Christopher Hitchens

Forster’s apparently evergreen remark, about choosing to betray your country rather than your friends, has always seemed to me to be – as well as an exercise in moral casuistry – the father and mother of a false antithesis. I mean to say, who ever is actually faced, or has been faced, with such a choice? In 1917 or thereabouts, Siegfried Sassoon confided to his friend Robert Graves that he was planning to ‘go public’, as a decorated front-line officer, with what he knew about real conditions on the Western Front. Graves had him put away for ‘shell-shock’, for his own good. That was certainly a betrayal of a friend and, I would argue, also a betrayal of the country. Kim Philby, who actually did set out to betray a country as well as a class, was also strikingly disloyal to his friends (though they, almost irrespective of politics, seem to have been loyal to him). In order for Forster’s Choice to come up in your own life, you must be able to plead that there is something tremendously the matter with either a. your country or b. your circle of friends. When Willy Brandt put on the uniform of a country that was fighting his own – the action for which the German conservatives never forgave him – he was not thinking: ‘Pity about my friends, but I feel I have to betray my country.’ Nor, if he had elected to betray his friends, could he have argued that he was doing his country much of a favour.

A third consideration may obtain. What if, as is generally the case, your country has its repulsive and attractive sides, and so do your friends, but there is something wrong with you? Some crucial bit of the moral or the rational animal that is, in your own case, simply lacking? Nobody would be the best judge in their own cause here, but I haven’t talked to anyone in the past week or so who doesn’t believe that this was and is true of Richard Gott.

I don’t say this with any sense or intention of accommodating to the prevailing wind, since Gott has disliked me intensely for more than twenty years and last January wrote a loopy letter to this journal, blaming James Fenton and myself for once queering his pitch at the New Statesman. ‘Effete onanist’ was one of the things he said about me. About himself he wrote with even more feeling: ‘In those days, I had no revolutionary ideology to sustain me, nothing but a simple belief that Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse-tung and Agostinho Neto, were admirable men who had been doing interesting things.’ So I write this in no spirit of revenge. I couldn’t think any less of Gott than I already did, and he couldn’t make much more of an idiot of himself than he already had. Mao Tse-tung as humble land-reformer: the Guardian chronicler as blissed-out idealist with no axe to grind … that’s what the CIA and the neo-conservatives wanted you to say. (You don’t suppose for a moment that – no, forget it.) Worse still, Gott’s memory of these disputes is deficient, since the really bitter quarrel concerned not so much Angola or Vietnam but the Khmer Rouge, whose work James Fenton had observed at close quarters.

The same elements, of extreme silliness and unusual moral deafness, are present in Gott’s breast-baring interview with Hugh Stephenson, published in the Guardian of 12 December. Speaking of his original Soviet contact, Gott says that he had to travel to Austria and Greece and Cyprus to meet him ‘and the point about going to these places was that he, Solonitsin, couldn’t come to the West, he could only meet in a neutral capital.’ Stephenson inquires why this was and Gott replies: ‘Visas, I suppose.’ I would have supposed so, too. In other words, Gott (who immediately after this says that ‘I was certainly paid to make those three expeditions’) would have had to know that his generous friend was KGB, and furthermore that his friend was under surveillance. Keep the latter point in mind. When asked by Stephenson what effect this secret connection might have had on his own despatches from Moscow, Gott is amazingly insouciant: ‘I haven’t looked it up but I do recall saying that after seventy years, or whatever, what a tragedy that this interesting experiment which has failed, took place in quite such a large country and did so much damage to so many people’s lives.’ Or whatever. After generations of debate on Stalinism, all Gott has learned is that its casualty rate is a function of the size of the country. (Surely little Cambodia taught him better than that?)

There are a number of reasons why one ought not, perhaps, on mature reflection, to take money and favours from the KGB. There’s – oh, I don’t know – the fact that it’s a secret police organisation which conducts kidnappings and assassinations, and confines sane protestors in mental hospitals. To this, Gott opposes the fatuously-phrased finding that ‘the people they take are a bit like the British bureaucracy, or the best people in Britain going to the Treasury or the Foreign Office.’ Actually he spoils a potential good point here, since Andropov’s KGB was arguably one of the progenitors of perestroika. But that’s irrelevant to the consideration of money and favours. Nobody is criticising Gott for talking to these people.

Another reason for not making a private deal with the KGB is that it makes you a hostage, either to blackmail or to exposure. And not just you. And not just from the KGB. Gott has known for some years that British Intelligence had rumbled him. He knew that this was why Alasdair Milne and Aubrey Singer were overruled by an MI5 vetting officer when they tried to appoint him editor of the Listener in 1981. He would certainly have known what the political fall-out of his exposure might be. But he did nothing to prepare any friend or comrade, on or off the Guardian, for the mess into which he has now dropped them. I understand from several honest radicals on the paper that neither his exceptionally flippant and stupid resignation letter, nor any of his other statements, were shown to anyone they might implicate or interest. We have the word of MI5 itself that nothing Gott did was ever regarded by them as betraying his country. But, as surely as there is such a thing as treason, he has betrayed his friends.

Yet Fleet Street’s regular preachers of ‘personal responsibility’ want to suspend the operations of that general precept for an indefinite time. What Gott did was not his fault. It was barely even his doing. It was the culture of the British Left, and (not quite the same thing) of the Guardian newspaper which must be held accountable. I happened to be in the House of Commons on the day that Mr Peter Preston’s ‘cod fax’ came to light, and was as amazed as ever at the raw spectacle the Tories present when they mix hatred, prejudice and righteousness into one cocktail. You would have thought that Nasser, Scargill and Gerry Adams had all materialised at once, or that someone had shot a fox. Most of all, you could sense the howling relief at the chance of a change of subject. The Gott business has now warranted a change of subject right across the board. The problem is no longer the ethics of the ruling party, but the ethics of an eclectic liberal newspaper. What a wondrously heartening outcome this is, if you can look at it in the right way. How nice to dwell, for example, in the unclouded moral universe of Mr William Shawcross, who wrote a piece of effortless superiority, entitled ‘Shrugging off Genocide’, in the Times for 16 December. You would not collect, from Shawcross’s fulminations against Gott and the Guardian, the hard fact that it was Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and Jeane Kirkpatrick who strove for almost a decade to seat the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia’s representative at the UN, and who also strove to keep its forces in play on the battlefield, as part of their unending revenge on Vietnam. This was done, moreover, long after any doubt existed about the nature of the Khmer Rouge leadership. I would not describe this strategy as ‘morally equivalent’ – the specialised sneer against a certain type of leftist apologetics – to the drivellings of Gott. I would describe it as morally far worse.

An editorial in the Times on the same day said that while ‘many British journalists benefited from CIA or MI6 largesse during the Cold War, none was supporting a totalitarian regime devoted to the overthrow of their own country – as Mr Gott was, when engaged in his “very enjoyable joke” with the KGB’. This is the first confirmation of such largesse from the Times, which didn’t say how it knew, but one was glad to have it. Since it was the CIA which arranged the hiring of SS General Reinhard Gehlen and Klaus Barbie to supervise its Cold War discipline, which organised the arrest of Nelson Mandela, the Phoenix programme in South Vietnam, the military coup in Greece in 1967, the arming and financing of Fascist elements in Italy and Japan, the mass murder of the Left in Indonesia and the deployment of death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala, to say nothing of its open collusion with the Mafia and the narco-underworld in the United States itself, I don’t know that journalistic association with it (of the kind undertaken by Sir Peregrine Worsthorne) would be anything to brag about, or indeed anything to condone. And Peter Wright and his associates confirm what is known from other sources – that British secret policemen did place themselves at the service of a foreign power in the attempt to destabilise an elected British government. Mr James Angleton may not have been – was not, in my opinion – as foul as the men of Dzerzhinsky Square. But the point of protesting about ‘moral equivalence’ is surely not to blur moral choices on ‘our side’. Is it?

