Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, by Peter Wright. New York: Viking Penguin. 392 pp. $19.95. CAN the Western democracies, committed to open governance and the citizen's right to know, learn to rein in their intelligence services, whose watchwords are secrecy, aggressiveness, and unaccountability?
The answer thus far is no. Consider the revelations about the abuses of power that have characterized the frequent CIA scandals, from the Bay of Pigs in 1961 to the Iran-contra operation.
Consider also the uproar in Britain caused by the Thatcher government's injunction against Peter Wright's ``Spycatcher.'' The book contains a three-page bombshell: the accusation that fully 30 of his fellow MI5 (domestic counterintelligence) officers were plotting in 1974 to topple Harold Wilson's Labour government by leaking allegations to the Conservatives regarding Mr. Wilson's - purported - pro-communist sympathies and associates.
This charge against MI5 is not new: Wilson, having resigned, made it openly in 1977. Nor is intelligence manipulation of elections entirely new: The Conservative landslide in 1924 owed much to a Red-baiting intelligence leak to the press of the so-called ``Zinoviev letter'' from Moscow. Wright, however, is attacking from the inside and the far right, while offering leads regarding ``the Gang of Thirty'' that British journalists are now pursuing. Mrs. Thatcher blocked press publication of excerpts from ``Spycatcher'' until she won the general election: A dozen lawsuits and countersuits were filed. While the book is being peddled in London unofficially, the House of Lords moved last week against the British Court of Appeal, which had lifted the injunction, and major newspapers are still forbidden to report on the book in any detail.
By asserting that an MI5 cabal intended to subvert the political process, Wright is mocking at ``fair play'' and ``the gentlemanly consensus'' of British life. Forget the myths, he insists: Hardball is MI5's favorite sport. Witness the important details he adds to our scanty knowledge of British plots to assassinate Nasser during the 1956 Suez crisis. And witness MI5's readiness in early 1959 to hunt down and kill Colonel Grivas, the greek Cypriot guerrilla leader. Though Wright suggests that MI5 quit the assassination business after 1960, the charges against it in Northern Ireland now cannot be ignored.
Abuse of power, that supremely American theme that excites attention and sales, is marginal, however, to ``Spycatcher.'' Wright's heart is in the Great Mole Hunt. The search for Soviet spies in British intelligence has boiled and simmered since Burgess and Maclean - forewarned - fled to Moscow in 1951.
The defection of Kim Philby in 1963, the uncovering of Anthony Blunt in 1964, various intelligence failures of that decade, all shocked many MI5 officers, Peter Wright very much included. There was jeering from the CIA and the FBI, which the British for so long had patronized. Wright and his dissident friends began their hunt, questioning hundreds of people over the years, and concluding that Roger Hollis, the director of MI5 from 1956 to 1965, was a Soviet spy, the much-celebrated ``fifth man,'' who had helped bring British intelligence - perhaps Britain itself - to its sorry state.
This civil war inevitably drew in MI6 (foreign intelligence and operations) and the Americans, where the brilliant CIA empire-builder, James Angleton, cautiously backed Wright, perhaps hoping to gain control of MI5. The battle was joined by influential intelligence alumni such as Victor Rothschild, by various friends, groupies, politicians, and such journalists as Nigel West and especially Chapman Pincher, who has denounced Hollis in three books since 1981, all using material from Wright. Now Wright himself has gone public against the ghost of Roger Hollis, who died nearly 15 years ago.
Was Hollis guilty? Two official inquiries have said no, but these Wright rejects as either ill informed or partial, part of the old-boy network that - allegedly - nearly destroyed British intelligence.
But ``Spycatcher'' itself lacks credibility. There are no footnotes, bibliography, or the slightest hint of sources, aside from a reference to Wright's official diaries, which apparently were destroyed; are there private records as well? There are verbatim accounts of 30-year-old conversations; is Wright's memory that good? There is an impressive literary style, understated, yet dramatic and essentially novelistic. Is this Wright's handiwork or that of his ghostwriter, one Paul Greengrass, whose credentials are those of a television producer, not an academic or a journalist, and whose name is never cited?
Wright offers no firm evidence against Hollis, but much conjecture, speculation, supposition. To be sure, evidence is elusive in espionage cases. These are, in effect, crimes without weapons, violence, or physical injuries, where only confession, mail intercepts, phone taps, or seizure in the act may lead to a breakthrough. Hence, well-informed and credible defectors from enemy intelligence are central. Soviet defectors have indeed referred to a ``fifth man,'' but offer no names, and the ``spychological'' pressures on them to please their new patrons are very great. The consensus among various CIA alumni is to denounce Wright's ``case'' against Hollis as very definitely ``not proved!''
Why then has it been conducted so aggressively and taken so seriously in Britain? The answer lies in class antagonisms, exacerbated by eight years of Thatcherism. Hollis was well born, educated, privileged; so were Blunt, Philby, all the others.
Peter Wright is the opposite: a self-made scientist, without university credentials, who rose far in MI5, but made enemies and remained an outsider, quick to counterattack. He writes, ``It was hard not to dislike many of those I interviewed. ... They were a Lotus Generation, following political fashions as if they were a clothes catalogue, still pledged in the 1960s to vows of silence they had made thirty years before.'' A Tory radical, a populist, patriot, and convinced anticommunist, he has found support even among British leftists, who demand full disclosure and accountability.
The result is less a book than an obsession. Wright is pursuing a vendetta; Viking Penguin is pursuing big bucks - very successfully: The reader should beware. Those retired spooks who rightly denounced ``Spycatcher'' are, however, ignoring their own complicity in a system whose dirty tricks lend credence to Wright's accusations against Roger Hollis. ``We teach our men to lie,'' says le Carr'e's George Smiley, ``and then are surprised when they lie to us.''
Leonard Bushkoff is a free-lance book reviewer specializing in politics and history.