Tony Benn on ‘Spycatcher’ and the Wilson Smears

Tony Benn was a passionate defender of civil liberties and an advocate of expanding democracy further against the attempts of the establishment to limit it. He was therefore a critic of Britain’s intelligence agencies and their repeated attempts to destabilise and undermine the left. The publication of Peter Wright’s Spycatcher in the ’80s caused massive controversy, because of its description of the activities by them. Thatcher invoked the Official Secrets Act to suppress its publication in Britain, but it was freely available elsewhere in the world. In his 1988 book, Fighting Back, Benn discusses the book and its revelations about just what the CIA and MI5 were up to, including their smears against the former Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson.

Among the pieces Benn quotes and discusses was Wright’s statement that MI5 bugged and burgled their way across London on behalf of the state, while civil servants looked the other way;

that during the Suez crisis, MI6 planned to assassinate Nasser using nerve gas;

that James Angleton, the head of the CIA, wanted to expand their London station and infiltrate and absorb MI5 completely;

that the intelligence agencies had always taken information from peoples’ national insurance files, and were setting up a computer link to do the same;

and that Angleton believed that Wilson was a Soviet agent, based on an anonymous Soviet source. (Benn, Fighting Back, pp. 237-8).

He then goes on to quote Wright on how MI5 was plotting to smear Wilson from the end of the Heath government. Wright wrote

As events moved to their political climax in early 1974, with the election of the minority Labour Government, MI5 was sitting on information, which, if leaked, would undoubtedly have caused a political scandal of incalculable consequences. The news that the Prime Minister himself was being investigated would at the least have led to his resignation. The point was not lost on some MI5 officers.

Wright continued on page 369 of his wretched book

The plan was simple. In the run-up to the election which, given the level of instability in Parliament, must be due within a matter of months, MI5 would arrange for selective details of the intelligence about leading Labour Party figures, but especially Wilson, to be leaked to sympathetic pressmen. Using our contacts in the press and among union officials, word of the material contained in MI5 files, and the fact that Wilson was considered a security risk would be passed around. Soundings had already been taken, and up to thirty officers had given their approval to the scheme. Facsimile copies of some files were to be made and distributed to overseas newspapers, and the matter was to be raised in Parliament for maximum effect. It was a carbon copy of the Zinoviev letter, which had done so much to destroy the first Ramsay MacDonald Government in 1928. [sic] ‘We’ll have him out’ said one of them. ‘this time we’ll have him out.’ Shortly afterwards Wilson resigned. As we always used to say in the office ‘Politicians may come and go, but the security service goes on forever. (Both quotations in Benn, p. 238).

Benn then went on to say about these revelations that

If any of them are true MI5 officers were incited to break the law, have broken the law, did attempt, with CIA help, to destroy an elected government, and any responsible Prime Minister should have instructed the police to investigate, with a view to prosecution, and the Courts should have convicted and sentenced those found guilty. The charge which the Prime Minister, the Lord Chancellor, the Law Officers, the Police, have to face is that they have all betrayed their public trust, and the judges who have upheld them are in clear breach of the Bill of Rights of 1689. For if ministers can arbitrarily suspend the law, and claim that issues of confidentiality, or national security, justify a ban on publication; and if the judges issue an injunction, there could be no limit to the suppression of any information which might embarrass any government. (Benn, p. 239).

The Wilson smears have again become relevant after the recent revelations from the Anonymous hacking group, which the government admitted following a question by Labour minister Chris Williamson, that the Tory government was funding a private company, the Institute for Statecraft, to publish anti-Putin propaganda on the internet as part of its programme, the Integrity Initiative. This propaganda included smearing European and American politicians and officials, who were held to be to close to Putin. And so they smeared Jeremy Corbyn, just as the press a little while ago also tried smearing him as a Czech spy. Investigation has shown that the Institute for Statecraft and the Integrity Initiative uses staff from MI5 and the army’s internet counterintelligence units, to the point where journalists investigating it have described it as a British intelligence cut-out.

It is over forty years since Harold Wilson left office, but the British intelligence services are back up to their old tricks of smearing Labour leaders as Russian agents. Benn wanted legislation put in place to make the British secret state fully accountable to parliament. The British conspiracy magazine, Lobster, has making the same argument since its foundation in the 1980s.

Benn and Lobster are right. Our intelligence agencies are out of control, and a danger to democracy.

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