William Stevenson on war, espionage and his career as a journalist

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First aired on The Current (06/03/13)

Sir William Stephenson was a Canadian who headed up British intelligence operations in the United States during the Second World War. He's better known as "a man called Intrepid," thanks to a bestselling biography with that title. It was written by the journalist William Stevenson (no relation). In his latest book, Past to Present: A Reporter's Story of War, Spies, People and Politics, Stevenson describes his relationship with the spymaster, but he also looks back over his own career as a foreign correspondent covering some of the biggest stories of the 20th century.

When asked the difference between a journalist and a spy, Stevenson said, "There is none. 'Spyglass' is the word I'd prefer to use. All through the centuries, reporters of one kind or another have put the spyglass to events." Stevenson's father was involved in British intelligence operations, so he grew up with an understanding of "the importance of knowing what the enemy was doing." He sees spying and journalism as alike in that "they're spying out the facts, the truth."


The British-born Stevenson ended up in Canada because of Ian Fleming. Stevenson had served as a pilot in the British navy in the Second World War, and after the war he went to see Fleming for a job. At the time, Fleming was in British intelligence (his fame as the author of spy novels featuring Agent 007 was still to come). When asked for advice, Fleming told Stevenson he should become "a man of the world." He responded by asking how, and Fleming told him, "Why don't you go somewhere exotic? Go somewhere like Canada."

During the war, Sir William Stephenson had been sent to New York City to set up an intelligence organization operating out of North America, "because Churchill expected that Hitler would occupy Britain. And he needed to have an intelligence service that was totally independent of anybody in London." The service continued to operate after the war, and Stevenson (who had started working as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star) sent him information.

The owner of the paper was Harold Hindmarsh, who had little interest in big news stories, according to Stevenson. But he would communicate by way of memos directly with Hindmarsh to ask about covering stories, and Hindmarsh would either agree or say, "No, thanks." The journalist would send long and frequent telegrams to Sir William, relaying information he'd acquired in his travels.

Stevenson travelled in Communist China and behind the Iron Curtain, but he said he was never afraid of being revealed as a spy: he felt "untouchable." In the course of his reporting he met many famous figures, including the Dalai Lama, the first prime minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, and the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh.

While in Asia, Stevenson worked as a correspondent for the Near and Far East News Agency, which was actually a front. "That was set up as a cover for British intelligence," he said. "By having a cover like that, your telegrams were not regarded as somehow spy telegrams, they were just information." But he added that the organization was "a legitimate reporting agency."

Isn't it crossing an ethical line for a journalist to write reports for an intelligence agency while on assignment for a newspaper? "I don't think so," Stevenson said, adding that he grew up with a "kind of romanticized vision of what one did in looking at what's going on in the world. And so I never felt that I was betraying anybody. I was not betraying secrets. I wasn't causing anybody harm, unless it was people I did not like who were communists. But Even then, I had, as I've said before, a kind of odd relationship, I could talk to communists everywhere with a certain kind of innocence."

Stevenson went on to admit, though, that he wouldn't do the same thing now. "Times have changed," he said. "What I did then was a very different world."

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