Osteopath Stephen Ward’s country house on the Thames, on Lord Astor’s estate at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire, June 28, 1963. Christine Keeler was staying at the cottage in 1961, when she was introduced by Ward to the British secretary of state for war, John Profumo. Their subsequent affair led to the Profumo scandal and Profumo’s resignation. Russian spies, a sex scandal, dodgy back-channel communications with the Kremlin as the world’s two superpowers stood on the edge of nuclear war—not an untold chapter from Donald Trump’s America, but Britain 62 years ago.

The Profumo Affair, which started in July 1961 and contributed to the downfall of the government led by Harold Macmillan, in 1963, made instant headlines across the world: sex, money, members of Britain’s upper-class Establishment having orgies, a famous picture of a naked model, Christine Keeler, on a butterfly chair—all with a backdrop of London in the Swinging 60s.

The scandal, which centered on an affair that Profumo had with Keeler, a 19-year-old model and Soho cabaret dancer, blew apart the image of Britain’s crusty upper classes. It was a “moral issue,” to quote subsequent court proceedings. But as 12 weighty volumes of M.I.5 records—declassified only at the end of 2022—now reveal, the Profumo scandal was also an issue of British national security, involving Russian espionage.

The Affair

The scandal caused a sensation in Britain at the time and has been the subject of books, memoirs, and movies ever since. The report resulting from the official inquiry into the scandal, led by Lord Denning, one of the U.K.’s top lawyers, became an instant best-seller when it was published, in September 1963.

Christine Keeler on her way to trial at the Old Bailey, London, 1963.

It is not difficult to see why; it described sex parties of unidentified British nobles, one being a “Man in a Mask.” In a manner that reveals much about British attitudes toward class and sex at the time, Lord Denning wrote that the witness evidence he heard was “so disgusting” that he had to send female shorthand writers out of the room.

Fleet Street lapped it up. Tabloids described one man at the orgies who wore a Masonic apron, people being whipped, and a sex act involving bees. British fascination with the scandal endures. In 2019, the BBC released a six-part series, The Trial of Christine Keeler, excellently acted by Sophie Cookson, while James Norton perfectly played Stephen Ward, the go-between at the center of the imbroglio.

As 12 weighty volumes of M.I.5 records—declassified only at the end of 2022—now reveal, the Profumo scandal was also an issue of British national security.

Ward was an eccentric, urbane socialite, well known in London’s leading circles. He was a talented portrait painter, whose subjects included members of the royal family, including Prince Philip. Ward, who had an air of J.F.K. about him, was by all accounts equally gifted as a society osteopath, a version of a chiropractor.

His patients included politicians, City tycoons, nobles, British military leaders, movie stars, and spies. He would gossip about them. Ward was also something of a pimp, with a wide circle of influential friends, to whom he introduced pretty young women. One of Ward’s friends and patients was Lord “Bill” Astor. He rented a cottage to Ward on his 17th-century estate, Cliveden, on the Berkshire-Buckinghamshire border, deep in England’s Home Counties. Ward used the cottage to entertain his friends. It was there, at Cliveden, that the Profumo scandal began.

Spring Cottage at Cliveden, the Astor estate, where in 1961 Stephen Ward introduced Keeler to John Profumo.

John Profumo was Britain’s secretary of state for war. In the summer of 1961, Cold War tensions were escalating over the future of Berlin. During a heat wave in England in early July, Profumo and his wife, Valerie Hobson, a former actress, were invited by Astor to be his guests at Cliveden for the weekend. Other guests included Pakistan’s high commissioner (effectively, ambassador) in London.

That stifling July weekend, Ward was holding a very different party on the property, down at Spring Cottage, on the banks of the Thames. On the evening of Saturday, July 8, Ward’s drunken guests decided to take a moonlight dip in the swimming pool by the main house. It was there, in the walled garden, that Profumo, 46, first met Keeler, as she dashed, naked, from the water to find a towel, leaving wet footprints behind her on the terra-cotta tiles.

Profumo and Keeler were soon having an affair. It was short-lived, finishing in August. As Keeler later put it, it was a “very, very well-mannered screw of convenience.” It almost certainly would have been lost to history if Profumo had not subsequently lied to the House of Commons, denying the affair. He probably did so to save his marriage, and because he knew the involvement of a Russian official made the scandal much worse.

The Russian Spy

One of Ward’s other guests for that sultry weekend at Cliveden was the Soviet naval attaché in London, Yevgeny Ivanov. That position, however, was diplomatic cover for his true posting to London: he was a Soviet military-intelligence (G.R.U.) officer there. In subsequent portrayals, such as the 1989 film Scandal, Ivanov is depicted as a jocular sideshow, a bumbling drunk. He certainly drank heavily. But he was also a professional Russian spy.

