Bernard Sheldon won a scholarship to Hurst and became Captain of the School. He was commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and served as a gunnery officer on the aircraft carrier Formidable in the North Sea and the Far East, seeing action against the German battleship Tirpitz, and during the recovery of Okinawa from the Japanese.
He decided to read for the Bar, became a member of Middle Temple in 1947, and was called to the Bar two years later. He then joined the Colonial Legal Service, but in 1958 he was spotted by MI5 and invited to apply to join the Security Service. In a distinguished career, he was involved in many cases of high security including the successful prosecutions of Geoffrey Prime, who was sentenced to 35 years for espionage, and Hugh Hambleton who was sentenced to 10 years for passing NATO secrets to the Russians. After he retired in 1987 he worked for the Citizens Advice Bureau and served on police, prison and fire service interview boards. He was appointed CB.The following obituary is reproduced with the agreement of the Daily Telegraph:
Bernard Sheldon, who has died aged 83 (in 2008), was the legal adviser to MI5 during the ill-fated attempt in 1986 by Margaret Thatcher’s government to block the publication of Peter Wright’s book Spycatcher and in the prosecution two years earlier of the would-be Soviet agent Michael Bettaney. Bettaney was a young officer in MI5’s counter-espionage branch who made several unsuccessful attempts to persuade the Soviet embassy to recruit him as a double agent. In a series of messages dropped through the letter-box of Arkady Guk, the KGB Rezident (or head of station), Bettaney used classic Cold War tradecraft to lay out a complex system of dead-letter boxes and methods of communication. If Guk accepted Bettaney’s offer he was to “place a drawing-pin (any colour) at the top of the right-hand banister of the stairs leading from platforms three and four at Piccadilly underground station”. The drawing-pin never appeared, as Guk believed it was a deliberate provocation designed to “out” him as a spy. But his deputy knew better. Oleg Gordievsky was an MI6 agent-in-place inside the KGB London station. He reported the approach to his MI6 contact, and Bettaney was arrested. Sheldon played a crucial role in ensuring that all the evidence was in place to arrest and prosecute Bettaney without giving away the role played by Gordievsky who, in a stunning success for MI6, was appointed by Moscow centre to replace Guk.
But Sheldon’s attempts to dissuade the Thatcher government from pursuing Wright through the New South Wales civil courts were somewhat less successful. The government’s action against Wright, who had emigrated to Australia, ended in near-farce, with Robert Armstrong, the then cabinet secretary, refusing to confirm or deny the existence of MI6.When it was pointed out to Armstrong that he had already admitted that Sir Dick White was head of MI6 from 1956 to 1968, he replied that, this being the case, he could not confirm that it had existed before 1956 or after 1968. The court was unimpressed with the argument.
Bernard Sheldon was born on July 14 1924, the son of a bank official. He won a scholarship to St John’s College, Hurstpierpoint, in 1938 and went on to become captain of the school. In 1943 he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and was commissioned the following year, serving as a gunnery officer on the aircraft carrier Formidable during the summer of 1944, when she mounted repeated but unsuccessful air attacks against the German battleship Tirpitz. Formidable then sailed for the Far East, taking part in the recovery of Okinawa from the Japanese, during which time she was the target of a number of kamikaze pilots.
Sheldon was demobilised in 1946. He initially planned to join the Indian Civil Service, but when the government announced that India was to be made independent, he instead read for the Bar, becoming a member of Middle Temple in 1947. He was called to the Bar two years later.
He joined the Colonial Legal Service in 1951 and was sent to Malaya, where he was federal counsel and deputy public prosecutor and regarded by the country’s attorney-general as one of the best young legal officers in the service. Sheldon joined MI5 in 1959, one of a number of former colonial officers recruited to the service, and worked first in the counter-espionage and counter-subversion branches before being sent in 1963 to Hong Kong, where he was security liaison officer, advising the governor and Special Branch on security matters. But he missed the intellectual cut-and-thrust of legal argument, and returned to London in 1966 to work for the MI5 legal adviser, taking the full post himself two years later.
Amid widespread suspicion of MI5’s role, particularly during the hunts for alleged Communist subversives inside the trades unions, Sheldon’s public face made him an easy target for attacks from conspiracy theorists that contemporaries in MI5 insist were unfair. His two decades in charge were a difficult period for MI5 legally, with the increasing use of the courts to prosecute IRA terrorists, and improvements in the rights given to defence lawyers, exposing flaws in the way the service gathered evidence, a problem that Sheldon saw much more clearly than some of his colleagues. His forceful personality was deployed repeatedly to persuade the old guard that they needed to collect much more evidence than in the past if they were to prosecute and convict, while at the same time ensuring that the methods and sources used to collect key parts were not to be exposed in court.
Sheldon also acted as legal adviser to both MI6 and GCHQ, and he played a leading role in ensuring that when Geoffrey Prime, a Soviet spy inside GCHQ from 1968 to 1977, was prosecuted in 1982, details of signals intelligence collection capabilities remained secret. Sheldon was appointed CB in 1981. After retiring in 1987 he used his legal skills on behalf of people who sought assistance from the Citizens’ Advice Bureau. He also served on police, prison and fire service interview boards.
Bernard Sheldon died on February 19.
He married, in 1951, Dorothy Kirkland, with whom he had a son and two daughters.