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12-16-2006, 07:10 AM
The Times December 16, 2006

Rosbaud was so effective as a spy that some feared he was a double agent

A fierce legal tussle has broken out between Cherie Booth, QC, and MI6 over top-secret files that relate to “The Griffin”, an Austrian who provided Britain with vital intelligence on the Nazi atom bomb programme during the Second World War.
The Prime Minister’s wife, who is representing the family of the secret agent, Paul Rosbaud, has lodged a claim demanding that MI6, then usually known as the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), release all its information on the case “so that the public can properly evaluate and appreciate the undoubtedly great contribution [he] made to the Allied victory at considerable personal risk”.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal, the legal body that investigates the conduct of the Intelligence Service, has declined to rule on the issue, but the Rosbaud family has vowed to continue the campaign until the truth about the German agent is revealed.

Rosbaud was one of the most important agents of the war. A scientist bitterly opposed to the Nazi regime, he provided Britain with valuable intelligence on jet aircraft, radar, flying bombs and Nazi attempts to develop the atomic bomb.

At the end of the war, Rosbaud was spirited out of Germany in British military uniform and settled in London. He died in 1963.

For years MI6 has refused all requests to make the Rosbaud files public, claiming that the information falls under a blanket ban on releasing material relevant to national security.

In her legal submission, Ms Booth argued that such rules do not apply to the Rosbaud case. She wrote: “There is no basis on which Mr Rosbaud’s identity needs to remain confidential [and] there is no rational basis on which it can be said that the release of files on Mr Rosbaud would cause ascertainable harm to defence, international relations, national security or the economic interests of the UK.”

Vincent Frank-Steiner, a nephew of Rosbaud, believes that the refusal of MI6 to release the files may be “an act of self-protection because they made some mistakes” in handling Agent Griffin. He says that the contribution that Rosbaud made to the war was so important that the full story should now be revealed.

“He probably contributed more than any other single private person to defeat Hitler’s Germany,” Dr Frank-Steiner said.

Paul Wenzel Rosbaud was born in the Austrian town of Graz in 1896, and studied physics and metallurgy. As a young soldier during the First World War he was captured by the British, an experience that left him with a profound admiration for Britain. “My first two days as a prisoner under British guard were the origins of my long-time anglophilia,” he later wrote. “They did not treat us as enemies, but as unfortunate losers of the war.”

A liberal intellectual married to a Jewish woman, he watched in horror as Hitler rose to power in Germany, but meanwhile his career blossomed: he became editor of the important scientific periodical Metallwirtschaft, and worked as a scientific expert for the large German publisher Springer Verlag.

Rosbaud, who was urbane, charming and highly intelligent, came to know many of the top scientists in Germany. In public, he was part of the German scientific establishment; in private, he was plotting against the Nazi regime.

In 1938 Rosbaud smuggled his wife and daughter to the safety of London, with the help of Frank Foley, the MI6 station chief in Berlin. Foley, posing as a passport officer, helped thousands of Jews to flee Germany. He also recruited Rosbaud as Der Greif, Agent Griffin.

The code name was grimly ironic: Griffin was the name of one of Hitler’s favourite alsatians. Rosbaud was offered the chance to stay in Britain but declared that he would rather return to Germany to fight a secret battle against the Nazi regime.

One of his first and most significant acts as a British agent came in January 1939, when he received a scientific paper from Otto Hahn, the father of nuclear chemistry, describing how he had split the atom. Realising the immense destructive potential of uranium fission, Rosbaud pulled an article that had already been typeset in the physics magazine Naturwissenschaften and inserted Hahn’s discovery in its place, thus tipping off scientists around the world and setting off the race to build the atom bomb.

Many nuclear scientists believe that the speed with which Rosbaud moved to make the findings public indicates that he was aware that, if he did not do so, the Gestapo would realise the importance of the discovery and swiftly suppress it, giving the Nazis an unassailable lead in the nuclear race.

