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Spy college: secret agent recruiting hotspots

By Anna Doble

Updated on 02 July 2010

Dreaming spires or dreaming spies? As 10 alleged Russian agents stand accused in the US, Who Knows Who looks at the academic recruiting hotspots used in the past by the KGB, MI5 and MI6.

Mini codebook used by spies in the 1960s to decode messages from Moscow. (Credit: Getty)

It recalls a different era in which mysterious characters meet to exchange suitcases in leafy squares.

But decades after the "official" end of the Cold War the case of 10 alleged Russian spies, accused in the US, has shone a powerful beam on the world of modern day espionage.

The group, at least two of whom are accused of using fake identities, are said to have possessed James Bond-style "tradecraft" kits. The FBI says these included stenography devices which would allow users to encrypt secret data.

Who is alleged Russian spy Anna Chapman?

One of the group, Anna Chapman, the apparent "femme fatale" who allegedly sent messages to Russian officials from a New York branch of Starbucks, previously lived and worked in the UK. A man who says he is her ex-husband, Alex Chapman, has claimed in an interview with the Telegraph newspaper she was "dominated" by her ex-KGB father. MI5 is now investigating.

Chapman's profile on professional networking website LinkedIn states that she once worked at the investment bank division of Barclays Bank.

Another member of the group, Don Heathfield, is known to have attended Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Among many other leading figures in politics, it has previously seen UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pass through its doors.

In this instance Heathfield is alleged to have got "inside" the institution using a stolen identity. But academic centres have long acted as "honeypot" recruitment grounds for the likes of MI6 and the KGB (now the FSB).

It is no secret Oxford, Cambridge (and in the US, Harvard and Yale) are proven pathways to government - and so a portal (albeit a shadowy one) has existed between the worlds of espionage and politics.

Labour leader of the early eighties the late Michael Foot (who was educated at Wadham College, Oxford) was alleged to have been a KGB agent. At Oxford he was president of the union and also featured as Isis "Idol" in the university magazine.

Oleg Gordievsky, himself a former KGB colonel, made the controversial claim about Foot's Soviet connections in the mid-1990s. Foot, who died earlier this year, denied it and won libel damages against the Sunday Times in 1995.

My classmate - the alleged Russian spy

But over the years other politicians and trade union leaders have also been accused of harbouring close contacts with the Russians.

Gordievsky fingered the late Jack Jones, the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union in the 1970s and a man described as a "towering figure of the British trade union movement". He claimed Jones worked under the code name "Dream".

Christopher Andrew's official history of MI5 also claimed that Jones had been a knowing KGB agent. Andrew was given exclusive access to secret service files and archives in order to produce an authorised history of the intelligence agency.

But Jones, who died at the age of 96 in 2009, always denied that he helped the Soviets and claimed it was a "slur".

In 1999 a Soviet defector, the late Vasili Mitrokhin, unmasked the late Labour MP Ray Fletcher as a former KGB spy. His widow denied the claim and said that in fact he had worked for MI6. Mitrokhin also named Met Police officer, John Symonds, the so-called "Romeo agent" apparently used by the KGB to "charm" employees of foreign embassies. The latter is said to have admitted his KGB involvement, only to be dismissed by police as a fantasist.

In more recent years David Cameron revealed in 2006 he believed he had been "tapped up" by the KGB during a visit to Russia in his gap year between school and university.

The prime minister told BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs that two men "speaking perfect English" had taken him and a friend out to dinner and questioned them about life in England and politics. His Oxford professors later concluded it was "a definite attempt" at recruitment.

Jonathan Evans: who knows MI5's spymaster

Of course British intelligence agencies MI5 (which deals with threats inside the UK) and MI6 (which deals with foreign intelligence) have also gone to prestigious academic institutions to find recruits.

An anonymous source, who graduated from Oxford in the 1980s, has told Channel 4 News about one such approach.

He explained: "I did the Foreign Office exam and was successful and promised a job.

"Not long afterwards, I was called in for another interview, during which I was asked to consider working for the security services - in particular, MI6.

"I have never, ever wanted to be a spy. I am not spy material. Indeed, my response to the offer of work with MI6 was the same as Groucho Marx's when offered membership of a club in Beverly Hills: I didn't want to be a member of any club that would accept people like me as a member.

"I turned the offer down and did not join the Foreign Office."

It is not just universities and colleges that have been targeted in the past. Media institutions have also been in the sights of spymasters.

In his autobiography Shooting History, Channel 4 News anchorman Jon Snow revealed that, in the 1970s, he was approached to spy on "left-wing people" working in television.

He recalls the experience today: "I was contacted [by letter] in between working for LBC and ITN to spy. They wanted me to work for MI6."

Snow then attended a meeting in Whitehall where he was offered a tax-free salary in return for his services.

He adds: "It was suggested I should read the Denning report into the Profumo affair. I never did and instead I read Kim Philby's My Secret War. It was clear from the book that to be a good spy you would have to be a double-agent."

Harold "Kim" Philby was, along with Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and Donald Maclean, part of the "Cambridge Four" – Cambridge University graduates who spied for the Russians.

And it's not just a boys' club. Jonathan Evans, the current boss of MI5, once let slip in an interview that the agency had been recruiting women from Cheltenham Ladies College for years.

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