Agent ‘Whisters’ of the elite Gerbil Squadron. Danger Mouse and Penfold were unavailable for comment.
As the Human Rights Blog has warned, this week the government is trying to rush through further legislation that will diminish traditional British freedoms as part of its anti-terror campaign. These measure are ill thought out, and represent potentially serious breaches of human rights and justice. Yet they have apparently support from both sides of the House, and criticism has been extremely muted. Anyone who genuinely believes that these measures will be administered by a sober, professional intelligence service, concerned for justice and with a clear and objective view of the threats to Britain from without and within should read the post on Adam Curtis’ blog ‘Bugger’ on the BBC site at http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/entries/3662a707-0af9-3149-963f-47bea720b460. It has the slogan ‘Maybe the real state secret is that spies aren’t very good at their job, and don’t know very much about the world’.
MI5’s Real History: Incompetence and Paranoia
Curtis’ point is that MI5’s history from its inception at the First World to the end of the Cold War in the 1980s is largely one of incompetence and abject failure. It’s few successes were either the result of accidents, or actually due to efforts by outside agencies, like the police. Some of them have even fabrications by the agency itself, designed to promote itself. The image of cold efficiency promoted in John Le Carre’s novels, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People are completely opposite to the reality. In reality the agency has been riddled with failure and incompetence and torn by factionalism. And rather than having a clear, objective view of the world, the spies have been massively paranoid to the point where they suspected Prime Minister Harold Wilson of being a KGB agent, and did not actually believe that Communism had fallen.
William LeQueux, The 1906 Invasion Scare and the Foundations of MI5
Curtis’ post includes the story of how William LeQueux, who feared a coming war with Germany, offered his 1906 book The Invasion of Britain to the Daily Mail. The book was set in 1910, and designed to warn the British of the dangers of a possible German invasion. Lord Northcliffe accepted the book, but changed the German invasion route through East Anglia and the east coast, so that the Germans conquered towns, where there were actually Daily Mail readers. The result was a runaway success for the book, and an invasion scare, which saw people writing into the Mail informing on neighbours they suspected – falsely- of being German spies.
The scare led, however, to the creation of MI5. In 1914, the agency boasted that it had successfully broken a German spy ring, and imprisoned the captured agents. But as recent historians have uncovered, this was completely false. It was a lie designed to promote the new agency.
Cecil Day-Lewis and the Magnetic Mountain
During the 1930s, when the Agency was determined to guard Britain against the threat of revolutionary Communism, they placed Cecil Day-Lewis, Damian Day-Lewis’ father, under surveillance as a suspected Communist. This was because he had made a £5 donation to the British Communist party. However, they failed to find any further evidence that he was a revolutionary Marxist, despite the fact that he was the author of the poem, The Magnetic Mountain, hailed as the most revolutionary poem by an Englishman, which actually called for Communist revolution.
Factionalism and Percy Sillitoe
In the 1940s the agency had real success in turning German agents against their masters and sending them false information. But this success was offset by the development of vicious factionalism within the spy agencies. Curtis quote the journalist Philip Knightley on the atmosphere of failure and nepotism within the organisations. After the War, the new Labour government tried to clean the mess up by placing in charge Percy Sillitoe. Sillitoe had had great success before the War when, as Chief Constable of Glasgow, he cracked down on the razor gangs in the city. Sillitoe was treated with contempt and insubordination by the spies, he had been brought in to sort out. He was eventually forced out after a string of traitors were found, like Klaus Fuchs, who had passed nuclear secrets to the Russians. None of these had been unmasked by MI5, however.
And the situation got worse with the scandal around Philby, Maclean, Burgess and co. When the agency was told that Anthony Blunt was a Communist mole in 1965, they were so embarrassed that they gave him immunity from prosecution, and he carried on with his job as the ‘surveyor’ of the Queen’s art collection. In fact the Queen Mother had known he was a Communist as far back as 1948.
The agency suffered a further setback in 1971 by one of its few real successes. This was the success of the Soviet agent Oleg Lyalin for drunk driving. Lyalin wanted to stay in Britain with his British mistress, and in exchange for this he named 105 Soviet spies, who were then deported. This effectively broke the Soviet spy network in Britain, and left the agency with very little to do. The British government and the civil service were extremely suspicious about the agency’s claims that there was a continuing Soviet threat in the UK. Ted Heath, the Tory Prime Minister, also had a low view of them. He stated they talked the most dreadful nonsense, and were even paranoid of about Mirror readers they saw on the underground as a threat to British security.
The Hunt for the ‘Fifth Man’
Curtis also discusses the agency’s hunt for the ‘fifth man’ in Burgess and Maclean case. This was prompted by the fact that MI5 actually couldn’t accept the fact that the reason they hadn’t uncovered the moles was simply their own incompetence. No, there were further moles, secretly helping the Soviet spies, further up in the organisation. And so they accused a string of highly placed figures, including the head of MI5, Roger Hollis, the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson and Sir Andrew Cohen, the former governor of Uganda.
Chapman Pincher, Nigel West and Peter Wright
Chief among those publishing these stories and accusations in the press were Chapman Pincher in the Daily Express, and Nigel West. I remember both of these journalists from their columns in those newspapers, and how they were promoted as almost infallible experts in the weird world of the spies. It’s interesting and amusing to find how misguided they were, and says much about the paranoid mindset of both those newspapers. One of the main people behind the accusation that Wilson was a spy was Peter Wright, the author of Spycatcher, whose publication also upset Maggie. Wright revealed one too many official secrets in the book, and so it was duly banned in Britain. But it remained freely available in the rest of the world, and so people in this country simply took the step of ordering it from America, Australia and New Zealand instead. The result was a farce, which Private Eye’s cartoonist, the humourist Willie Rushton, sent up in his book, Spythatcher.
And what was Wright’s reason for suspecting that Wilson was a spy? He had made a series of business trips to the USSR before becoming Prime Minister. And, er, that’s it. and he surrounded himself with people the agency didn’t like and didn’t trust. He did. Yes, really.
It got to the point where Maggie herself accused Lord Rothschild of being the ‘fifth man’, to the incredulity of both Labour and Tories. In 1986 the deputy leader of the Labour party, Roy Hattersley, backed by some of the Prime Minister’s own party, called in parliament for her to retract this spurious accusation.
Graham Mitchell and the Chess Conspiracy
The paranoia continued, however, with MI5 suspecting the international chess expert, Graham Mitchell, of passing on British secrets in the letters describing the chess moves he was playing by correspondence with other chess players in the USSR. The journalist James Rusbridger attempted to end all this by making clear that he believed the accusations were false, and journalists and the government misled by right-wing loonies in MI5. Unfortunately, he was found dead from a bizarre game of auto-erotic asphyxiation, and so the paranoia continued. Curtis quotes John Le Carre on the reality behind his novels about MI5. Rather than being cold professionals, they were really mediocre failures.
Michael Bettaney and Geoffrey Prime
The revelation of further moles in MI5 continued with the cases of Michael Bettaney and Geoffrey Prime. Bettaney was a former University Nazi, who admired Adolf and sang the Nazi party anthem in pubs. Despite this, he was recruited into MI5. After being posted to Northern Ireland, where he witnessed some of the horrors of the terrorist campaign first hand, he announced that was now a Communist. He was caught, because he began taking secrets home. He stuffed some of these into the letterbox of Arkady Gouk, the deputy head of the Russian embassy. Gouk didn’t know anything about Bettaney, however, and thought MI5 were trying to frame him. He thus took the secrets back to MI5 and informed on Bettaney.
Geoffrey Prime was a former RAF officer and a member of staff at GCHQ in Cheltenham. He left to work as a taxi driver, while also passing official secrets onto the Russians. He was caught as he was vicious paedophile, and his car was spotted in the area of one of the girls he assaulted. After the police came round to interview him about it, he confessed to his wife, who then, three weeks later, informed the cops.
Percy Craddock and the End of Communism
What finally discredited MI5 and the spies was their utter failure to predict the end of Communism, or even to accept that it had actually occurred when it had. The head of MI5, Percy Craddock, believed that the apparent collapse of the USSR and the Soviet bloc was a ruse, and that the USSR still remained, poised for world domination.
This was precisely the same attitude as various far-right conspiracy nutters in the American mid-West in the 1990s. They too didn’t accept that the USSR had collapsed, and so devised elaborated conspiracy theories in which it was still covertly existing. Among some of the more bizarre of these theories was that the Russians had secretly established bases just across the border in Canada and Mexico. On a given, tanks would pour out of these bases in preparation for the invasion of the Land of the Free. I don’t think Craddock was as far gone as to believe that, but from the sound of it he was still very far from reality.
Failure to Predict Fall of Shah in Iran
Faced with this manifest failure to accept facts, even Thatcher lost patience with them. The parapolitical magazine, Lobster, has been saying since the 1980s that the British intelligence agencies were corrupt, out of control and incompetent. They point out that the only Prime Minister in the ’70s and ’80s who actually bothered to read their reports was Maggie Thatcher. All the others thought they were rubbish. And on the international scene, none of the intelligence agencies predicted the fall of the Shah and the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The closest they came was the CIA’s prediction that the Ayatollah Khomeini would return to Iran to act as a Gandhi-like figure of peaceful protest.
The Gerbil Counterspies
One of the weirder schemes of the spooks at MI5 was to use gerbils to identify spies and terrorists. The idea was that they would identify them from the smell of their extra sweat they produced from fear. This had to be abandoned, as the gerbils couldn’t tell the extra sweat from terrorists on airplanes from that of people who were simply scared of flying. Hence the photo at the top of the post.
How Competent are the Spies Now?
Curtis makes the serious point that the spies are in control of vast budgets, and claim that they have reformed. The mistakes of the past could not be made today. But we, the public, cannot be sure, because the agencies are secret, and we can’t be informed how they’ve changed for security reasons.
Wrongful Internment Iraqi Students
This has very serious implications for human rights abuses in this country. Curtis begins his piece with the story of 33 Iraqi Ph.D. students, who were interned as potential terrorists and spies in 1991 during the War with Iraq. The students were all listed in a letter the Iraqi embassy had sent to the Bank of England, requesting that their student grants should not be frozen. The letter had been signed by the Iraqi deputy military attaché. MI5 considered this clear evidence that they were spies, and so they were interned at Rollestone Camp in Salisbury Plain. IN fact the military attaché was also the official in charge of administering the grants.
The students were later released after MI5 was challenged to produce the evidence showing that they were spies. They hadn’t any.
In the meantime, the students had been detained without either they or their lawyers knowing the reasons for it.
Threat from Secret Courts and the New Anti-Terrorism Act
The Human Rights Blog, in their post about the new anti-terror legislation, has raised its concerns that these measures are a further attack on British freedom, and that the potential for terrible miscarriages of justice is great.
The Angry Yorkshireman over at Another Angry Voice, Tom Pride, Johnny Void, and Mike over at Vox Political, have also raised their concerns about the secret courts planned by the Tories and Lib Dems. These courts will examine the cases of suspected terrorists in closed session, so that the accused and their lawyers may not know what they evidence against them is.
The danger that British citizens will be either exiled or interned as terrorists without an open trial, on the flimsiest evidence, is thus very real. So real it cannot be ignored.
The Tories, Lib Dems and the supporters of this bill across the House have shown that they fear British freedom as much as they fear the terrorists. They are knee-jerk authoritarians, and this bill should be stopped immediately.