Revealed: Attlee's ignorance of the Cambridge spies who defected

Three weeks after two of Britain's most notorious spies defected to Soviet Russia, the Prime Minister and his cabinet were more concerned about the moral fibre of the Foreign Office than any threat posed to national security.

Top-secret papers released on New Year's Day reveal the true extent of the ignorance and incompetence at the heart of the then government and the intelligence services during one of the most serious breaches of security in British history. The classified notes, innocuously entitled "Foreign Office officials", were written by the cabinet secretary, Sir Norman Brook, on 11 June 1951.

Three weeks earlier, Donald Maclean, head of the US department in the diplomatic service in London, and Guy Burgess, a diplomat formerly based in Washington, had quietly deserted their posts and left Britain for Russia.

But the cabinet notes show that the prime minister Clement Attlee and the foreign secretary Herbert Morrison appeared more concerned with Donald Maclean's drinking and an allegation of attempted rape.

Although Maclean and Burgess were being investigated by MI5, Morrison defends Maclean, saying: "He has done very well at the Foreign Office. All we know is they have disappeared. Maybe a security aspect but no evidence that there is. Can't say much today." Attlee says both men are "doubtful moral characters". He asks: "Aren't Foreign Office a bit easy over this?"

Sir Richard Rapier Stokes, the Lord Privy Seal, then says Maclean had already been recalled from the British embassy in Cairo because of his drinking and says there was "also [an allegation of] attempted rape."

Attlee demands: "What is the standard of conduct at the Foreign Service? Is it high enough?" The foreign secretary says: "We don't know, one way or the other, whether they may have been engaged in espionage."

That Britain's prime minister and foreign secretary should be so in the dark about the serious implications to national security is extraordinary. Historians say that, along with other key members of the Cambridge spy ring, principally Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, Burgess and Maclean represented the most effective espionage operation against US and British interests in the 20th century.

One former diplomat called the cabinet notes "surprising". Sir Crispin Tickle, who joined the US department of the British Diplomatic Service in 1954 , three years after Burgess and Maclean had defected, said: "When they left, I would have thought it should have been clear that they were betraying their country. The allegation [of rape] is news to me; in fact I'm not sure anyone knew much about a lot of this."

Air Marshal Sir John Walker, former chief of defence intelligence, said it should have been obvious the two men's disappearance was at the least suspicious. "If two people with their background suddenly up sticks to go to live in Moscow it must suggest something is wrong. It was very difficult to get into Moscow at the time and people simply didn't have this kind of change of lifestyle."

Sir Crispin added: "Maclean was regarded as an adequate, although not remarkable, head of department. I am surprised this should be said in cabinet. When I joined, he was of course seen in a very different light. But even then I remember coming across his minutes of meetings."

Sir Crispin said he was also surprised that the secretary's notes had not been destroyed, as was the custom. The notes are part of the first tranche to be released by the National Archives under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

In 1981 it was concluded that extended closure of the notebooks was "proper". It was agreed that consideration should only be given to allowing access to the earliest notebooks when they were 50 years old. But in 2004 the cabinet secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, and the Master of the Rolls, Lord Phillips of Worth Maltravers, recommended that they should be released in tranches in January 2006.

Burgess, Maclean, Philby and Blunt

Guy Burgess met Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt at Cambridge University in the 1930s when they became secret supporters of the Communist Party.

Burgess worked for the BBC until 1938 when he joined the Diplomatic Service as a propaganda expert. By 1951 he had gained a reputation as a flamboyant, alcoholic homosexual. His conduct and suspicions about him meant he was recalled when he became the first secretary at the British embassy in Washington. He died in 1963.

Donald Maclean was the son of the Liberal cabinet minister Sir Donald Maclean. After the Second World War he worked in London before holding a senior post in the British Embassy in Egypt. But he returned to London in 1950 after being accused of wild behaviour. He later became head of the American department of the Foreign Office. After defecting to Moscow in 1951 he became a Soviet citizen. He died in 1983.

Kim Philby was a double agent in the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), working for the KGB. He rose to be the SIS's liaison officer in Washington with the CIA and the FBI, before he fell under suspicion after the defections of Burgess and Maclean. In October 1950, Philby warned Burgess and Maclean that they were being investigated by MI5. He died in 1998 after also fleeing to Moscow.

Anthony Blunt was a distant relative of the Queen and later keeper of the Royal Family's pictures and drawings. During the Second World War he joined the Security Service MI5. He sometimes sat on the Joint Intelligence Committee and had access to reports from the SIS and MI5. In 1963 an American, Michael Straight, one of Blunt's recruiting failures, told MI5 about him. Blunt was offered immunity in return for information on the KGB. He died in 1983.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth with Tess Daly in the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special
tvLouis Smith wins with 'Jingle Bells' quickstep on Strictly Come Dancing's Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there