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Aitken dropped by the Right's secret club

Is it the ultimate dishonour? Chris Blackhurst on Le Cercle, an exclusive think-tank said to be funded by the CIA
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Jonathan Aitken's world is truly crumbling around him. After his resignation from the Privy Council, the former Tory cabinet minister, ruined by his collapsed libel case against the Guardian, will have to cede another honour - one that his friends say he values as much as being a Right Hon or PC.

For the past few years Mr Aitken has been chairman of Le Cercle, a right-wing think-tank set up at the height of the Cold War for senior politicians, diplomats and intelligence agents which is one of the most influential, secretive, and, it goes without saying, exclusive political clubs in the West. Now he is about to be relieved of this role.

Since the collapse of his libel trial and the accusations of perjury against him, Le Cercle members have been talking discreetly in the dining- room of the Beefsteak and other right-wing clubs where they gather. "A consensus is emerging that he will be given time to resign and, if he does not, he will be asked to," said one member of Le Cercle.

In the world in which Mr Aitken operates, there can be no greater humiliation. So secret is Le Cercle, or just plain Cercle as it is known, that his chairmanship has never been revealed until now. Even the group's existence is only occasionally disclosed.

In his Diaries, Mr Aitken's close friend, Alan Clark, relates how he went with Mr Aitken and similarly right-thinking friends to a gathering in Muscat, Oman. He describes it as "an Atlanticist society of right- wing dignitaries" and, later, as "a right-wing think-tank, funded by the CIA, which churns Cold War concepts around".

The chairman before Mr Aitken was Julian Amery, the late Conservative minister; but in his extensive obituaries Cercle is not even mentioned. Before Lord Amery the chairman was Antoine Pinay, the former French prime minister - he was its first head and the group was known as "the Pinay Circle"; but again, his obituaries do not mention it.

One member contacted by this newspaper said he could not talk about it "even off, off the record". Another simply put the phone down.

Formed in the Fifties, Cercle was intended to cement Franco-German relations, as a buffer to Soviet aggression during the Cold War. Down the years, however, it has become much more,advocating right-wing causes round the world and growing into a confidential talking shop for about 70 politicans, businessmen, polemicists and personnel from the diplomatic and security services. Members are invited to attend its meetings; they cannot ask to be admitted, and as a condition of attending they agree to keep all sessions secret. It meets twice a year, once in Washington DC in the autumn and once in the early part of the year in an "overseas" venue.

This year's conference was in Berlin; last year's was in Amman.Among the speakers this year was Sir Percy Cradock, Britain's former ambassador to China and Margaret Thatcher's foreign policy adviser. Previous conferences have been held in Bucharest, Frankfurt and Oman. The group's British secretary is Geoffrey Tantum, a former security services officer, who lives in Surrey.

In this country, Cercle regulars number about 15, drawn mostly from the rich Tory right. Leading political lights are Paul Channon and Alan Duncan. David Burnside, the former British Airways public affairs chief, is a member - not for his BA work but for his passionate espousal of Ulster Unionism. Viscount Cranborne, John Major's former senior aide, has attended Cercle gatherings.

Brian Crozier, the author and well-known Cold-Warrior with close ties to MI6 and the CIA, is a senior member. Anthony Cavendish, the former senior MI5 man, is an old Cercle hand. Nicholas Elliot, the ex-MI6 officer, used to go to their meetings.

American regulars included Bill Casey and William Colby, heads of the CIA, Henry Kissinger, and Edwin Feulner from the Heritage Foundation. Mr Aitken's great hero, Richard Nixon, went to Cercle meetings after he left the White House. In Europe, Josef Bach, former chef de cabinet to the German Chancellor Adenauer, and Jean Violet, a Parisian lawyer and adviser to the French intelligence services, were also in Cercle.

In 1979, Mr Crozier presented a "planning paper" to the group. Among its aims was to secure changes of government in the UK and Germany. Mr Crozier noted that in the UK, with the accession of Mrs Thatcher, this had been achieved.

Other listed objectives were:

"Undercover financial transactions for political aims";

"International campaigns aiming to discredit hostile personalities or events";

"Creation of a (private) intelligence service specialising in a selective point of view";

"Establishment of offices under suitable cover each run by a co-ordinator from the central office. Current plans cover London, Washington, Paris, Munich and Madrid."

Despite the ending of the Cold War, the group is stronger than it ever was. The source of its funding is a mystery. Mr Clark and Robin Ramsay, editor of Lobster, the magazine that attempts to monitor the intelligence services, say it is the CIA. One member maintained that each person attending was asked to pay $500 to cover travel and that it was "entirely self- financing."

By all accounts, Mr Aitken loved being a member and adored being chairman. Its mixture of global politics and high-level intrigue suited him down to the ground. "He was always very prominent at the meetings; he was an excellent chairman," was the verdict of one Cercle member. He will miss it and they will miss him.