Secret Services

Robert Cecil

  • The Soviet Union and Terrorism by Roberta Goren
    Allen and Unwin, 232 pp, £17.50, November 1984, ISBN 0 04 327073 5
  • The Great Purges by Isaac Deutscher and David King
    Blackwell, 176 pp, £12.50, November 1984, ISBN 0 631 13923 0
  • SOE: The Special Operations Executive 1940-46 by M.R.D. Foot
    BBC, 280 pp, £8.50, October 1984, ISBN 0 563 20193 2
  • A History of the SAS Regiment by John Strawson
    Secker, 292 pp, £12.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 436 49992 4

Roberta Goren’s book should be compulsory reading in every course of peace studies. It explains in great detail how the USSR after Stalin’s death adapted to the nuclear age its strategy for achieving hegemony in a world dominated by the mass media and by weapons of mass destruction. It was a dual strategy, with an upper and a lower face. The brightly-lit upper face comprised the campaign for peace and disarmament, promoted by Communist ‘front’ organisations; the darkened, lower face involved the use of very different means to achieve the same end without provoking nuclear war. One of these means was the employment of surrogate forces to support movements of so-called ‘national liberation’ without the direct involvement of the Red Army. Thus in Africa Cuban intervention was subsidised – with East European satellites, chiefly East Germany and Czechoslovakia, providing arms and advisers. Meanwhile, at a subterranean level and through devious channels, the USSR was cautiously trying out the usefulness of what Dr Goren calls ‘sub-revolutionary’ forces, which did not aim in the immediate future to overthrow the state, but could be employed to destabilise it. The IRA, the Basque ETA, the Italian Red Brigade and the Baader-Meinhof gang are examples of this activity.

In the 1960s, this clandestine strategy began to be applied with new force and subtlety. Between 1965 and 1982 14 Heads of State or prime ministers were assassinated; all represented pillars of stability or of Western influence in the countries concerned. Between 1968 and 1980 the number of recorded incidents of terrorism increased fourfold: out of 6,714 such incidents no less than 5,034 took place in Western Europe, Latin America and the Middle East (in that order). Only 62 occurred in the USSR and Eastern Europe; most of these involved attempts to escape – for example, by hijacking aircraft. These attempts are not regarded in the USSR as terrorist, but are attributed to ‘habitual criminals’. This distinction is made partly in order to facilitate extradition, but partly because Marxism-Leninism defines ‘terrorism’ as violence evoked by capitalist, imperialist or other reactionary regimes: it follows, according to Soviet ideology, that terrorism cannot arise within the frontiers of Communist countries, unless it is imported by the CIA. It also follows that, if acts of terrorism are promoted in non-Communist countries, these heighten the perception that the rulers of these countries are oppressing ‘the workers’. Such a perception is stimulated by Qaddafi’s recent allusions to the ‘imprisonment and starvation’ of thousands of striking miners in Britain.

All violence directed against the forces of law and order in non-Communist countries is regarded by Marxist-Leninists as deserving encouragement as a first step towards ‘liberation’. Lenin himself drew an important distinction between ‘revolutionary terrorism’, undertaken by trained professionals for clear ideological ends, and ‘individual terrorism’, which was anarchical in character and, unless directed into approved channels, could prove counter-productive. Much of the history of post-war Soviet involvement in terrorism, as narrated by Dr Goren, consists of Soviet efforts to bring random terror under central control. From the Czech defector, Jan Sejna, we learnt that in 1964 the Soviet Politburo approved a massive increase in ‘spending for terrorist enterprises’. From Penkovsky came confirmation that the KGB’s Fifth Directorate was concerned with terrorism, sabotage and ‘black’ propaganda. In 1967 Andropov, then chairman of the KGB, was made a candidate member of the Politburo, thus illustrating the KGB’s enhanced role in planning and strategy.

