19 December 2000. Thanks to Frederico Duarte Carvalho.
Lobster n: 40 - Winter 2000
Frederico Duarte Carvalho
Why is a Portuguese journalist writing a book about an almost unknown British spy? Recently I had to answer to this same question to Igor Prelin, my favourite ex-KGB officer whom I first meet in Cannes, France, during the Television Market Fair of April 1994. After I met Igor Prelin in Cannes, I travelled to Moscow the following year and conducted a few interviews with other ex-KGB officers. We only talked about stories with Portuguese interest from the recent past like Angola and other African nations of Portuguese language. No interest on a story about a British spy. Until that is, a few days ago. I called Igor in Moscow and asked him about a British electronics engineer named Michael John Smith, who, in November 1993, was sentenced to 25 years after being found guilty of espionage for the KGB at the end of the 1970s and beginning of 1980s. He was arrested in August 1992, after the defection from Paris of Victor Oschenko, who was said to be his Soviet controller. Igor Prelin, who was the spokesman for Vladimir Kryuchkov, the KGB leader behind the failed coup of August 1991, told me that he knew nothing about that British/Russian spy.
I was born and lived in Oporto. Nowadays I work in Lisbon at the weekly newspaper Tal&Qual. Oporto is Portugal's second city, and next year it will be European Cultural Capital. It is also the town of the Port wine and has had a large British community for many decades. My father works as a manager of the local office of a British shipping company and my first plane trip was to London, when I was only 16. So, for me, British culture has always been present, and I admired the British media.
I started working as a journalist in December 1991 at the Oporto daily newspaper O Primeiro de Janeiro. It was in September 1993 that The Times published on its front page the news of Michael Johns Smith's trial at the Old Bailey; and my attention was drawn to the fact that the prosecution alleged that the KGB sent Mr. Smith on a course in spying in Oporto.
My editors didn't find anything of interest in the story because we were a small local newspaper and, if the case became of major interest, then the national newspapers, with correspondents in London, would cover it. So I dropped the story but I didn't forget it; and when I went to London, in August 1998, on a week's holiday, I decided to find out what really had happened to Michael John Smith and that Oporto thing. I went to The Times building and got a copy of all the articles about the 1993 trial.
When I arrived in Lisbon I got in touch with Michael John Smith thanks to the Prisoner Location Service of Birmingham. Michael is in HMP Full Sutton, York, and his number is PR3345. Michael wrote me back in September 1998 and said that he was very grateful that I had taken an interest in his story and that he had no problem in talking to me about Oporto. Two months later, November 2nd, I got another letter, but this one was signed by a certain Mr. W., in which he told me that he was Michael's friend and that Mr. Smith had asked him to help me out. And, Mr. W. wrote this to me:
'I shared accommodation with Michael during the 1970s. We both went on holiday to Spain and Portugal in his car in August 1977. I was with him during the short stay in Oporto from Thursday 11 August to Saturday 13 August 1977. We stayed at Parque de Campismo da Prelada. I was present when we requested a campsite employee to indicate the whereabouts of bus stops and a restaurant on a town map for our guidance in finding our way around Oporto. Years later (8 September 1992) I was visited by British Special Branch Police Officers, and early during the interview I was shown the map that I recognised from the holiday. Imagine my surprise when I realised that the same map was considered evidence of a KGB espionage training operation allegedly carried out by Michael. The prosecution made much of this trip during his trial because a prosecution witness, a Mr E, had done such a training operation during 1979 in Lisbon. Since I found these allegations ridiculous I was prepared to be a witness for the defence, but I was never required to appear in court. I continue to visit and correspond with Michael who continues to vigorously fight his conviction. We believe he is a victim of a miscarriage of justice perpetrated by the British M. o. D., Crown Prosecution Service and Police. The British Security Services continue their under-handed methods as revealed by the current case of ex M.I.5 spy, David Shayler, who tried to whistle blow on his secret service bosses.'
After reading this I thought: Sure, he is innocent and I'm Santa Claus! But my interest in this story grew because, by coincidence, my house in Oporto is next to the camp site where Michael and Mr. W. had stayed more than 20 years ago. Later on, Mr. W. sent me copies of the Oporto maps and some copies of the surviving photos that they both had taken in Oporto. He also sent me copies of the transcripts of Michael's interviews by the police and parts of the trial where the Oporto case had been mentioned. And that was the first time that I read the name of Oleg Gordievsky, when he gave testimony about the Oporto map crosses.
