British businessman, 87, gave communists ‘military tech’ from MoD lab
April 11, 2023 12:24 PM
A British businessman spent years supplying communist spies with ‘military technology’ from the Ministry of Defence’s top secret Porton Down laboratory, state files allege.
Peter Tarnoy is said to have used his cover as a British pharmaceutical company executive to collect materials developed for troops to combat chemical and biological warfare, MailOnline reported.
He then passed them to handlers during his regular work trips behind the Iron Curtain, according to newly declassified documents in the Czechoslovak Security Service archives.
The Hungarian-born father of four, who lived with his Oxford graduate wife in an East Sussex farmhouse, also kept a ‘close observation’ on experts at Porton Down who worked on what he said was ‘highly secret material’. He is said to have supplied details of their research and lives – including their lovers – to his spymasters.
His handlers were Czech agents, but much of the information and materials he provided were at the request of their ‘Soviet friends’ – who expressed their gratitude, the files allege.
Tarnoy’s alleged activities are said to have proved lucrative for the now 87-year-old and helped fund his daughters' private school fees.
For his part, Tarnoy insisted it was nothing to do with money, telling his handlers in a letter: ‘I committed myself to your cause. I have been serving loyally and to the best of my ability.’
Professor Anthony Glees, an intelligence and security expert from the University of Buckingham, said: ‘The relative ease with which he obtained materials and information from Porton Down that were valued by the Czech secret service will horrify the public and deeply embarrass MI5 and British security generally.’
Contacted by the Mail, Tarnoy – who remains an active businessman and pillar of the establishment – denied all the allegations, claimed the files were forged and said he was actually treated with great suspicion by Communist authorities.
Professor Glees said that he had never heard of anyone successfully disputing the veracity of Communist era archive archives and pointed out the purpose of the extensive files was to help the police-state regimes maintain hold on power, so it would have been ‘ludicrous’ for them to fake documents.
Raised in Budapest by his bank worker mother and eminent art historian stepfather, Tarnoy fled Hungary in 1956, shortly after the Soviets crushed the uprising against Communist rule.
After arriving in the UK, he obtained British citizenship and won a bursary from Boots to study at the Chelsea College of Technology before becoming a management trainee at Unilever.
In 1965 he started working at a pharmaceutical and industrial machinery business called AVP, which sold equipment to socialist countries including Czechoslovakia, entailing frequent visits and longer term stays in Bratislava, now the capital of Slovakia.
It is here that the Czechoslovakian archive starts to describe the security services' purported involvement with Tarnoy.
In 1974 he was arrested and accused of ‘illicit enterprise’, the files state. Tarnoy denies he was ever accused of any crime.
After his arrest, the Czech spy agency, STB, assessed whether he could be used for ‘intelligence work’.
After three days in custody and being warned he could face up to five years in jail, Tarnoy was recruited for co-operation by the Czech Ministry of the Interior’s Scientific and Technical Intelligence division. He was given the codename Piter.
The file noted: ‘Piter accepted co-operation with the Czechoslovak Intelligence Service as the only possible solution to his difficult situation.
‘It was implied to him that he could work his crimes off this way. He handwrote a declaration of co-operation.’
Tarnoy was given specific tasks, methods of communication and a cover story for his detention in Czechoslovakia to tell his friends, colleagues and family.
The spies concluded he was ‘extremely capable, hard-working, ambitious’ but sometimes a ‘bit wild, almost on the verge of gambling’.
He was said to be a ‘mixture of a typically Hungarian character and artificially created English traits and habits…’
The files noted he had ‘many very interesting social connections in Great Britain’, and whilst still in custody he provided a ‘detailed description of selected contacts’. Tarnoy now denies this.
The handwritten document included TV presenters, publishers, lawyers, captains of industry, barristers, stockbrokers, doctors, officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, retired millionaires and even best-selling writer Paul Gallico, author of The Poseidon Adventure.
Tarnoy’s most powerful contact was Madron Seligman – his boss at the company where they worked – who was also an MEP and best friends with then Prime Minister Edward Heath, although Tarnoy stressed he had no direct access to the Tory leader.
By the end of the first year his handlers reported being ‘particularly happy’ with the information he provided.
‘He attends meetings on time, does his best to fulfil the set assignments and follows instructions.’
Tarnoy provided materials developed at the Chemical Defence Establishment at Porton Down, which conducted research to help defend UK Armed Forces from weapons of mass destruction.
A file from August 1981 noted: ‘The agent is working on obtaining technological documentation for … military use such as protective clothing, masks, filters and other protective equipment against chemical and biological weapons…
‘He has already handed over basic information and a number of samples … and keeps getting new information as per our instructions and our Soviet friends’ requests.
‘He obtains this information using a cover story.’
A file the following year noted that Tarnoy ‘followed on from his previous success and was assigned tasks relating to obtaining military technology materials, specifically those relating to protection against WMD…
‘The materials were passed on to our Soviet friends and received positive feedback.’
He was also given ‘extra tasks and asked extra questions’ for every material he had obtained, which increased their usability for the communists, the files said.
In 1982 alone he handed over 11 materials which the Czechs variously rated as ‘interesting, valuable and informative’, which included technical documentation, samples, brochures and drawings of equipment and machinery.
‘Most of the materials were of a confidential nature, some could be classed as secret,’ the files said.
The files also say that many of the materials he provided, while often first developed at Porton Down, were manufactured by private companies around the UK or elsewhere.
Several British companies, including Tarnoy’s, had shares in Porton Down, the files said.
Another file added that ‘thanks to this process’ the ‘manufacture of this material, which can be used in protection against WMD … is imminent’.
