Making things happen

R.W. Johnson

  • The Missing Dimension: Governments and Intelligence Communities in the 20th Century edited by Christopher Andrew and David Dilks
    Macmillan, 300 pp, £16.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 333 36864 9

As for his secret Spials, which he did employ both at home and abroad, by them to discover what Practices and Conspiracies were against him, surely his Case required it: He had such Moles perpetually working and casting to undermine him. Neither can it be reprehended. For if Spials be lawful against lawful Enemies, much more against Conspirators and Traytors.

Francis Bacon,
The History of the Reign of Henry VII

One of the benefits of the contemporary fascination with the world of intelligence operations is the growing perception that this ‘missing dimension’ which lies behind so many newspaper headlines lies behind a good deal of history too. Unfortunately, and sometimes scandalously, a good deal remains hidden. Despite the Thirty-Year Rule it is only now that evidence is beginning to dribble out about the police spies and informers among the unemployed workers’ movements of the 1920s and 1930s; even their activity among 19th-century Fenians and anarchists remains a closed book. The only possible reason for such continuing secrecy is that any government which reveals how its predecessors spied upon their own populace may also face some embarrassing queries as to what comparable actions it is getting up to itself today.

It is, at first sight, odd that we know a great deal more about the more necessarily secret world of military and foreign intelligence. The reasons for this are actually quite simple. Not only will one’s foreign opponents seek to publicise one’s activities, but the continuing bureaucratic war for scarce resources not infrequently leads intelligence services to boast of their past coups. Moreover, when military intelligence becomes really important – that is, when there is a war on – large numbers of outside ‘amateurs’ have to be recruited into the machine – and in the long term such people leak.

Without doubt, the richness of the Andrew and Dilks collection owes much to such factors. Most of the essays are concerned with the 1900-45 period, and one learns of such fascinating byways as Japanese covert support for Russian socialist revolutionaries against the Tsar, and the intelligence gained by these from such Finnish dissidents as Konni Zilliacus. (Interestingly, Who Was Who reveals that the Labour MP of the same name, whom I take to be the former’s son, began his career as an officer in the British Intelligence Mission to Siberia in 1917-19.) Similarly, one reads of Woodrow Wilson’s laborious and amateur efforts to encode his own messages to Colonel House: his code for the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy was ‘Mars’ and ‘Neptune’. As Andrew drily adds: ‘European codebreakers doubtless found the few hours required to decrypt Wilson’s most secret communications unusually diverting. The great champion of open diplomacy was splendidly unaware of the degree to which he was practising it himself.’

Inevitably, ‘the Cambridge Comintern’ comes in for further treatment, this time in a long autobiographical essay by Robert Cecil. Perhaps the chief novelty is the persistent implication that the writer, academic and MP, Goronwy Rees, may have been active in the Soviet cause over a considerable period of years. If so, it certainly lends a new twist to one’s reading of the vitriolically right-wing pieces Rees (under the pseudonym ‘R’) later contributed to Encounter, especially when one considers that journal’s funding by the CIA. Moles within moles?

Otherwise one’s main conclusion in respect of the Maclean, Burgess, Blunt and Philby cases has to be less about the current television image of privileged young Bolsheviks conspiring to the sound of choirboys in the ancient quad than about the sheer blithering incompetence of the mandarins who let them get away. But one could usually survive one’s blunders in the British Foreign Service if one came from the right class. Thus Sir H. Knatch-bull-Hugessen, our Ambassador in Ankara, not merely survived his laxity in the ‘Cicero’ case, which led to the leak of the D-Day plans to the Germans, but was actually promoted to be Ambassador in Brussels. Similarly, Kim Philby’s career would have come to a summary end in 1945 but for the absurd amateurishness and procrastination of Sir Maurice Peterson, the British Ambassador to Istanbul. If Peterson had acted more quickly or had even addressed his letter to the right man, Philby would never have had time to destroy the Russian defector, Volkov, who was about to shop him. As Cecil adds, with bitter restraint: ‘It is painful to record that in 1946 Peterson was promoted to be Ambassador at Moscow.’ But it was really the same with Burgess and Maclean: in any normal organisation they would have been sacked for their wild and drunken behaviour long before they had done much damage. And Blunt too: Rees had promised not to betray Burgess or Maclean, but when Burgess fled Rees decided to own up and shopped Burgess, Maclean and Blunt. Nonetheless, it took another 12 years for MI5 to accept fully that Blunt was a traitor too.