On the Oporto map there are four crosses. An MI5 officer, Mrs. C., came to Oporto to investigate them. She said that three of them didn't have any tourist interest, and the fourth was a typical restaurant, called O Fado.
Michael John Smith was criticised at the Old Bailey by Mr. Justice Blofeld because he couldn't remember the meaning of the crosses during his first interview with the police. Mr Smith first said that those where places of tourist interest and then changed his opinion to bus stops. This contradiction helped the Crown to establish a link between a training mission in Lisbon by a certain Mr E, in 1979, and the KGB agent, Victor Oschenko, appointed as Michael's controller.
For those who live in Oporto the crosses may be easily placed in places of tourist interest. And if you want to explain the bus stops it is also easy. The court accepted a different interpretation.
Tracing Smiths's steps
I've tried to recreate the footsteps of Michael John Smith in Oporto during his trip in August 1977. Mr. W. had sent to me three pictures of Oporto that they had taken during their holiday and two photos of Michael that were taken during the trip just for me to see how he looked then. The three photos of Oporto are from places with tourist interest not very far from the places were the crosses were. One is a view of the old part of Oporto that was considered to be World Heritage site by the UNESCO in 1997; another is a corner of a famous commercial street in town, not very far from cross number 1; and the third is inside the old historic part of the town, just next to the Oporto Cathedral. With all this material there was a copy of a recent hand-written letter by Michael in which he recollected in detail his two days in Oporto. On that letter, among other things, he mentioned this:
' ...on the way back to the bus stop (after a evening at the restaurant O Fado ) we again passed the street where the street festival was going on that area called Victoria: I see from the map that there is actually a road named Rua da Victoria, but whether it was in that road we saw the festival I'm not sure, but they gave us little green flags and a bit of card (or a sticker) with the address on it. I remember there were 2 Spanish gypsies there, and one of them wanted to be involved in getting us introduced into was going on there. The festivities had obviously just finished for the night, but someone brought us a bottle of beer each, and one of the gypsies had a guitar and I played something on it, and he said he couldn't believe I was English because I played with too much passion for an Englishman. Someone went and got the daughter of a doctor to come and translate, because she could speak reasonable English. I think the club was for literary pursuits, because they had books there, and they also played chess, and I remember there was a wooden or plastic copy of the Tutankhamon mask face, and the club had a weird mix of things in it. They wanted us to sing some English songs, but I don't think we knew what to sing. Anyway in the end we had to leave to catch the bus and I remember we looked back and waved at them in the street as we left and I thought what a strange encounter. I took 3 photos and I posted them to the club, so for all I know, they might still be pinned up on the wall in the club!'
When I read this I went to Rua da Victoria and entered the first club there. It's a very narrow place. A man was playing cards and above his head in an empty wall there was a Tutankhamon face mask. I asked the people there if they had a photo album with pictures of festivities from 20 years ago. There was only one photo album in the club. On it, there were black and white photos of festivities, and they looked to be around 20 years old. But among them, there was a particular colour photo: a gypsy playing the guitar and a person with a foreign look clapping hands. I sent the photo to Mr. W. who sent it to Michael and I got the confirmation: it was Citizen Smith during his August 1977 Oporto trip.
That was really a strange thing for a spy to do in a KGB training mission, I thought; or Michael John Smith is indeed a very clever spy to act like a normal tourist; or he is very dumb by leaving photos of his presence around the world... I'm not saying that he isn't a spy, but I think it's now very difficult for me to explain to Portuguese readers that he came to Oporto in a KGB training mission as it was said in court in November 1993.......
And, I recall that the ex-MI6 officer, Richard Tomlinson saw a MI5 report on the case which concluded that Mr. Smith had not given any important or damaging information to Victor Oschenko. Tomlinson said:
'I was therefore very surprised when I learnt of MI5's claims at Mr. Smith's trial of the extent of the damage allegedly caused by him, and the extraordinary sentence which he subsequently received. I suspect the evidence was exaggerated at a higher level in MI5 in order to ensure that Mr. Smith received a heavy sentence. The intelligence services depend on disproportionate sentences for breaches of the Official Secrets Acts to cultivate the mystique of the importance of their work. I believe Mr. Smith has been made a victim of this tactic.'
For those interested on helping me with this story: here is my e-mail contact: firstname.lastname@example.org