Spy chiefs concluded he should ‘carry on with fulfilling special military requirements set by our USSR friends, in particular those concerning special protective materials against WMD’.
In letters later written to his handlers, Tarnoy said : ‘I was asked to obtain products from Porton Down. I did as I was requested, all at considerable expense to me.’
This included charcoal cloth, which he said was ‘developed for the protection of army personnel against nerve gasses’.
He wrote: ‘This was an important development at Porton Down and I was asked to obtain as much material as possible…
‘I managed to be in close touch with several key people, including the key technical man.
‘I obtained practically all the information I was asked for and even arranged the right necessary expertise to build a full production plant.’
He also provided ‘valuable’ details and samples of new TNT explosives requested by his handler, and advised methods of bringing it into Czechoslovakia via a third country to dodge sanctions.
Describing this work in a letter to his handlers, Tarnoy said: ‘Much useful technology was passed on and again key people were cornered.’
He also offered to provide a ‘leading expert’ on vibration control for which ‘the military applications could be of considerable interest …with tanks and heavy military vehicles’.
A 1983 file said: ‘Piter described the situation in Porton Down as being favourable for deeper exploration’ and he supplied a list of staff and contact details for biology professor working in its microbiological technology laboratory.
The following year he reported to his handler that a senior manager and biotechnology expert at Porton Down was being ‘squeezed’ by the Bulgarian intelligence and supplying them information after an apparent honey trap.
The files note: ‘Piter has seen him on a couple occasions secretly copying some documents, always at a time when this Bulgarian woman was in England.’
It added the Tarnoy had said the manager was ‘totally obsessed with her, which was probably how he was gained for co-operation’.
Tarnoy suggested inviting the professor and the senior manager to Prague for ‘round table’ talks with Czechoslovak experts over potential co-operation in the ‘area of biotechnologies’.
In a later letter to his handlers, Tarnoy said: ‘I reported that [the biotechnology expert] was working with much interesting and highly secret material and he could be of considerable use to you’, adding that he had provided ‘a certain tip for the method to be used in cracking this nut’.
‘I kept him under close observation and I have a fair knowledge of his activities.’
Other than avoiding jail, his main initial motivation for co-operation was money, the files allege.
A report at the end of his first year as an agent claimed that while Tarnoy ‘emphasised that his co-operation with us was voluntary’, he was primarily driven by cash and would sometimes refer to his ‘difficult financial situation’.
At other times he implied to his handler he might stop his co-operation, but ‘when he hears of the money incentive on our part though, he recoils and does not mention it again’.
A file from 1981 noted: ‘Piter is currently under money pressure apparently because he is paying tuition fees for his daughters, which come to £4,000 per year.’
For his own part, despite often complaining about the expenses he racked up on missions, Tarnoy insisted in a letter to his handlers in 1985: ‘My motivation was never financial and I believe that I proved this point on many occasions.
‘I am a fairly wealthy man and a few hundred pounds make little difference to me these days.’
Tarnoy now denies ever receiving money from Czech government sources.
By the mid 1980s the relationship was deteriorating, with spy chiefs accusing him of becoming ‘totally unsatisfactory’ at fulfilling his tasks and a ‘significant reduction’ in materials provided.
With the threat of jail now apparently spent, the communists warned they might ban him from working in Czechoslovakia, which would harm his business dealings.
His handlers described being at a ‘crossroads’.
‘If Piter brings the required samples (of good quality) from Porton Down to the next meeting, our co-operation will continue on a material-financial basis.
'If not, the [handler] will notify Piter of end of co-operation including the consequences related thereto (no entry to Czechoslovakia).’
After a final meeting in February 1985, using the cover of a ‘business meeting’, his handler reported: ‘Piter did not bring anything to the meeting, kept making excuses and tried to blame us for bad results of our co-operation because we are not generous enough, etc.
‘The meeting was terminated without any plans for future communication and with the aforesaid warning in place.’
For his part, Tarnoy was adamant he had done everything asked of him, telling his handlers: ‘The service I provided was excellent.’
Shortly before the final meeting, he wrote complaining that much of his work for his handler had not been followed up.
He added: ‘I served faithfully, yet I had no financial demands. In fact the whole matter cost me much more than I received in my expenses.
‘I do intend to keep my side of the agreement, but it is difficult to say in advance how many opportunities will present themselves… I can only hope that the future will bring some useful results.’
In an earlier handwritten letter he said: ‘Ever since I committed myself to your cause I have been serving loyally and to the best of my ability… I think that there would be no question of doubt about my sincerity and reliability.’
In another, typed, letter bearing his home address he wrote: ‘I have done all that I could when asked to carry out certain tasks. I am ready and willing to be of further service and given the right opportunity, I am certain that sooner or later I repay the energy spent on me.’
The files do not always make clear if the materials and information said to have been provided by Tarnoy benefited the communists.
After the collapse of Communism, Tarnoy continued to enjoy a glittering career as an energy consultant, and is currently involved in working on electric car developments in eastern Europe, working with Hungarian government ministers.
In 2002 he was quoted in the Financial Times describing some of the failings of communism.
He served as chairman of the the British Hungarian Society, pictured alongside the Hungarian economic minister in 2014 at a electric car push, and in 2020 was a special guest at the Hungarian Embassy in London where he was described as a ‘renaissance leader of the Hungarian diaspora’.
The Ministry of Defence confirmed that three men named in the files as Tarnoy’s contacts in Porton Down’s now closed Chemical Defence Establishment did work there during the 1970s to 1990s.
An MoD spokesman said: 'We take security extremely seriously, providing professional training, rigorous security checks, and operating robust security measures to protect our people and assets.'