Spying an opportunity

April 11, 2012 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Most politicians are generalists. More and more MPs are career politicos with no practical experience beyond operating, serving or servicing the engines of state and the organisations of those who aspire to drive those engines. Fewer and fewer arrive in the House after a partial career in business, education, medicine, the law, trades unionism or the arts.

Being generalists, ministers and would-be ministers develop complicated and often fraught relationships with the experts, consultants, advisors and civil servants upon whose more specialist knowledge they depend. There is always a tension between, on the one hand, what politicians want to do, have a gut reaction about and know they can drive through opposition in their own and rival parties, and, on the other, what specialists advise should be done, can bring practical experience to bear upon and know will fail to deliver all the imagined benefits when implemented. This continuing face-off was definitively and precisely explored in the 1980s television sitcoms written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister.

The Cameron government has shown itself to be peculiarly impervious to the possibility that wiser heads might yield wiser counsel. Cuts in further education tuition fees were forced through in the teeth of dire warnings of the consequences from all shades of education opinion. The damage these cuts are doing is gradually becoming apparent to those beyond the purview of the experts. Michael Gove has plenty more schemes that few education professionals welcome. Andrew Lansley’s misbegotten assault upon the NHS, once hailed by the government as enjoying the support of the medical profession, is now defended almost entirely without reference to that profession which, with few exceptions, has hardened against it. Objective welfare experts told the government that its cuts in benefits would cause widespread hardship, but George Osborne went ahead anyway. To these and other objections, Cameron and his ministers furrow their brows and sadly claim our understanding that they have to make “difficult decisions”. The electorate see these rather as “bad decisions”.

While the coalition pays little heed to those civil servants, academics and specialists who caution against their ill-considered policies, there is one body of experts in whose presence ministers always bend the knee, whatever they may have claimed that they would do when they were in opposition. These lords of all they survey are the intelligence and security community. Everything they demand is granted, everything they propose is acted upon. Their writ runs throughout government.

Ronald Reagan’s famous dictum is often trotted out: “a government’s first duty is to protect the people”. This is a convenient quote but also a selective one. Reagan added: “not run their lives” which, of course, was the salient point that he wished to make. Nonetheless, prime ministers, like presidents, are apt to put great weight behind the notion that theirs is a duty to protect. Like all his predecessors in the modern era, David Cameron will have been given information upon taking office that will not have been available to him before and to which he and a select few others will be privy, possibly not including Her Majesty. Let us hope that he (and each of his predecessors) was able to resist being overwhelmed by the solemnity of the trust invested in him. To begin with, he ought to have insisted that a distinction be made between genuine information and mere opinion in the summary laid before him.

This goes to the nub of the problem of security and intelligence. Because such matters occupy a particular space in both the public and the political mind – a space at once grave, powerful, urgent, secret and routinely accounted life-threatening – the conduct of these matters is peculiarly important and delicate. The convention has been long established that a minimum of questions may be asked. Newbies in Downing Street may well be to a degree overawed by an awareness of that convention, even seasoned old pros like Jim Callaghan and Gordon Brown who came to the top job after years in the inner sanctum of government.

I’d like to think that, were it me being briefed on my first morning as PM, I would have the gumption to ask questions along the lines of “who says?”, “what’s the evidence?”, “why does it have to be done that way?” and “what’s the alternative scenario?” There is a very great danger that the security and intelligence services behave as if they are – and indeed in practice actually are – all-licensed wielders of far-reaching powers. I want to ask: who regulates MI5 and MI6? What are the limitations placed upon GCHQ? Is a Smiley face a mask behind which rights and freedoms are overturned with impunity?

Early in his fascinating two-parter for BBC2, Modern Spies, the discriminating veteran reporter Peter Taylor carefully observed that “in the real world, Britain’s intelligence services operate under strict political control”. That he had to make this observation may well have been the price that Taylor and his producer Mike Rudin were obliged to pay in return for the access that they were granted. The point was made again and again throughout the programmes. “Everything we do,” said an unidentified GCHQ geek, “is strictly controlled within the law”. Added an MI6 intelligence officer: “The reality is that we operate within a clear framework within government”. And, discussing Britain’s undercover work in the civil insurrection in Libya last year, William Hague declared: “Intelligence does not in any way dictate our decision, but it helps us to come to our decision about what to do”. The lads do protest too much, methinks.

Half a century ago, espionage and counter-espionage was a major preoccupation of Fleet Street and of lightly-fictionalising novelists like John Le Carré and Len Deighton. Chapman Pincher – whose son was a school contemporary of mine and who turned 98 at the end of last month – was the king of intelligence-busting reporters and the man who broke the story that a former head of MI5, Roger Hollis, was a double agent. Many of Pincher’s theories were pretty fanciful, however. For instance, he claimed that Harold Wilson was a Moscow plant, which fantasy makes Wilson’s often-scorned paranoia about MI5 rather more understandable. No doubt this was a titbit passed “in confidence” to Pincher by MI5 in the knowledge that he would be unable to resist publishing it in due course.

Pincher also fingered Tom Driberg, the least likely of agents when you consider that he was unarguably the most recklessly promiscuous politician of the age, an incorrigible devotee of al fresco fellatio with any man who happened along. The first requirement of a spy is discretion, the second discipline, the third reliability and the fourth single-mindedness. Driberg wholly lacked the first three qualities and devoted the fourth wholly to his appetite. So I suggest that Pincher was never more than a useful conduit for MI5 mischief.

In Pincher’s heyday, the D-Notice system was widely invoked. This was a convention whereby the Ministry of Defence earmarked certain information (usually in the form of documents) that ought not to be in the public domain. The system was largely for the attention of the press, which was not legally obliged to honour the notices but which, with vanishingly rare exceptions, did so. The system still obtains but has fallen out of the public debate.

Intelligence matters have exercised politicians and commentators lately, particularly because the government is considering the extension of surveillance powers over internet traffic. Such an extension is rationalised because of the “necessity” to monitor terrorist activity more fully. This necessity needs further explication by ministers. Greater surveillance over the whole population involves lessening of rights for the whole population. We give away our rights at our peril.

The arguments advanced are meretricious. Government assurances about its own probity are not especially persuasive. Worse, no administration can bind succeeding governments. A more nakedly repressive and/or ideological cabinet than the present one would be jolly grateful for the tools handed to it by unguarded predecessors who may even have been well-intentioned. It might be that, two or three decades hence, we have a government that wishes to impose Sharia law in Britain. There is no need for us to smooth the path for such an imposition.

Terrorism is a very handy bogeyman to use in order to frighten people into surrendering their freedoms. If terrorism is the enemy in whose name our rights are to be eroded, we need first to be fully assured that the threat is real and that it cannot be combated in any other way. After all, we have been pouring lives and money into a futile war in Afghanistan for ten years, all in the name of an unproven and highly dubious proposition: that by fighting this war, we are keeping British streets safe.

In reality, there has never been any evidence that the Taliban had ambitions to bring atrocities to mainland Britain. But what the prosecution of the invasion and the war of attrition has unarguably achieved is a steady and objectively understandable wave of hatred of the west through a whole generation of young Arabs – and particularly Muslims – throughout the far, middle and near east. This hatred has certainly driven many more recruits into the arms of both the Taliban and al-Qaida, seeing themselves (again perfectly understandably) as freedom-fighters. The Taliban is not al-Qaida, but if hatred of a common enemy has driven the two movements into any kind of an alliance, the blame for it must be laid at the policies of successive western governments.

And what will the Afghani disaster have achieved? Everybody knows – though no politician will publicly acknowledge – that within a maximum of three months after the departure of western troops, the Taliban will be back in power in Kabul. The country will then become a much more fertile training ground for al-Qaida than Pakistan can ever be and therein lies a much more credible problem for the safety of British and American streets. So what will the west do then? Re-invade?

The intelligence service has unique access to the argument that there is a terrorist threat and hence unique access to the argument that civil rights and powers should be eroded. But how can we put our unquestioning trust in the spooks? They have been incompetent before and they have exceeded their brief before. Peter Taylor neglected to mention the notorious “dodgy dossier” that persuaded Tony Blair to stake all his authority on the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But he did usefully explore the wholly fabricated intelligence upon which US Secretary of State Colin Powell argued for invasion in good faith at the UN. Powell’s then chief of staff told Taylor: “The intelligence was being worked to fit around the policy”.

