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Thursday, January 22, 1998 Published at 11:39 GMT


Spy secrets come in from the cold
image: [ Once-secret documents reveal details of British relations with the Kremlin in the 1960s and 70s ]
Once-secret documents reveal details of British relations with the Kremlin in the 1960s and 70s

In an unusual demonstration of 'glasnost', or openness, the United Kingdom Foreign Office is publishing documents about Anglo-Soviet relations in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The papers cover some of the most controversial issues of the Cold War, including the expulsion of 105 Soviet spies in 1971 as well as some other reports related to intelligence activites.

The BBC's Gary O'Donoghue looks back on a diplomatic bombshell delivered to the USSR (4' 26")
In the past, governments did not release these sort of papers until 50 years after the events, and this is a particularly intriguing period in the history of the two nations.

The two volumes cover an era marked by strains and tensions between East and West as the two great power blocs moved towards an uneasy accommodation that was to last until the late 1980s and the collapse of Soviet Communism.

[ image: Heath: his government expelled 105 Russian spies]
Heath: his government expelled 105 Russian spies
The expulsion of more than 100 Soviet spies by Edward Heath's Government in 1971 brought Anglo-Soviet relations to a new low.

The then Foreign Secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, and Home Secretary Reginald Maudling had decided to grasp the nettle after MI5 warned that there were at least 120 Soviet intelligence officers operating in Britain.

"If the cases of which we have knowledge are typical, the total damage done by these Soviet intelligence gatherers must be considerable," they said in a joint memorandum to Heath.

"Known targets during the last few years have included the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence; and on the commercial side, the Concorde, the Bristol 'Olympus 593' aero-engine, nuclear energy projects and computer electronics," it said.

The scale of expulsions appeared to have taken the Soviets by surprise and drew a furious response from their Foreign Minister, Andrei Gromyko, when he met Douglas-Home at the United Nations in New York.

Douglas-Home recorded that Gromyko described the espionage claims as "a complete fabrication, a mirage of our own making" and complained bitterly at the "hooligan-like acts of the British police".

He accused the British of trying to distract attention from "the bottle necks, rents and tatters of their own policies" and said they seemed to find the work of building good Anglo-Soviet relations "too boring".

Shortly afterwards, however, the British Ambassador in Moscow, Sir John Killick, cabled London questioning whether the government's "detergent operation" should really "wash whiter than white".

[ image: Officials at the British Embassy in Moscow were against the expulsions]
Officials at the British Embassy in Moscow were against the expulsions
He warned that acceptance of "a certain level of Soviet intelligence activity" in Britain might be necessary if any sort of relations were to be maintained, adding that of Soviet officials applying for visas "two are already identified as bad eggs and the third is likely to be".

The papers also reveal a deep scepticism - at least to begin with - among British officials towards the idea of East-West detente. In 1972, Crispin Tickell, then head of the Foreign Office Western Organisations Department, described detente as "highly relative and a product of particular and ephemeral international circumstances".

He suggested that its supporters in government could "rise so well to the intellectual challenge that they could in the end bamboozle their ministers as well as themselves".

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