I used to work for them myself

David Leigh

  • British Intelligence and Covert Action: Africa, the Middle East and Europe since 1945 by Jonathan Bloch, Patrick Fitzgerald and Philip Agee
    Junction, 284 pp, £5.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 86245 113 2
  • Through the Looking-Glass: British Foreign Policy in an Age of Illusions by Anthony Verrier
    Cape, 400 pp, £12.50, February 1983, ISBN 0 224 01979 1

Glancing through the list of 131 named MI6 officers, past and present, who are ‘exposed’ in the first of these books, I noticed with mild interest that I was slightly acquainted with the wife of one of them, a certain Hubert O’Bryan Tear. The next time we met, I mentioned this fact and she laughed merrily. ‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘Everybody knows that – at least since he retired. In fact, I used to work for them myself.’

She squinted at the next name on the list. ‘Oh look, fancy that, they used to be at university together, you know.’ It was the name of the lady principal of Somerville College, Oxford, Daphne Park, who has, we read here, a history of an elusive kind in Zambia and the Congo.

One or two of the other names on the list I had already come across personally, in a similarly disconcerting way. I remember rather excitedly mentioning to a senior journalist on the Observer that I had discovered in the course of some research into ‘front’ organisations that Alan Hare, chairman of the Financial Times, no less, had a background in the Secret Service. ‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘Everybody knows that. He had to try quite hard to find work after he retired from there.’

The point seems to be that the Secret Service is not really a secret at all. Anybody who is anybody in British life knows all about it, knows who is in it, probably worked for it themselves at some point, and certainly knows who Mrs Thatcher put in to run it recently (a chap called Sir Colin Figures, I am told: you would have spotted him in the last honours list if you had known what to look for, just as you would have spotted his counterpart in MI5, Sir John Lewis Jones, in the honours list immediately prior to that).

What, then, is the point of the fantastic governmental mumbo-jumbo with which the British ‘Secret Service’ surrounds itself? Although it is a rather youthful bureaucratic invention, only about seventy years old, the formal face of MI6 is one of such hermetic mystery that it makes the Freemasons look like exhibitionists and the Vatican’s finances like a striptease act. The public are not supposed to know. They are not supposed to know that MI6 exists at all. Pensioned-off civil servants of junior rank spend their twilight days snipping all mentions of it out of 30-year-old archives before releasing them to distinguished historians. No one will answer questions on the subject in Parliament. The recent Security Commission report on the Geoffrey Prime espionage fiasco in the much more important signals eavesdropping organisation, GCHQ, was forced to describe how GCHQ had inherited a crowd of elderly Latvian émigré translators from ‘another intelligence organisation’. Bet that fooled the Russians, Carruthers.

The public are not supposed to know where the head office of MI6 is. (It is at Century House, adjacent to North Lambeth tube station.) They are not supposed to know who heads it and they are not supposed to know how big it is (a few hundred field officers and a couple of thousand technicians and clerks). They are not supposed to know that many of its staff are attached to British embassies abroad under diplomatic cover, although this is a universal Intelligence Service technique. The traditional stratagem for enforcing these pieties of secrecy has been to brandish at members of the public copies of the 1911 Official Secrets Act, whose successful passage coincided with the foundation of MI6 as a romantic Imperial device, and whose small print asserts, ridiculously enough, that everything Official is a Secret. The D-Notice system has been even more effective at keeping all mention of MI6 out of the newspapers and off the air until quite recently.

And, most of all, the public are not supposed to know what it is that MI6 actually does. The idea is put about that the organisation is defending us all against the Russians in some unspecified way, generally by ‘spying’, and that it is on this task that it necessarily spends large but secret and unchallengeable sums of money. It is also put about that the evil and warlike intent of the Russians justifies extreme secrecy about every aspect of MI6. In the last century ‘everybody knew’ that respectable males provided a market for the women who thronged the streets, largely under economic duress, but it was not a thing talked about or publicised in polite or formal society. And just as the Victorian hypocrisies about sex were simply waiting to be publicly exploded, so the gap between public secrecy and private knowledge about MI6 has always been there waiting for impolite people who did not know the rules to begin simply tramping in.

The secrecy game started to collapse in the mid-1970s, because of events in the United States, which is Britain’s richer, bigger, crasser partner in the Secret Service business. Bloch and Fitzgerald’s book is the logical culmination of the process that began then, and indeed it has a polemical preface by the renegade CIA agent, Philip Agee, who started the thing off, to be followed by other renegades like John Stockwell. Memoirs and exposures by disillusioned men like these, in the teeth of frantic efforts to suppress and discredit them, were only part of a public interplay that developed between newspapers, memoirists like ex-CIA head Richard Helms, CIA staff like Kermit Roosevelt and Wilbur Eveland, and Congressional investigators. The more that came out about the CIA, the more appalled and nervous the British authorities became, and with good reason. What the CIA do is what MI6 do. And what the CIA does is not simply to attempt to spy on the Russians. It is to promote American interests by furtive means which range from the subtle to the sordid to the monstrous.

