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Peter Wright
MI5 counterintelligence officer

Peter Maurice Wright (9 August 1916 - 27 April 1995) [1] was a British scientist and former MI5 counterintelligence officer. After his retirement from MI5 in 1976, he wrote his memoirs and, in 1985, released the controversial book Spycatcher which was banned from publication in the UK. By his own account, Wright was also involved in the investigation of a Russian covert listening device (bug) known as The Great Seal Bug, or The Thing, which had been found in a US Embassy.

Peter Wright was born in Chesterfield (UK), the son of George Maurice Wright, who was director of research at the Marconi Company and one of the founders of signals intelligence during WWI.

Following in his father's footsteps, Peter Wright became a scientist, and worked during WWII at the Admiralty's Research Laboratory. In 1946, he became Principal Scientific Officer at the Services Electronic Research Laboratory at Baldock (UK).

In 1947 he was given a job as Navy Scientist, attached to the Marconi Company were he worked alongside his father on developments in the field of radar and anti-submarine warfare.
Peter Wright. Image taken from ...

In 1949, whilst working at the Marconi Company, he started working part-time for UK intelligence (MI5), along with engineers of the General Post Office (GPO) and other services. In this capacity he was consulted on Russian bugging of the UK and US Embassies in Moscow (USSR). Some time in 1952, a mysterious listening device (bug) had been found in the US Ambassador's study, hidden inside a wooden carving of the Great Seal of the United States, a generous gift from the Russians.

The wooden carving had been hanging over the ambassador's desk since 1945, and must have produced valuable intelligence for the Russians. As the device had no wires connected to it and did not need batteries, it was nicknamed The Thing. To Wright's own account, the Americans had no idea how it worked 1 and had turned to the UK for help. He solved the problem in 10 weeks. In the following 18 months, Wright developed the UK equivalent of The Thing, codenamed SATYR.

Wright's contact with the American's probable ran via the FBI. Unknown to him, and in parallel with his investigation, the CIA ran its own research program on the Great Seal Bug under the codename EASYCHAIR, which was carried out by the Dutch Radar Laboratory (NRP) in Noordwijk (Netherlands).

In 1954, Wright left the Marconi Company and joined MI5 full-time as its first Principal Scientific Officer. At the height of the Cold War, he was responsible for, or directly involved with, technical developments in the field of espionage and counterespionage. He became increasingly worried about the apparent Russian infiltration of the UK's intelligence apparatus and the passive attitude of the UK Government against this. Highly disillusioned, he finally retired from MI5 in 1976.

After his retirement, he confined his memoirs to a book, Spycatcher [3], in which he speculates about the unknown fifth man of the Cambridge Spy Ring, and reveals technical details of many secret MI5 operations. When the book was ready in 1985, the UK Government tried to prevent it from being published and took Wright to court in Australia were he was living. Although the UK Government lost the case, the book was banned in the UK and the press was stricktly forbidden to write anything about it. A year later the book was published throughout the rest of the world.

Finally, in 1988, the British Law Lords lifted the ban on the book, but disallowed Wright to receive any royalties from its UK sales. The book became a bestseller with more than two million copies sold, not least because of the publicity it had gained by the trial. On 27 April 1995, at the age of 78, Peter Wright dies a rich man. A year earlier he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's [1].

  1. From FBI documents released in 2014 and 2015, it has since become clear that, in 1952, the Americans had a very good understanding of the principle behind The Thing and that they were able to copy it. It is likely however, that this knowledge was kept from Wright at the time.

Wright or Wrong?
On 13 October 1988, in the BBC programme Panorama, John Ware interviewed Peter Wright about claims in his book Spycatcher that MI5 plotted against British prime minister Harold Wilson. The interview is now available in 6 parts on YouTube. Click the image below to view the first part.

9 Aug 1916   Born in Chesterfield
1938   Marries Lois Foster-Melliar
WWII   Admiralty Research Laboratory
During WWII, Peter Wright works at the Admiralty's Research Laboratory, along with his father.
1946   Services Electronic Research Laboratory
After WWII, Wright becomes Principal Scientific Officer at the Services Electronic Research laboratory in Baldock (UK).
1947   Marconi Company
Wright is given a job as Navy Scientist at the Marconi Company.
1949   Part-time work for UK Intelligence
Early in the Cold War, Peter Wright is asked to do part-time work for UK intelligence, whilst maintaining his job at Marconi.
1954   Appointed principle science officer at MI5
When it becomes clear that the Cold War will largely be fought with technical means, MI5 is in need of new scientists and Wright becomes their first Principle Science Officer.
1956   Operation ENGULF
Secret acoustic cryptanalysis operation to discover the settings of the Egyptian Hagelin cipher machines from their recorded sound.
1958   Operation RAFTER
Remote detection of radio receivers used by Soviet Illegals in the UK, by detecting emanations from the local oscillator.
1960   Operation STOCKADE
Joint MI5/GCHQ operation to exploit compromising emanations from French cipher machine cables. From 1960 to 1963, MI5 and GCHQ could read cipher traffic to and from the French Embassy in London.
1960   Radio Operations Committee
The Radio Operations Committee is formed and Wright is appointed chairman.
1964   Counterespionage
Wright joins Counterespionage Department at MI5.
1964   FLUENCY
Wright becomes chairman of a joint MI5/MI6 committee, codenamed FLUENCY Working Party.
Jan 1976   Retirement from MI5
Highly disillusioned by the apparent Soviet infiltration of the British intelligence services, and the passive attitude of the government, Wright retires from MI5.
1985   Release of Spycatcher
In 1985, Wrights book Spycatcher is finished, but before it is published, the British Government announces that it is taking steps to prevent it from ever being published. They consider the entire book a breach of security.
1986   Wright taken to court by British Government
In an attempt to ban the book, the British Government takes Wright to court in Australia, where he is living. They lose the case. Nevertheless the book is banned in the UK and the press is strickly forbidden to write anything about it.
July 1987   Spycatcher published in the USA
Closely followed by Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe (excluding the UK). Eventually, over 2 million copies are sold.
1988   Spycatcher cleared for release in the UK
As the book is a bestseller throughout the world, the British Law Lords finally lift the ban, but Wright is not allowed to receive royalties from its UK sales.
1991   Release of The Encyclopaedia of Espionage
Nov 1991   European Court of Human Rights
The European Court of Human Rights rules that the British Government had breached human rights by gagging the UK press from 1986 onwards.
27 Apr 1995   Dies in Tasmania aged 78
A year before his death he is diagnosed as having Alzheimer's disease.
  1. Wikipedia, Peter Wright
    Retrieved December 2015.

  2. Wikipedia, Spycatcher
    Retrieved December 2015.

  3. Peter Wright, Spycatcher
    ISBN 0-440-29504-1. 1987-1988.

  4. YouTube, Spycatcher - Wright or Wrong?
    Six part television feature about Wright's book Spycatcher.
    Retrieved December 2015.

  5. Tom Bower, Obituary: Peter Wright
    Independent website. 28 April 1995.
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Crypto Museum. Created: Wednesday 30 December 2015. Last changed: Wednesday, 09 June 2021 - 06:50 CET.
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