Spartacus Blog

The problems of appearing in a BBC documentary

Friday, 17th September, 2015

John Simkin

On 21st August, the BBC ran a story on its website entitled, Cedric Belfrage, the WW2 spy Britain was embarrassed to pursue. I contacted Gordon Corera, the author of the article, and pointed out several inaccuracies in the piece and complained about the distorted impression that he had given about the role played by Cedric Belfrage while working for British intelligence during the Second World War.

The article refers to two historians in support of the view that Belfrage was an important Soviet spy. Professor Christopher Andrew, the official historian of MI5, claims that "Soviet intelligence in the middle of World War Two actually ranked him ahead of Philby - only for a year or two, but nonetheless, it was an important year or two." The second historian used was Svetlana Lokhova, who is described in the article as an expert on Russian intelligence (this is not supported by a search on the web although she does seem to have been a student at Cambridge University, where Andrew has taught for many years). Lokhova argues "I think he was one of the most important spies the Soviet Union ever had". (1)

I have been interested in Cedric Belfrage for many years. I first came across him when writing about journalists working in the 1930s. I was impressed by his early awareness of the dangers of fascism and while working as a film critic in the United States was one of the founders of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League.

Later, when carrying out research on McCarthyism, about fifteen years ago, I came across the fact that on 6th May 1953, he appeared before House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Belfrage refused to answer questions put to him by Harold H. Velde because "whatever answers I would give would be used to crucify me and other innocent persons". Another HUAC member, Bernard W. Kearney, told Belfrage: "I'm going to contact immigration authorities and find out why you are still in this country. I think you're the type to be deported immediately." (2)

Later that month Belfrage was arrested and taken to Ellis Island, at that time, the immigration detention centre. On 10th June, 1953, he was freed by Federal District Judge Edward Weinfeld. In a statement issued by Weinfeld he argued: "If for the long period of seven years following... the immigration and other government officials did not consider Belfrage's presence and activities inimical to the nation's welfare and a threat to its security, it is difficult to understand how, overnight, because of his assertion of a constitutional privilege, he has become such a menace to the nation's safety that it is now necessary to jail him without bail." (3)

However, the logic of Judge Weinfeld meant nothing when the national hero of America was Senator Joseph McCarthy. Belfrage was eventually deported on 15th August 1955. "America banished one of its most devoted sons last week in the person of Cedric Henning Belfrage, editor of the newspaper. With his wife, the Guardian editor sailed at noon, Monday, August 15, on the Holland-America liner Nieuw Amsterdam for his native England under a deportation order demanded 27 months ago by Senator Joseph McCarthy." (4) The following year Belfrage published The Frightened Giant: My Unfinished Affair with America (1956). (5)

It was at this point I decided to produce a page on Cedric Belfrage for the Spartacus Educational online encyclopedia. At the time it was the only detailed account of Belfrage on the web. However, in June 2004, Wikipedia produced a page on him. At the time it was mainly based on the material I had collected on him. Over the years the editor of the page has added more details.

A couple of years ago when I was writing about Ian Fleming I came across information that Belfrage worked with the creator of James Bond, in the British Security Coordination (BSC) during the Second World War. After carrying out further research into BSC I added this to his biography.

Last year, when working on the subject of Soviet spies in America, I discovered that Cedric Belfrage was one the 80 people named by Elizabeth Bentley in the confession she made to the FBI on 7th November 1945. This led me to investigate the declassified Venona files. This showed that he had definitely passed secrets to the Soviets. However, as he explained in his own interview with the FBI in April, 1947, he only passed information to the Soviet Union on behalf of BSC. Belfrage, like several intelligence officers, worked as a double agent in the war.

With the information I had it was clear to me that this story being promoted by the BBC (the story using the same material also appeared in articles in the Daily Mail and the Financial Times) was clearly part of a British intelligence disinformation campaign. I was also disturbed by the news that the Cedric Belfrage case was going to be the subject of a radio documentary, The Hollywood Spy, that was due to be broadcast on 17th September.