The British media have an insatiable and utterly disproportionate appetite for ever further tit-bits about the ‘Cambridge Comintern’. No sooner was the long hunt for the ‘third man’ settled (with the defection of Philby) than a further breathless search for the ‘fourth man’ began. Finally Blunt was run down. Almost immediately we are off on the chase for the fifth man (Rees?) and perhaps even a sixth (Sir Roger Hollis?). It may make good copy, but all these men save Philby have been dead for some time and we cannot continue hunting the moles of the 1930s and 1940s for ever without a complete loss of perspective about today’s vastly different intelligence world. The whole affair is now principally a media excuse to opine wisely (and gossip endlessly) about treachery and homosexuality among the Oxbridge élite of fifty years ago. In espionage terms, the fixation with the Burgess and Maclean period leaves one trapped in the out-of-date world of the le Carré novels. For a quarter of a century now the basic artefact of intelligence-gathering has been the reconnaissance satellite. For over a decade the chief concern of British Intelligence has been to turn inwards, to penetrate the domestic worlds of Ireland and the Far Left. Simultaneously, intelligence services have begun to spend more of their efforts on internally-directed propaganda campaigns and the spreading of disinformation and misinformation. None of this makes any appearance in the le Carré novels or in the endless Sunday journalism about third, fourth and fifth men. It is a false focus, and our concerns today are, rightly, different.

The service which led the way into the new world of intelligence was undoubtedly the CIA. During the war-scare of 1948-49 the Agency was endowed with a Charter which, as H.H. Ransom puts it, was designed ‘for conducting what was, in effect, a secret Third World War’.[1] Not only was the CIA exempted from all Congressional supervision, but its Director was endowed with large funds for secret operations which he could spend at his personal discretion. Moreover, the Agency’s remit covered not only espionage and counter-espionage but provision ‘to carry out covert actions designed to weaken Soviet control over its own population and the peoples of Eastern Europe’. It seems likely that the implicit model for this radical departure was that of the European Resistance movements. Just as the OSS had sought to create and assist movements of the Maquis in Occupied Europe with the aim of destabilising Nazi rule ahead of the advancing Allied forces, so now the CIA would seek to promote similar de-stabilisation behind Soviet lines – perhaps as a preliminary to a more general armed movement to ‘roll back’ the new Communist frontiers.

There was no doubting the extreme dangers of this radical new doctrine. Small-scale covert action was nothing new, particularly in time of war, but no power had ever formally espoused such means as an arm of peacetime policy before. Forsaking the traditional intelligence role of attempting to discover what was really happening, the CIA from the outset saw one of its main tasks as making things happen. By 1953 it had already grown to six times its 1947 size; by 1952 covert action accounted for three-quarters of its budget. The restriction of such actions to Eastern Europe was almost immediately jettisoned, and it was not long before the CIA was boasting of its successes in arranging coups in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954). As Ransom puts it, it was effectively ‘an independent organisation, a huge bureaucracy in its own right, with its own foreign policy, its own bureaucratic turf to protect, its own secret communications channels, its own airlines and secret armies, and vast sums of unvouchered funds’. The CIA, moreover, went in for news management on the grand scale. Not only were journalistic activities extensively used for cover, but the Agency soon had its man – or several of them – on almost every major US paper and journal and not a few abroad. Where such handy conduits did not exist, the Agency just went out and created them. It was the sheerest form of America can-do-ism.

