Michael Hanley

Michael Hanley, the son of James Hanley, Professor of Agriculture at Leeds University, was born in Leeds on 24th February, 1918. He was educated at Eton and Queen's College, Oxford, where he read modern history.

During the Second World War Hanley was an officer in the Royal Artillery. Later he was posted to the Joint Allied Intelligence Centre in Budapest. In 1945 he attended a course in the Russian language at the Joint Services Language School at Cambridge. The following year he became Assistant Military Attaché at the British Embassy in Budapest.

In 1948 Hanley joined MI5 as a research officer on Russian affairs. This included an investigation into the Red Orchestra spy ring in Europe. His next post was as head of MI5's E Branch (colonial affairs) and in 1960 he became Director of C Branch (vetting and security).

In 1964 Peter Wright was asked to carry out an investigation of Hanley. Defectors from the Soviet Union had given information about a Soviet agent who held a senior position in MI5. This included Michael Goleniewski who had defected in January 1961. These defectors claimed that this Soviet mole had been educated at Eton and Oxford University, had once worked at the Foreign Office and had been recruited while on a course at the Joint Services Language School at Cambridge. This information suggested that the agent was Hanley. However, after carrying out a thorough investigation, Wright came to the conclusion that Goleniewski was part of a disinformation campaign and Hanley was officially cleared of being a Soviet spy.

Hanley replaced Martin Furnival Jones as Director General of MI5 in 1972. According to Peter Wright Hanley told his officers that the prime minister, Edward Heath, had ordered the service to target left-wing politicians.

In 1975 Harold Wilson discovered that MI5 agents were involved in a smear campaign against him. When Hanley was interviewed by Wilson he claimed that this plot only involved a small group of "disaffected right-wing officers". When James Callaghan took office he replaced Hanley with an outsider, the diplomat Howard Smith.

In 1987 Peter Wright wrote his autobiography, Spycatcher, which claimed that Roger Hollis had been a Soviet double-agent and had been the fifth man in the spy ring that included Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt. Other allegations included a conspiracy by MI5 to overthrow the government of Harold Wilson between 1974 and 1976. Margaret Thatcher attempted to suppress the publication and distribution of the book. This was unsuccessful and the publication of Spycatcher severely damaged Hanley's reputation.

Michael Hanley died on 1st January, 2001.

Primary Sources

(1) Peter Wright, Spycatcher (1987)

Hanley was a huge, florid man, with an outwardly bullying manner, which concealed a shy man underneath. Ever since his promotion as Director C in 1960, he was seen as a potential Director-General. He was the right age, mid-forties, with a supple civil servant's mind, which endeared him to Whitehall, and a brusque military exterior which made him popular with the board at M15. By the time the HARRIET investigation emerged he was the crown prince - certain to succeed F.J. when he retired in the early 1970s.

It is always distressing to pursue an investigation into a colleague. With Hollis and Mitchell it was different. They were distant figures, close to retirement by the time the suspicions against them hardened. But Hanley and I knew each other well. We were contemporaries, and although by no stretch of the imagination friends, we had served together amicably on committees for over ten years. His career lay in front of him, and his future was in my hands.

(2) Peter Wright, Spycatcher (1987)

Feelings had run high inside MI5 during 1968. There had been an effort to try to stir up trouble for Wilson then, largely because the Daily Mirror tycoon, Cecil King, who was a longtime agent of ours, made it clear that he would publish anything MI5 might care to leak in his direction. It was all part of Cecil King's "coup," which he was convinced would bring down the Labor Government and replace it with a coalition led by Lord Mountbatten.

I told F.J. (Martin Furnival Jones) in 1968 that feelings were running high, but he responded in a low-key manner.

"You can tell anyone who has ideas about leaking classified material that there will be nothing I can do to save them!"

He knew the message would get back.

But the approach in 1974 was altogether more serious. The plan was simple. In the run-up to the election which, given the level of instability in Parliament, must be due within a matter of months, MI5 would arrange for selective details of the intelligence about leading Labour Party figures, but especially Wilson, to be leaked to sympathetic pressmen. Using our contacts in the press and among union officials, word of the material contained in MI5 files and the fact that Wilson was considered a security risk would be passed around.

Soundings in the office had already been taken, and up to thirty officers had given their approval to the scheme. Facsimile copies of some files were to be made and distributed to overseas newspapers, and the matter was to be raised in Parliament for maximum effect. It was a carbon copy of the Zinoviev letter, which had done so much to destroy the first Ramsay MacDonald Government in 1928.

"We'll have him out," said one of them, "this time we'll have him out."

"But why do you need me?" I asked.

"Well, you don't like Wilson any more than we do... besides, you've got access to the latest files - the Gaitskell business, and all the rest of it."

"But they're kept in the DG's safe!"

"Yes, but you could copy them."

"I need some time to think," I pleaded. "I've got a lot to think about before I take a step like this. You'll have to give me a couple of days."

At first I was tempted. The devil makes work for idle hands, and I was playing out my time before retirement. A mad scheme like this was bound to tempt me. I felt an irresistible urge to lash out. The country seemed on the brink of catastrophe. Why not give it a little push? In any case, I carried the burden of so many secrets that lightening the load a little could only make things easier for me.

It was Victor who talked me out of it. "I don't like Wilson any more than you do," he told me, "but you'll end up getting chopped if you go in for this."

He was right. I had little more than a year to go. Why destroy everything in a moment of madness?

A few days later I told the leader of the group that I would not get the files.

"I'd like to help you," I told him, "but I can't risk it. I've only got half a pension as it is. I can't afford to lose it all."

Some of the operational people became quite aggressive. They kept saying it was the last chance to fix Wilson.

"Once you've retired," they said, "we'll never get the files!"

But my mind was made up, and even their taunts of cowardice could not shake me.