Brian Crozier: Intelligence and security expert who fought communism and founded his own spy network

Those who remember TV in the early 1960s may recall the dramatic opening of Danger Man, starring a young Patrick McGoohan. "Every Government has its secret service badge. America – it's CIA. France – Deuxième Bureau. England [!] – MI5. A messy job? Well, that's when they usually call on me. Or someone like me. Oh yes. My name is…"

John Drake, the fictitious secret agent working for "M9" could in many ways have been modelled on Brian Crozier. Among the achievements of an extraordinary 94-year life, Crozier had the rare distinction of having founded his own private enterprise spy network, "The 61", in 1977. Like M9, The 61 worked with established intelligence agencies, including MI5, MI6 and the CIA – but, Crozier alleged, independently of them.

Brian Rossiter Crozier was a talented linguist, musician and painter, an international activist, journalist, spy, author, and intelligence and security studies expert. He was born in the small mining village of Kuridala, Queensland, Australia, where his father was a mining engineer, in August 1918. He came to England with his family at the age of five. An asthmatic child, in 1923 he was taken to France for health reasons, which precluded military service in the Second World War. He went to a French lycée in Montpellier, France, for six years becoming bilingual in French and kick-starting his talent as a linguist.

In 1930 the Croziers returned to England, where the 12-year-old Brian attended school in Harrow before taking up a scholarship at Trinity College of Music in London. He was a brilliant young composer and pianist. He maintained his interest in music all his life until he died. His son Michael – "Mikey" – recalls him playing his own compositions, and those of the classics such as Scriabin, Chopin, Fauré and Schumann, on his beloved Bechstein grand piano up to a week before his death. At Trinity he began his journalistic career writing articles on art and music for a weekly magazine, Comment. He also took up painting and continued to write poetry.

He had two friends at Trinity who were both members of the Communist Party although he never was himself. He was impressed by "their outspokenness, their devotion to their principles…". Like many young intellectuals of the time he was initially attracted to Communism and the Left, but unlike some outgrew that phase when he was alerted to Stalin's warped interpretation of Marxist-Leninist teachings. Later, Crozier turned against what he saw as a concerted campaign led or inspired by the Soviets to undermine western values.

In 1940 he married a fellow music student, Mary Lilian Samuel, daughter of an English mother and Indian father. He still had asthma, so was rejected for military service. In 1943 he joined Reuters, and the next year the News Chronicle, moving into a big house in Hammersmith where he was able to paint large pictures and pursue his interest in weightlifting, which enabled him to overcome his asthma.

According to his autobiography Free Agent: The Unseen War 1941-1991, published by HarperCollins in 1993, Crozier "was not quite cured of the Marxist infection" until 1947, when he read Victor Kravchenko's I Chose Freedom, a masterpiece detailing Stalin's depredations in Ukraine. From then on he was a committed anti-communist. Britain was a shattered country after the war, and rationing still cramped creativity. In October 1948 the Crozier family – Brian, Mary (Lila), seven-year-old Kathryn-Anne, Isobel, nearly four, and baby Michael, set off for Australia, where he had been offered a three-year contract on the Sydney Morning Herald.

In 1951 he rejoined Reuters through Australian Associated Press (AAP-Reuters) based in Melbourne. Reuters sent him to South-east Asia as a foreign correspondent. He began in Indonesia, then Singapore and Saigon, covering the Franco-Vietnamese War. After some months he returned to Singapore, where the family was now ensconced, and joined the Straits Times as features editor. His fourth child, Caroline, was born in Singapore.

It was here, in 1952-53, and in Saigon, that he made his first contacts with the British and French secret services. Returning to Britain in October 1953, he extended his intelligence sources while running Foreign Report, a confidential bulletin for The Economist, and broadcasting on the BBC overseas service in French and Spanish. He also wrote leaders for The Economist and worked as a foreign correspondent for the magazine in many countries.

At this time the expansion of what we would now call communist "soft power" was focused in South-east Asia. So began more than 40 years working in counter-insurgency and counter-espionage. During the 1950s and '60s, Crozier worked for The Economist and for the Information Research Department, a covert anti-communist propaganda unit within the Foreign Office.

He also started to work with the CIA, MI6 and the intelligence agencies of France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Morocco, Iran, Argentina, Chile, and Taiwan. During this period he published his first books: The Rebels: A Study of Post-War Insurrections (1960); Neo-colonialism (1964) and South-East Asia in Turmoil (1965). The latter became the definitive text for senior American soldiers and diplomats sucked into the maelstrom of the Vietnam War.

In 1968 Crozier was a founder-member of the Institute for the Study of Conflict, working with the leading Sovietologist, Professor Leonard Schapiro of the LSE. It was the first private think-tank devoted to the study of terrorism and subversion, and published an important series of monographs called Conflict Studies. In 1973 Crozier became its Director, but was ejected in 1979 after a coup which may have been driven by MI6 and/or the CIA. However, the immediate cause was another of Crozier's initiatives.

After the Information Research Department, which had been waging an information campaign to warn of Soviet espionage and infiltration, was closed down in 1977, Crozier had been instrumental in setting up "a private-sector operational intelligence agency". Echoes of Crozier's vision are re-emerging, as private security companies increasingly take on functions formerly considered to be the preserve of government. Initially the private intelligence agency had no name; it should not have been "sixty-one" but "6 I", for the "Sixth International".

The 61 was involved in South America and Iran. Crozier was, like many operating on the cusp between government, intelligence and academe, seen as a loose cannon. He said the push came from Leonard Schapiro, who said, Crozier recalled, "stop running The 61 or resign as director of the ISC. I chose to step down."

The 61's finest hour, which Crozier recounts in Free Agent, was probably in 1981 when it gained intelligence of a Soviet and East German plan to invade Poland, where the Solidarity movement was restive. The 61 passed the information to No 10, Washington, Paris and the Vatican, and the planned invasion was cancelled.

Free Agent was marketed as "the book MI5 and MI6 tried to ban". His son Michael, an ex-Fleet Street journalist, writer and design editor, recalls calling on his father in the early 1990s and finding him with "two men in fawn trenchcoats", who may have been attempting to persuade him to excise parts of the book. One sentence speaks to us now: "All my adult life, I have been for freedom and against regimentation and coercion (except in emergencies such as war). That is what this unseen war was about."

Brian Rossiter Crozier, journalist, author and intelligence and security consultant: born Kuridala, Queensland, Australia, 4 August 1918; married 1940 Mary Samuel (died 1993; three daughters and one son), 1999 Jacqueline Mitchell; died 4 August 2012.

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