Soviet spies used civilian planes to snoop on British and American military installations during the 1980s, newly released U.K. documents show.
Britain’s Royal Air Force “established that some of these aircraft deviated from their flight-plan routes in circumstances which would lead us to assume that they were gathering intelligence,” the then defense secretary, John Nott, wrote in a memo to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that’s among government files from 1982 published today after being kept confidential for the prescribed 30 years.
The papers from the National Archives in London give an insight into both the extent of Soviet espionage and the U.K. government’s awareness of it. One agent from the KGB, the Soviet security agency, was identified on arrival in 1977 and followed for five years, subject to a series of British intelligence operations before finally being expelled.
Relations between Thatcher’s government and the Soviet Union were tense at the time, despite attempts by diplomats to persuade her to take a conciliatory line. More than once in her files she rejects a course of action proposed in a memo, referring to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as the reason.
As Communist Party general secretary Leonid Brezhnev approached his 75th birthday at the end of 1981, Foreign Secretary Peter Carrington said it would be “churlish” of her not to send congratulations.
“Afghanistan?” Thatcher wrote in the margins of the memo suggesting this. “I really don’t think we should send a message.” She underlined “don’t.”
Nott wrote to Thatcher about the KGB’s use of Aeroflot planes over Britain after the Royal Air Force decided to look at the activities of “the thousand or so Warsaw Pact airliners which fly over the U.K. each month.”
In “one incident of particular interest,” the defense secretary wrote, an Ilyushin IL62 from the Soviet airline “made an unauthorized and unannounced descent from 35,000 feet to 10,000 feet, just below cloud level, to fly over RAF Boulmer, a radar station currently being modernized” in northeast England.
The plane turned off its automatic broadcast of its height during the maneuver, after which it returned to its previous altitude and began transmitting again.
The RAF subsequently established the same plane performed a similar operation over the U.S. Navy base at Groton, Connecticut, when the first Trident submarine was being launched.
The KGB was also using more traditional methods. In February 1982, the Security Service, the British internal security agency popularly known as MI5, asked for permission to expel a Russian trade official, Vadim Fedorovich Zadneprovskiy, after he “engaged in unacceptable intelligence-gathering activities.” According to the MI5 report, he had been identified as a KGB agent on his arrival in 1977 and followed.
MI5 used his inquiries about British counter-surveillance techniques to establish gaps in the KGB’s knowledge, with “some success.” The security service watched as he ran a British businessman, whom they codenamed “Court Usher,” as an agent, even using him to deliver equipment “in a thoroughly clandestine manner.” After concluding it wouldn’t be able to recruit Zadneprovskiy, MI5 demanded he be thrown out.
It wasn’t just professional spies trying to get in on the act. As the Falklands War raged, and the government wrestled with the question of how to keep French-built Exocet anti-ship missiles out of Argentine hands, Attorney General Michael Havers sent Thatcher a handwritten note suggesting a way to intercept a shipment.
Acknowledging his idea “may be thought to be more appropriate to a James Bond movie,” Havers said the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, should try to insert its own person as loadmaster on any flight used to carry missiles to Argentina.
“If this can be agreed, the loadmaster has total control over the flight and, therefore, could redirect the aircraft in transit to (for example) Bermuda,” he wrote. “This will cost money (this is an expensive dirty business) but could, in my view, be cheap at the price.”
Havers may not have been aware at the time that MI6 was already running operations to precisely that end. Nott’s diary recalls, without giving details, how the agency both prevented Argentina buying missiles available on the open market and disabled missiles it thought could fall into Argentine hands.
The U.S., while leading attempts to broker a cease-fire between Argentina and the U.K., provided information from spies as part of its support to Britain in the conflict.
A briefing for Thatcher before a meeting on June 9 with President Ronald Reagan refers to “continuing close co-operation between our respective intelligence agencies, including the provision of a wide range of crucial additional intelligence material and the exchange of intelligence assessments.” At the meeting, Thatcher told Reagan of her “grief” that his “magnificent support” could not be made public.
There’s another nod to Bond in a briefing for Thatcher on the entourage that was accompanying Reagan on a visit to the U.K.
Secretary of State Alexander Haig “smokes a packet and a half of cigarettes a day and enjoys (very) dry Martini,” the note said. It didn’t say if he preferred his drink shaken or stirred.