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A legacy of spies’ lies

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Intelligence services are neither intelligent nor a service, argues Simon Basketter. But the spooks are a dangerous force used to subvert opposition to our rulers
Issue 2593
MI6 spooks headquarters in south London
MI6 spooks’ headquarters in south London (Pic: Robin Sones)

Since people first stood up to their rulers, spies have been hired to listen in and disrupt opposition.

But as capitalism developed—and with it the working class—the state had to shift its methods of control. That is the explanation for the intent to subvert Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party with badly executed smears.

In capitalist power structures the elected government is at best only a temporary part.

Another part is permanent government. This includes the upper echelons of the Home Office, Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence, the City of London, and the Bank of England—all loyally followed by the media.

These are the relatively open parts of the power structure. Their influence is sometimes acknowledged—if usually underestimated.

The covert side consists of the intelligence community. This loose term covers spies and some journalists, academics and the like who are a mechanism of maintaining class rule.

The intelligence services are neither intelligent nor a service. They are incompetent, useless, poisonous and dangerous and are mostly there to protect business.

The British spooks’ charter specifically empowers it to do whatever is necessary to ensure the commercial well-being of Britain.

As Sir Percy Cradock, former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, put it, “We are a trading nation. We are therefore profoundly interested in international stability.

“We need to know where the water is going to be stormy.”

Right wing adventurers and cranks make up the history of spooks

In the harsh world of international business competition, every country is a potential enemy. An FBI report identified 57 countries that were running economic and commercial espionage operations against the US.

The US state department rated at least half of those as “friendly”. For its part, the CIA provides the relevant US departments with French and British negotiating positions before international meetings.

Former British spies have recounted being given shopping lists of commercial information to get.

The British Joint Intelligence Committee sends the Bank of England a weekly assessment of the world economic and trading situation.

It all has a shabby history. Right wing adventurers and cranks make up the history of spooks.

In Britain they were usually posh enough to be called eccentric. What was important was that they serve the state.

The man who took over the major intelligence role in Germany for the West after the Second World War worked for the CIA, MI6 and West Germany. Reinhard Gehlen, a fervent antisemite, had been military intelligence chief of Hitler’s armies in the East.

And the man who gave away most of the secrets of Britain’s Government Communiations HQ (GCHQ) in the Cold War was found out only because he was a child abuser.

GCHQ (Pic: Defence Images)

He wasn’t found out by the intelligence service he worked for, but “positively vetted” six times.

James Angleton, chief spy for the CIA for most of the Cold War, was ruthless and incompetent.

He drank constantly which added to his severe mental distress. He ruined hundreds of thousands of lives, usually of people on his own side.

He was blunt about his role in what he called the “wilderness of mirrors”. He explained, “It is inconceivable that a secret intelligence arm of the government has to comply with all the overt orders of that government.”

And that was true in Britain too. British spies repeatedly tried to smear the Labour government of Harold Wilson in far more serious ways than they do against Jeremy Corbyn.

At least one serious coup plot involved Cecil King, who had a meeting in May 1968 with Lord Mountbatten.

It broke up when one of those attending, a Lord Zuckerman, stormed out saying, “This is rank treachery. All this talk of machine-guns at street corners is appalling.” And this is how they operate against those at the top of society.

The Marxist historian EP Thompson wrote about one of those who printed the smears the spooks produce.

He described the journalist Chapman Pincher in words that fit much of the profession today.

For Thompson, Pincher was “a kind of official urinal in which, side by side, high officials of MI5 and MI6, sea lords, permanent under-secretaries, Lord George-Brown, chiefs of the air staff, nuclear scientists, Lord Wigg and others, stand patiently leaking in the public interest. One can only admire their resolute attention to these distasteful duties.”

One legacy, as if they have watched too many James Bond movies, is a belief in technology to accumulate information.

So just after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, looters were ransacking Baghdad. US intelligence agencies monitoring phone calls across the city kept hearing the name “Ali Baba”.

The competition at the heart of the system makes gaining an advantage through the accumulation of knowledge paramount. It also means that any opposition to the corporations or states will be spied on as well

The investigation to hunt him down was long underway before they realised that this was a common Iraqi phrase to describe all thieves.

The NSA in the US and its junior partner, Britain’s GCHQ, swap each other’s dirty work.

So GCHQ eavesdrops on calls made by US citizens and the NSA monitors calls made by British citizens, thus allowing each government plausibly to deny it has tapped its own citizens’ calls.

Karl Marx described the capitalist class as a band of “hostile brothers”. Corporations and states share information. States then share information with each other. At the same time these corporations and states spy on each other.

The competition at the heart of the system makes gaining an advantage through the accumulation of knowledge paramount. It also means that any opposition to the corporations or states will be spied on as well.

Phillip Knightley wrote a history of spies—The Second Oldest Profession. He said, “They failed to predict the Czech Revolution, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the end of the Cold War. But they also have lots of systems to cover up their failures.

“When they fail to predict something they say, ‘We did warn you but you failed to take notice.’ Or they ask for ever yet more resources.”

He wrote, “All the intelligence services need a monster of some sort. When the Cold War ended it looked like the monster had gone.

“Just when it looked like we had rumbled them, they perpetrated on us probably the greatest political confidence trick of the century—they were saved by this new monster of terrorism.”

Former spy and writer James Rusbridger wrote, “Whether any intelligence does much good or actually enhances a country’s security is doubtful.

“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.”

Cops rob people’s lives and bodies

The “special demonstration squad” was set up by Special Branch cops after anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in 1968. Its motto was, “By any means necessary.”

It bugged, burgled and bribed its way into unions and campaigns.

Later police spied on murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence’s family as they tried to dig “dirt” to “smear” them. And they formed sexual relationships with activists from various campaigns to get information.

Theresa May announced that Judge Christopher Pitchford would head an inquiry into undercover policing.

He died before he had a chance to cover anything up and was so replaced by Sir John Mitting. Mitting has brought a new vigour to the task, repeatedly ruling that the names of various cops mustn’t be revealed in order to protect their privacy.

Each of the approximately 170 officers had a code number and a false name. So the police plants in the International Socialists, forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party—HN301 and HN343—were known as “Bob Stubbs” and “John Clinton”.

Take the case of Officer HN297, who operated undercover in the Special Demonstration Squad between 1974 and 1976 and has since died. He went undercover in the Troops Out Movement, which campaigned against the British Army’s role in Northern Ireland, and a separate revolutionary socialist group called Big Flame.

HN297 used the fake identity Rick Gibson. Mitting ruled that revealing Gibson’s real name would also interfere with his widow’s privacy.

Gibson had two intimate relationships with women he spied on. One, known as “Mary”, has demanded Gibson’s real name.

The inquiry has committed to revealing the cover name used by HN81—the officer sent into the Lawrence campaign—but it is not minded to say anything at all about his boss, currently codenamed HN58.

It has been going almost three years. It is going to be at least another year before the victims of those abuses of power will hear any of the evidence.

What is certain is that the inquiry will not bring justice.

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