Document:Our Secret Servants - The Shayler Affair
Our Secret Servants - The Shayler Affair
Things had been going rather well for the British security and intelligence services in the 1990s. Under pressure from the Wright-Wallace-Massiter revelations of the 80s, they had conceded a notional form of parliamentary accountability with the creation of the Intelligence and Security Committee. With members who either knew nothing about the subject, or who, like chair Tom King, had been part of the system as a minister, said committee had investigated nothing of consequence and issued a number of anodyne reports. No new revelatory horrors seemed to be on the horizon. MI5 and SIS had got their new buildings - rewards for the miners' strike and Gordievsky, respectively - through the Whitehall system before the cuts began to fall, and were both branching out into new areas. MI5 were even generating new kinds of 'subversives' - animal rights campaigners, ecowarriors, roads protesters - to help replace the domestic Soviet 'threat'. If Swampy and his chums didn't quite make up for the loss of the Communist Party's Industrial Department, they might help ensure that careers and pensions - the really important things, after all - stayed on track.
The British security and intelligence services had long since stopped worrying about the Labour Party. The Left in the Parliamentary Labour Party had lost interest in the subject, and though Neil Kinnock had shown a flicker of interest in the Peter Wright allegations, he had run for cover when Mrs. Thatcher challenged his patriotism. His successor, John Smith, was a life-long friend of the SIS officer, now Baroness Ramsay, and Donald Dewar, I am informed, had a similar relationship with former MI5 D-G Stella Rimington. The key people in the Blair faction are all securely integrated into the Anglo-American foreign policy system and are no more likely to challenge the British secret state than they are to challenge the dominance of the City of London. Even so, after the May General Election this year both SIS and MI5 put material out into the media aimed at their new political masters.
MI5: fighting the far right
The first was the tale of Andy Carmichael who described in the Sunday Times (27 July 1997) his 'five years as a fully salaried MI5 agent' inside the National Front (NF). According to Carmichael, the National Front, in the guise of National Democrats, had planned to disrupt the Referendum Party's General Election campaign in the Midlands because the Front believed that the Referendum Party would take votes from them (standing as National Democrats). But the NF plot, we are told, 'unsettled senior MI5 officers'. Interference with a British general election 'would prove an enormous scandal' and Carmichael was told to 'pull the plug' on the NF plot. In case we hadn't got the point, the author of the piece, David Leppard, not noticeably critical of the British security and intelligence services in the past, tells us that, 'Shortly afterwards MI5 decided to wind down its operations against all extremist parties'.
Well, good old MI5! I'm sure the Labour Party's upper echelons were reassured to learn that MI5 were taking the National Front seriously. On the other hand:
- Shouldn't we be astonished to learn that the National Front deserved five years full-time penetration? If the practically defunct NF gets that, what, say, has the Socialist Workers Party been getting? Or Green Anarchist?
- To what does MI5's 'operations against all extremist parties' refer? Which operations? Which parties?
- Have Carmichael and the editor of Sunday Times been arrested for breach of the Official Secrets Act? No. Carmichael, the Sunday Times tells us, went to Rupert Allason MP, who went to MI5 to see if Carmichael could go public on this story. As always, there are official secrets and official secrets.
My father knew Ramsay McDonald
The second little psy-ops operation was built round material about the Zinoviev letter, which helped lose Ramsay Macdonald the 1924 general election. Yes, three-quarters of a century later, they're still trying to find a way round this! Two newspaper stories on Zinoviev appeared in August: 'Red Letter Day' by Patrick French, in the Sunday Times 10 August 1997, and 'The forgery, the election and the MI6 spy' by Michael Smith in the Daily Telegraph 13 August 1997. Both articles were based on the release of certain documents from SIS's archives which purport to throw light on the Zinoviev incident.
French's piece used a briefing about the contents of the documents before they had been released. He argued that they show that the 'red menace' depicted in the Zinoviev forgery was real, and thus 'The Zinoviev letter did not need to be faked'. It was a fake which described the real situation; and so, implicitly, was justified. Smith's article, written after the documents had been made available, argued that the letter 'may have been forged to protect a British spy at the heart of the Kremlin' - and so, implicitly, was justified.
In other words, the Zinoviev letter not only described the real situation, it was produced to save a brave British agent who had penetrated to the heart of the red dagger pointing at the heart of the British way of life. And which right-thinking person could object to that?
Enter David Shayler
All this good PR for our secret civil servants was flushed down the pan by the former MI5 officer, David Shayler. It would be hard to think of anything more acutely, more wonderfully embarrassing for New Labour than Shayler's revelation that MI5 had been keeping files on and phone-tapping Home Secretary Jack Straw and Peter Mandelson. MI5, it is said, suspected that Mandelson was a concealed Soviet agent. His conversion from Young Communist League (YCL) member to Labour right-winger suggested to MI5 that he was playing a role, concealing his true sympathies and possibly acting under instruction. The more sensible and middle-of-the-road he sounded, the more suspicious they became.
If the newspaper reports are accurate, at the subsequent meeting between Home Secretary Straw and MI5's Director-General, Straw did not demand to see his file - he was quoted as saying the didn't want Ministers to be treated differently from MPs! - he decided........to bring Special Branch in to go after Shayler. And Prime Minister Blair has demanded to know.........how Shayler got through the positive vetting procedure. The smack of firm government or what?
In an interview in the Guardian 15 September 1997, Straw stated that he had known about his file since 1974 when he was interviewed by MI5 before taking up a position as an advisor to Labour Minister Barbara Castle. Did Jack Straw mention this during the debates on MI5 in the 1980s, I wondered? No, he did not. He said not a word during the many hours of Commons debate on the Security Service Bill in 1989, and voted in only one of the six votes.
The Intelligence and Security Committee
The Shayler allegations are now with the Intelligence and Security Committee. Of the Labour members of that committee only Dale Campbell-Savours has any record of interest in the security and intelligence services, and he will be counter-balanced by Yvette Cooper, former journalist at the Independent and now engaged to Ed Balls, Gordon Brown's economics advisor, and former SIS officer Baroness Ramsay. Only in forelock-tugging Britain would a former intelligence officer be appointed to a (nominal) oversight committee. From the Conservative Party there is former Northern Ireland junior minister Michael Mates (Colonel, rtd.), and Tom King, former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and former Minister of Defence, who remains Chair. (Prime Minister Blair said he wanted a bipartisan approach to the subject.) So the committee will remain a poodle.
How will the government handle the Shayler book when it appears? On present form they seem determined to have a farcical re-run of the Spycatcher saga - injunctions and wonderful, global publicity for the book. The government have also provided the pretext for the Mail on Sunday, the Sunday edition of what Michael Foot used to call the forgers' gazette, to portray itself as the bastion of our civil liberties against a tyrannical state.
SIS goes into drugs (apparently)
On 28 August Foreign Secretary Robin Cook announced, while on a tour of the Far East, that Britain's 'diplomatic, aid, law enforcement and intelligence assets will be targetted at fighting the international drugs trade.' It was the Sunday Telegraph (31 August) which pointed out that
“the Americans have devoted several hundred times the money and the manpower at the disposal of MI6 to attacking the global drug trade without appearing to have any significant result.”
' — 
Is the 'fight to save Britain from the drug menace' - which few in the new SIS 'Global Issues Controllerate' (sic) will take seriously or believe is a rational policy - really going to substitute, intellectually, morally and emotionally, for the anti-Soviet crusade which has provided SIS with its raison d'etre in the post-war years? It seems unlikely. It certainly hasn't for the CIA. Somebody said recently that the CIA is a crusade or it is nothing. Former CIA Director William Colby wasn't being ironic when he called his memoir Honorable Men. That's how that generation saw themselves - good men fighting a dirty but necessary war. It was concepts which kept the CIA relatively honest, by its own lights, for most of the post-war period. Which concepts now compensate Agency employees for their relatively poor salaries?
Should we take this SIS move into drugs seriously? Is it something more than SIS management seeing the growth of a U.S. activity and wanting to get into it for the usual crumbs the Americans throw their way? Or is it a new reason to run men in the field in various funky bits of the world where they will come across who-knows-what? We don't know yet. More importantly, will the British state use the 'drugs menace' as the pretext to create the kind of national database now in use in the United States? FinCEN, the U.S. Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, now has a data base so sophisticated,
'in five minutes or less it can produce a profile of a person's financial history, business contacts, employer, assets, real estate titles, even a list of neighbours who can be contacted by investigators.' Come to think of it, the boys and girls of Millbank might really like the sound of that.
- ^ Information, ultimately, from a former member of Dewar's staff. I wrote to Donald Dewar about this but have not had a reply.
- ^ See Lobster 33.
- ^ There is no explanation of why Carmichael had to go through an intermediary to his former employer. This is a bit of window-dressing, I think.
- ^ A new branch of historical research suggests itself: history with the documents included which should have been written but weren't.
- ^ Mandelson initially denied joining the YCL but the YCL General Secretary at the time, Tom Bell, confirmed his membership in a letter to the Guardian on 30 August 1997.
- ^ See Shayler's 'Open letter to Tony Blair' in the Mail on Sunday 28 September 1997. The 'Bobby' reference here is to something that has largely been forgotten. During the campaign for leader of the Labour Party, Tony Blair assured a number of Labour MPs whose votes he was seeking that Peter Mandelson would play no part in the campaign. Of course he was lying. As the flimsiest of 'cover' stories, for the duration of the campaign Mandelson became 'Bobby' - a reference to Bobby Kennedy who had been in charge of some of John F. Kennedy's election campaigns. Tony and Peter, John and Bobby......cue faint strains of 'Camelot'.
- ^ Sunday Times 31 August 1997
- ^ Sunday Telegraph 31 August 1997
- ^ She was named as a former SIS officer in The Times on 2 August 1997, but had been so identified in the pilot issue of the now defunct Leveller in 1976. I wrote to Baroness Ramsay wondering if there was not a conflict of interest in her presence on the committee but have not had a reply.
- ^ Law Enforcement News (U.S.), 15 May 1997
- ^ For non-UK readers, Millbank is the name given to the office which houses the Labour Party's computer data base named Excaliber which holds information on a variety of subjects, including the words and deeds (and misdeeds) of Labour Party MPs and personnel. A long article about Millbank appeared in The Times 21 April 1997.
- Sunday Telegraph 31 August
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