Peter Graff, LONDON, Reuters
British and U.S. officials deliberately covered up an embarrassing Cold War error that led Britain to give security clearance to a nuclear scientist who then defected to Russia, newly released documents reveal.
British records show the FBI had warned Britain that U.S. security agents had found Communist literature at the home of Italian-born physicist Bruno Pontecorvo seven years before he defected to the Soviet Union.
Pontecorvo worked at Britain’s Harwell Atomic Research Center and fled shortly after another Harwell physicist, Klaus Fuchs, confessed to spying for the Soviets in one of the Cold War’s great spy scandals.
The Fuchs case was hugely embarrassing to Britain and led to calls in the United States to restrict nuclear cooperation between the allies because of lax British security.
Pontecorvo’s defection threatened to make that embarrassment far worse but London and Washington succeeded in keeping the extent of the British lapse a secret.
British officials publicly said they had done all the necessary checks on Pontecorvo, that his record was clean and they had never had reason to suspect him of being disloyal.
But documents released at Britain’s Public Record Office this past week showed U.S. security officials had told London about the Communist literature in Pontecorvo’s home in 1943.
A British account of the affair sent to the FBI acknowledged that “by some organizational error” British security officials overlooked the American warning when they gave Pontecorvo security clearance.
“We are unable to say why your reports were apparently not taken into consideration,” the British confessed in the account to the FBI.
Although American officials were aware of the blunder, they still helped London conceal it, even agreeing to give deliberately misleading testimony to Congress.
Aside from coming clean to the FBI, Britain sent a second account of the affair to a senior U.S. nuclear official, R. Gordon Arneson, which made no mention of the error.
Britain’s ambassador to Washington, Oliver Franks, wrote back home to London that the aim of sending the two versions was to allow Arneson to provide information to Congress without revealing the embarrassing British security lapse.
“The latter omits the paragraph dealing with the fact that in February, 1943, the FBI sent a security memorandum to the British Security Coordination stating that numerous pamphlets and books on Communism had been found in Pontecorvo’s residence,” he wrote.
“It is naturally desirable that these facts should not become public, and we believe the FBI will keep quiet about them if it can. As Arneson wants to be in a position to show the letter we sent him on a secret basis to members of the staff of the Joint Congressional Committee, we omitted the paragraph in question in order to minimize a leak.”