Document:Whitehall Farce

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James Rusbridger: "Secrecy turns otherwise rational people into fascistic nutters; secrecy allows untold billions of pounds and endless energies to be wasted in unnecessary intelligence; secrecy pollutes the political process, muzzles what is left of the independent press and makes a mockery of Parliament and elections."

Disclaimer (#3)Document.png book review  by Paul Foot dated 12 October 1989
Subjects: James Rusbridger, MI5, MI6, CIA, GCHQ, Official Secrets Act 1911, Chevaline, Polaris, William Mountbatten-Windsor
Source: London Review of Books (Link)

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Whitehall Farce

Hardly a week goes by without the enemies of official secrecy having good cause to sing the praises of James Rusbridger. From his Cornish retreat he sprays the correspondence columns of newspapers with volleys of good sense and good humour. This bluff, meticulous man spent much of his youth as a British businessman in Europe, where he worked in a dilatory sort of way for MI6. Since his ‘retirement’ (he is a prodigious worker who never seems to be at rest) he has become a journalist whose main ambition is to put to flight the sycophantic writers who make fortunes from what he calls the ‘intelligence game’.

These writers’ success depends on their game being taken seriously. Unless the public thinks it important whether or not there was a fourth or fifth or sixth Russian spy in British Intelligence; unless they worry about what the latest defector from Prague has to say about a senior Labour politician; unless it is a matter of life and death for all of us what codes are being broken at GCHQ – there would be no reason for hundreds of thousands of them to buy books called "A Matter of Trust", "Their trade is treachery", "Too Secret Too Long", "Molehunt", "Conspiracy of Silence" or, for that matter, "The spy who came in from the cold". Most of these books parade the obsessive belief of MI5 officers that their failure to do anything worthwhile over a quarter of a century was a consequence of there being a Russian spy in MI5. Some say the spy was Sir Roger Hollis, the director. A man called Nigel West wrote a whole book saying the mole wasn’t Hollis: it was his deputy, Graham Mitchell (a former official of the Tory Party). Now we have another equally boring and unimpressive book by W.J. West, who says it was Hollis after all.[1] This last book costs £14.95 – compared to £12.95 for Rusbridger’s, which puts the whole lot to the sword.[2]

James Rusbridger’s great contribution is to raise British Intelligence to the element which best suits it: farce. At one level this book can be read as a series of Hilarious Tales. It describes, for instance, the elaborate plan by the CIA and MI6 in the early Fifties to tunnel into the Russian sector of Berlin, so that communications from there could be ‘monitored’. The plan was called Operation Gold. There was really nothing wrong with it, except that the secretary of the committee which planned it was the British MI6 officer and Russian spy, George Blake, who passed details of the entire operation to the Russians two years before the tunnel was completed. Here, too, is the story of MI6’s courageous decision to order Commander Lionel Crabb to swim under a Russian warship in Portsmouth to take photographs of the propellor design. The Russians were waiting for the unfortunate Commander, of course, and he was never seen again. Rather more expensive has been the unimaginably complex listening-post at Cheltenham’s GCHQ, where thousands of experts listened to communications from the Russians and Eastern Europe for years and years using devices which they imagined to be wholly secret until one of them, Geoffrey Prime, was unmasked as a Russian spy who had sold the Russians everything they wanted to know about GCHQ. Prime, by the way, was not caught by some scrupulous spycatcher. The army of spycatchers which is MI5 has never by its own devices caught a spy in its entire history. Prime was caught as a result of police inquiry – this expert ‘listener’ to enemy secrets was also a persistent child-abuser. It appears that he had been ‘positively vetted’ six times.

James Rusbridger paints a vivid picture of the man whose character and career epitomise the post-war triumphs of MI5: Michael Bettaney. Poor Bettaney was off his rocker from an early age. Though he was clever enough to go to Oxford University, he could not contain his twin obsessions: Adolf Hitler and alcohol. Observers in Oxford pubs would ask him to be quiet when he clicked his heels to attention at the bar or broke into not very tuneful renderings of the Horst Wessel. As an obvious fascist and loon, Bettaney had no trouble at all being recruited into MI5, or being promoted in it, in spite of an arrest for drunkenness and in spite of his shouting at the arresting officer: "You can’t arrest me, I’m a spy."

Twice positively vetted, Bettaney was duly converted, by means which are not exactly clear, from Fascism to Communism, which conversion he shared at once with his ultraright friends in MI5. They thought it frightfully funny and promoted him to the Russian desk. There he stole a huge library of MI5 secrets which he stored in his home. He was only caught when he tried to stuff some of the juiciest of these into the letter box of the Second Secretary of the Russian Embassy. Confused by this latest excess of British Intelligence, the secretary immediately shopped Bettaney to his superiors. The wretched Bettaney became one of the few spies actually trapped by the person he was trying to leak secrets to.

"Anyone who works in intelligence for more than ten years becomes slightly crazy," concludes James Rusbridger, whose Hilarious Tales suggest that the time-span might be rather shorter. But his book is much more than a catalogue of Bettaney-style fiascos. He reminds us that the British Intelligence services are not just a joke. Most men and women who work there hold extreme right-wing views. The man who took over the major intelligence role in Germany after the war – he worked for the CIA, MI6 and later for the new state of West Germany – was Reinhard Gehlen, an anti-semite of the most disgusting variety who had been military intelligence chief of Hitler’s armies in the East. Such extreme views are inclined to deflect the Intelligence effort from what one would normally think of as their legitimate purposes. Rusbridger reminds us that the Italian Government recently asked for the extradition of four men suspected of a connection with fascist bombings and shootings in Italy. The British courts, after advice from MI5, refused the extradition. The Italian fascists are still here, protected by MI5 officers, and according to the magazine Searchlight, regularly assisting them in their crusade against subversion.

The crazy gang is possessed of the most extraordinary powers. They can (and regularly do) tap people’s telephones, burgle their houses, intercept their letters, engage in dirty tricks to disorientate their lives. Their targets are people they believe to be ‘subversive’, the definition of which, to an average MI5 man or woman, can be anywhere to the left of, say, Sir Geoffrey Howe.

Who controls these ‘controllers’? That question is answered very forcefully by Rusbridger. In 1963, Lord Denning wrote (apparently meaning it):

"The Security Services (MI5) are, in the eye of the law, ordinary citizens with no powers greater than anyone else."

That view was recently put in perspective by the Master of the Rolls:

"It is essential in the public interest for MI5 officers to break the law in some ways and such breaches can, or will, never be prosecuted," Donaldson said in January 1988. But "murder is an entirely different matter."

In other words, the Master of the Rolls says that MI5 can do what they like in the public interest, even if what they like is illegal. They are expected, rather squeamishly, to stop short of murder. If you are relieved by that, you had better read what James Rusbridger has to say about the murder in March 1984, just outside Shrewsbury, of Hilda Murrell, an 82-year-old rose-grower. Miss Murrell was taken out of her home in the middle of the day, driven as a passenger in her own car through the streets of Shrewsbury, and later found dead from exposure with multiple stab wounds to her lower stomach. The West Mercia police, who did nothing at all when her car was reported empty and damaged by the side of the road near where she was killed, immediately announced that the rose-grower had been killed by a ‘common burglar’ (perhaps the first burglar in history to have taken a householder out of the burgled house and murdered her in fields several miles away). James Rusbridger says her murder ‘had all the hallmarks of a botched MI5 operation using freelance burglars’. He takes the view that her house was entered – at a time when she was expected to be out to lunch – by ‘contractors’ working for MI5 who had her down as a ‘subversive’ because she was a prominent and articulate opponent of the nuclear power-station at Sizewell. When she came back to the house unexpectedly, the ‘contractor’ probably panicked, and decided that it would be better for his employers if Miss Murrell did not live to identify her intruders and tell the tale. (The peculiar nature of this murder, which had all the marks of a Satanist ritual, also fits the dark sub-world of intelligence ‘contractors’, with their fanatical religions, incantations, uniforms and insignia.)

If the law, even according to those in charge of it, has little or no control of these freelance ‘operatives’, who does control them? Certainly not Parliament. No one even suggests that Parliament has any say whatever over what goes on in Intelligence. There are no accounts, no reports, no cases to answer. The Home Office speaks for the security services, but will answer to Parliament for none of their activities. The Prime Minister, we are assured, has overall control over Intelligence. Yet one of the most striking stories in the book – that of Commander Crabb – shows exactly how seriously the Intelligence gang takes prime ministers. Anthony Eden, who was then prime minister, gave specific instructions that there was to be no intelligence surveillance of Bulganin and Khrushchev, in the course of their celebrated visit to Britain. At once, MI5 ordered the bugging of the suite at Claridge’s where the Russian leaders stayed (apparently this did not involve much extra work, since Claridges is bugged anyway). MI6 then ordered the Commander on his last ignominious underwater voyage. It was as though the instructions of the Prime Minister had been given in order to be broken. Eden was so angry that he sacked the head of MI5. So devastated were MI5 by this rebuke that they systematically plotted against at least two of Eden’s successors: Edward Heath and Harold Wilson. According to the evidence of three people who worked in or close to Intelligence in the mid-Seventies – Peter Wright, Cathy Massiter and Colin Wallace – a substantial section of MI5 was working almost full time to disorientate the office, and subvert the political achievements, of Prime Minister Wilson, allegedly the one man in the country who could control them.

What about the free media? Surely, if all else fails, an independent press and television ensure some sort of control over Intelligence excesses? James Rusbridger answers this point in a special chapter. He chronicles, first, how much of the media themselves are absorbed into the Intelligence game. He cites the Daily Express journalist Chapman Pincher as a perfect example of how officers in MI5 and MI6, assisted in one shocking case by the deputy leader of the Labour Party, George Brown, get their side of the story into newspapers. They simply ‘leak’ to Pincher. Pincher finally got his come-uppance when he was set up by Lord Rothschild to publish Peter Wright’s obsessions about Roger Hollis. But there are many other less famous conduit pipes for Intelligence ‘stories’. Finally, Rusbridger reminds us, the Government has after 77 years repealed and replaced the Official Secrets Act 1911. They were not of course inspired to do so by any discomfort about secrecy, but because they wanted to stop anyone in Intelligence saying a single word in public about what goes on in their crazy gang. The ‘inspired leaks’ will continue, but the critical leaks are effectively plugged by Hurd’s new Act.

James Rusbridger, for all his jolly choice of adjectives, is a serious man with a serious purpose. He takes head-on the familiar argument by which all the bungling, burgling and bugging is justified:

"We must have a secret service, and it musts be secret."

The whole of James Rusbridger’s book argues the opposite. Secrecy in government, he says, is the real enemy of democracy: a far greater enemy than the Russian Army, whose shortcomings and incompetence are as legendary as those of MI5 or the CIA. Secrecy turns otherwise rational people into fascistic nutters; secrecy allows untold billions of pounds and endless energies to be wasted in unnecessary intelligence; secrecy pollutes the political process, muzzles what is left of the independent press and makes a mockery of Parliament and elections. In an impressive climax, Rusbridger tells the story of Chevaline, the last Labour government’s attempt at a defence policy. Chevaline was a sort of up-dated Polaris nuclear submarine. It formed the basis of Labour’s defence policy from the late Sixties. But no one in the Labour Party outside the Cabinet knew about it. It was authorised by the Prime Minister (Wilson) without Parliament ever being told. The Labour Government returned to it, again in total secrecy, in the Seventies. No one knew about it until Labour lost the 1979 Election. The Tory Defence Secretary (Francis Pym) then disclosed that a billion pounds of public money had been spent on a project which neither Parliament nor the Labour Party membership had ever even heard of, let alone approved. All this was done in the interests of national security – and so was kept secret.

What, after all, are the benefits of our Intelligence service? This is James Rusbridger’s answer:

"Whether any intelligence does much good or actually enhances a country’s security is doubtful. After all, despite the success of Mossad, Israel still lives in a perpetual state of fear and terrorism. But the intelligence game is now an international affair where winning and point-scoring is the most important thing.
"No one dares ask whether any of it is worthwhile or could be done far more cheaply. The king must not been seen without his clothes."


  1. "The Truth about Hollis" by W.J. West, Duckworth, 230 pp, £14.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 7156 2286 2
  2. "The Intelligence Game: Illusions and Delusions of International Espionage" by James Rusbridger, Bodley Head, 320 pp, £12.95, August 1989, ISBN 0 370 31242 2