LONDON -- Charges a former British counter-espionage chief was a Soviet agent have capped a 40-year series of high-level security scandals in the heart of the Britain's upper crust and posed the question of how deep Moscow penetrated Western secrets after World War II.
The charges rocked the British establishment and recalled Soviet 'moles' unmasked earlier -- defectors Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean and Kim Philby, the so-called 'Third Man,' and Anthony Blunt, appointed art adviser to Queen Elizabeth II after spying and recruiting for the KGB.
And they questioned the role of British intelligence in the 1960s scandal in which War Minister John Profumo consorted with call-girl Christine Keeler whose boyfriend was KGB undercover agent Eugene Ivanov.
The Profumo scandal led to the fall of the Conservative government, bringing in a Labor Party that has steadily since moved to the left.
At the center of the latest storm is the shadowy spy-hunting organization known as MI5, in charge of locating and eliminating foreign agents operating in Britain.
Between 1956 and 1965 it was headed by Sir Roger Hollis, an obscure bureaucrat who worked his way up through the ranks after joining early in World War II. He died in 1973.
The allegation is that Hollis systematically betrayed British, U.S. and other Western intelligence secrets to the Soviet Union for 25 years, and caused irreparable damage to the West.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in a rare official statement to parliament last week, denied there was evidence to support the charges.
But she did confirm the former chief spy chief had been a suspected Soviet spy and had been investigated.
If the charges were true that Hollis was a Soviet 'mole' at the very top of the British security system, he was the master-spy of them all -- more valuable to the Soviets than Burgess, Maclean and Philby.
The charges came from veteran investigative reporter Chapman Pincher, who said his information came from intelligence sources who still were not convinced Hollis was not a traitor.
Pincher said loyal British agents -- and the CIA -- suspected in the 1960s that Hollis was sabotaging western intelligence and passing its secrets to Russia.
Hollis was twice investigated and interrogated -- once after retirement -- and while the case against him was not proved, it was not disproved either, Pincher said.
Mrs. Thatcher called Pincher's story inaccurate and distorted, but Pincher said he stood by it.
He said Hollis ran MI5 at a time when some of its agents suspected KGB penetration. The KGB had a pipeline of detailed information of every British move in the twilight intelligence war, he said.
The suspected traitors narrowed down to two people -- Hollis and a high official codenamed 'Peters.' But, Pincher said, Peters was conclusively found innocent.
Hollis' role in the Profumo scandal deepened suspicions about him, Pincher said.
He said Hollis knew of the Profumo-Keeler-Ivanov triangle from the start and that Ivanov had asked Keeler to get details of nuclear deployment in West Germany from the war ministries.
Hollis failed to alert then Prime Minister Harold MacMillan for a year and avoided taking any action that might have averted a national crisis, Pincher charged.
He said some senior MI5 officers were convinced the Profumo drama was orchestrated by the KGB 'and were driven by the facts to suspect that the day-to-day moves of their chief, Sir Roger Hollis, had been similarly orchestrated.'
Hollis's retirement in 1965, Pincher said, marked a recovery for British intelligence. London agents pulled off a number of undercover operations that were not leaked to the KGB in advance, he said.
The best that could be said of Hollis was that he was a bungler, Pincer said.
The worst was that he may have been the KGB's most successful penetration of Western security -- and possibly the fifth member of what defecting Soviet agents called the KGB's 'Ring of Five' deep in British intelligence, Pincher said.
Hollis was a member of the same 'old boy' network of former Cambridge and Oxford students that grew to maturity in the depression years of the 1920s and 30s and provided the Soviet Union with its future 'moles.'
Blunt, Burgess, Maclean and Philby -- all brilliant students from upper class families -- were converted to Marxism at Cambridge.
From there it was an easy step into the double life as respectable Britons but working under Soviet orders toward one goal -- to penetrate Britain's security services.
Hollis took a different road. A poor student, he left Oxford without a degree and moved to China for a decade. In China he moved in leftwing circles, a fact he concealed on joining MI5 after the outbreak of World War II, Pincher said.
Like the Cambridge four, Hollis got in via the 'old boy' network when the security agencies mushroomed overnight to meet the pressure of the war.
Hollis moved up the ladder at MI5 while Philby was doing the same at its sister organization, MI6, the secret service responsible for British intelligence operations abroad.
Blunt also was in MI5 while Burgess and Maclean moved into sensitive posts at home and abroad in the diplomatic service.
As The Times of London was to conclude years later, intelligence agents were hired almost casually through 'the undisciplined -- indeed almost suidical -- recruitment of subversives during the late 30s and the period of the war.'