We may never know whether George W Bush was being “worked” as much as Powell and how far Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were in on the manipulation. It is perfectly possible that the CIA itself was misled by a determined enemy of Saddam Hussein, the man known as Curveball, who cheerily admits his mendacity to Taylor. It is also perfectly possible that elements in the CIA and/or the Bush administration had reasons to effect “regime change” in Iraq and were not unduly fussy about how it might be achieved.

The larger point is that great power and influence reside in the intelligence services and that the individuals who wield that power necessarily hold many advantages over governments, let alone over private citizens. Some experience of my own may be of interest here. A friend, whom for the purposes of this story I will call M, was once briefly involved with someone I will call Q. It soon transpired that Q was an operative in MI5. Being both intrigued and persuasive, M begged Q to find out whether there was a file on M at the office. After a becoming show of reluctance, Q complied, doubtless a breach of the law. Q reported back that there was indeed a file on M and it was cross-referenced to U, V, W, X, Y and Z, all of whom were contacts of M. W in this sequence is me.

You may cry: “oh baloney and self-importance! Why would they bother to run a file on you?” Well – several plausible reasons. At the time in the 1970s that I worked for Time Out, there was a security flurry that became known as the Agee/Hosenball Affair. Philip Agee was a former CIA agent who had published a book about the agency and, when he based himself in London, came to the attention of MI6 who blamed him for the deaths of two of their agents. Mark Hosenball was an American journalist working on security-related stories for Time Out. Both were summarily served with deportation notices by the Home Office and, though the Callaghan government permitted a token hearing, were never informed of the nature of their purported transgressions. The consensus at Time Out was that Hosenball was a sprat to catch the Agee mackerel, that no credible charge could be laid against Hosenball and that the injustice of his treatment helped to blur the case against Agee. Back in the States, Hosenball became a distinguished correspondent for Newsweek and is now a Reuter’s agent. Agee was running a website from Havana when he died in 2008.

Another reporter on security matters told me at the time that, given Hosenball’s presence there, everyone at Time Out would be on MI5 file (and probably on daily phone-tap). In any case, Mark then lodged at the home of a journalist who worked alongside me at the magazine. That journalist was also friendly with Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour, who were then tracing the history of the conspiracy to overthrow Harold Wilson; no doubt MI5 knew about them too.

Not long after I left the magazine, a second security case engulfed Time Out, when a serving soldier, John Bury, was accused of passing intelligence to two of the magazine’s reporters, Crispin Aubrey and Duncan Campbell. This became known as the ABC Case. Prosecutions were brought under the Official Secrets Act and the case went to the Old Bailey. It ended in embarrassment for the Director of Public Prosecutions when the defendants were acquitted on all charges that had not already been dismissed. The intention to warn journalists generally was clear enough, however.

But there is further evidence of the threat that I posed to the state. From the mid-1970s, I was openly gay in my journalism. There is no doubt that, at this time, homosexuality was considered in some quarters a seditious precept. I was part of a grouping – in all conscience a timorous and ineffectual one – called Gays in Media, the existence of which was no doubt noted by the authorities. Worse, I was briefly involved with a group called Campaign for Free Speech on Ireland, an issue that I felt was poorly served by the mainland media. In those years, the politics of Northern Ireland was a regular beat of the afore-mentioned Peter Taylor, so he too will certainly have been watched by MI5.

It is difficult to assess how desperate a character I cut in the minds of agents reared on the cavortings of anti-Nazi intellectuals in the 1930s and on the Cold War bluff and counter-bluff of the 1950s. But I cannot believe that my file was pulled out for reading all that often. Even so, it is the case that for long periods in the 1980s and ’90s, I could not get work – or even get myself considered for work – anywhere MI5 might have influence: the BBC, for instance. I once enquired at the BBC whether a so-called Christmas Tree file was held there on me and was embarrassedly assured that I was in the clear.

Civil liberty is not the potent rallying cry that it was when I was young. For a while, I was a member of the National Council for Civil Liberties. It is now called Liberty (too easily confused with the smart London store, in my opinion). We agitated and marched for our rights in those days.

