History of British secret service uncovers Czechoslovak infiltration success

Christopher Andrew, photo: CTK

An official history of the British counter intelligence and security service MI5 has come up with some revelations about the work of the Communist Czechoslovak secret police. One of them is how it recruited agents among British Labour Party MPs. One of its biggest catches was a colourful and ambitious junior minister.

The revelations about the success of the Czechoslovak secret police, the StB, in infiltrating the Labour Party has come out in the official history of MI5 which was released this week.

Cambridge historian and intelligence service expert Christopher Andrew was given exclusive access to the British service’s files. His book, The Defence of the Realm, commemorates the service’s centenary since its creation in 1909.

Christopher Andrew, photo: CTK
One insight into the John LeCarre world of Cold War espionage from Mr Andrew’s six-year trawl through the British files is how the Czechoslovak secret police recruited two Labour MPs as agents.

Historian Igor Lukeš of Boston University says the revelations are an eye opener given the unpromising start of the Czechoslovak service:

“To some extent it is surprising because the Czech intelligence services which started up immediately after WWII was right from the beginning in the hands of the Communist Party apart and therefore not very sophisticated initially and not able to operate in countries such as Great Britain, the US and countries like that. But by the 1960s somehow Czech intelligence had discovered its own legs and started scoring successes. These recent revelations coming out of this new book by Christopher Andrew only confirm that they were able to do so.”

In the 1950’s the Labour MP Will Owen was being paid the then very handsome sum of 500 pounds a month for his services after being recruited in 1954. Although Labour was out of power, Owen handed over a lot of valuable military information on British army policy and NATO contributions thanks to his position on a House of Commons committee controlling spending.

But the Czechoslovak spies went one better when they latched onto the up and coming MP John Stonehouse. When Labour returned to power in the 1960’s, Mr Stonehouse became a junior minister for aviation, then the Colonial Office, in 1967 he was Minister for Technology and later moved further up the ladder as Postmaster General, in charge of the post office, telecommunications and broadcasting.

MI5 building in London, photo: CTK
Mr Stonehouse, a smooth charmer, had ambitions to be prime minister. But Labour lost the 1970 election and Stonehouse found himself outside the shadow cabinet. He sought to get rich quick to advance his ambitions but a series of companies he set up had begun to turn sour. He tried to cover his tracks by fiddling the books but eventually faked his own death in a swimming accident in 1974 in a bid to start a new life with some of the stolen cash. A few weeks after the obituaries, Mr Stonehouse was discovered alive in Australia under an assumed name. He was brought back, put on trial and imprisoned.

The MI5 history shows that the British service had been alerted in 1969 by the CIA about Mr Owen and that Mr Stonehouse was suspected of being a Czechoslovak agent. Suspicion had been aroused by an StB spy who defected to the West. Mr Stonehouse managed then to convince his interrogators that he was clean while Owen owned up. The suspicions about Mr Stonehouse were confirmed by another defector a decade later.