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Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer (1987) is a book written by Peter Wright, former MI5 officer and Assistant Director, and co-author Paul Greengrass. It was published first in Australia. Its allegations proved scandalous on publication, but more so because the British Government attempted to ban it, ensuring its profit and notoriety.[1]

AuthorPeter Wright (with Paul Greengrass)
PublisherHeinemann (Australia)
Penguin Viking (USA)
Publication date
31 July 1987
327.1/2/0924 B 19
LC ClassUB271.G72 W758 1987


In Spycatcher, Wright states that he was assigned to unmask a Soviet mole in MI5, and claims that the mole was Roger Hollis – a former MI5 Director General; it also describes people who might have or might not have been the mole; and narrates a history of MI5 by chronicling its principal officers, from the 1930s to his time in service.

Moreover, Spycatcher tells of the MI6 plot to assassinate President Nasser during the Suez Crisis; of joint MI5-CIA plotting against British Prime Minister Harold Wilson (secretly accused of being a KGB agent by the Soviet defector Anatoliy Golitsyn); and of MI5's eavesdropping on high-level Commonwealth conferences. [2]

Wright examines the techniques of intelligence services, exposes their ethics (speculative until that time), notably their "eleventh commandment", "Thou shalt not get caught", and explains many MI5 electronic technologies (some of which he developed), for instance allowing clever spying into rooms, and identifying the frequency to which a superhet receiver is tuned. In the afterword, he states that writing Spycatcher was motivated principally to recuperate significant pension income lost when the British government ruled his pension un-transferable for earlier work in GCHQ.

Publication and trialEdit

Wright wrote Spycatcher in Tasmania, after his retirement from MI5. He first attempted publication in 1985.[3] The British government immediately obtained a court order banning publication in the UK but the order applied only in England and the book continued to be available elsewhere. In September 1987, the UK government applied for similar orders to prevent publication in Australia but Malcolm Turnbull, later to be Prime Minister of Australia, representing the publisher, successfully resisted the application, and again on appeal in June 1988.[4]

English newspapers attempting proper reportage of Spycatcher's principal allegations were served gag orders; on persisting, they were tried for contempt of court, although the charges were eventually dropped. Throughout all this, the book continued to be sold in Scotland; moreover, Scottish newspapers were not subject to any English gag order, and continued to report on the affair. Quantities of the book easily reached English purchasers from Scotland, while other copies were smuggled into England from Australia and elsewhere. A notable television report at the time featured a reporter flying to Australia, then flying back into England with ten copies of the book which he declared to Heathrow airport's customs officers. After some discussion, he was allowed to continue his carriage of the books into England, as they had been given no specific instructions to confiscate them.

In mid-1987, a High Court judge lifted the ban on English newspaper reportage on the book, but in late July, the Law Lords again barred reportage of Wright's allegations.[5][6] The Daily Mirror published upside-down photographs of the three Law Lords, with the caption 'YOU FOOLS'.[1] British editions of The Economist ran a blank page with a boxed explanation that

In all but one country, our readers have on this page a review of 'Spycatcher,' a book by an ex-M.I.5-man, Peter Wright. The exception is Britain, where the book, and comment on it, have been banned. For our 420,000 readers there, this page is blank – and the law is an ass.[1][7]

Eventually, in 1988, the book was cleared for legitimate sale when the Law Lords acknowledged that overseas publication meant it contained no secrets.[3] However, Wright was barred from receiving royalties from the sale of the book in the United Kingdom. In November 1991, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the British government had breached the European Convention of Human Rights in gagging its own newspapers.[8][9]

The book has sold more than two million copies.[3] In 1995, Wright died a millionaire from proceeds of his book.[10]

See alsoEdit



  • Burnet, David; Thomas, Richard (1989). "Spycatcher: The Commodification of Truth". Journal of Law and Society. Vol. 16, No. 2, pp. 210–224

External linksEdit