In the Near and Middle East there were developments favouring the employment of violent and clandestine means to achieve Soviet objectives. In 1966 the extremist Ba’ath regime took power in Syria and sponsored the fedayeen or ‘freedom fighters’ who in 1968 took over the PLO. In 1970 the PLO was expelled from Jordan and two years later Soviet advisers were cleared out of Egypt. As the USSR began to find state-to-state relations less rewarding, the KGB stepped up its contacts with the PLO and co-ordinated its use with that of its surrogates. Close connections were built up between Cuba and the PLO, especially in the training of terrorists. Through the PLO the Communists were able to exploit the long-term refusal of Arab countries, other than Jordan, to settle Palestinian refugees, who had instead been kept in camps as a restless, rootless reservoir of manpower. By 1981, when Moscow granted diplomatic recognition to the PLO, the KGB had extended its tentacles to the Vietcong in Indochina, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and to those around Khomeini in exile, as well as to the European gangs which I have mentioned.

None of these facts need occasion surprise: the Bolshevik movement grew out of terrorism and Lenin was a leading theoretician of its use. Whether, if he had lived, he would have reduced his dependence on terror and the secret police, we cannot know. Certainly Stalin was not the man to do so. He had served his apprenticeship to the movement in terrorist activity and he soon began to employ state terror against his own people. He started with the kulaks and then between 1934 and 1939 purged the entire apparatus of party and state, including the Red Army. Indeed the drastic purge of the Army was one of the factors that induced Hitler to invade the USSR so light-heartedly, believing in an easy victory. Senior Red Army officers, including the future Marshal Rokossovsky, went straight from detention camp to the front in 1941.

Stalin’s career as a purveyor of terror on an unprecedented scale is vividly illustrated in The Great Purges, which contains some of David King’s collection of contemporary photographs, together with a commentary by Isaac Deutscher: ‘In presenting these scenes, I had to reconstruct a nightmare.’ We must hope that, for a majority or Russians, their dreams have become pleasanter: but we do well to remember that they still have no judicial or other safeguards to protect them against party and state. In 1956 Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s worst crimes, but did nothing to change the system that had permitted them: on the contrary, the power of the KGB has been growing. It is of the nature of a police state that it cannot stand still: in order to cling to power, it must be constantly on the march, closing loopholes, increasing surveillance and tightening its hold on the people’s throats. The easygoing people of this country need to be reminded of these things. In the 1930s many intellectuals refused to believe that Stalin’s purges had attained the dimension revealed in this book, and their descendants are still around today.

Whilst the USSR was struggling for dear life against Hitler’s onslaught, an equally desperate but more secret struggle against his ‘New Order’ was going on in occupied Europe. It was a struggle which, after June 1941 was to provide a valuable seed-bed for the post-war efflorescence of Communist movements in the liberated countries. During the 22 months’ duration of the Hitler-Stalin pact, the Communists had lain dormant, but Soviet underground networks, of which the ‘Red Orchestra’ is the best-known, were being built up with fine impartiality for use against Britain and Germany alike: both capitalist powers whose destruction was not only desirable but historically predestined. After the invasion of the USSR, when the European Communist Parties were unleashed against Hitler, it became their task not only to re-animate resistance movements, but also to place their men strategically in order to seize power once the war was over. It was, as M.R.D. Foot more than once observes in his short history of SOE, ‘a many-sided war’. The struggle in Yugoslavia between Tito and the royalist general Mihailovic is only the best-remembered example of a struggle which, beneath the surface, was going on everywhere. It is the best-remembered because the Balkans sucked in a remarkable number of brave men who in later life have proved to be as adept with the typewriter as they were with the sten gun. But we should also remember that one of the uncovenanted benefits of Churchill’s staunch support of de Gaulle was that France’s first post-war regime was predominantly Gaullist and not Communist, despite the prominence of Communists in the Resistance movement. In Greece the Communist ELAS movement had conserved so much of the ammunition with which it had been supplied for use against Germans that it was able to plunge the country into civil war even without any substantial backing from Stalin.

SOE was slow to recognise the many-sidedness of its war; as Foot points out, its agents were hardly ever given ‘even the most rudimentary political training’. In Greece Churchill regarded himself as committed to the King’s return, but elsewhere the will to kill Germans was the sole qualification for SOE’s support. None of this activity was co-ordinated with the Russians. SOE posted a liaison officer to Moscow, but he was never given any information by the Russians; one of his more useful actions was to obtain the release of two British officers who had been parachuted into Poland, had made contact with the Red Army and had then been confined for nearly a month in a verminous prison. The Polish AK resistance movement was controlled by the London-based Polish government, which the USSR no longer recognised; the proved capacity of AK to kill Germans was no qualification for support, or even toleration, in Soviet eyes. The Communist partisans who did best out of SOE’s generosity were probably the Albanians: Hoxha’s tyranny endures to this day.