Throughout its ups and downs of the 1960s and 1970s, the CIA never really lost this central thrust. In the Nixon period the Agency attracted into its ranks some quite remarkable ‘cowboys’, gung-ho for even the riskiest and most illegal operations. Stansfield Turner, Carter’s CIA chief, quickly discovered that his instructions to rein in on covert operations were simply being ignored. This led to a sweeping purge which was, however, put into full reverse within months of Reagan’s election. The old Nixon ‘cowboys’ came flocking back in greater numbers than ever. Under Reagan the CIA budget has increased by between 17 per cent and 25 per cent every year, and by 1983 its new chief, William Casey, was able to boast of a new record in the scale of covert operations – the putting into the field of a ‘secret army’ of 10,000 Somozista ‘contras’ against Nicaragua. One former CIA employee estimates that there has been a fivefold expansion of worldwide covert operations under Casey in only three years: currently, in Africa alone, some twenty such operations are apparently under way.[2] This is ‘making things happen’ with a vengeance. Moreover Reagan has, for the first time, given such activities explicit Presidential blessing: ‘I do believe in the right of a country, when it believes that its interests are best served, to practise covert activity.’[3] Two days before making this statement the President awarded the National Security medal to Richard Helms, the former CIA Director who had been fined $2,000 and given a two-year suspended jail sentence for lying to Congress.[4] Casey himself has been awarded the CIA’s highest medal for bringing ‘imagination to our operation’.[5]

Reagan’s open justification of covert activity was quickly qualified by his press secretary: the President had meant the statement to apply ‘only to the US’. How far, though, have others copied the CIA model? The record is somewhat patchy. Under the redoubtable Jacques Foccart De Gaulle’s barbouzes had a well-documented record of intervention in a number of African states, with several coups d’état to their credit. But there is scant evidence of such activity outside Africa, and not much of comparable actions in more recent time. The Shah’s SAVAK was quite willing to commit kidnapping and murder in other countries besides Iran, but generally such activities centred only on Iranian exiles. South Africa’s BOSS seems to have been capable of rather milder forms of ‘dirty tricks’ both in the US and UK. Perhaps the most adventurous of the others has been the Israeli MOSSAD. Some of its members cut their teeth in the early terrorist campaigns against the British, and later MOSSAD was quite open about its expertise in kidnapping Eichmann or assassinating Palestinian terrorists. Thereafter the Israelis have sometimes attempted to gain diplomatic advantage by hiring out MOSSAD’s expertise to third parties. Apart from cooperation with BOSS in Namibia-Angola, the Israelis have emerged as a factor of some importance in the current Central American turmoil, while at the time of writing three of the four men charged with the Nigerian kidnapping in London are Israelis. A-priori it looks as if the Israelis may have been seeking to curry favour with the new Nigerian military regime by carrying out some of their cloak-and-dagger work for them. One’s major reservation about such a conclusion has simply to be that MOSSAD’s operations do not normally end in such a mess as the Dikko kidnapping did. One up to MI5?

How far Britain’s external intelligence arm, MI6, followed the CIA into the world of major covert activity is harder to say. According to Philby’s account, there was concerted cooperation with the CIA to launch armed raids into Georgia and the Ukraine in 1949-50 – and he claims that there was a fairly major ‘Bay of Pigs’ type of operation mounted against Albania in 1950.[6] If so, it seems unlikely that such co-operation outlasted the breakdown in US-UK intelligence co-operation which followed the Burgess and Maclean scandal. Bloch and Fitzgerald’s book,[7] despite the claims made for it and the Home Secretary’s furious reaction to it, does not actually instance anything much more sinister than attempts to fund and assist colonial political groups favourable to Britain. No doubt covert action ‘dirty tricks’ have been employed in Ireland over the last fifteen years: but this is, after all, no more than one would expect in a war situation and does not necessarily prove a point about normal modes of peacetime operation.

