A British journalist working for the Daily Express newspaper is said to have leaked highly sensitive secrets to the Russians during the Second World War.
Above: a document on Belfrage’s activities signed by Kim Philby (National Archives)
Previously unseen MI5 files revealed Cedric Belfrage had passed on intelligence about British spying methods to the Russians whilst working for British security services in the US.
The information was of such value that for a time Soviet intelligence regarded him as one of its key assets, according to the files released in the National Archives.
When he was finally found out he claimed the information was of a “trifling nature” and maintained he was using the intelligence to try to infiltrate Soviet networks.
British security services appear to have failed to grasp the significance of Belfrage’s ties to the Soviet Union.
Professor Christopher Andrew, the former official historian of MI5, said Belfrage’s Soviet handler praised the intelligence he provided to Moscow as “extremely valuable”.
He added: “For a year or so in the middle of the Second World War, Soviet intelligence even rated him ahead of Kim Philby [a member of the ‘magnificent five’ Cambridge spy ring].
“Though Moscow has released some of Philby’s KGB file, however, it has revealed nothing about Belfrage.”
Belfrage was one of Britain’s best paid film critics in the 1930s before moving to Los Angeles in 1936. After a visit to Moscow later that year, he returned to the US a committed communist, keeping close contact with the head of the communist party in America.
From 1941 to 1943 Belfrage worked for the combined MI6 and the Special Operations Executive body, By 1946, evidence from an FBI investigation uncovered Belfrage’s deception.
Authorities learned he had been passing intelligence to the Soviets during the 1940s and was part of a spy network engaging in espionage.
When questioned by the FBI in June 1947, he confessed to leaking secrets to the Soviets, some via leading communist VJ Jerome.
He said: “My thought was to tell him certain things of a really trifling nature from the point of view of British and American interests, hoping in this way to get from him some more valuable information from the Communist side.
“I supplied him with information about Scotland Yard surveillances and also with some documents relative to the Vichy Government in France, which were of a highly confidential nature with respect to their origin but which contained information of no value whatever.”
Belfrage stood before a federal grand jury, but because the documents he leaked were British and not American, he was never charged.
Britain intelligence still wanted to get its hands on him, with a note from MI6 in August 1950 stating “should he ever be unwise enough to return here we should have an account to settle with him”.
In May 1953 he was arrested and brought before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Investigation Committee – where he refused to answer questions on whether he was a Communist.
Belfrage was eventually deported from the US in 1955, and while he remained of interest to the security services in Britain he was not suspected of any further espionage. He died in Mexico in 1990, aged 85.
Nick Belfrage, the son of Cedric Belfrage, have this statement to Channel 4 News:
Cedric Belfrage, my father, has been accused of spying for the USSR in documentation dis-embargoed at midnight on 21st August 2015.
I have not been able to view this documentation so cannot comment directly. What I do know is that the Belfrage family – Cedric, Mollie, Sally (all deceased) and myself – transferred from Los Angeles in the middle of 1941 to New York city where Cedric had been recruited to work with British intelligence. He was a passionate anti-Nazi and had not yet qualified as an American citizen.
This was before either the USA or the USSR had entered the war. Britain had its back to the wall and without these alliances was facing almost certain defeat. The simple brief of British intelligence was to persuade America and Russia to join Britain against the common foe, and to do whatever necessary to achieve this end.
Years later, as has emerged in the documentation, the FBI questioned Cedric on his wartime activities and he maintained that the information he fed the Soviets was of a ‘trifling nature’ whose purpose was to get more substantial information from the Soviets.
At this time (1947) Cedric had already started planning work on his unapologetically left-wing weekly, The National Guardian. He never made any attempt to pretend he was not an avid left-winger whose goal in life was to bring justice and equality to humanity. He had been a declared member of the Communist party in the 1930s in Hollywood, but left the Party in disgust at its regimentation.
Was Cedric Belfrage a spy? As a recruited member of British intelligence, yes.
Was he a double agent? Possibly.
Did his work help to deliver humanity from the evil of Nazism? Almost certainly.
Perhaps he is owed more congratulation than vilification.
Many years after the war, as I recall, the Sunday Times printed on its front page a list of alleged Russian spies, some alive, some dead.
Cedric was listed among the dead. I phoned him at his Mexican home and said :
“Pa, did you realise that you are a dead Russian spy?”
“Well, I do feel a bit dead at times, but I didn’t know I was a Russian spy.”
Cedric was urged by his daughter Sally to claim damages on the grounds of not being dead. He received a moderate settlement which he used to come and visit us in Europe.