Published October 26, 2012
LONDON – Overstaffed, overconfident and all too often over here.
That's how a top British spymaster saw his American counterparts at the FBI and CIA, according to newly declassified diaries from the years after World War II.
Friction between British spies and their American colleagues is a recurring theme in journals kept by Guy Liddell, the postwar deputy director of Britain's domestic intelligence agency, MI5.
The diaries, published for the first time Friday by Britain's National Archives, show Liddell was frustrated by FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover — "a cross between a political gangster and a prima donna" — and skeptical of the brand-new U.S. espionage service, the CIA.
"In the course of time ... they may produce something of value," Liddell wrote of the CIA in September 1947 after a meeting with its deputy director, Edwin Kennedy Wright.
"There is a great deal of 'dissemination, evaluation and coordination,' but of course the thing that really matters is whether they have anything that is worth disseminating, evaluating, or coordinating," Liddell said.
Liddell also noted that Wright had told British intelligence officials that "in an American organization 500 people were employed to do what 50 people would do over here."
Archives historian Stephen Twigge said the trans-Atlantic relationship was marked by "a certain friction towards what the British might think of as the Johnny-come-latelies in the CIA."
Britain and the U.S. were staunch wartime and Cold War allies, but the intelligence-sharing relationship was sometimes troubled. It reached a low ebb after the conviction in 1950 of Klaus Fuchs, a German-British nuclear scientist charged with passing atomic weapons secrets to the Soviet Union.
Hoover, outraged by the security lapse and angered that Britain would not let the Americans interview Fuchs in prison, threatened to cut off intelligence cooperation.
Liddell accused Hoover of "unscrupulous" behavior.
"Hoover, finding himself in something of a jam, is obviously taking British security for a ride ... Hoover's next move was to go before some other committee and say that the British made a muck of the Fuchs case," he wrote.
Liddell called the American attitude "wholly wrong, stupid and unreasonable."
"It merely shows how utterly incapable they are of seeing anybody's point of view except their own, and that they are quite ready to cut off their noses to spite their faces!"
Twigge, however, said the Americans had a point — "half the British secret service turns out to have been penetrated by Soviet intelligence."
The diaries cover a dark period for British intelligence, during which several senior agents were exposed as Soviet spies. Liddell was tainted by his friendship with Guy Burgess, one of the "Cambridge Spies" secretly working for the Russians.
The diaries show that Liddell doubted Burgess' guilt. "My own view was that Guy Burgess was not the sort of person who would deliberately pass confidential information to unauthorized parties," he wrote in 1950.
Liddell was shaken by the disappearance of Burgess and Donald Maclean, who defected to Moscow in 1951, and was himself questioned as a possible double agent. He retired from MI5 in 1953 and died of heart failure in 1958.
"As time has gone on it's pretty apparent he wasn't a Soviet agent," Twigge said. "Just unlucky in his friends."
A previous installment of Liddell's diaries, covering World War II, was declassified in 2002.
The new volumes reveal the life of a postwar spymaster to be extremely varied. Liddell attended the Nuremberg trials of senior Nazis, where he saw figures including Hermann Goering — "one of the few who had much spunk left in him" — and Rudolf Hess, who "appeared to be entirely indifferent to the proceedings."
Another entry recorded a briefing about a UFO sighting, of which Liddell was skeptical.
"The curious thing to me is that these flying saucers never seem to come to earth," he wrote, "but that, of course, might possibly be due to the very high speed at which they are traveling, if in fact they exist at all."
The diaries stray tantalizingly close to James Bond territory when Liddell is briefed on the potential for radio-controlled pigeons by MI5's pigeon expert, a man he describes as "the nearest thing to a pigeon that I have ever seen."
The expert describes how homing pigeons "go hay-wire" when there are sunspots.
"Sun spots are, of course, minute radioactive particles, though how they affect the pigeons' homing instinct nobody knows," Liddell wrote. "That gives some color to the suggestion that pigeons might be able to home (in) on an electric beam, in other words that you might have radio-controlled pigeons."
The diaries do not reveal whether MI5 pursued the idea.
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless