Tag Archives: CIA

The Spies Who Fooled the World – BBC

On 18 March 2013, the BBC broadcast a documentary called The Spies Who Fooled the World as part of its Panorama current affairs series. The spies in question were those whose claims that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were used by the UK and US governments to justify the invasion of Iraq 10 years ago. Other sources that showed that Iraq did not have WMD were rejected because their intelligence did not fit the views of the UK and US governments.

The programme was presented by Peter Taylor, who has made many programmes about terrorism and espionage, including Modern Spies last year.

The most important source for the existence of Iraq WMD was Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, code-named Curveball, an Iraqi who claimed political asylum in Germany in 1999. He claimed to be a chemical engineer who had worked at an agricultural seed plant. According to him, mobile laboratories capable of producing biological and chemical weapons were based there.

August Hanning, then Director of the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND), and Joschka Fischer, then German Foreign Minister, told the programme that the Germans were sceptical about al-Janabi’s claims and had cut their links with him by the start of 2001.

For example, satellite photos showed that an articulated lorry could not get out of the warehouse that he said the mobile labs operated from. A friend and former boss of al-Janabi described him as a congenital liar. Al-Janabi admitted on the programme that he made up his claims.

After 9/11, however, President George W. Bush erroneously linked Saddam Hussein with Al-Qaeda. Curveball’s intelligence was too useful to the US case to dismiss it. There were some doubts within the CIA and MI6 about him, but his claims were accepted. The programme quoted an MI6 report as saying that:

 Elements of [his] behaviour strike us as typical of individuals we would normally assess as fabricators [but we are] inclined to believe that a significant part of [Curveball's] reporting is true.

Further intelligence came from an Iraqi defector, Major Muhammad Harith, who claimed that the mobile labs were his idea and were mounted on seven Renault trucks. The Americans became suspicious of his story because it was elaborate and unbelievable. He was branded as a fabricator in mid 2002, but his claims remained on record.

Further intelligence appeared to show that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons. Rocco Martino, who had dealings with the Italian and other intelligence services, provided Elisabetta Burba, a journalist who appeared in the programme, with documents that purported to show that Iraq was attempting to buy uranium from Niger. An Iraqi ambassador had visited Niger in 1999, but most of these papers were crude forgeries. Martino’s family said that he was too ill to comment.

An interview with the late Dr Brian Jones, a WMD expert at British Defence Intelligence, was shown in which he said that Saddam had sought nuclear weapons, but there was no suggestion that he had acquired them or was close to doing so. However, the alleged attempt remained on UK and US files.

In April 2002, British Prime Minister Tony Blair met Bush at his ranch in Texas and agreed to support military action against Iraqi WMD if the UN route had been exhausted. In July, Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, told Blair that war with Iraq was seen as being inevitable in Washington as information and intelligence was being fixed round the policy. Dearlove was invited to appear on the programme, but said that he did not want to comment on the subject until the current Chilcot Inquiry into the war has concluded. Blair was too busy to participate.

Pierre Brochand, then Director of the French Foreign Intelligence Service (DGSE), said that intelligence was used to disguise a war of choice as a war of necessity.

In July 2002, Blair was told by Jonathan Powell, his Chief of Staff, that public opinion was ‘fragile’ and a ‘Rolls-Royce’ information campaign was required to convince the British public of the necessity for war.

MI6 received three new pieces of information whilst preparing  a dossier on WMD that would be published on 24 September.

Iraqi WMD could be launched within 45 minutes. This came from the Iraqi National Accord, a group of Iraqi exiles based in Jordan. According to Dr Ayad Allawi of the INA, the source was an Iraqi artillery Colonel, who was assuming that boxes delivered to his unit contained biological or chemical weapons without knowing for certain. His claim that they could be deployed within 45 minutes referred to short range battlefield weapons, but the report applied it to longer range strategic missiles.

The other two new sources were too late to actually be included in the dossier, but reinforced its case. The first was a spy with access to the production of chemical and biological agents. The other was a spy called Red River, who produced hearsay evidence of mobile chemical labs, but made no claim connecting them to WMD.

Blair regarded the dossier as making it beyond doubt that Saddam had WMD. Lord Butler, who headed the first British inquiry into WMD, said that Blair did not lie, but misled himself. General Sir Mike Jackson, Chief of the General Staff at the time,  said that ‘what appeared to be gold in terms of intelligence turned out to be fool’s gold,
because it looked like gold, but it wasn’t.’  Butler and Jackson both argued that Blair was not a liar, but genuinely thought that Saddam had WMD.

The Bush Administration wanted to use Curveball’s evidence to make their case. August Hanning of the BND sent a cable to George Tenet, Director of the CIA, warning that this intelligence was uncorroborated. The CIA claims that it never left the desk of Tyler Drumheller, then head of its European section; Drumheller stated in the programme that he had passed it on.

In early 2003, two pieces of intelligence that claimed that Iraq did not have WMD came to light. French intelligence had a key intermediary, an Arab journalist who knew several Iraqi ministers, including the Foreign Minister, Naji Sabri. . They passed him onto Bill Murray, the CIA’s Paris station chief. The Arab wanted $1m for his information, but Murray beat him down to $200,000, including expenses. The expenses included a new suit for Sabri; he was to wear it when making a speech to the UN in order to prove that the intermediary was genuine.

Murray said that Sabri told the CIA via the intermediary that Saddam was interested in acquiring WMD, but then had only a few chemical weapons left over from the 1990s. Sabri did not appear on the programme, but issued a denial that he had provided information to the CIA. The intermediary was invited to participate, but did not do so because the BBC refused to pay him the €10,000 that he wanted in return.

Murray said that his report on Sabri’s testimony was used selectively. He argued that very bad intelligence reached the leadership quickly, whilst better intelligence did not make it.

The other source was Tahir Habbush al-Tikriti, head of Iraqi intelligence. He met an MI6 officer in Jordan, telling him that Iraq had no WMD. MI6 thought that both these pieces of intelligence were dis-information, designed to  mislead. Tahir is the most senior member of Saddam’s regime to still be at liberty.

On 5 February 2003, US Secretary of State Colin Powell put forward the case for Iraq having WMD. Joschka Fischer presided over the meeting. In the programme, he said that Powell claimed things that he could not be certain of to be facts.

No WMD were found after the war. Red River, the MI6 spy, failed a lie detector test. The 45 minute claim was dropped. In April 2004 the CIA and MI6 met Curveball and declared him to be a fabricator. Tenet resigned from the CIA a week later. Curveball admitted on the programme that the US/UK coalition went to war on a lie.

Overall, it is clear that the war was launched on faulty intelligence. At best, it may be said that the US and UK governments started with a view about Saddam and WMD and rejected intelligence that did not fit with this preconceived notion. All evidence has to be considered, not just that which confirms what one wants to hear.

For viewers in the UK, the programme is available on the I-Player from this link, which says that it is available until 18 March 2014, far longer than programmes normally stay on the I-Player. It was made jointly with ZDF of Germany.

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Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of the successful US attempt to find and kill Osama bin Laden; I am using the most common spelling of his first name, but there are different ways of transliterating Arabic names into English. The US intelligence services called him Usama bin Laden or Ladin , and he is referred to as UBL throughout the film.

The film starts with the last messages left by some of the victims of 9/11. It then shows the CIA’s attempts to track down bin Laden, culminating in his death at the hands of US Navy SEALs at Abbotabad on 2 May 2011.

The main protagonist is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA analyst who is obsessed with the hunt for bin Laden. She is a fictional character, although it is unclear whether she is based on a single CIA agent, as The New York Review of Books states, or is a composite of several, as the makers of Manhunt, a documentary treatment of the story, claim.

Unlike many fictional characters with an obsession (eg Agent Mulder in The X-Files), Maya does not appear to have a personal stake in the case. Rather, she appears to be simply utterly absorbed in her job, which is to find bin Laden. She does not seem to have any life outside of her work. Even Carrie Mathison, the obsessive and bi-polar CIA agent from the TV series Homeland, with whom Maya has been compared,  visited her father, sister and nieces and had a sex life.

Zero Dark Thirty is an entertaining film, which deserved its five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Chastain, but it was fair that even better films and performances beat it in these categories, leaving it with only a joint win for Sound Editing.

The film has caused a number of controversies. It begins with one: the film-makers did not ask permission from the families of the dead to use the recordings of the last phone calls made by victims of 9/11 that are played over the opening credits.

Another is that shows the CIA obtaining vital information from torture. It has been claimed, most notably in a letter from Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), that this intelligence actually came from other sources. Sen. McCain, captured in the Vietnam War, can give advocates of the use of torture the unanswerable reply that it did not work on him.

Michael Morell, the Acting CIA Director, distanced his agency from claims that it had co-operated closely with the film-makers in a statement that said that:

Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts. CIA interacted with the filmmakers through our Office of Public Affairs but, as is true with any entertainment project with which we interact, we do not control the final product.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has just decided to drop its inquiry into how much help the CIA gave the film-makers.

The release of the film was delayed until after the US Presidential Election because it was feared that it might boost support for President Obama, since he ordered the mission that killed bin Laden. However, the film asserted that waterboarding, introduced by the Bush Administration, but banned by Obama, was a key element in finding bin Laden’s whereabouts.

Neither President nor any members of their Cabinets are portrayed by an actor in the film. The most senior officials to appear are the CIA Director (James Gandolfini) and the National Security Adviser (Stephen Dillane). Each is described by his job title rather than name in the film; the incumbents were Leon Panetta and Tom Donilon.

Overall, this is a good film, but it is marred by the rudeness shown to the families of the 9/11 victims whose last messages are broadcast without permission, and by its ambiguous attitude to torture. Not showing it would have been a whitewash, but the film shows it producing useful intelligence. The Guardian quotes Bigelow as telling the New York Film Critics Circle, who had just given her their Best Director award that:

I thankfully want to say that I’m standing in a room of people who understand that depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices; no author could ever write about them; and no film-maker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time.

The trouble is that the difference between depiction and endorsement will be lost on some, who will see torture producing the evidence that led the good guys to get the bad guy, when in reality it did not.

Incidentally, the zero dark is US military code for midnight, so zero dark thirty means 0030 am, the time at which the SEALs attacked bin Laden’s compound.

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Argo: The Truth

Argo, directed by and starring Ben Affleck, was voted best picture at this year’s Oscars. It tells the story of how Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA agent succeeded in helping six US diplomats to escape from Tehran in 1980. As a film, it is excellent, and well deserved its Oscar. However, it is a fictionalised account of real events. How accurate is it as a record of history? This is important because many more people will see the film than will read a book on the subject.

On 4 November 1979 supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic government seized the US embassy in Tehran. Most of the diplomats were taken hostage. Some African-Americans and women were soon released, but most were held captive until January 1980. Six, however, were able to escape; they worked in the consular section which had its own street entrance and exit because it dealt with members of the public. They were Robert Anders, Mark Lijek, Cora Lijek, Henry Schatz, Joseph Stafford and Kathleen Stafford.

The film shows the six taking refuge at the home of Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador. There, they were in constant danger of discovery, which would also put Taylor and his wife at risk of arrest. The Canadian embassy was to be closed in late January, with Taylor and his staff leaving Iran.

Mendez comes up with a plan to get them out of Iran by pretending that they are scouting team looking for locations for a proposed science fiction film called Argo. Parts of Star Wars were filmed in Tunisia, so it was plausible that Hollywood might want to make a science fiction film in Iran.

The six diplomats and Mendez left on a Swissair flight on 28 January 1980, the same day that the Canadian embassy closed. The actual escape was more straight forward and less tense than the film’s version.

At the time, the Canadians were given most of the credit; the CIA’s involvement was not revealed until 1997. The film suggests that the CIA was the main player in getting the diplomats out, but Ken Taylor recently told the Toronto Star, that ‘Canada was not merely standing around watching events take place. The CIA was a junior partner.’

The film omits the role of another Canadian diplomat, John Sheardown, who put up some of the Americans. It also says little about Taylor’s significant role in gathering intelligence about potential escape routes.

A radio programme in the BBC World Service’s Outlook series interviewed Mark Lijek and his wife Cora, two of the US diplomats, and Zena Sheardown, John’s widow.

A further controversy results from a line in the film about the Americans being turned away by the British and New Zealanders. In fact, five of them tried initially to go to the British embassy, but it was surrounded by demonstrators. They spent one night at the flat of the most senior of their group, Richard Anders. The sixth went to the Swedish embassy at first, but later joined the others.

According to the London Sunday Times (no link due to paywall), Bruce Laingen, the US charge d’affaires, who was at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, contacted the British embassy the next day to ask them to find and look after his colleagues. Two British diplomats, Martin Williams and Gordon Pirie, took them to a compound inhabited by British diplomats in the northern suburb of Gholhak.

Iranian militants turned at the compound, but were turned away by the chief guard, Iskander Khan, a former Pakistani soldier. He had been a chauffeur at the 1943 Tehran conference between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. Because of this, the British moved the Americans first to the house of a US diplomat’s Thai cook , and then to Taylor and Sheardown’s houses. The New Zealanders helped to provide the Americans with food and entertainment.

The BBC interview linked above, however, does not mention this and suggests that the diplomats remained at Anders’s hounse until 8 November, when they contacted the Canadians.

The Sunday Times quoted Affleck as telling a  New Zealand magazine that:

I struggled with this long and hard, because it casts Britain and New Zealand in a way that is not totally fair…But I was setting up a situation where you needed to get a sense that these six people had nowhere else to go. It does not mean to diminish anyone.

Some plot simplification and character amalgamation is probably necessary in a film, and it is inevitable that Affleck felt it necessary to make the escape from Tehran tenser than it actually was. However, there is no excuse for the line claiming that the British and New Zealanders had turned them away, whilst the Canadians should have been shown as more active players in the story.

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The Plot to Bring Down Britain’s Planes: Channel 4

The Plot to Bring Down Britain’s Planes is a TV documentary that was broadcast in the UK by Channel 4 on Thursday 26 April. For UK viewers it can be viewed online from the 4OD service until 26 May. It appears to also be available from  National Geographic’s website; no geographical or time restrictions are mentioned.

Channel 4′s website (link in previous paragraph) describes the programme as follows:

The Plot to Bring Down Britain’s Planes examines in minute detail an invidious home-grown terrorist plot to blow up airplanes flying out of Heathrow Airport, and reconstructs in candid, gripping detail the inside story of the UK’s largest and most dangerous surveillance operation.

British airport security has been rigorously tightened and increasingly stringent restrictions have been imposed on what we can carry onto airliners. Anyone who travels by plane is well aware of the ban on drinks bottles in hand luggage; but few people know exactly why.

The reason dates back to 2006 when a group of young British men from Walthamstow, East London, planned to blow up multiple airliners, departing from Heathrow, simultaneously in mid-flight, with explosives disguised as soft drinks.

If successful, it would have potentially killed over 2000 people and crippled the world aviation industry. But, unbeknown to the terrorists, MI5 was watching.

Over the summer of 2006, with the investigation spreading from the streets of East London to al-Qaeda training camps in Pakistan, the British authorities faced a nerve-shredding race trying to gather enough evidence to make arrests before the terrorists could launch their devastating attacks.

The film reveals the behind-the-scenes friction between the US and UK authorities and how American intervention forced the hand of their British partners into making premature arrests, which threw the planned operation into jeopardy.

The programme features unprecedented access to members of Counter Terror Command involved in the biggest surveillance operation since the Second World War, who have given interviews and forensic detail about the planned terror attack, plus members of the British government, including the then Home Secretary Lord Reid, Andy Hayman (Assistant Commissioner, Metropolitan Police Service 2005 to 2008) and Peter Clarke (National Co-ordinator of Terrorist Investigations, Metropolitan Police Service 2002 to 2008), as well as Michael Chertoff, former US Homeland Security Secretary and General Michael Hayden, ex-CIA Head.

This is a comprehensive and riveting account of a race-against-time investigation to stop a major terrorist attack on Britain.

This was the biggest terror plot since 9/11 and was planned to take place just over a year after the 7/7 attacks on public transport in London, which killed 52 people, not including the four suicide bombers, and injured 770. Although the comment above mentions MI5, the British security personnel interviewed were all counter-terrorism police officers. The identities of all but the most senior were concealed.

Ahmed Ali Khan, also known as Abdullah Ahmed Ali, the leader of the plot to destroy airliners, was well educated. He was already known to the security services as a fund raiser for extremist groups. He made one of several visits to Pakistan in May 2006, where he was believed to have attended a terrorist training camp and met Rashid Rauf,  a suspected member of Al-Qaeda. Rauf had dual British-Pakistani nationality; he fled Britain for Pakistan in 2002 after police wanted to question him about the murder of his uncle.

Ali was put under 24/7 surveillance. A surveillance team requires 8-14 people, who must be able to mix into the general community. Re-enactments of the surveillance showed a young woman, talking constantly into her mobile phone, who actually had the police control room rather than her boyfriend on the other end of her lengthy call.

The selection of the terror cell was described as being ‘scientific.’ Tanvir Hussain was Ali’s deputy and another member was Umar Islam, who was 28, a little older than the others, and a convert to Islam. Assad Sarwar was described as being the quartermaster. They were ordinary with families and responsibilities and did not have criminal records. Ali and Sarwar had clearly had counter-surveillance training. Rauf was their middleman from Al-Qaeda.

Sarwar purchased large quantities of hydrogen peroxide, mostly used by hairdressers, but also a potential part of an improvised explosive device.

General Hayden, head of the CIA at the time, stated that the US regarded a domestic terror threat in the UK as being as serious as one in the USA because of the close links between the countries.

Members of the cell were observed visiting shops and paying close attention to the seals of soft drink bottles. They made numerous visits to pharmacists, buying citric acids and large syringes. They rented a flat in the Walthamstow district of London and were observed taking their rubbish some distance to dispose of it in a bin in a park rather than putting it out normally for collection. The rubbish was retrieved and it showed that the flat was a bomb factory.

This led the security services to covertly enter the flat and install cameras and listening devices. The terrorists were using the syringes to extract the contents of soft drink bottles and replace them with liquid explosives without tampering with the seals of the bottles. This indicated that their target was either a well guarded building or aircraft.

The terrorists were heard talking about the most common US holiday destinations for UK tourists. The bombs were small but would be devastating in the pressurised cabin of an aircraft. They talked of having 19 bombers, the same number as on 9/11. This meant that most had not been identified.

The police now had a dilemma: if they arrested the suspects now, the evidence might not be enough to convict them and they could be released and re-start their plot. If they were not arrested, then they might carry out their attack. There was a dispute between the UK and the USA about how long to let the plot run.

The largest and one of the most difficult surveillance operations ever mounted in the UK was undertaken, using 28 teams. One of the conspirators was followed to an internet cafe on, where he carried out a web search for seven UK to North America flights, all of which would be over the Atlantic at the same time. The plotters were overheard talking of taking their wives and children on the flights, and were making suicide videos. The Americans regarded this as an intention to carry out an act of war against them.

