A former MI6 spymaster has spoken publicly for the first time about a high-stakes Cold War espionage case that almost saw him snared by Czechoslovakian intelligence.

Sir Richard Dearlove said he would lift the lid on his time in Prague in the 1970s after details of his work were made public in declassified Czech intelligence files last year. 

The 76-year-old was head of Britain’s foreign intelligence agency, formally known as the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), between 1999 and 2004, having first joined in 1966.

Speaking at the Chalke Valley History Festival about the methodology of espionage, Sir Richard said he would give an insight into “running human sources in positions of great importance”. 

The man who would become known as ‘C’ was dispatched to Prague in 1973, where he was tasked with gathering secrets for MI6 while “under diplomatic cover”. 

One of his most prized intelligence assets was the head of the British section of the Czech spy agency, whose department was solely focused on penetrating MI6.

Files compiled by the Czech service, the StB, released last year, named the double agent Miloslav Kroc, codenamed Freed.

He was what is called a “walk-in” after covertly presenting himself to the British and saying he wanted to spy for them.

Sir Richard Dearlove at dinner with his wife Rosalind at the U Labutě restaurant in Prague in the 1970s

Sir Richard said: "Running a case like this was a great risk – not to me, but to the source. 

"If he was caught he would be executed. Yet we were able to meet him regularly over a number of years. 

"Because he himself was an intelligence officer he knew in detail the forces that were deployed against me by the Czechs on a continuous basis."

They "worked out a methodology" for meeting which involved every move being "carefully planned", he said, but the story has a "difficult ending". 

In a "not surprising" twist given the pressure he was under, Freed suffered a heart attack and ended up in hospital.

His Russian wife, unaware her husband was a traitor, then handed a "bundle of papers" from their flat into his office – which included an image containing "his instructions to come and rendez-vous with me", Sir Richard said. 

The Russian Federation embassy building is seen in Prague, Czech Republic on May 29, 2021

Credit: Anadolu

He continued: "We go to the rendez-vous, carefully planned on either side of a significant range of hills so we’re coming independently from different directions. 

"Because of the training that I’ve had in counter surveillance I understand that the surveillance on me is in front of me, not behind me, i.e. there are cars parked at strategic places.

"We’re deep in the Czezh countryside and I recognise them immediately because I know all the number plates that these are surveillance cars. 

"They’re clearly trying to find out who’s going to the meeting. Of course, the agent doesn’t turn up and eventually he dies of natural causes."

Sir Richard said the story had a “wonderful ending”. 

Following the Velvet Revolution years later, the double agent’s daughter – who endured a “terrible life” after the passing of her father – was handed “many, many thousands of pounds” by British intelligence, saved for her in a London bank by her father. 

Biotech makes it ‘very difficult’ to use aliases   

In popular imagination, spies are slippery characters with a range of disguises and bogus documentation ready to deploy at a moment’s notice to make good their escape.

But the dawn of the biotech age has meant undercover agents now need more than a cache of dodgy passports to evade their enemies, the former head of MI6 has revealed. 

Sir Richard said it is now “very, very difficult” for spies to remain under the radar when technology has grown so advanced in its ability to recognise individuals.

Speaking at the Chalke Valley History Festival, he said: “I used to travel the world extensively in different identities. I had a cupboard with packaged identities and one used different ones. 

"They were well supported with bank accounts, credit cards, everything you needed.

“But you can’t really do that anymore because of biotech, because of the way that AI works in recording movements.”

He said the advancements in technology means “espionage services have been forced in a different direction”.

Planet Normal – Full interview with Sir Richard Dearlove

Skripal case an example of challenges 

To illustrate the challenges spies face to protect their identities, Sir Richard cited the example of the two suspects in the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, the Russian double agent.

Information discovered about the men online led to them being identified as members of the GRU, Russian military intelligence, within months of the chemical attack in Salisbury in 2018.

Sir Richard said the case underscored the “complexity of the modern espionage world”. 

Two men using the aliases Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, who were formally accused of attempting to murder former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, are seen in an image handed out by the Met

Credit: REUTERS

The methods used to uncover the Russian agents in 2018 were pioneered by the US and became known as open source intelligence (Osint). 

“If you know how to exploit it – and it is a highly developed skill – there is a huge amount of material which we would probably consider should be classified, which is almost certainly not meant to be accessible, but can be reached through subtle and clever research on the internet,” Sir Richard said.

“I think it’s fair to say that the sophisticated Osint was developed by the CIA because they had the resources, the time and the money.

“They gave me Osint demonstrations in my career, they blew me away, I thought, my god, they can get all that stuff just by sitting down at a keyboard.”

Britain’s human sources remain ‘extraordinary tradition’ 

Sir Richard, once known as ‘C’ in MI6, also sought to dispel the idea Britain’s secret agents overseas relied on an arsenal of impressive gadgets, in a manner similar to James Bond. 

“When we think of the services now, I think we’re much influenced by fiction,” he said.

“There’s a lot of emphasis placed on gadgets and technology and spy satellites and all that sort of thing. 

“Yes, that is important – and it has changed the world of espionage greatly –  but I think that we have this extraordinary tradition in the United Kingdom, of developing and running human sources in positions of great importance who give you very clear access to the information you need to know.”