Sir Christopher Curwen was the MI6 Chief who oversaw one of his Service’s greatest coups — getting Oleg Gordievsky out of Moscow
Sir Christopher Curwen , who has died aged 84, was head of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6) from 1985 to 1988, and it was under his aegis that the Service brought off one of its most spectacular coups, the exfiltration from Moscow of the agent Oleg Gordievsky.
Successively code-named FELIKS and OVATION after being recruited by SIS in 1974, Gordievsky was its star source inside the KGB. He had provided valuable reports at a critical time in the Cold War, a period in which paranoia at the Kremlin had become so pronounced that Nato’s 1983 ABLE ARCHER exercise had been misinterpreted in Moscow as a possible cover for a surprise attack on the Soviet Bloc.
As well as producing enormous quantities of documents from the rezidentura (KGB station) in London, where he had been posted in June 1982 , Gordievsky had identified KGB personnel in the First Chief Directorate ’s British and Scandinavian department and had shed light on dozens of past cases.
While posted to Copenhagen, Gordievsky had alerted SIS to two of the KGB’s most important sources in Norway: Gunvar Haavik and Arne Treholt. Code-named GRETA, Haavik was a secretary in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and had been spying since she had conducted a love affair in 1947 with a Soviet while she was working at the Norwegian embassy in Moscow. Haavik had been arrested in January 1977 in the act of passing information to her KGB case officer in an Oslo suburb, and confessed to having been a spy for almost 30 years. Arne Treholt, also employed by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, was arrested in January 1984 in possession of 66 classified documents . He was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment.
Gordievsky’s greatest triumph, however, was to prevent a potentially massive breach of security in MI5. This was the unmasking of Michael Bettaney, who since December 1982 had been working for the Soviet counter-espionage section, and had made three anonymous approaches to the KGB rezident (head of station) in London, Arkadi Gouk, offering to supply him with MI5 secrets. SIS’s tip from Gordievsky led to a discreet mole-hunt, swiftly conducted inside MI5 by Eliza Manningham-Buller, who identified the culprit without compromising the source of the original tip. In April 1984 Bettaney was sentenced to 23 years’ imprisonment .
With scalps such as these, Gordievsky was considered SIS’s most valuable source, and elaborate measures had been taken to protect him. He was, for example, given the front-door key to a flat, close to the Soviet embassy in London, to which he could disappear with his family should the need arise.
Curwen’s appointment as “C” (as the head of MI6 is known) coincided with just such a crisis. On Friday May 17 1985, having just been promised the job of rezident (head of station) in London , Gordievsky was suddenly summoned back to Moscow, supposedly for consultations.
On his arrival Gordievsky realised that his apartment had been searched; and when he reached FCD headquarters he was accused of being a spy. When he denied it, his interrogators used drugs in an unsuccessful attempt to extract a confession, and he concluded that, although the KGB had been tipped off to his dual role, there was insufficient evidence to justify an arrest. Although he remained under constant surveillance, in late July Gordievsky was able to shake off his watchers while jogging in a park and send an emergency signal to SIS requesting a rescue .
The “signal” was nothing more elaborate than Gordievsky’s appearing on a pre-arranged street corner, at a particular time, carrying a Harrods shopping bag — but it was enough to prompt Curwen to brief Margaret Thatcher’s Foreign Office private secretary, Charles Powell, who immediately flew to Scotland, where the Prime Minister was staying with the Queen at Balmoral. After consultation with the Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, Mrs Thatcher approved a high-risk plan to get Gordievsky out of Moscow and into the West.
The ruse — originally conceived by John Scarlett, himself a future Chief of SIS — was for MI6’s Moscow station commander, Viscount Asquith, to play the “Good Samaritan” by driving a pregnant member of the embassy staff in his Saab for medical treatment in Helsinki; Gordievsky — having evaded his KGB watchers — joined the car at a rendezvous outside Leningrad and was driven over the frontier with Finland at Viborg. He was then driven to Trömso in Norway, and the next day flew from Oslo to London.
Gordievsky was briefly accommodated at a country house in the Midlands, where Curwen visited him, and then at Fort Monckton, Gosport, where he underwent an 80-day debriefing conducted by SIS’s principal Kremlinologist, Gordon Barrass. Among Gordievsky’s other visitors was the US Director of Central Intelligence, Bill Casey, who was flown down to the fort for a lunch hosted by Curwen, a celebration of one of SIS’s most impressive post-war coups.
Although Gordievsky’s safe exfiltration was a source of great pride for Curwen and his staff, there remained considerable concern about precisely how the agent had been compromised. One possibility was that, after so many setbacks, the KGB had worked out for itself that a mole had been at work within the organisation. Or had Gordievsky’s dual role somehow been leaked by a mole?