I emailed Gordon Corera and pointed out the mistakes and distortions that appeared in his article. He quickly replied and asked me if I was willing to be interviewed for the documentary. This I agreed to do and gave him a 60 minute interview. The programme was broadcast last night. Several friends phoned me and sent me messages by email saying that they found it a very balanced programme. I am sure that most of the listeners had the same impression. There is no doubt the documentary was less obviously biased than the original BBC article.

It was only those who know a great deal about the case would have been aware of how the BBC manipulated the material to give the impression that Belfrage was indeed a Soviet agent. This was especially true of Belfrage's relatives who had refused to take part in the programme. The radio documentary began with quotations from Professor Christopher Andrew and myself. This made it clear that there was a disagreement about Belfrage's behaviour during the war.

Corera told the audience that Professor Andrew was the official historian of MI5. To emphasize his academic credentials the presenter explained how he interviewed Andrew at Cambridge University. Whereas I was described as a former history teacher (in other words, an amateur historian). During the programme Andrew was supported by Svetlana Lokhova (described as an expert on Soviet intelligence) and the right-wing American historian, John Earl Haynes.

Whereas Andrew, Lokhova and Haynes were allowed to discuss the evidence that suggested that Belfrage was a Soviet spy, my contributions were more of a emotional defence of Belfrage. Yet, during my interview I spent a lot of time explaining why I believe the evidence indicates that he was a double-agent working for British intelligence.

Gordon Corera sent me a list of the questions that he intended to ask me in the interview. I therefore wrote my answers down and then sent him a copy after the interview that was fully referenced to take into account where I had obtained the information. For example, in response to the question: “Your view on whether he (Cedric Belfrage) was spying for the Russians or contacting them under orders from BSC and why you believe that.”

First of all it is important to confirm that he was supplying information to the Soviets. The first information that Cedric Belfrage was a Soviet spy came from Elizabeth Bentley. On 7th November 1945 she gave the FBI a 107 page statement that named more than 80 Soviet spies working in the United States. (6) This included the name of Belfrage. She had never met him and was only going on information given to her by Jacob Golos, the head of the New York spy ring. However, we now know, that what she said was true. This was because by 1950, Meredith Gardner and his team working at Arlington Hall, were able the break the code used by the Soviet spies based in America when they communicated with Moscow. The FBI had been collecting these cables since the 1930s. By 1950 they had over 200,000 Soviet intelligence cables (Venona) (7)

They were now able to read some of these cables. Belfrage’s code-name was MOLLY. He was also known as UCN/9. For example, one cable dated 19th May, 1943, stated that Belfrage, had informed them that there was a "growing movement" for "opening a second front in Europe". (8) This information about public opinion on the desire for a Second Front had been obtained by British Security Coordination agent, David Ogilvy, who worked for the Audience Research Institute, that had been set-up by George H. Gallup and Hadley Cantril. According to the official BSC history, from later 1941 on Ogilvy was "able to ensure a constant flow of intelligence on public opinion in the United States, since he had access not only to the questionnaires sent out by Gallup and Cantril and to the recommendations offered by the latter to the White House," but also to "internal reports prepared by the Survey Division of the Office of War Information and by the Opinion Research Division of the U.S. Army". (9)

There are several pieces of evidence that suggests that he was working for the BSC when he was passing information to the Soviets.

Point 1: In her statement to the FBI Elizabeth Bentley points out that Jacob Golos was always suspicious of Belfrage. "Belfrage was an extremely odd character, and rather difficult to deal with. Although passionately devoted to the cause, he still considered himself a patriotic Britisher, and hence he would give us no information that showed up England's mistakes or tended to make her a laughing-stock." (10)

Point 2: The Soviets also had doubts about Belfrage. It is clear that he had not told the Soviets of the existence of the BSC. In June, 1943, Pavel Klarin, the Soviet vice-counsul in New York City, and a senior NKVD officer, was requested to investigate the existence of this organization. On 21st June he replied: "The organization 'British Security Coordination' is not known to us. We have taken steps to find out what it is. We will report the result in the next few days." (11)

The following month Vassili Zarubin, sent a cable to NKVD headquarters in Moscow. He claimed that another Soviet agent, HAVRE (the true identity of this agent has never been discovered), had reported that Belfrage had failed to give Jacob Golos details about the BSC. This suggested to the Soviets he was working as a double agent. (12) Golos now broke off contact with Belfrage.