While gathering as much scientific information as he could find, Rosbaud helped other Jewish families to escape the persecution, most notably the Jewish physicist Lise Meitner, whose 30-year collaboration with Hahn pioneered nuclear physics.

Throughout the war, Rosbaud sent a stream of information to MI6 at the rate of about one message a month. These were smuggled to Britain via the French Resistance or through the Norwegian intelligence organisation XU. Sometimes he would send messages encoded in books or in microfilm hidden on flights between Berlin and Oslo.

Although the exact details of the information that he passed remain sealed in the MI6 archives, Rosbaud is believed to have furnished details of the V2 rockets being constructed at Peenemünde on the Baltic coast. He also informed the British that the German project to build the nuclear bomb would not succeed. For reasons that remain mysterious — and may explain the unwillingness of MI6 to release the Griffin files — this information was not passed on to the Americans.

As a journalist and writer, Rosbaud could travel relatively freely around Nazi Germany, and his inquisitive questions seem to have raised few suspicions. In Britain, however, his reports were so detailed that some in MI6 began to wonder whether he might be a double agent, feeding disinformation. Intriguingly, Rosbaud managed to get out of Berlin the day after the failed July Plot to assassinate Hitler, perhaps indicating links with the conspirators.

At the end of the war, when Rosbaud came to London, he continued to work as a scientist and later went into business with Robert Maxwell, an army captain who had been press officer in Berlin for the Foreign Office and who was starting out his career as a publisher. It was Rosbaud who came up with the name Pergamon Press for Maxwell’s company, though a furious row permanently ended their partnership soon afterwards.

Rosbaud even concealed his wartime espionage from his wife. He never asked for recognition and destroyed many of his private papers. The official history of the SIS never mentioned him by name, and referred only to “a well-placed writer for a German scientific journal who was in touch with the SIS from spring 1942”. Officially, Agent Griffin never existed.

The CIA also denies that it has any material relating to Rosbaud, although a memo from the US Justice Department dated 1955 concedes that “his activities on behalf of the Allied cause were successful and of such importance that even today they cannot be disclosed”.

As Ms Booth pointed out in her legal submission to the tribunal, a book has been written about Frank Foley (Foley: the Spy who Saved 10,000 Jews by Michael Smith) and a film of his life is being planned, yet the truth about Rosbaud, his most important agent, remains shrouded in official secrecy. “The decision to release files on Major Frank Foley undermines the argument that the release of files on his agent, Mr Rosbaud, would cause actual harm,” Ms Booth wrote.

Rosbaud died of leukaemia at St Mary’s hospital, London, and was buried at sea, leaving behind £500, a gold watch, a medal from the American Institute of Physics, and an enduring mystery.

Paul Rosbaud, Agent Griffin, worked out elaborate techniques to disguise the messages that he sent to his MI6 controller, Frank Foley

As a senior employee of Springer Verlag, the huge German publisher, Rosbaud found that encoded messages could be sent using the text of published books. He spotted that authors, as vain creatures, tended to study the first editions of their works closely but were much less scrupulous with later editions. Words could be rearranged and even inserted in these without alerting suspicion. The books could be obtained by MI6 agents in neutral countries, and then shipped to MI6 headquarters in London for decoding

Rosbaud also devised a numerical code system. A specific book would be agreed on by both the agent and the MI6 decoders, usually an obscure volume available in both Britain and Germany before the war. Each word in the message would be a composite of three numbers, referring to the page in the book, the line on that page, and the number of the word within that line. The message would then be sent as a long string of numbers, incomprehensible to anyone who did not know to which book they referred

Rosbaud’s British spymasters also worked out a way to send back messages via the BBC. If the 9pm BBC broadcast began with the words Da Haus steht am Hügel (The house is on the hill), this meant that Griffin should look out for a special message. If Griffin’s handlers wanted more information on, say, paragraphs 2, 6 and 9, or his previous message, the announcer would say: “The house has two doors, six windows and nine chimneys”