LAST WEEK'S humiliating defeat for the Government in the French courts on the extradition of David Shayler reopens all the old worries and suspicions about the unaccountable activities of MI5 and MI6. Contrary to the James Bond image of intelligent and ruthless efficiency, our security services are in reality a collection of sad second-rate inadequates in need of a life.
Anyone harbouring fears about the ruthless and predatory nature of MI5 need only have turned to the Sunday papers two weeks ago, where it was reported that following his election as Prime Minister, Tony Blair was given a top secret dossier compiled by MI5 which warned him that I was a dangerous subversive who had had meetings with the leadership of Sinn Fein. Given that my meetings with Sinn Fein were a pretty big news item in 1983, Tony Blair must have wondered whether MI5 was worth the money.
The disturbing thing about the Shayler cock-up is that we had all been assured that MI5 and MI6 had learned their lessons after the Peter Wright affair 10 years ago. I never believed that at the time, but then I have never believed any of the subsequent denials that came from MI5's director, Stella Rimington, as she sought to assure us that the days of MI5 paranoia about ordinary British citizens were a thing of the past.
Although the forged Zinoviev letter, which cost Labour the 1924 general election, has long been acknowledged as an MI5 forgery, Labour's relationship with MI5 and MI6 has not been simply adversarial. It was the Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, who agreed in 1948 to a vast expansion of MI6 and the creation of the Information Research Department, a black propaganda unit aimed at destabilising Communists at home and abroad. Indeed, the first director of the IRD was the Labour MP, Chris Mayhew, who forced the BBC to broadcast IRD propaganda as fact and partially funded the Observer news service and Reuters for similar purposes. As well as destabilising Communists abroad, the IRD supplied right-wing trade union leaders and MPs with information about socialists which formed the basis for expelling them from the Labour Party.
Labour's first post-war chancellor, Hugh Dalton, was in charge of the black propaganda activities of British intelligence during the war. The future Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, worked in the Special Operations Executive; the Labour MP, Kenneth Younger, had actually been a director of MI5 and the Labour MP, Tom Driberg, was an MI5 agent (though he was also working for the KGB at the time). The Labour Party deputy leader, George Brown, was regularly in touch with MI5, asking them to investigate left-wing Labour MPs and candidates. Brown's loyalty was never in doubt because MI5 had detailed evidence of his extensive use of prostitutes in order to ensure his loyalty.
Nor is there anything new in allegations that MI6 tries to bump off foreigners. The Labour Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, used SAS officers for underground work in Palestine where they tortured, murdered and kidnapped Jewish partisans. Much more dangerously, Bevin authorised the invasion of the Ukraine, Caucasus, Black Sea and Latvian regions of the old Soviet Union by guerrilla bands, even though these were technically acts of war. Similar activities against Albania also ended in failure.
Tory governments have been equally excited at the thought of assassination. George Kennedy Young, as director of MI6 Middle East operations, helped overthrow the Iranian government and then tried and failed to overthrow the Syrian and Egyptian governments. When these moves failed, the Tory Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, authorised an assassination attempt against Nasser using nerve gas.
No sooner had Wilson been elected Prime Minister, than he instructed MI5 to stop tapping the telephones of MPs and using MPs as agents. What Wilson did not realise was that MI5 continued to get the phone-tapping information on MPs via the CIA and GCHQ. MI5 also continued to use a Tory MP, Captain Henry Kerby, who had ingratiated himself with a Labour MP, George Wigg, whom Harold Wilson made responsible for MI5 and MI6.
MI5 believed that seven members of Wilson's government were either spies or at the very least security risks and consistently hounded them, to the point where Bernard Floud committed suicide and the Treasury minister, Niall McDermot, resigned from politics in disgust and went to live abroad. Eventually, MI5 rumours reached the Tory opposition leader, Alec Douglas- Home, who asked James Scott Hopkins, a former MI6 officer who had become a Tory MP, to conduct his own investigation to see if there was any danger of Wilson being blackmailed.
Hysteria reached its height in the summer of 1967 when top MI5 and MI6 agents flew to Melbourne in Australia for a conference with CIA and FBI officials. This was addressed by KGB defector Anatoli Golitsin who, supported by Angleton, claimed that Willy Brandt, Gough Whitlam and Wilson were all threats to Western security. Back in England, matters began to hot up when Daily Mirror press baron Cecil King - a long-term MI5 agent - began to discuss the need for a coup to remove Wilson from office. A meeting was arranged with Lord Mountbatten and the Government's chief scientific advisor Solly Zuckerman, but fell apart as Zuckerman stormed out of the meeting claiming that this was treason. Although this all reads like something out of a Frederick Forsyth novel, the attempt to silence Shayler suggests that MI5 and MI6 are still obsessed with internal conspiracy theories. I wonder if somewhere in MI5 or MI6 there is a modern version of MI6 assistant director George Young, drawing up plans to safeguard us from ourselves.
Young spelt it out absolutely clearly in his book Subversion and the British Riposte (1984), where he drew up his plans for an MI5-led coup: "A security counter-action need cover no more than 5,000 persons, including some 40 MPs, not all of them Labour; several hundred journalists and media employees, plus their supporting academics and clerics; the full-time members and main activists of the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party; and the directing elements of the 30 or 40 bodies affecting concern and compassion for youth, age, civil liberties, social research and minority grievances." The local internment could be accommodated in a lesser "Gaelic Archipelago" off the West Highlands.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies