Britain Won't Prosecute Recently-Exposed Cold War Spies

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

London ( - Britain's Conservatives have criticized as "utterly feeble" a government decision not to prosecute five Britons accused of spying for communist regimes during the Cold War - one of them an 87-year-old woman who admitted spying for the KGB.

"The history of the government's dealings in these cases has been one of prevarication and weakness," charged the Conservative spokesperson for home affairs, Ann Widdecombe. "The outcome was sadly predictable. Doubtless, the spies will have a good Christmas."

In September Britain was rocked by the disclosure that a great-grandmother in south London, Melita Norwood, had provided the Soviets with secret data relating to Britain's nuclear bomb program after the Second World War, information that may have helped the Russians build their own bomb.

She and several other alleged spies had been named in KGB archives smuggled out of the former Soviet Union by a defector.

Dubbed the "Red Granny" by Britain's tabloid press, Norwood admitted during media interviews that she had passed information to Moscow, and affirmed a continuing sympathy for communism.

But Britain's solicitor-general Ross Cranston said in a written statement to the House of Commons Monday that neither Norwood nor four others would be charged.

He said her admissions during interviews would probably be ruled inadmissible as evidence in a trial.

"There is little prospect of obtaining admissible evidence and, in any event, any prosecution would probably be stayed on the ground of abuse of process."

Cranston named two others - Hull University lecturer Robin Pearson, suspected of spying for the East German Stasi, and former Metropolitan Police officer John Symonds, allegedly trained to seduce female employees at Western embassies in a bid to secret obtain information for the Soviet Union.

The solicitor-general said in his statement considerations similar to those in Norwood's case applied to Pearson's, while Symonds had been granted immunity in 1984 "in connection with inquiries into other matters." He did not elaborate.

Two other alleged spies weren't named, but Cranston said that in all five cases, "sufficient is known about the case to make it clear that any prosecution would fail."

He said the decision was only been made public because of the enormous publicity which had already surrounded the case.

Codenamed "Hola," Norwood allegedly passed on top-secret information over a three-decade period, while working as a secretary for a body researching non-ferrous metals, a cover for the nuclear bomb program.

She was identified in a new book published by an academic, based on secret documents made available by Vasili Mitrokhin, a KGB operative who defected to Britain towards the end of the Cold War.

Apart from Norwood, Pearson and Symonds, the book named several other alleged spies, including an anti-nuclear campaigner.

In a short statement, Norwood welcomed Monday's decision. "I know what I did was wrong in the eyes of the law, but I still believe that what I did was for the right reasons," she said.

In October, Home Secretary Jack Straw said the intelligence service MI5 had decided after investigations in the 1960s that it had no "usable evidence" to prosecute Norwood.

But Straw told the House of Commons at the time that she could still face prosecution because of her public admissions of guilt.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow