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by John Helmer, Moscow 

The history of British intelligence starts and ends with the enemy inside the palace plotting overthrow.  That’s the domestic enemy – not the foreign one.

For Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham (1570-1589), the enemy was Mary Queen of Scots. The enemy within was still as vigorous in 1936, when Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (1935-37) ordered the chief of the domestic security service MI5 to find compromising information on King Edward VIII’s lover, whom Baldwin regarded as a threat to the monarchy. The King’s telephone was also tapped in an operation Baldwin intended for pushing him off the throne; the plot succeeded on December 10, 1936. Neville Chamberlain, who followed as prime minister between 1937 and 1940, then ran a personal system of surveillance through MI5, and through an ex-MI5 agent he put in charge of the Conservative Party’s research department.  Their targets were Chamberlain’s political rivals for power – Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill. Domestic spy plots were just as active in the 1960s for toppling the Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson (1964-70). A decade later, Prime Minister Edward Heath (1970-74) sent his spies into the transport workers’ and miners’ unions to find evidence of their plots against him, or to provoke and fabricate them. That’s the reality for the prime ministers.

But in this new history of the role which the British intelligence services have played in the affairs of the prime ministers since the start of the 20th century, it has been the enemy without that has been of much greater reward. Not the genuine warmongering enemy like the Germans or the Irish Republicans with the means and the will to kill; as priority targets they came a distant second compared to the Russians whom the British, keeping the secret to themselves, knew to lack both.  

The Russian enemy has always been the meat in the British secret services’ sandwich — the hungrier the services’ appetite, and the fatter their sandwich has grown over time, the more valuable the Russian enemy proves to be.  So the British bite more often.

From this and over the past century,  the Russians appear to have learned anticipation and wariness.  But not yet have they learned deterrence, nor —  perish the thought —  bite back.  The proof of this has been the Skripal case, and at this very moment the Navalny plot.  

Biggles (lead image, left) was one of the heroes of the British Empire whom lads (like me) grew up with at an age before adolescence, and before the difference between fact and fiction, right and might, became as clear as it is today.  Written between 1922 and 1968, by Captain W.E. Johns, a World War One pilot and later recruiting officer for the Royal Air Force, there were  almost one hundred Biggles books in print. They went on for so long that Biggles got to love his old German enemy, Eric von Stalhein; rescued him from the clutches of the KGB;  so that the two of them could go off to fight the Russians together. A very true-to-life British story.

These days in London, first editions of Biggles run from £100 to £1,000. The original covers are also prized by those with nostalgia for the sight of enemies shot down in flames.

Left: edition first published in 1954. Right: first edition of 1955.

In the book The Black Door, Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers,  Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac are not less nostalgic. So are the reviewers of The Times and the Sunday Times, which are owned in the same publishing group as the book’s publisher, William Collins, by Rupert Murdoch; he’s a nostalgic for an empire of another sort. “Deserves to be read very seriously,” commented Max Hastings, a Murdoch writer and Biggles type.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair (1997-2007), whom Aldrich and Cormac call a “liberal with a gun, driven by ideological fervour”, is a Biggles identifier. So, it turns out, are Aldrich and Cormac.

But Biggles is a disguise for what the British really mean by “intelligence”. The Black Door’s authors define that, but not until the very end of the book. Intelligence, they say, “is a force multiplier. It is a special kind of information that not only provides warning, but also allows more effective action”. They don’t really mean force multiplier – they mean multiplier of force. And by force, they mean killing people. Prime Minister David Cameron’s (2010-2016) creation of a staff group he called his “National Security Council (Official)” in 2011 is described as a bureaucratic machine which “bore an uncanny resemblance to the way the chiefs of staff ran the Second World War.”

Left to right: The entrance to 10 Downing Street, London, the Prime Minister’s office and residence, with the incumbent, Boris Johnson;  the cover of the book, published by William Collins in 2016-2017; Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac. Aldrich is shy about revealing that before starting his university studies and academic career he served for several years in the 1980s in the British Army; he does not identify his unit.   

Intelligence in this story of what British prime ministers have been doing with it is war-making. But it is the kind which the much diminished imperial staffs could afford to muster. Their intelligence “enables states to punch above their weight”. In short, intelligence is killing people on the other side when you can’t risk going against them on the battlefield because guns are too expensive, and defeat can’t be covered up.

This type of intelligence as discount-priced killing is best practiced in the Biggles fashion – with individual derring-do, maximum trickery and deception of the other side, plus blithe confidence that the enemy won’t wake up in time before Albion has managed to sneak in with his perfidy, and slip intrepidly back to the club in St. James’s.    

This is not exactly news. Prime Minister Anthony Eden (1955-57) was famously keen on killing  Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, but unless Eden’s targets were grouse, he was a poor shot. “None were [sic] successful”, Aldrich and Cormac report of Eden’s “intelligence” operations. “The problem was that MI6 did not kill people very often. The KGB had a wonderful range of deadly devices but the British were working from scratch” – and this despite all their World War experience under Churchill’s direction! “Nasser proved to be a more effective and ruthless user of intelligence than his British opponents.”

Not so Saddam Hussein of Iraq once he was in Blair’s gunsights, or Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi in Cameron’s. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (1957-63) “loved special operations and commando raids” if they were in faraway places – Indonesia, Cuba, Congo, Guiana, Indonesia, Jordan. Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home (1963-64) was very eager to murder Patrice Lumumba of the Congo Republic, and teach the CIA how to do it. Douglas-Home “appeared mild and unassuming,” report Aldrich and Cormac, but “appearances can be deceiving…[he] was clearly unafraid to get his hands dirty or to resort to deniable and underhand odds to achieve Britain’s policy goals.”