The really big question-mark is that over the KGB. Most of what one can read in the press about this legendarily tough organisation is of poor quality and no good book exists on it at all. It is clear that it maintains a vast internal apparat, that it is involved in all the normal forms of espionage, and that it has a considerable appetite for Western high technology. Beyond that, it is clear that the Russians make extensive use of the (rather obvious) cover of Embassy officials and of Tass, Novosti, Aeroflot and other employees. But of KGB covert action there is almost no hard evidence at all. Not a single major KGB covert action – comparable, say, to the Bay of Pigs or the Chile de-stabilisation – has been uncovered. No intelligence service is that good or that lucky for forty years on the trot, so one is forced to the conclusion that the KGB employs covert action sparingly, if at all.

The CIA answer to this – indeed, the major justification for the CIA’s covert activities in the first place – is that the presence of Communist Parties around the world gives the Russians a large group of willing agents almost everywhere. No doubt Russian advice and support has frequently been proffered to such parties (and to Third World nationalists), but by the 1960s and 1970s even the CIA was forced to acknowledge that this was not really an equivalent phenomenon. There has been no shortage, of course, of local Communists willing to act as individual agents in the ordinary way, but there is no record of CPs or Third World nationalist parties as such getting involved in covert activities on the Russians’ behalf. In any case, when such parties matter at all, it is because they are genuine social movements – and thus legitimate political actors – in their own countries. Even in Eastern Europe, the Soviet style has been different. When confronted by a rebellious client state, of the sort the US faced in Chile or Nicaragua, they have either intervened overtly and militarily (Hungary, Czechoslovakia) or have simply let them get on with it (Yugoslavia, Rumania, Albania). The novel exception seems to be Poland: the way the Jaruzelski coup was managed – with the declaration of martial law being actually pre-printed in the USSR – far more closely resembles the classic CIA-style coup. The Russians, like the Israelis, may have been learning from American can-do-ism. Still, it is worth pointing out that the evidence for Soviet covert action is patchy even within its ‘empire’, and beyond that it is even thinner.

As if bothered by this relative lack of evidence for KGB covert activity, many Western Cold Warriors have fallen back in recent years on attempts to prove a connection between the KGB and international terrorist groups. Recently, prompted by the strong following wind of Reaganism, this has culminated in an enormous international media campaign to prove that the Russians were behind the assassination attempt against the Pope. There is, actually, no evidence for this at all. The would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, was a long-time member of the Turkish fascist group, the Grey Wolves, and also of the extreme right National Action Party. He had been sentenced for the murder of a leading Turkish newspaper editor in 1979, was rescued from prison with Grey Wolf assistance and had a formidable career of Grey Wolf terrorism to his credit. In 1979 he openly boasted of his intention of killing the Pope. Captured by the Italian Police, he was threatened with release into the general prison population (among whose strongly Catholic ranks he would not have survived for long) unless he ‘confessed’. Under such pressures he came up with a story involving meetings with Bulgarian diplomats. One of these he described as bearded (though he was in fact clean-shaven) and also spoke of meetings with his family (who were in fact out of the country).[8] On this slender tissue the whole ‘KGB plot against the Pope’ rests. The Pope is a highly vulnerable target, and, one suspects, had the KGB really decided to kill him, he would be dead, and there would be no convenient suspect to point a finger at the Soviet bloc. The unpalatable truth is that it is far easier to give chapter and verse for CIA involvement with terrorist groups in, say, Nicaragua or El Salvador than it is to do the same for the KGB.