It was now Sunday 6 August 2006. The bombers had not yet been given the go-ahead from Pakistan to launch their operation, so the British police believed that they could wait until Friday 11 August before making their arrests.

General Hayden then paid a visit to Pakistan, which the British did not know about. On Wednesday 9 August Rauf was arrested. Hayden denied in the programme that this was an attempt to blackmail Britain into arresting the suspects but said that he ‘wasn’t unhappy at the arrest.’ Andy Hayman of the Metropolitan Police described this as a ‘breaking of trust.’

The British now feared that the conspirators could flee, explode their bombs in crowded places or attempt to board flights. There was a fear that they might have an insider at a UK airport. This led to a ban on liquids being taken on board airliners.

The police prepared to act, calling in 300 officers. Sarwar travelled to Walthamstow to meet Ali. It was decided that they had to be arrested immediately, meaning that the surveillance team had to make the arrests, something that is not normally done. The arrest team arrived shortly afterwards. None of the police officers were armed.

All the suspects were arrested. Significant evidence was found, including suicide videos. The programme stated that 12 men were convicted of terror related offences, eight of whom were directly linked to the liquid bomb plot. The main culprits received life sentences, with the minimum periods served to be 22 years for Umar Islam, 32 years for Tanvir Hussain, 36 years for Assad Sarwar and 40 years for Ahmed Ali Khan.

It didn’t mention that two trials were required; the first jury convicted them of conspiracy to murder but could not reach a verdict on the charge of conspiring to blow up aircraft. Umar Islam was convicted of only conspiracy to murder. Some other defendants were acquitted. See the websites of the Daily Telegraph (Conservative broadsheet), Guardian (Labour broadsheet), Daily Mail (Conservative tabloid), Daily Mirror (Labour tabloid) and BBC (accused by both sides of being biased towards the other).

Rauf escaped in circumstances that suggested either collusion or incompetence by the Pakistani police. The US believe that he was allowed to escape. He returned to the tribal areas, where he was reportedly killed in a drone strike. Andy Hayman suggested that he night be alive and being tortured.

A very interesting programme about the threat of this plot and the techniques of both the terrorists and the security services. There was tension between the Americans and the British over how early to make arrests. The British were annoyed that the arrest of Rauf forced them to move a little more quickly than they wanted to, but they ultimately proved to have enough evidence to convict. As usual for this type of programme, the caveat is that we are told what the security services want to tell us.

Some further information on this subject comes from CNN, which has obtained an Al-Qaeda document, thought to have been written by Rashid Rauf showing the origins of the plot. It is one of over 100 documents discovered by German cryptologists embedded inside a pornographic movie on a memory disk belonging to a suspected al Qaeda operative arrested in Berlin last year.

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Modern Spies Part 2- BBC2

The second and final episode of Modern Spies  was broadcast by BBC TV on Monday 9 April. It was presented by Peter Taylor, a BBC journalist who specialised in Northern Ireland in the 1990s and has reported widely on al-Qaeda since 9/11. It discussed the lengths to which the intelligences services are prepared to go in the fight against terror and asked whether or not British intelligence officers have a licence to kill. Click here for my blog on the first episode.

As in the first episode, Taylor interviewed serving British intelligence officers. They were identified by only their first names,  their faces were obscured and actors spoke their words, so we have to take their word and that of the BBC that they were who they claimed to be. Given Peter Taylor’s reputation, I would be surprised if they were not genuine. There were also open interviews with former senior British police officers and Israeli intelligence officers, current and former CIA and FBI officials and William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary.

It was claimed that there are about 2,000 al-Qaeda inspired terror suspects in the UK. In 2010 MI5 carried out extensive surveillance on a group suspected of planning attacks on major targets in London, including placing bugs in suspect’s homes. The MI5 and police officers interviewed said that everything they did was proportionate and legal, and that they were accountable to a high level of government. The evidence gathered was so convincing that the nine accused pleaded guilty and were given long prison sentences.