Point 3: The most important point is the confession that Belfrage made to the FBI in April 1947. All the other Soviet spies named by Elizabeth Bentley refused to make confessions. In doing so, they were following instructions given to them by their Soviet handlers. Kim Philby had told the Soviets about Bentley’s FBI interview two weeks after it took place. (13)

The spies were told that they could not be convicted by Bentley’s testimony and that the FBI would need a confession to make it possible to gain a conviction. The Soviets were right and none of the 80 Americans named by Bentley were ever charged with spying offences. If Belfrage had been a Soviet spy, rather than a double-agent, he would never have made a confession.

Belfrage confessed that in 1942 he met with Earl Browder, a leading figure in the Communist Party of the United States. He was then introduced to Jacob Golos. The following year he met with Victor Jerome, eight or nine times. Belfrage said that he met with Jerome "with a view to finding out what I could about Communists and Russian politics". Belfrage reported that in order to induce Jerome to provide him with information: "I supplied him with information about Scotland Yard surveillances and also with some documents relative to the Vichy Government in France, which were of a highly confidential nature with respect to their origin but which contained information of no value whatever."

Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, the authors Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America have argued: "Belfrage did not know it, but his statement about giving Jerome material on Scotland Yard surveillance matched closely with a Bentley statement that among the documents Belfrage had handed over was a British security service manual on procedures and techniques for the proper running of agents... The Venona cables also corroborate Bentley's story that Golos shared Belfrage's information with Browder." (14)

Point 4: At the end of the war the files of the BSC were transported to Camp X in Canada. William Stephenson wanted to have some record of the activities of the agency, "To provide a record which would be available for reference should future need arise for secret activities and security measures for the kind it describes." He recruited Roald Dahl, H. Montgomery Hyde, Giles Playfair, Gilbert Highet and Tom Hill, to write the book. Only twenty copies of the book were printed. Ten went into a safe in Montreal and ten went to Stephenson for distribution. The files were then destroyed by Tom Hill and his wife. (15)

The book, British Security Coordination: The Secret History of British Intelligence in the Americas, 1940-45, was published in 1998. It included several of the documents that were destroyed at Camp X. This included a cable from William Stephenson to the Head of the SIS that implies that BSC agents were working with the FBI in dealing with communist subversives during the war: “I have arranged with Hoover personally to appoint trusted representative as liaison with us on Communist activities exclusively.” (16)

The book also includes information that could well relate to the Cedric Belfrage case: “The… BSC had some success in assisting the FBI towards the active deception of the enemy through double agents.” The authors claim that the FBI had some initial problems with employing double agents: “Many of the FBI’s troubles with double agents arose from their lack of understanding of the European mind and outlook, and their inability to place in charge of a double agent officers with a background likely to win his friendship and sympathy.”

The book also attempts to explain why the BSC double agents had to be given real intelligence to pass to another country: “Finally, double agents cannot be used to deceive the enemy unless they are given, from time to time, true and useful intelligence material which they are permitted to transmit, for otherwise the enemy will realize that their information is of no value and will soon discard them.” (17)

None of this information was included in the documentary. This particularly upset the Belfrage family as I had already sent them a copy of my transcript. They had refused to participate because they did not trust the BBC to use the material fairly: "The presentation was biased, as expected, with the 'Russian spy' title, some of Nick's words cut out to support the view that the 'double agent' theory was a possibility, some of your crucial arguments simply not aired.

They pointed out that the BBC kept the title, The Hollywood Spy, that suggested that they had already made up their mind about MI5 allegations. Although they started the documentary with two different viewpoints, the lack of a question mark in the title shows that Gordon Corera had already made up his mind that he was guilty. The title itself is ridiculous. Belfrage had been living in New York City for many years when he began working for the BSC. In what way was he a Hollywood spy?

