Obituary: Sir Dick White

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The Independent Online
IN HIS measured obituary of Sir Dick White (23 February), Andrew Boyle chose, quite understandably, to play down White's remarkable readiness to help scholars (and journalists) working on British Intelligence (MI5 and MI6) and its impact on the course of British history after 1939, writes Anthony Glees. Boyle's own celebrated if painful unmasking of Anthony Blunt had itself been partly based on an honest refusal by White to exonerate Blunt.

White was in fact an historian manque. He knew that there would never be any chance of his publishing his memoirs. Yet there had been virtually no important foreign-policy developments from 1953 to 1979 about which he did not have deep inside understanding. Successive prime ministers had regarded him as their personal intelligence adviser. As he said to me: 'I saw it all. I was always there.' As a consequence of his own enforced silence, he became ready to help others. He believed in history: indeed Hugh Trevor-Roper acknowledged in print that it had been a 'Brigadier White' who had encouraged him to write his account of the last days of Hitler.

I first met White when I was researching into the hunt for Hitler and other top Nazis at the end of the Second World War. This was a joint operation mounted by British and Soviet Intelligence (the last one) and I had come across documents indicating that he - and not Hugh Trevor-Roper, as was often supposed - had led the operation. I wrote to him asking for confirmation and - to my amazement - he invited me to visit him. I was terrified at the prospect of interviewing the only man in Britain to have been Director General of MI5 and head ('C') of MI6.

After a bizarre journey to his home, aided by directions which took one to the wrong house, I was confronted by what seemed a menacing, wiry, headmasterish man with some of the most penetrating eyes I think I have ever seen. Yet he was not dressed as one imagined a 'C' might dress, even a 'C' in retirement. He had clearly been gardening and looked a bit like Ben-Gurion, fresh from the kibbutz garden. He was utterly unpompous, rather 1930ish, I thought, and - I don't think I was wrong - he had more than just a touch of the Rob Roy about him. One felt that he had enormously enjoyed his utterly secret and rather dangerous life.

He was very kind. He told me at once that I could quote him for the record on this occasion since at the time he had been on secondment to the Army and in any case the papers were now in the public domain. He impressed me with what was obviously a wholly disarming honesty.

Later, when I was working on Britain and Soviet Communism and our ignorance of Soviet war aims I wrote to White again asking for more help. He agreed, providing I promised not to quote him directly as long as he was alive. I always honoured this condition, even when some colleagues claimed the views in my book were merely my own.

White encouraged awkward questions. He knew that my research to date had indicated that Sir Roger Hollis (then being publicly considered for the title of supermole) seemed the reverse of disloyal. The documents actually showed that he was one of the few people in Britain alert to the Communist threat. This was White's view, too. He was heartily amused that I had trawled the Public Record Office and the Hollis family for relevant papers, something that Peter Wright working for MI5 had never done.

White told me that he was convinced that Peter Wright had gone 'mad'. He explained that in counter-espionage officers frequently got ensnared in crazy, circular investigations, centred on unreliable defector statements which took them over the brink.

We reviewed every piece of evidence against Hollis and he convinced me that the charges would not stand up. More than this, he told me that it was untrue that the stories of Communist penetration (beginning with Walter Krivitsky's) had never been investigated. Yet the 20 or so officers in MI5 and Hollis himself had been unable to work properly, not least because there was no positive vetting and no Oxford and Cambridge records to refer to. In addition, MI5 had been virtually wholly taken up with the fight against the Nazis and Hollis was conducting something of a single- handed fight to alert the British authorities to the dangers of Communist subversion.

I must not forget, White said, that the offensive side of intelligence work done by MI6 was far easier than the defensive side done by MI5. But he did agree that Britain had 'dropped its guard' against the Soviet Union during the Second World War and a heavy price was paid as a result. The possibility of the existence of additional moles, as yet unknown, could not be ruled out.

White believed, I think, that one day (but only after his death) his personal contribution to British intelligence would be made clear (Andrew Boyle was to take on this task, but he died in 1991). He even thought that one day his own motives might be impugned (he had promoted Hollis, supported Liddell and had dealings with a number of people who later turned out to be Communist). Indeed, not everything he told me proved totally correct. He mentioned, for example, that MI5 had been ashamed by the internment of refugees in 1940 and that they would never do it again. In fact, they did think of it in the early 1950s (with a different set of refugees). He told me that Guy Liddell had not protected Blunt (who was his friend); yet now there is hard evidence that he did so.

White gave every impression of relishing his role as guide through the wilderness of mirrors. As an intelligence officer, he knew one had to communicate with everyone (even Wright's contact Chapman Pincher). He knew that his position was totally secure; he could therefore provide an accurate account even if unattributed.

I asked White why he had agreed to tell me all this. He insisted he was not trying to rescue a friend's reputation; indeed, he said, he and Hollis had never been close personal friends. He was concerned that an important piece of British history should be accurate. Over and above this, however, he had become convinced that the secrecy of the secret services had after 1979 become counter-productive. He was appalled that former officers were speaking to the press to convince them that Hollis was a Soviet mole, and suspected their motives.

He regarded Hollis's detractors as dangerous not only because they defied the basic laws of evidence but more seriously because to discredit Hollis also discredited the sort of MI5 he and before him White had developed. Their false accusations might be used by those with political power to change the basic nature of Britain's secret services.

In effect, by the mid-1970s secrecy was being used to undermine the very values MI5 and MI6 were paid to protect. There was a tendency, he believed, to have a more proactive security service which might find favour in a tougher 10 Downing Street. A more proactive force, he argued, would become a political police which would end up as a Gestapo. He had seen this sort of security service in action with his own eyes in Heidelberg, under cover as a British 'student' before 1939.

MI5's way 'of keeping people away from areas where they might do damage' (as he put it) was the only democratically acceptable role for a security service. The mistakes it made because it was a liberal service were a price worth paying. History, one day, will tell us whether White got it right.

(Photograph omitted)

The photograph of Sir Dick White which illustrated Andrew Boyle's obituary was taken from Anthony Glees's book The Secrets of the Service: British Intelligence and Communist subversion (1987).