Lobster Article on British Prime Ministers and the Secret State

The Winter 2016 issue of Lobster also has a very disquieting review by John Newsinger of a book on the relationship between British Ministers and the intelligence services, The Black Door: Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers by Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac. This discusses not only the way British prime ministers have co-operated with the secret services in the bugging and surveillance of the Left, and how they used the services in a series of foreign operations, including Iraq, but also how the same intelligence services also worked against them, including interventions by foreign espionage services in Britain. In doing so, several reputations are left tarnished and some convenient myths destroyed.

One of the keenest supporters of British intelligence against his domestic opponents was Harold Wilson. When he was in office in the 1960s, Wilson had had leftwing trade unionists put under surveillance, taps placed on their phones, and bugged. This included the participants in the 1966 strike by British merchant seamen. Others kept under very close watch included, naturally, the Communist party. He also encouraged other rightwing union leaders to cooperate with MI5. Those, who did so included Harry Crane, the head of the GMWU, who passed information onto Sarah Barker, the Labour Party’s national agent, who in turn passed it on to the spooks.

Wilson also continued the secret wars the Tories had begun in Yemen and Indonesia. The British, Saudis and Israeli secret services provided aid and assistance to rebels, who perpetrated the same kind of atrocities as ISIS. Unlike ISIS, they didn’t cause a scandal and international terror by posting them online. Newsinger notes that Aldrich and Cormac state that the extent of the British involvement in the 1965 massacre of the Left in Indonesia is a mystery. As this also involved the commission of atrocities, besides which those of ISIS seem pale by comparison, this is a very convenient mystery. It’s widely believed that Wilson kept Britain out of the Vietnam War, but this is not the case. Wilson actually wanted to send a token force, but was prevented from doing so because of the extent of British public opinion against the War and the opposition of the left wing within the Labour party itself. This did not prevent him from providing the Americans with intelligence support. This involved not only GCHQ, but also MI6, who provided reports on the effect of American bombing campaigns from the British embassy in Hanoi. The Americans were also allowed to operate their biggest CIA station in that part of Asia from Hong Kong. In addition to this, Wilson also wanted MI6 to assassinate Idi Amin, but they refused. Considering the carnage wrought by this monster, it’s a pity that they didn’t.

Wilson himself was the subject of various intelligence plots and smears against him, despite his collaboration with the intelligence services. This involved not only MI5, but also the South African intelligence service, BOSS. This got to the point where it was literally spies watching other spies, with BOSS spying on the anti-apartheid campaign, while themselves being spied on by MI5. BOSS were allowed to get away with their espionage, however, as it was claimed that they had a film of MPs taking part in an orgy and a dossier on a sex scandal that was far more shocking and compromising than Christine Keeler.

Ted Heath in the 1970s had Jack Jones, the leader of the TGWU put under surveillance. Joe Gormley, the head of the NUM, was also an informant for special branch throughout the decade. The usual practice at MI5 when a company requested assistance monitoring radical trade unionist was to pass the case on to the Economic League, a private outfit specialising in blacklisting trade unionists. But Ford also demanded that Special Branch vet their workforce, to which Heath agreed. This led to more firms demanding information on trade unionists, including Massey Ferguson. Not only was the British government under Heath actively compiling blacklists of trade unionists, Heath himself demanded that MI5 should have some of the militant activists ‘done’.

Under Thatcher the number of private intelligence agencies tackling her domestic enemies, like CND, increased. But Newsinger observes that the book does not cover at all the involvement of this agencies in the machinations against the NUM in the Miners’ Strike, and the establishment of the scab Union of Democratic Mineworkers. Newsinger comments

Perhaps the official material is not available, but not to have any discussion of the great miners’ strike at all is a serious shortcoming. The very absence of material, if this was indeed the case, is tremendously significant and deserved discussion. This was, after all, the decisive engagement that shifted the balance of class forces and made everything that has followed possible.

The book also covers Blair’s wars, which Newsinger does not cover in his review, finding the book’s revelations about Cameron’s own warmongering in Libya and Syria more interesting. MI6 and the Defence chiefs advised Cameron not to try to bring down Gaddafi. This didn’t stop him, and Cameron had the agency and SAS give the rebels training, arms and body armour. MI6 wanted the Libyan dictator sent into exile into Equatorial Guinea, where his own links to them would not be placed in any danger by him having to appear before an international human rights court. But this problem was, as Newsinger notes, solved by his death.

The book also reveals that a number of people within MI6 and the CIA did not believe that Assad’s regime in Syria was responsible for the Sarin attack in Ghoutta. They believed that the real perpetrators were the al-Nusra Front, backed by Turkey, which hoped to provoke the US into starting a bombing campaign. The US was ready with a fleet of aircraft, which Britain was also set to join, but the operation was cancelled due to the disagreements over responsibility for the atrocity within the US secret services.

The authors also report that Mossad has also been responsible for kidnappings and murders in London, but give no further information.

Newsinger concludes that ‘after reading this book we not only know more than we
did, but also how much more we need to know and unfortunately how much we are likely to never know….’

What is also clear from reading this is not only the extent of the involvement of British prime ministers in covert operations, against left-wingers and trade unionists in Britain and a series of foreign regimes abroad, but also the weakness of parliament in restraining them. British involvement in the bombing of Syria was stopped because of dissension within the American intelligence community, not because of opposition from parliament. As for Heath targeting British trade unionists for surveillance and possible assassination, Newsinger remarks on how this is ‘dynamite’, which should be investigated by the Commons Intelligence Select Committee. There is not the most remote chance of this happening, however, as the Commons Intelligence Select Committee is really
just a parliamentary spittoon into which the intelligence agencies occasionally feel obliged to gob.

Lobster’s entire raison d’etre is the belief that western, and particularly the British intelligence services are out of control and responsible for immense crimes that otherwise go undocumented and unpunished. Newsinger’s review of this book and its potentially explosive contents bear out this belief. It also hints by its omissions that there is more buried yet deeper, which may never be brought to light.

The article’s at: http://www.lobster-magazine.co.uk/free/lobster72/lob72-black-door.pdf

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