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LITERARY REVIEW February 2011
by British diplomats during his first term, which are now becoming available under the thirty-year rule. The Br i t i s h ambassador i n Washington, S i r Nicholas Henderson, reported that Reagan lacked both ‘mental vitality and political vision’. Mrs Thatcher’s assessment was closer to Hoffman’s.
Apart from judging Soviet intentions during the final decade of the Cold War, the most difficult intelligence challenge for both the United States and Britain was assessing the threat of the biolog ical weapons programme that Moscow insisted it did not possess. The spy satellite imagery which identified nuclear missile silos was almost useless when it came to searching for biological weapons laboratories. Once again the most important intelligence came from SIS. Its chief source was one of the leading scientists in the Soviet biological warfare programme, Vladimir Pasechnik, who defected to Britain in October 1989. Pasechnik revealed that the Soviet organisation, Biopreparat, which manufactured medicines and vaccines, was also researching and seeking to weaponise the world’s most dangerous pathogens. One of the Br itish team who debr iefed Pasechnik remembers the occasion as ‘an extraordinary moment. If you’re an intelligence officer, this doesn’t happen but once in a lifetime. Maybe never in a lifetime.’
I met Pasechnik only once, several years after his defection. Despite his reserved manner, it was easy to see why he had so impressed his debriefers. He was careful to explain the limitations as well as the extent of his knowledge, and it was difficult to doubt the sincerity of his desire to alert the outside world to the threat of Soviet biological warfare. Pasechnik’s intelligence was later confirmed by the deputy head of Biopreparat, who defected to the United States. Western leaders were never able to get straight answers from Gorbachev about the biological weapons programme. Boris Yeltsin, who became Russian President after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, had no such inhibitions, telling the British Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd: ‘I know all about the Soviet biological weapons programme. It’s still going ahead, even though the organizers claim it’s merely defensive research. They are fanatics and they will not stop voluntarily ... I’m going to close down the institutes.’ As David Hoffman shows, a long struggle lay ahead.
Cur iously, Kim Philby and the rest of ‘Stalin’s Englishmen’ who entered the service of the KGB remain far better known in twenty-first-century Britain than the Russians who worked for British intelligence. Today’s Russian foreign intelligence service, the SVR, continues to celebrate the successes of the KGB’s past agents. Just before Christmas, it opened a new memorial to Philby, celebrating his ‘sincere and passionate belief ’ in the rightness of the cause for which he worked. The SVR still cannot bring itself to acknowledge the ‘sincere and passionate belief ’ of Gordievsky and Pasechnik in a far more worthy cause. To order this book for £16, see LR Bookshop opposite