This is the great secret that has been kept from the British public. As with war, the British Secret Service merely carries out the conduct of British foreign policy ‘by other means’. Over recent years there have been sporadic disclosures of how MI6 really works, especially since Edward Heath made the foolish mistake of ordering MI6 into Britain’s own Irish backyard, where its methods were easy to watch. What Bloch and Fitzgerald have done is draw together all the threads of what has become privately and more or less publicly known in the last ten years, and make it into a fairly coherent picture in which the Russians do not figure very much at all. The focus is on the Middle East, on Africa and Ireland – on imperialist fantasies, defeats and stratagems, on bribes, coups and propaganda, on the whisper of assassinations and the slurp of oil.

This focus seems about right. Curiously, the format is very similar to that of a very different kind of MI6 book, from St Antony’s College, Oxford. Anthony Verrier’s Through the Looking-Glass is written with MI6 experience, which is a plus, and is enfeebled by his incapacity to name names and his willingness to act as an apologist for his MI6 friends. These are two large minuses: on Ireland, for example, Verrier concentrates on MI6 sagacity in trying to set up political negotiations with the Provisionals. Bloch and Fitzgerald refer sternly to MI6 attempts to strike sordid deals with British criminals who might have IRA links. Both, however, take the same broad approach – that colonialist and mercantile obsessions with the Third World, rarely leavened by concern for the welfare of its inhabitants, have characterised MI6’s work in the post-war years. As they have, of course, British foreign policy as a whole.

The CIA ‘destabilised’ Guatemala; and the British ousted Iran’s Mossadeq, to put the Shah back on the throne and BP back at the oilwells. The CIA changed rulers like shuffling cards in Central America; the British kicked out the old ruler of Oman and put in his son as a flexible stooge. The CIA toy with a coup against leftists in power in Syria; the British plot the downfall of Nasser and Eden orders MI6 to assassinate him. MI6 covertly back Tshombe’s secession in the murderous Congo civil war and sustain him in power thereafter, in order to secure mineral rights. Yemen is made a battleground by the same maniacal British rightists who tried to start a guerrilla insurgency in post-war Albania. Black client rulers are helped to stay in power in Africa: those who fall foul of the British, like Obote, or have nothing the British want, like Mancham in the Seychelles, fall unaided to the wolves. The CIA runs a ‘mighty wurlitzer’ of covertly-funded newspapers and magazines; MI6 and its Foreign Office covert propaganda sisters run whole news agencies in the Middle East. This picture is not surprising to any student of recent CIA disclosures. Much of it was starting to emerge anyway in the US, because the CIA itself had a hand in operations like the reinstatement of the Shah, a larger hand in the overthrow of Jagan in British Guiana, and dominates operations like the attempted ‘destabilisation’ of Manley in Jamaica. It may be an MI6 man who is ambassador to Mauritius, close to the Indian Ocean base at Diego Garcia. But the US calls the shots.

The British have tried to plug the dyke of disclosures. They exerted heavy pressure on the United States not to let British material emerge in Congressional hearings and through Freedom of Information Act proceedings. They attempted to foist on a friendly Tory government some clauses in the ill-fated Protection of Official Information Bill of 1979 which would have made it explicitly illegal to publish anything whatever about the Intelligence services (the Blunt scandal scuppered that). And the D-Notice secretary still exhorts publishers and newspapers not to mention any of the doings of MI6 or MI5, with mixed success. He found out about Bloch and Fitzgerald’s book, through, he maintains, reading publishers’ catalogues, demanded a copy, and complained in a hurt letter when Junction Books sensibly declined to let him censor their perfectly lawful manuscript. But hurt letters are not the stuff of which suppression is made – even the young Tory Rupert Allason’s rather disingenuous recent book on MI5, under the pseudonym ‘Nigel West’, was treated to the compliment of injunction proceedings and a little filleting. It may be that MI6 no longer care very much about the trickle of disclosures. Those by outsiders – like this one – can be ignored, and no one on the inside has yet wished or dared to emulate Agee. That would be a really dangerous step.

It may also be the case that the British people have lost interest in their own history. That the CIA tried to assassinate Castro was regarded as a major scandal in the US. That Eden tried to have MI6 assassinate Nasser was kept secret for so long, and has seeped out so guardedly in recent years, that no one seems to care. Ditto the overthrow of Mossadeq and other foreign rulers by the British. In the US, disclosures led to huge rows which led to more disclosures. It may be that in Britain the work of people like Bloch and Fitzgerald, limited and badly-informed as some of it necessarily is, is all we are actually going to get of our own history. It is probably no accident that Bloch is a South African exile and brings some sense of foreign indignation to bear in this reasonably methodical and accurate compilation.