Mention of ‘the plot against the Pope’ brings one, finally, to the question of intelligence-sponsored disinformation. Comparisons are difficult. In the Soviet bloc (and in most underdeveloped countries) the media are subject to rigid and institutionalised censorship and control. Practices vary, but the most common form of censorship is the simple omission of inconvenient truths (misinformation). This creates something of a problem when positive disinformation is added to the stew, for in such countries the media are so generally realised to be untruthful that not too much is believed either way. Within the Soviet bloc the quite normal result is that very large numbers of people rely on the BBC, the Voice of America or Radio Free Europe for their news. It is an ironic result, for, under Reagan, at least, not only RFE but the VOA have become synonymous with strong news-slanting from an opposite direction. All that one can say is that if the Soviet bloc Intelligence Services have anything to do with this, they have scored the most spectacular of own goals, creating the objective conditions under which the other side’s propaganda is more readily believed than their own, even by their captive, home audience.

The freedom enjoyed by the Western media, however imperfect, makes them qualitatively different. To be sure, a good deal of ‘news’ does filter into our media from the intelligence community. Indeed, there is a whole category of journalists quite routinely described as ‘close to Western intelligence sources’ – Robert Moss, Brian Crozier, Claire Sterling, Arnaud de Borchgrave and so on. In the end, however, there is still a decision to be made by editors and proprietors as to whether they will give house-room to such sources.

There is, in any case, nothing necessarily sinister about information being derived from intelligence sources. More often problems arise through journalists who are intelligence camp-followers picking up disinformation from the wilder and more disgruntled fringes of the intelligence community. Thus, for example, the recently touted theory that the Sino-Soviet split is a sham, designed to lull the West into a false sense of security – a ‘story’ given mass coverage recently by the Sunday Times for two consecutive weeks. It seems possible that the ultimate source for this nonsense lies in bureaucratic conflicts within the CIA. The former CIA agent, Ralph McGehee, describes in some detail how the CIA’s China desk, deeply threatened by Nixon’s opening towards China, sought desperately to propagate such a theory: ‘Case officers developed a very personal interest in keeping China as one of the primary enemies of the United States. Promotions, foreign travel and assignments abroad all depended on maintaining that concept.’ McGehee goes on to relate how one of the staff of the CIA’s East Asia Division ‘tried to convince me that the Chinese and the Soviets had secretly agreed to split in order to lull and conquer the rest of the world.’[9]

In the end, real intelligence information (though not covert action) is a benign thing. It would be worrying if those running MI5, MI6 or the CIA really believed the nonsense about the ‘Pope plot’ or the ‘Sino-Soviet sham split’, but one may be fairly sure that they do not. It would, no doubt, be safer and pleasanter to live in a world where there was no need for intelligence services. In the world as it is, we are all much safer if both Cold War ‘sides’ know as much as possible about one another. In that sense, the more agents, double agents and electronic reconnaissance we have deployed amongst the Russians, and the more they have deployed amongst us, the better: and the more their genuine findings are available to the media, the better that is too. Perhaps, indeed, we have gone on too long discussing intelligence activities in the hushed, treason-and-plot terms applied to Guy Fawkes. Neither of the Establishments of East and West can be expected to show much appreciation for their Penkovskys or Philbys, but in the interests of a more open world perhaps the rest of us should be glad that they exist.

[1] H.H. Ransom, ‘Secret Intelligence in the USA, 1947-82’, in Dilks and Andrew.

[2] Sunday Times, 15 April 1984; Guardian, 12 June 1984.

[3] New York Times, 23 October 1983.

[4] New York Times, 21 October 1983.

[5] Washington Post, 7 October 1983.

[6] Kim Philby, My Silent War (1973), pp. 138-146.

[7] J. Bloch and P. Fitzgerald, British Intelligence and Covert Action (Junction Books, 1983). Bloch, a South African, has effectively been sentenced to expulsion from the UK – a curious action given that no charge under the Official Secrets Act has been made against his (British) co-author.

[8] See F. Brodhead and E.S. Herman, ‘The KGB Plot to Assassinate the Pope: A Case Study in Free World Disinformation’, Covert Action Information Bulletin (Washington), No 19, Spring-Summer 1983.

[9] R.W. McGehee, Deadly Deceits. My 25 Years in the CIA (Sheridan Square Publications, New York 1983).