Belfrage's family were especially upset by the ending of the documentary. Professor Christopher Andrew was "given the last word to say he found 'unjustifiable' CB's having 'passed information' to a country that developed the 'largest gulag in the world's history'... However he who scrutinized the recently opened Venona archive failed to find any specific evidence showing that CB worked as a 'Russian spy', Stalin's gulag having little to do with our topic... Biased as it intended to be, this programme ended up in mere speculations and the only serious evidence it actually contained did not support the theory it was supposed to promote." (18)

In an interview he gave in 1977 Belfrage explained that while at Cambridge University he had no interest in politics. This changed while he was living in Hollywood. During the Great Depression he witnessed great inequality. Like many intelligent people at the time he became convinced that capitalism had failed. He says in the interview that he "could not stomach the inequalities" that he saw and he therefore became a socialist and an anti-fascist activist. As he admitted that this decision "started me on the road to ruin". (19)

If Cedric Belfrage had not lost his faith in capitalism he would probably be best remembered for his perceptive film criticisms. Belfrage, for example, promoted the early work of Orson Welles. According to the authors of Radical Hollywood (2002), he selected Citizen Kane "as the supreme example of what radical innovators could do in Hollywood, the proof that showed the way forward." Belfrage argued that the movie was "as profoundly moving an experience as only this extraordinary and hitherto unexplored media of sound-cinema can afford." Belfrage suggested that progressive figures in Hollywood had been"hoping and trying for a chance like this.... but always the film salesman, speaking through the producer, has the last word." (20)

Instead of become an important film critic, his left-wing film reviews lost him his job with The Daily Express. After the war Belfrage was blacklisted as a result of McCarthyism. He was deported back to England, where his reputation as a socialist critic of capitalism meant that there was not much work to be had back home.

In 1960 Cedric Belfrage travelled to Cuba where reported on the new government of Fidel Castro. (21) After spending some time in the region he published The Man at the Door with the Gun: Contemporary Developments in Latin America (1963) where he discussed the possibility of future revolutions in the region. Belfrage argued that Castro had "made some serious errors of judgment" but he "anchored himself in scores of millions of hearts beyond Cuba to Latin America's darkest confines" and made himself a top target of CIA's assassination programme. (22)

In the late 1980s the Sunday Times accused Belfrage of being a Soviet spy. The newspaper thought he was dead and therefore they thought they would get away with it. Belfrage was in fact living in Mexico and was able to successfully sue them. As I told Gordon Corera in my interview, if Belfrage was alive, you would never have made this documentary. It is a sad state of affairs that the BBC now uses the methods of the right-wing media to smear socialists who bravely fought fascism before it was acceptable to do so.



(1) Gordon Corera, Cedric Belfrage, the WW2 spy Britain was Embarrassed to Pursue (21st August 2015)

(2) Bernard W. Kearney, comment at the House Un-American Activities Committee (6th May, 1953)

(3) Edward Weinfeld, statement (10th June, 1953)

(4) John T. McManus, National Guardian (22nd August, 1955)

(5) Glenn Fowler, The New York Times (22nd June, 1990)

(6) Kathryn S. Olmsted, Red Spy Queen (2002) page 100

(7) Robert J. Lamphere, The FBI-KGB War (1986) page 82

(8) Vassili Zarubin, cable to NKVD headquarters in Moscow (19th May, 1943)

(9) Jennet Conant, The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington (2008) page 200

(10) Elizabeth Bentley, FBI interview (8th November, 1945)

(11) Pavel Klarin, cable to NKVD headquarters in Moscow (21st June, 1943)

(12) Vassili Zarubin, cable to NKVD headquarters in Moscow (22nd June, 1943)

(13) Silvermaster FBI File 65-56402-8

(14) Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (2000) pages 110-111

(15) Nigel West, British Security Coordination: The Secret History of British Intelligence in the Americas, 1940-45 (1998) pages xi-xii

(16) William Stephenson, cable to the Head of the SIS (9th November 1942)

(17) Roald Dahl, H. Montgomery Hyde, Giles Playfair, Gilbert Highet and Tom Hill, British Security Coordination: The Secret History of British Intelligence in the Americas, 1940-45 (1998) pages 385-387

(18) Private email sent to John Simkin by a member of Cedric Belfrage's family.

(19) The Hollywood Spy ( 17th September, 2015)

(20) Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, Radical Hollywood (2002) page 281

(21) Glenn Fowler, The New York Times (22nd June, 1990)

(22) Cedric Belfrage & James Aronson, Something to Guard (1978) page 230

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