As It Happens

George Blake, notorious British double-agent for the Soviets, dies at 98

George Blake was a British intelligence officer who became a double agent for the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Some of the most significant secrets he divulged include a massive tunnel operation under the Berlin Wall the West undertook to spy on the Soviets, as well as identifying dozens of British intelligence agents.

The spy spoke with former As It Happens host Michael Enright in 1992 about betrayal

In this Jan. 15, 1992 file photo, George Blake, a former British spy who doubled as a Soviet agent, gestures during a news conference in Moscow. Blake has died in Russia. (AP Photo/Boris Yurchenko)

Transcript

Being a double-agent is not for the faint of heart. But to George Blake, betraying Britain wasn't a difficult decision during the Cold War.

Blake was born in the Netherlands, and eventually moved to Britain. Years later, he would explain that, "To betray, you first have to belong. I never belonged."

He would go on to become the most notorious Soviet agent working inside Britain's Secret Intelligence Service. He was exposed in 1961 and was convicted on spying charges. Five years later, he made a bold escape from prison and fled to Moscow. George Blake died this week at the age of 98.

In 1992, former As It Happens host Michael Enright flew to Russia to interview George Blake about his legacy as a double agent in the Cold War.

His path to becoming a KGB informant began after his recruitment by the British Intelligence Service. He was stationed in Seoul, South Korea, but was captured and interned by North Korea after it took the city in 1950. Blake said he became disillusioned with the West while being interned for nearly three years and secretly became a communist. 

Upon his release, Blake was stationed in Berlin where he began feeding secrets to the Soviets.

One of the most significant secrets he turned over was the plan by the British and U.S. to tunnel under the Berlin wall and tap phone lines to spy on the Soviets.

A portrait of Blake issued by Scotland Yard after his escape from Wormwood Scrubs prison in October 1966, where he was serving a 42-year sentence. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Blake was arrested and convicted of espionage after a Polish officer with knowledge of Blake defected to the West.

After Blake escaped to Russia, he spent the remainder of his life celebrated as a national hero. 

Here's is part of the conversation George Blake had with former As It Happens host Michael Enright:

George Blake: I believe that the communist ideal itself lives very deeply in the minds of many people and that mankind will come back to it.

Michael Enright: You say it's instinctive.

If you think of the early Christian communities, they were communist communities. If people think of an ideal society, even if they describe heaven, they describe a communist society where all people are equal when there were no classes, where there is no envy. So I think this ideal will go on living.

You say that it's a failure of the moral character of the people who are trying to put it into the —

Of the people. I think a communist society, in order to succeed, needs a very high moral standard. It means that you have to put the interests of others as high as your own interests. You must, in fact, love your neighbour as yourself.

If that spirit doesn't exist, communism is bound to fail. And another lesson we have learnt is that it is not possible to change the psychology by force, by terror, by discipline, by command, by propaganda. It must be a gradual change. People must grow towards it. And I think that will take many, many generations.

You say that the system couldn't be imposed by force or violence, and yet you for years were doing your best to damage the intelligence network of the West in the service of a regime that, to a great extent, was violent and did use force and did use propaganda and did use intimidation and fear.

Perfectly true.

Is there not a moral paradox there that you are —

Now looking back with hindsight, I see and realize that it was a great mistake to try and impose it by force. People have to grow towards it, to mature to it, to want to to to build it themselves out of their own free will.

Blake arrives at RAF Abingdon in Oxfordshire on April 22, 1953, after being interned by North Korean for nearly three years. (Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Then how did you see your role when you were spying for the Soviets?

When I was spying, and when I offered my services to the Soviet Union, I saw this as a great experiment of mankind, to create a more just society, to create, in fact, the kingdom of God in this world.

Over the course of your career, up until 1961, you did an awful lot of damage to Western intelligence.

So they say, yes.

Well, what do you say?

I don't want to overrate my own importance, but certainly I did damage. It cannot be otherwise. But I want to say one thing here, which is that we must not overstate the importance of intelligence services. You see, the Cold War was fought to a large extent by the various rival intelligence services.

But if we look at what actually decided the issue, it wasn't the intelligence service, it was the economy, the success of the economy. Whether the CIA had been stronger or whether the KGB had been stronger or the British intelligence service wouldn't have made any difference. What made a difference was which of the two economies was the most successful.

But you would pass on to your Soviet superiors information dealing with the British Secret Service and its operations. 

Yes.

And that would entail, I would imagine, from time to time passing along the names of agents.

Yes.

Of Western agents.

Yes. Yes, it did.

Now, you've been accused in the British press of being responsible for the deaths of —

Yes.

Western agents. And I think your sentence of 42 years, which was the longest given anybody in the history of British jurisprudence, it was alleged there was a year for every dead agent. You've denied that.

Yeah.

Blake, left, arrives at Berlin airport after his release from North Korean capture on April 21, 1953. It was in the German city that he became a double agent. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
How do you know that you're not responsible for the deaths of —

Well, I know for one thing that I made it a condition on passing that kind of information that those people would not be executed, but would be, as it were, isolated from important intelligence. And I have been assured that that was done.

How do you know you weren't lied to?

Well, first of all, I trust [the] people whom I worked with. And I have evidence that the Soviet intelligence service went to very great lengths to protect me, to please me as an important agent. And it would really be an insult to British justice, it seems to me, that a judge would evaluate the life of an agent at one year.

Good point.

So that is purely a press story which had been put about. But I don't deny that I have done, of course, damage to Secret Service and that they were very, very angry with me.
What will the epitaph of George Blake be? I think there will be two because in the West you will be seen by many as a traitor. Probably a hero of the Soviet Union.

Yes, probably, yes.

What do you think your epitaph will be?

You know, Saint Paul says we human beings are like clay in the hands of the potter, and the potter makes vessels to honour and to dishonour. And it is not for the clay to ask why the potter does it. And I think of myself as a vessel that has been made both to honour and to dishonour. That's what I would say.

Written by Lito Howse. Produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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