The Black Door is a bumper Boy’s Own compendium of dirty hands in the service of British policy; that policy,  academics Aldrich and Cormac don’t doubt for a minute, nor the means justifying its pursuit.  

Most of the tales they report do not come from newly declassified papers nor even from what, in the small print, they call “private information” – that’s the authors’ code for interviews with anonymous secret servicemen. The foundation of their story, and thus of their judgement of success and failure, is the contemporary reporting published in the London papers. The authors have not bothered to cross-check these with the media reporting from the other side in their stories – Russian, Arab, Irish, German, or even American. Aldrich and Cormac assume that if it’s British in print, it’s true in fact. Fact-faking isn’t an expression they acknowledge; deception is their idea of an operational concept practiced by the British side against the enemy, not by the British on us, their readers.

As for the authors’ 56 sources of “private information”, one “personal information”, and one “confidential interview”, tracking these back from the footnotes to the text reveals locker room and club bar talk with retired MI5 and MI6 agents, as well as the spetsnaz of the Special Air Service (SAS) Aldrich had wanted to serve with himself.  They reveal that SAS gunmen called MI6 agents “wankers”, while MI6 called SAS operations in Iraq “ineffective”; the CIA “incompetently secretive”; and the US presidential bodyguard more trigger-happy and dangerous in London than potential assassins.

The “private information” also includes factoids – that’s insignificance masquerading as serious because it’s secret. For example, to make sure Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1979-90) read the contrived secret papers MI6 wanted her to read, they would interleave them in her special colour-striped file box with non-secrets MI6 knew to be true. The sources also reveal that Prime Minister Gordon Brown (2007-2010) and David Cameron (2010-16) said “fucking bullshit” and “fucking ridiculous” when advised their kill plots were unwise.

Left to right: Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron. 

The conclusion Aldrich and Cormac come to from their presentation of the evidence is that intelligence as British killing abroad is not too risky, whether the targets deserve to die, or survive to retaliate.  But getting caught in the London press can be lethal. “In an area when secret services are increasingly kept in check by whistleblowers and their remarkable revelations, British prime ministers live in constant fear of intelligence ‘blowback’.” That last word is what happens when a secret operation is exposed and the “black door” flies open.

The history of Russian operations turns out to be balm for this prime ministerial anxiety; this is  because almost nobody gets killed, and even when they do, no Russian is ever believed to be innocent, whatever the truth turns out to be. The Black Door lists several successful British operations against the Russians which the authors acknowledge were based on forged documents and fake news in the press. The best known were the Zinoviev Letter of 1924, which helped defeat Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald in the election of 1924; and the All-Russia Cooperative Society (Arcos) raid of 1927; for the details, and the political and bureaucratic gains chalked up by the secret services at the time, read this.  

The British lesson is that no MI6 or MI5 lie ever fails to succeed against a Russian truth. The method of Aldrich and Cormac shows why. Despite dozens of killings in London identifiably the work of Arab, Israeli, and African secret services, which the authors mention in passing without concern, only one Russian death draws their attention.  In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko “was almost certainly murdered because of his growing dissident status and his relationship with British intelligence… MI6 thought that ex-KGB officers were responsible. It was an honour killing under the old KGB code…The order likely came from the Kremlin.”  The only source of evidence presented for this can’t be doubted because it’s Biggles – that’s to say, MI5 and MI6.

Aldrich and Cormac also explain that to make sure the truth never blows back in cases like these, the creation of a central coordinating bureaucracy or staff inside Whitehall, a stone’s throw from Downing Street, is essential. For this they give starter’s credit to Churchill and end with Cameron. “For more than a century the cabinet secretary has served as the key interlocutor in a highly secret system. Rarely seen in public, he has directly shaped how prime ministers have used intelligence, and have also managed the [intelligence] community and its budgets.”

The black door at 70 Whitehall – offices of the Cabinet Secretary.

The Black Book was published between April 2016 and March 2017; it stops its story-telling  just before Theresa May replaced Cameron as prime minister in July 2016; and was then  replaced herself by Boris Johnson in July 2019. Aldrich and Cormac have not mentioned the appointment of Mark Sedwill (lead image, centre) to be the ultimate secret centraliser — the first combination of national security adviser to the prime minister and cabinet secretary who served between April 2017 until a few weeks ago.  The centralisation of secret operations against Russia by Sedwill and the MI6 chief, Alexander Younger (lead image, right, first appointed in 2014),  has achieved the culmination of all the lessons the prime ministers of a century have learned.   Sedwill and Younger have also directed the most recent British success against Russia – the Skripal operation.  For the fabrication of that one,  and of the secret assassination weapon everyone keeps in the armoury but only the Russians are blamed for,  read the book.  The Skripal operation also illustrates how unbelievable the Russian response has proved to be. For the new evidence of the Sedwill-Younger role, read this.

Biggles meets von Stalheim in the French comic strip, L'Oasis perdue –2.  

The newest operation of the same type against Russia is the one hatched between the German secret service, the NATO chemical warfare laboratories, and Alexei Navalny.  Sedwill and Younger were still running the show in London when Navalny claims to have been poisoned in the Siberian town of Tomsk on August 20. Sedwill left office on September 7; Younger on October 1.  

The Navalny operation is now in blowback in Berlin. As all old boys know, von Stalheim was never a match for Biggles.

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