One can’t escape the question of whether the Gott revelation had anything at all to do with the Guardian’s role (relatively recent, as those who remember poor Sarah Tisdall can attest) as a challenger of state corruption and secret-state exorbitance. In the past few weeks, the newspaper has exposed much mutual hand-washing between certain elements of the upper middle class and the lower Middle East. It has also published a sizeable chunk of the excellent book by its reporter Seumas Milne (see my review in LRB, 8 December) on the use of MI5 and MI6 against domestic dissent and organised labour. A corrupting indiscretion committed by one of the newspaper’s senior staffers has been well-known to the British security services for a considerable time. So the question can be put, dialectically, as three questions. You are the British security person. We have the word of the Times that you do not lack for friends in the press. The Guardian is being a nuisance. You have it in your power to embarrass the Guardian. Do you a. decide to do nothing, or b. decide to do something? And, if you decide to do something, how do you follow tradecraft and make that something deniable?

In the original Spectator exposure, which was penned by two young right-wingers both of whom I know to have extensive connections to the conservative ‘security’ milieu, there appears the following laboured paragraph:

The Spectator’s information has come from former members of the KGB, not from serving or past members of our own security services. The reasons for MI5’s and MI6’s decision to protect the reputation of people they know are guilty of acts of betrayal are mysterious. For even they must recognise that publication of those names cannot breach national security; indeed, publication cannot affect national security in any way whatever. So why have the security agencies taken it on themselves to deny the British public information critical to a decision on whether these men – some of whom hold public office – should be trusted? The KGB knows, the security services know. The only people who don’t know are the people who most need to: the voters.

Well, they got the last bit right, as the Left has been saying for some years. But the rest is an amazing blend of the knowing and the naive, inserted as if to pre-empt certain questions. These questions still need to be asked. Why deny, before anybody has asked, that ‘our own security services’ (if only they were our own, by the way, but let it go) are involved? Where would be the shame in that? In any other month, I mean? Mr Oleg Gordievsky, late of the KGB, appears to be a bit of a fantasy merchant in general but to have had a grasp of the salient facts about Gott and to have had them for some time. Seumas Milne’s father, Alasdair, discovered 14 years ago that Gott was on MI5’s shit-list. So the attempt to lead away from the issue of timing and the issue of motive (which are in reality the same issue) can only have the effect of leading us towards it. To take a glaring example: if the Spectator duo have been steering so clear of ‘our’ side, how can they know that MI5 and MI6 possess names of compromised people ‘in public office’? The only defence here would be to say that the ‘former KGB’ and the actual British agents are in effect two sides of the same operation – Mr Gordievsky is certainly a pensioner of British intelligence, for example – which would logically be to concede the same point in a different form.

If, in the above excerpt, you change the word ‘protect’, which occurs in line four, to ‘preserve’, you might get a clearer picture. The Spectator quite obviously doesn’t believe that ‘our own’ side is protecting traitors. But what if it is preserving them, on ice as it were, until the moment comes when the exposure is useful? Open government, which I’m naturally pleased to see these Young Conservatives supporting, would have had the effect of rendering the Gott stuff public in the first years of the Thatcher era. I would have preferred that, certainly. So let me join Alasdair Palmer and Anne Applebaum in their opinion that ‘this is exactly the kind of issue which the new Parliamentary security oversight committee, created by the Security Services Act, must examine.’ In my review of Seumas Milne I suggested exactly the same course of action, to scrutinise his unearthing of MI5 domestic dirty tricks, including forgery and defamation. More than fifty Members of Parliament have since signed an Early Day Motion calling for a public inquiry into Stella Rimington’s political interventions. An editorial from Master Lawson’s Spectator, seconding this idea, could do nothing but good. He, and no doubt his advisers, know where to find me.