It was not until the CIA arrested the Soviet spy Aldrich Ames in February 1994 that an explanation was offered. Ames claimed to having identified Gordievsky to the Soviets as a source who had penetrated the KGB in Denmark and London — although there were doubts that he was telling the truth.
Gordievsky’s defection was nevertheless a devastating blow for the KGB, and the expulsion of the London rezidentura, ordered on the basis of his information, had a colossal impact on the organisation .
Resettled under a new identity near London, Gordievsky published his memoirs, Last Stop Execution, in 1994. As well as describing his role in compromising KGB spies in Norway and in Sweden, he revealed that the KGB rezidentura in London had cultivated several highly-placed trade union leaders (among them Richard Briginshaw and Ray Buckton), and that the Soviet embassy had been in touch with what he termed “confidential contacts” – influential individuals (including three Left-wing Labour MPs, Joan Lester, Jo Richardson and Joan Maynard) who could be relied upon to take the Kremlin’s lead on political controversies.
The constitutional implications of Gordievsky’s disclosures were considered sufficiently important for Curwen to brief the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, who in turn called in Tony Blair, as leader of the Opposition, to explain the situation to him.
The son of a vicar, Christopher Keith Curwen was born on April 9 1929 and educated at Sherborne, where he was a friend of David Sheppard, later the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool. During National Service as a second-lieutenant with the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars in Malaya, Curwen was mentioned in dispatches for his gallantry in jungle warfare against communist guerrillas. An officer who served alongside him in Malaya said of Curwen: “There are some people you’d go into the jungle with and some you wouldn’t. I would be very happy to go back into the jungle with Chris… He was tough and fair. He was an excellent officer and his men liked him very much.”
Curwen went up to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he was a keen rower and occasional rugby player. He joined the Cambridge Union but seems to have shown little interest in politics. In the summer of 1951 he drove across the Sahara after visiting his elder brother, then working in the Colonial Service in Nigeria.
In July 1952 he joined SIS and two years later, in 1954, was posted to Thailand to work for Robert Hemblys-Scales, where he became fluent in Thai. In July 1956 he was moved to Vientiane, where he married his first wife, Vera Noom Tai, a physiotherapist who later worked at St Thomas’s Hospital.
Curwen returned to head office in Broadway in 1958, but by 1961 he was back in Bangkok, before spending two years in Kuala Lumpur. After another spell in London , in May 1968 he began a three-year appointment as SIS’s liaison officer in Washington, DC . A Washington colleague described him as “a very gentle chap. I can’t think of anyone more low-key than him.”
Other diplomats who worked alongside Curwen described him as hardworking and discreet. “[He] was very scrupulous,” one recalled. “He used to refer all his activities for approval to me and I give him full marks for that. Of course, there may have been some that he didn’t refer to me.”
In 1977 Curwen’s first marriage was dissolved, and in the same year he married his former secretary, Helen Stirling. He was posted to Geneva as head of station, and in May 1980 was back in London as “C”’s Deputy, succeeding Sir Colin Figures in July 1985 — just in time to be confronted by the Gordievsky crisis.
Mrs Thatcher had been less than impressed by MI6’s performance in the months leading up to the Argentine invasion of the Falklands in 1982. It is said that Curwen’s appointment as C was promoted by Sir Antony Duff, the director-general of MI5.
His selection as “C” was unusual in that “Far East Hands” are rarely appointed to the post, which more usually goes to a Kremlinologist or Middle East specialist. Curwen’s four-year tenure had the advantage of a burgeoning budget, after the Prime Minister insisted that more funds be made available for SIS after years of financial cuts.
Curwen was appointed CMG in 1982 and KCMG in 1986.
On his retirement in November 1988, Curwen succeeded Colin Figures as the Cabinet Intelligence Coordinator, helping the Prime Minister to manage administrative issues across the whole of the intelligence community. In 1991 he recommended in a review, undertaken on behalf of the Cabinet Office’s Joint Intelligence Committee, that MI5 should continue to lead the Metropolitan Police Special Branch in operations against the Provisional IRA.
He finally retired in 1991, when he took on a part-time role as a member of the Security Commission, a body which became redundant when the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee was created three years later .
Sir Christopher Curwen, who retired near Bath, listed his interests in Who’s Who as books, gardening and motoring.
He had five children: a son and two daughters with his first wife, and a son and a daughter with his second.
Sir Christopher Curwen, born April 9 1929, died December 18 2013
© The Daily Telegraph 23 December 2013