A group of intelligence experts, including a former head of MI6, has cut ties with fellow academics at Cambridge university, in a varsity spy scare harking back to the heyday of Soviet espionage at the heart of the British establishment.
Sir Richard Dearlove, the ex-chief of the Secret Intelligence Service and former master of Pembroke college, Stefan Halper, a senior foreign policy adviser at the White House to presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, and Peter Martland, a leading espionage historian, have resigned as conveners of the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar — an academic forum for former practitioners and current researchers of western spycraft — because of concerns over what they fear could be a Kremlin-backed operation to compromise the group.
Mr Halper said he had stepped down due to “unacceptable Russian influence on the group”.
The seminar, established by Christopher Andrew, the official historian of MI5 and former chairman of the history faculty at the university, is one of the most respected networks in its field.
Recent attendees at its discussions, held every Friday at Corpus Christi college, have included Mike Flynn, president-elect Donald Trump’s choice as US national security adviser, and Sir Simon Fraser, the recently retired permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office.
Sir Richard and his colleagues suspect that Veruscript — a newly established digital publishing house that has provided funding to set up a new journal of intelligence and to cover some of the seminar’s costs — may be acting as a front for the Russian intelligence services.
They fear that Russia may be seeking to use the seminar as an impeccably-credentialed platform to covertly steer debate and opinion on high-level sensitive defence and security topics, two people familiar with their thinking said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Financial Times has been unable to independently substantiate their claims — and no concrete evidence has been provided to back them.
The three stepped down as conveners before the start of the Michaelmas term. Sir Richard confirmed his resignation as convener but declined to comment further. Mr Martland did not respond to a request for comment.
Their concerns come against a backdrop of growing paranoia about Russian subversion in the west. With relations between London and Moscow at their lowest ebb since the height of the cold war, Britain’s spy agencies are working overtime to try and counter Russian covert action in the UK.
Spurred by the mounting concern over Russian meddling in the US presidential election, western spooks are rushing to try and get a fuller picture of the Kremlin’s strategy for manipulating information to influence opinion.
A senior Whitehall security official said that while the authorities could not comment on specific investigations into covert Russian meddling, they were nevertheless aware that suspicions such as those flagged at Cambridge were “the kind of thing that we are aware of being of concern”.
Reliable evidence of Russia’s information war to back up such assertions has been in short supply, however. Indeed, the dispute at Cambridge revives uncomfortable memories of cold war fearmongering — and has sharply divided dons at the intelligence seminar.
While the febrile intellectual atmosphere at Cambridge in the 1930s — charged with radical new socialist thinking and invigorated by a fractious international environment — was an ideal recruiting ground for young, charismatic Soviet agents such as Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, whose work was the acme of cold war intelligence gathering, the modern academic milieu is a less obvious target for Russian espionage.
Prof Andrew, whose books on the KGB are among the most exhaustive on the history of Russian information warfare as well as the infamous Cambridge spy ring of the 1930s, said the suggestion of a Russian covert operation to compromise the seminar was “absurd”.
The seminar is “entirely unclassified” Prof Andrew pointed out, adding that the new Journal of Intelligence and Terrorism was not formally affiliated to the gathering.
Some of the academics the FT spoke to suggested that the dispute over the seminar might be tinged by an element of competition: Sir Richard and his colleagues who have departed from the seminar run a separate organisation — the Cambridge Security Initiative — which pursues a similar, though more commercially-oriented, agenda.
The CSI, which also holds regular briefings and discussions, counts Sir Iain Lobban and Sir David Omand, both former heads of the electronic surveillance agency GCHQ, as members of its advisory board.
Prof Andrew was co-chair of CSI alongside Sir Richard but resigned in the spring. He said his resignation was unrelated to any matters regarding Veruscript. All of the individuals the FT spoke to emphasised that they hoped the two organisations would have an amicable future relationship.
Neil Kent, the lead convener of the seminar and editor-in-chief of the new journal also stepped back from the CSI. Mr Kent, a linguist and expert in Russian culture, said it was “inconceivable” that the Russian government was in any way involved.
“Cambridge is a wonderful place of conspiracy theories but the idea that there is a Machiavellian plot here is ridiculous,” he said. “The idea any of us would be involved in anything that smacks of Russian influence . . . it’s real Reds under the bed stuff — the whole thing is ludicrous.”
Mr Kent is responsible for building the links between the seminar and the organisation at the centre of the controversy, Veruscript. It was established by a friend of Mr Kent’s from Cambridge, Gleb Cheglakov, a Russian physicist.
According to Mr Kent, the new journal will cost roughly £50,000 a year to run and, although start-up funding is being supplied by Veruscript, ultimately it will draw on other sources of finance, to ensure its independence.
Mr Kent said he did not know where Veruscript’s money came from.
Corporate records show Veruscript is run by a company called AGC Partners, based in London.
Mr Cheglakov told the FT that the company was set up by himself and his wife using their own money. The company, which boasts a slick website and employs about a dozen people, claims it will shake up the academic publishing business by paying for peer reviews of its articles by approved academics.
AGC Partner’s corporate records show it was established in 2012. Mr Cheglakov said he was its cofounder although it is legally fully owned by Nazik Ibraimova, his Kygryz wife. Ms Ibraimova could not be reached for comment. The FT attempted to reach the company a number of times by phone and email.
Corporate records show Ms Ibraimova initially funded the company with a series of £50,000 loans made in six-monthly increments. In the past year, the company has significantly expanded. Its accounts show a loss of £410,000 in 2015, the last year for which figures have been filed.
“As we are in start-up mode, all journals are currently operating at a loss with Veruscript picking up the costs,” Mr Cheglakov said in a statement. The business is looking to significantly expand, he added. “[We] will publish journals from across the research spectrum: sciences, humanities and social sciences . . . We are a truly community-based publisher. [The] Journal of Intelligence and Terrorism Studies is our first journal to launch but we are also in the process of launching journals in areas as diverse as Functional Nanomaterials, Quantum Matter and Energy Storage.”
Mr Cheglakov did not specifically address the question of any connection between the company and the Russian government.
He stressed that all of the journals backed by Veruscript would be completely editorially independent of the organisation. “We aim to be a force of good within the publishing industry,” he said.