Some of those who agitated and marched became Blairite MPs, even ministers. When in power, they voted to trim our rights. It is a truism but a potent one that any erosion of the liberties of the citizenry indicates that “the terrorists have won”. Indeed, there is a real question as to the point at which the ‘way of life’ our leaders are defending becomes so compromised as to raise doubt about the basis for the struggle.

So one is bound to wonder what game is being played at any given moment by the spooks. Harold Wilson, still a figure of speculation (why did he resign so abruptly in 1976?), was certainly the subject of a campaign to destabilise Labour in power by the intelligence community. His famous description of the seamen’s strike of 1966 as being run by “a tightly-knit group of politically-motivated men” might also be taken as a summary of his view of MI5. That there were undercover manoeuvrings against the Wilson governments of both the 1960s and 1970s cannot be doubted. Sometimes these manoeuvrings broke cover, as in the short-lived but shocking and never satisfactorily explained take-over of Heathrow by the army in 1974, ostensibly as an exercise in counter-insurgency manoeuvres against the IRA. It has been authoritatively stated that 10 Downing Street was bugged by MI5 for the duration of the Wilson and Heath governments.

Another thread in this murky tapestry is the technique known as the “pseudo gang”, dreamt up by General Frank Kitson. This is the promulgation of terrorist attacks by the state through a proxy, attacks that are then blamed on groups whom the state wishes to demonise. Allegedly, the testing ground for the notion was Kenya when the British were trying to break the Mau Mau uprising. Further refinements are said to have been made in Northern Ireland. We presently see the same gambit employed in Syria – bombings carried out by the Assad regime and blamed on the insurgents.

Another noted military conspirator in Britain was Colonel David Stirling who founded the elite specialist counter-terrorism force, the Special Air Service. The SAS is routinely praised by ministers as if barely short of divine status. Naturally the identities of SAS operatives are not disclosed but let us suppose that they are cut from the same cloth as their founder.

Accounted by Field Marshal Montgomery “mad, quite mad”, Stirling had what is conventionally styled “a good war”, killing more than forty enemy troops with his bare hands. Thereafter, he launched into arms-dealing and mercenary-supply on a grand scale. During the politically fraught 1970s, Stirling recruited a private army in readiness to combat what he saw as the threat of a popular uprising in Britain and systematically infiltrated the trades unions.

It is easy to imagine the kind of individual attracted to intelligence work. Consider the requirements: a lack of scruple about surveillance, the habit of secrecy, a missionary zeal about bringing down perceived enemies. Mix in an impatience with what you see as pettifogging regulation (exemplified by a willingness to skirt restrictions on the use of torture at home by co-operating in the exercise known as extraordinary rendition, whereby detainees are passed to regimes less scrupulous about human rights). Ratchet up the zeal with a long-nurtured hatred of, say, liberals or decadents or atheists or Muslims or protesters or intellectuals or pacifists or foreigners or welfare claimants. Season with the protection of anonymity assiduously assisted by politicians and you soon have the makings of a dangerously motivated grouping. I wonder how many more private armies are standing by to be activated at short notice.

Cover for security is simultaneously cover for injustice. As in the Agee/Hosenball Affair, those arrested on security grounds will not necessarily have their supposed offences disclosed to their lawyers or even themselves and may be tried in camera and without benefit of a jury. Such a system is much too open to abuse. In this as in so many other aspects of security, secrecy is seen as sacrosanct – far more so than justice or human rights. But it ought to be possible to conduct trials with jurists sworn in under the Official Secrets Act and dragooned into confidentiality by the threat of draconian penalties for disclosure. The jury system itself should be sacrosanct – the public’s guarantee against the abuse of secrecy by the security services and/or the state.

When the coalition took office, George Osborne advised that ministers and the public had to “think the unthinkable” in dealing with the crisis ahead. Do not hold your breath for ministers of any party to think anything unthinkable about controlling and regulating the intelligence community. Indeed, thus far in its life, the coalition only appears to have thought of things that are more or less palatable for reactionary elements in parliament and the establishment but unthinkable for everyone else.


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This post was written by W Stephen Gilbert

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