Ivanov came to London in March 1960 and was soon on M.I.5’s radar, as it routinely monitored Soviet officials arriving in London in the hope of detecting undercover intelligence officers. As M.I.5’s dossier on Ivanov shows, its surveillance of him noted that he drank heavily, seemed despondent, and enjoyed the company of women, despite being married.

Yevgeny Ivanov with the wife of U.S. naval attaché Thomas Watson Murphy at a party in a London hotel, January 1962.

In January 1961, seven months before the fateful Cliveden weekend, M.I.5 considered trying to recruit Ivanov as an agent or getting him to defect. It considered either making a direct “crash” approach to Ivanov, at a cocktail party, or by using a “honey trap,” a suitably attractive female friend of an M.I.5 officer, who would pitch the request to Ivanov over drinks. In the end, it came to nothing. M.I.5 decided not to proceed.

M.I.5’s surveillance on Ivanov also revealed his association with Ward, to whom the Russian spy had been introduced by the editor of The Daily Telegraph, Colin Coote, while at the Garrick Club in London. Ward introduced Keeler to Ivanov, and they too had a brief affair.

Sex, money, members of Britain’s upper-class establishment having orgies, a famous picture of a naked model, Christine Keeler, on a butterfly chair.

In June 1961, the month before the Cliveden weekend, a bowler-hatted M.I.5 officer, Keith Wagstaffe, using the alias “Wood,” met with Ward to determine the nature of his friendship with Ivanov and whether Ward was being either knowingly or unwittingly used by the Russian. The M.I.5 officer’s ensuing report, typed on much-thumbed paper, noted that Ward held “peculiar views,” was possibly left-wing—he wanted to paint the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev—but did not appear to be a security concern. The report noted that Ward considered Ivanov a “loyal communist.” That was that, or so it seemed.

The next item in the file regarded an incident that took place a few days after the infamous Cliveden weekend. Ward called “Wood” (Wagstaffe) and invited him for lunch, saying he had something important to share, but not over the phone. He told Wagstaffe that Ivanov had been pressing him to gather information from his influential clients and friends about the U.S. deployment of nuclear weapons in West Germany.

Profumo and Valerie Hobson at their wedding,1954.

He also told the M.I.5 officer about the weekend at Cliveden, where Ivanov, Profumo, and Keeler all had been. That Sunday at Cliveden, in that swimming pool, Profumo and Ivanov had even had a swimming race.

At this point, all the elements of a major national-security scandal were coming into sight: a nexus between a Cabinet minister, a Soviet intelligence officer, and a call girl, who was having (or had had) affairs with both men.

M.I.5 now knew that Ivanov was pressing Ward for information useful to the Soviet government. It did not yet know that Ivanov had slept with Keeler nor that she was sleeping with Profumo. As the scandal unfolded, and then broke in the summer of 1963, the question was whether Ivanov had asked his former lover Keeler to find out sensitive information about Western Cold War defense subjects from her new lover, Profumo. It was a mess.

A nexus between a Cabinet minister, a Soviet intelligence officer, and a call girl, who was having (or had had) affairs with both men.

M.I.5’s director general, Roger Hollis, met with the avuncular head of the civil service, Burke Trend, the Cabinet secretary, to discuss Profumo, Ivanov, and Keeler. In August 1961, Trend held a meeting with Profumo, warning him about Keeler. Profumo got the message and called off his affair. His note to Keeler doing so, which started with the word “Darling,” would become infamous (the “Darling” letter) when it subsequently surfaced at the time the scandal erupted, in May 1963.

There is no evidence in M.I.5 records about an allegation often made, especially in the British tabloid press, that M.I.5 attempted to use Keeler as a honey trap to ensnare Ivanov. On the contrary, the files show M.I.5 was on the back foot, trying to understand the security implications of what happened, not controlling events.

A Back Channel to Moscow

M.I.5’s files on Ivanov and Ward—the very same yellowing dossiers that M.I.5 used in its investigation—offer several surprising revelations. The first is that, in May 1962, Britain’s Foreign Office used none other than Ward to pass official British reports to the Soviet government via Ivanov. The declassified records do not reveal why senior officials in the Foreign Office were doing this. Presumably they thought it was valuable to have a communication back channel with the Kremlin, as Cold War relations between East and West deteriorated. When M.I.5 discovered the attempt at back-channel communication, through Ward rather than through the Foreign Office, it was aghast. As the agency responsible for advising on British security intelligence, it found it crazy and dangerous that M.I.5 had not been informed about British official reports being passed to the Kremlin, through a Soviet intelligence officer.

The Foreign Secretary, Lord Home, and the top civil servant at the Foreign Office, Sir Harold Caccia, had personally approved the plan. M.I.5 warned the Foreign Office, with striking understatement, that Ward was both “naïve and indiscreet.”

Matters got crazier during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in October 1962, when the U.S. and Soviet governments stood on the brink of nuclear war. The 13-day crisis was the most tense and dangerous standoff ever to occur between the two superpowers. The Soviet government deployed nuclear weapons in Cuba, threatening the heartland of America.

During the East-West standoff over Cuba, Ivanov contacted Ward and used him as an intermediary with the Foreign Office, with the aim of initiating a communication back channel between Moscow and London. At the height of the crisis, on October 24, Ward passed a message from Ivanov to Caccia at the Foreign Office that the Soviet government regarded Britain as “their one hope of conciliation.”

Ward, the urbane socialite who had an air of J.F.K. about him.

On October 27, Ivanov accompanied Ward to the home of another senior Foreign Office official, Arthur Gore, the Earl of Arran. They urged the British government to hold a summit to de-escalate the crisis. Gore passed on the proposal to the prime minister. The next day, however, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended when Khrushchev agreed to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba.

Kremlin Meddling

In 1963, British intelligence received new information about the Profumo scandal. The C.I.A. had managed to recruit an agent in the K.G.B. whose name has not been declassified. That agent reported hearing that Ivanov’s espionage was more sophisticated than the British realized and that the Soviets had received useful intelligence from both Ward and Keeler. Of course Ivanov would say that, reasoned M.I.5, to make his career seem more important than it was. Nevertheless, they were obliged to take the claim seriously.

M.I.5 and M.I.6, Britain’s foreign-intelligence service, established a working party to investigate whether Soviet intelligence had played a role in the Profumo scandal, intending to undermine the British government. The working party noted that a well-known K.G.B. tactic was to recruit “agents of influence” in Western governments, through whom it could influence events and spread disinformation, with three aims: to discredit the Western world and individual national governments, sow discord among the Western allies, and drive a wedge between Western populations and their governments.

Ivanov returned to Moscow between March and June 1962. M.I.5 and M.I.6’s report noted that, during this time, Ivanov’s superiors in Moscow may have instructed him to exploit his friendship with Ward and Keeler and to turn them into agents of influence in order to discredit the British government. Ivanov’s approach to the Foreign Office during the Cuban Missile Crisis, through Ward, may have been an effort to undermine Western resolve.

Matters got crazier during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in October 1962.

M.I.5 and M.I.6 concluded there was no positive evidence that Ivanov had initially cultivated Ward for these purposes, though they noted that he and his Moscow bosses may have sought to exploit the Profumo scandal as it evolved. Insofar as the Profumo situation proved embarrassing to the British government, it certainly worked to the Kremlin’s advantage. It contributed to Prime Minister Macmillan’s resignation from office, in October 1963. But as M.I.5 and M.I.6 noted, there was not enough evidence to draw any firm conclusions. The secrets about the role Soviet intelligence played in the Profumo affair, if they exist at all, remain hidden in Russian archives, with little prospect of being released under Putin. Unlike the K.G.B., whose secrets were smuggled to the West as the Soviet Union broke up, in 1991, fewer records of the G.R.U., where Ivanov worked, have been opened.

The End of the Affair

Ivanov was recalled to Moscow in January 1963, where he drank himself to death in 1994, at the age of 68. Profumo resigned from office in June 1963. In Lord Denning’s words, his disgrace was complete. He devoted the rest of his life to charities, scrubbing floors in East London. Keeler was found guilty of perjury. For the rest of her life, until her death, in 2017 at the age of 75, she would be linked with Profumo. Ward was charged with “living off immoral earnings” (a polite legal term for prostitution). He was tried in July 1963. Abandoned by his society friends, he took an overdose of sleeping pills and was dead before the court could pass sentence on him.

On the other side of the Atlantic, John F. Kennedy’s White House was equally fascinated and alarmed by the scandal in stiff-upper-lipped Britain. Matters got more serious when evidence emerged that J.F.K. may have had an affair with a call girl, Suzy Chang, who was an associate of Keeler’s. The U.S. attorney general, Robert Kennedy, requested an investigation, stating that his brother had “expressed concern” about the matter. The F.B.I. sent special agents to various U.S. cities where Chang had worked, to investigate. Declassified F.B.I. files do not reveal the results of its investigation.

The Profumo scandal lived on not only in British public life but also in the secret world. M.I.5 and M.I.6’s investigation into Ivanov involved intelligence matters that are still relevant today. The conclusion of their working-party investigation could have been written about the efforts of Russian intelligence to meddle in U.S. politics in 2016:

“Disinformation operations are even more difficult to investigate than those involving espionage. They are more wide-ranging and more nebulous; the opportunities for carrying them out are greater and the chances of concealing agents of influence in the body politic are better. With the increase in Russian Intelligence Service activities in this field this whole subject needs to be studied in greater depth and over a longer period. Even then it may prove very hard to discover direct evidence of Russian Intelligence Service complicity in directing agents of influence in this country.”

Calder Walton is a historian at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the author of Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West