It may occur to the reader, as it occurred to Lord Selborne (the last head of SOE), that SOE agents, especially those equipped with W/T sets, were admirably placed to establish a post-war intelligence network, as the Russians were doing. We do not know what Churchill would have made of this proposal; Attlee would have nothing to do with it, and SOE was promptly wound up. SIS (MI6) did indeed plan a modest post-war network to monitor Communist activities: the planner was Kim Philby. Foot does not stress this last point. This is surprising, because elsewhere one has the impression that he is perpetuating the old rivalry between the two secret organisations by scoring points off SIS. That gallant and inventive naval officer, Captain Slocum, is labelled a ‘malevolent man in MI6’. Menzies, head of MI6 (‘C’), is condemned for not having had ‘the brain to understand’ the signals intelligence produced by the Government Code and Cypher School. I am glad to be able to affirm from first-hand knowledge that Menzies understood this material very well: indeed he understood how to preserve its secrecy better than his critics – then or since. Foot blames ‘the innermost circles of SIS’ because they ‘did not circulate far the information in their hands from the start of the final solution’. It is not the business of a secret service to disseminate intelligence to any persons other than those who can make good use of it. The wider the circulation, the greater the risk to the source. The only thing that would stop Hitler from exterminating Jews was to defeat him: until and unless this end was achieved, no effective steps could be taken to prevent the holocaust or succour its victims.

One may not agree on all points with Foot’s judgments, but there can be no denying the overriding merits of his book. He has condensed a great weight of material without depriving us of the anecdotes that relieve an often sombre narrative. If one compares this book with the three drab volumes of the official history of SIS during the war, one sees that SOE has won the last round against its old rival. In discussing this rivalry, Foot tends to minimise the significance of Churchill’s decision in 1940 to set up SOE under a minister independent of the Foreign Office, which supervised SIS. The Permanent Under-Secretary of the FO, Sir Alexander Cadogan, held regular meetings with the heads of SOE and SIS (or their deputies) in order to reconcile differences. His chairmanship, which was much more impartial than Foot allows, would have been more effective if a single minister had been involved in the final decisions. SOE, however, knew that they could always appeal to higher authority, thus obliging ministers collectively to reach conclusions on matters that they were often ill-equipped to determine. This did not make for harmonious relations.

On the margin between SOE and the regular forces was the Special Air Service (SAS), which came to birth in the frustrating warfare of the Western Desert about one year after SOE had been established. SAS was distinct from SOE in that its objectives were more closely linked to the strategic aims of GHQ, and its operations were usually carried out in uniform: but the two bodies overlapped in that both could work with irregulars if local conditions were right, as in France in 1944. SAS (with which Foot saw service in France) was an élite fighting force in a sense that SOE, with its multiplicity of tasks, could not be; both were selective and exclusive, but in different ways. Unlike SOE, SAS survived the war. It lived on in peacetime by going into reverse: where it had once aimed to set everything alight, it was now aiming to put out fires and defuse the bombs. Some of these were the time-bombs which Communist Parties had sedulously planted. SAS has had to adapt itself to the jungles of Malaya and Borneo, as well as to the urban jungles beloved of terrorists. It has done so with consummate success. The Malayan campaign, in which SAS had a prominent role, is an isolated example of how a Communist conspiracy, exploiting anti-colonial slogans, can be defeated on its own home ground. After that, it was back to the desert, as SAS covered the ill-timed withdrawal from Aden, which was about to become a Soviet base – the so-called People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.

Major-General Strawson concludes his study and brings it up to date with brief chapters on the part played by the SAS in the siege of the Iranian Embassy in London and in the Falklands fighting. He prudently writes little about the SAS in Northern Ireland. What he does write is more in sorrow than in anger: ‘the absence of a clear, consistent and realisable political objective has for nearly fifteen years rendered the task of the soldier at best a Micawber-like holding operation.’