This is the blog of British investigative journalist Jason Lewis.
It features articles from my time as Investigations Editor of the Sunday Telegraph and Whitehall and Security Editor of the Mail on Sunday.
I specialise in writing on intelligence and security matters, human and civil rights and the activities of the British State.
Friday, 24 February 2012
KGB spies. From the archives.
THE KGB'S SPY AT THE PALACE Soviet intelligence files reveal the extraordinary story of how Princess Margaret's butler and top author Derek Tangye sold secrets to Moscow
By JASON LEWIS and KIM WILLSHER
Published 20 February 2000
Mail on Sunday
THE Soviet Union spied on the British Royal Family during the height of the Cold War and even succeeded in getting an agent employed as Princess Margaret's butler, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
Today we unmask Thomas Cronin -code-name Rab -as the key agent in an audacious plan that led to the Royals' most intimate secrets being sent to spymasters in Russia.
Highly classified files in Moscow reveal how Cronin, who also served a five-year stint as butler to the American Ambassador, was just one of a number of Soviet spies given the mission of infiltrating London high society.
The archives name other agents, too, including bestselling author Derek Tangye and his wife Jean.
The revelation of their activities will astonish Establishment figures who remember the couple as one of the most glamorous of the London social set.
According to the records, the agents bugged the Queen's apartments in Buckingham Palace -as well as other Royal residences and some of the grandest private addresses in the capital. Maps of state rooms, privileged documents and society gossip were all chan-nelled back to Moscow.
The Soviets were particularly interested in intimate details of the private lives of the Royals, senior politicians and diplomats.
The aim was to use the information for blackmail purposes, or to leak it to subvert the British Establishment.
These sensational stories of political and sexual intrigue still reside in the Moscow files.
Operation Dom, which means
house in Russian, can be revealed today after our three months of investigations in London, Moscow and Washington gained unprecedented access to senior Soviet intelligence sources. Our reporters secretly met highly-decorated intelligence veterans in parks, hotels and a bathhouse.
The officials revealed how Dom was launched in the late Fifties before the Profumo Affair which saw the British War Minister caught in a 'honeytrap' with a prostitute linked to a Soviet agent.
At the time the operation was deemed so important that it involved the KGB and the rival GRU Soviet intelligence agencies working together -an almost unprecedented move.
At the centre of the plot was Cronin the butler. His codename, Rab, means slave in Russian.
From about 1955 until the early Sixties he sent a stream of enormously damaging material to his Moscow paymasters, first from inside the American Embassy in London and later from Kensington Palace.
A photograph taken in 1959 and published around the world reveals just how much access the spy enjoyed. Seated at a table in the sumptuous ballroom of Winfield House, then the US Embassy in London, are some of the most powerful men in the West.
On the left of the then US Ambassador, John Hay Whitney, is British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, and on his right Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Montgomery.
Across the table sits President Eisenhower -and behind him is the embassy butler and Soviet spy, Thomas Cronin.
Standing ramrod straight, resplendent in starched collar, sharply creased trousers and immaculate top coat and tails, with a row of campaign medals proudly displayed across his chest, he seems every inch the perfect English butler.
It was the ideal cover. A senior GRU officer, who confirmed Cronin's identity to The Mail on Sunday, said: 'Rab was a highly valuable agent for the GRU.
'In the American Embassy he worked closely with the ambassador and other senior diplomats. He had access to documents, letters, including the ambassador's personal letters, and conversation and gossip.
Some of the most valuable material related to American/Western intentions in Germany, which in many ways was the big issue of the day dividing the USSR and USA.' He added that Rab was 'very difficult to handle'. At times he was 'scared' and at others 'confused'.
His mood swings were tolerated because of the level of information he supplied.
Yesterday a senior member of the US staff at the time said Cronin was very well known as a character within the embassy.
He said: 'Cronin was so pompous that he was a joke. Despite the fact that he was insufferable, many people saw him as a caricature from the Jeeves books and sort of liked him.' The revelations came as a total surprise, he said. But if Cronin was a spy, he would have been of immense value to the Soviets.
Cronin worked for Ambassador Whitney until 1960. When the American was due to be posted elsewhere, Cronin talked his way into a job at Kensington Palace to work for newlyweds Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones, now Lord Snowdon.
He lasted just 25 days at Kensing-ton Palace. In what was a minor scandal of the day he fell out with Armstrong-Jones and left the Royal household on the same day he was asked to sign the Official Secrets Act. The following year he sold a series of articles to national newspapers in which he claimed that he had quit because of the way the palace was run.
The final straw, he said, was when Anthony Armstrong-Jones complained he had entered a drawing room without knocking. On another occasion he snapped his fingers to attract the servant's attention.
It was never established whether Cronin's explanations were accurate.
Initial stories about the affair suggested he had been fired and it is even possible that he failed the vetting procedures that all palace staff have to go through.
