph of him at worship in a Moscow church - I could hardly believe it."
Now those Cold War years of spy versus spy are over, and the battle of intelligence bureaucracies no longer flourishes, has all been forgiven? "Not quite," said Wolf. I demurred: "But you're in London. The British authorities did not try to stop you from coming." Wolf nodded. "True," he said. "But the Americans won't give me a visitor's visa."
I told him I can understand that. The Americans offered a nice house in California and a million dollars or so if he revealed everything and everybody he knew to the CIA, and he had said: "No. No names."
Wolf thought for a minute. "That's part of it," he said. "But the real reason is that I won't recant." I suspect that he is right.
'Man Without a Face', Random House, pounds 17.99.