Within weeks he moved to America, working first at a Florida country club and later at several homes in New York and Canada.
However, the GRU source claims Cronin continued to send information back to Moscow -much of it derived from his former colleagues at the American embassy and the Royal household.
But by early 1962 he had broken off all contact with the Russians. It is unclear exactly what happened but he seems to have lost faith in his GRU handler -an 'illegal', or Soviet
and Presiden t Nixon in London spy operating in London but not under official cover.
The GRU source revealed: 'There was some kind of misunderstanding between the two. Something went wrong with their relationship.
Rab effectively said to his controller: "You can't use me any more".' The vicious inquest that followed at the GRU headquarters in Moscow was an indication of the esteem in which Rab was held.
Vice Admiral Leonid Bek-renev, head of the GRU's 1st directorate which ran all so-called 'illegal' operations, was removed from his post in 1962 and 'demoted' to naval attach in Washington.
The then head of the GRU, Ivan Serov, was angry with Bekrenev over Rab's loss as an active source. He complained that basic mistakes were made and highlighted particularly the matter of Rab's somewhat flippant codename, which has a clear meaning in Russian and, in English, was a joke based on the name of the prominent Tory politician Rab Butler. Serov saw this as 'not serious and not safe'.
Cronin died in 1985 aged 70 having returned to Britain with his wife Lillian in the early Seventies to live in Northampton.
Lillian died last November and yesterday her son from an earlier marriage, Peter Groom, said he was amazed that his stepfather was named in the Soviet files, although he knew he had been a spy.
He said: 'He never really spoke about it. But once he did tell us that he worked for the British. He definitely said he had worked for British intelligence.
He worked at the American and Chinese embassies and kept the British security services informed. He said that, but nothing more.
'We are very loyal to Britain our family is British through and through.
He would not have been disloyal.' The view that Cronin also worked for the British is backed up by our GRU source who claimed he may have been a double agent, which would explain why he was often nervous and feared exposure.
The Soviet archive also details the activities of an agent codenamed Para.
Para, which means 'couple' in Russian, was not one spy but two: journalist and author Derek Tangye, later to write the best-selling autobiographical Minack Chronicles, and his wife Jean Nicol, who had been Press officer at the Savoy Hotel in London.
The Tangyes were a key source of information on the royals and both secretly worked for MI5 after the War until the early Fifties.
However, according to the Moscow files, they were also passing similar potentially highly damaging information to the Soviets.
With their prominence in society circles, connections with MI5 and their professional roles as journalist and public relations officer, their cover was also perfect.
Their access to intelligence on the Royals and other prominent high society names was unique and incredibly valuable in Operation Dom.
The Mail on Sunday has learned that Tangye and his wife were the source of royal letters, diaries and documents which found their way into the hands of the KGB and GRU.
Jean's job at the Savoy had given her incredible access to the countless famous and influential people passing through the hotel during the time she worked there. Perhaps significantly, she was involved in arranging meetings of the Friday Club, to which Prince Philip belonged before he married the Queen.
Details of these meetings and the antics of the Duke of Edinburgh's other bachelor friends at the Thursday Club, which met at Wheeler's Restaurant in Old Compton Street, Soho, found their way back to Moscow. But in 1949, to the total astonishment of friends and colleagues, including stars Danny Kaye, Noel Coward, Tyrone Power and Bing Crosby, the Tangyes suddenly abandoned their life as one of London's most glamorous couples and moved to a broken-down cottage in Cornwall.
The revelation that they were spying for the Soviets suggests they may have been living in fear of exposure and quit London before their treachery was discovered.
According to the secret Soviet file, they continued spying long after their self-imposed 'retirement', maintaining many valuable connections vital for Moscow but keeping out of the way of MI5 spycatchers.
Once in Cornwall the couple sent the Russians details of their influential guests. The files reveal insights into Labour deputy premier George Brown, who retreated to the couple's Cornish hideaway on several holidays.
Incredible as it may seem against this backdrop, one of Tangye's last acts at MI5 was to alert members of the most infamous Soviet spy ring that the game was up.
He once revealed that, as part of his job with the security service, 'I wrote a memo to Anthony Blunt warning him that Guy Burgess might be unreliable.' Soon after, Burgess fled Britain, defecting to Russia and sending the security services into turmoil.
Weeks later, Tangye and his wife left London.
Until now the Tangyes' secret treachery has remained hidden -not even guessed at by those closest to them. Derek Tangye died in October 1996. His wife had died ten years earlier.
It is only now that the damage done by Rab and Para can be assessed. None of those involved in Operation Dom has ever been brought to justice.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the affair is that the file is still ranked with the most secret of the Cold War years. It could be that the newly 'open' Russia is just too embarrassed to allow this secret history to be exposed.
But it could also be that the Operation Dom file was never closed.
Perhaps today there are other butlers, writers and top hotel workers in the pay of modern day Russian 'illegals', waging a new war on the West in which information is still the key to power and influence.