Security services make use of ‘sting’ operations, where undercover officers pretend to be able to supply suspected terrorists with the weapons and equipment needed to carry out their operation. There is a risk that these cross the line into entrapment, where the undercover officers entice the suspects into attempting to carry out an act of terror.

A British ‘sting’ operation against the Real IRA came close to entrapment, with the result that only one of the two suspects was convicted. This was blamed on the undercover agent not being trained by MI5; he was recruited specially for this operation, because MI5 did not have an agent with what was described as the ‘right face’ for the mission.

The US uses undercover agents more aggressively than Britain does. This was claimed to risk claims of entrapment. An operation, again carried out by outsiders brought in specially for this mission was described.  The Albanian-American Muslim Duka family took a film of themselves firing automatic weapons, whilst shouting Allah Akbar and Jihad, to a shop for conversion into a DVD. The film company informed the FBI which, lacking suitable agents, recruited two Albanian-Americans to penetrate the group.

Six men, including three Duka brothers, were convicted of buying weapons as part of a plan to attack the US military base at Fort Dix. There appeared little doubt that they had done so; the issue was that the FBI undercover agents may have proposed the operation and thus been guilty of entrapment. One of the undercover agents was paid $240,000 and the other received $150,000 and had deportation proceedings against him dropped.

The  question of whether or not British intelligence officers have a James Bond style licence to kill was discussed. The interviewees were adamant that they do not, and the programme then moved on to other intelligence services that have used assassination.

Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service, has admitted that it hunted down and killed the Palestinians responsible for the deaths of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972; it argues that its motive was to prevent future attacks, rather than revenge. A fictionalised version of this story was told in the film Munich.

A team of up to 20 Mossad agents is believed to have assassinated Mahmoud al Mabhouh of Hamas in Dubai in 2010. The programme showed hotel CCTV footage of the agents, who were out of the country by the time that al Mabhouh had been found dead in his hotel room. Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic intelligence service, has also killed Palestinians.

The USA has killed a large number of al-Qaeda leaders in drone attacks. A total of 3,000 people have died in these, including innocent bystanders. Britain also uses drones. US Navy Seals assassinated Osama Bin Laden last year.

One awkward revelation for the British intelligence services was that Britain co-operated in the extraordinary rendition of the Libyan opposition leader Abdel Hakim Belhaj  to Libya in 2004. Belhaj was then the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which MI6 feared was close to al-Qaeda. He is now a senior military commander in the new Libya, which Britain helped to create.

This came to light when Libyan intelligence files were discovered after the headquarters of Libyan intelligence were bombed last year. Britain has always denied any involvement in torture, but Belhaj says that he was tortured during his captivity.

This was a very interesting series. To some extent, we were told only what the intelligence services wanted us to hear, but it had unprecedented access. It was noticeable that criticisms had to made tangentially, by talking about things that the Americans and Israelis had done, and which Britain might also have done.

It is available for UK viewers on the I-Player until 12:19am on 20 April. No co-producers, so I do not know if it will be shown in other countries.

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Modern Spies – BBC2

Modern Spies is a two-part BBC TV series that looks at the real world of modern spies and  compares it with the fictional spy world. There were clips from Spooks, 24, James Bond and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but the programme was mostly concerned with the real world. It was presented by Peter Taylor, a BBC journalist who specialised in Northern Ireland in the 1990s and has reported widely on al-Qaeda since 9/11.

For the first time interviews with serving British intelligence officers were broadcast on TV. They were identified by only their first names,  their faces were obscured and actors spoke their words, so we have to take their word and that of the BBC that they were who they claimed to be. Given Peter Taylor’s reputation, I would be surprised if they were not genuine.

They came from all three UK intelligence agencies; the Security Service, better known as MI5, which deals with threats to the UK’s national security; the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, which is responsible for intelligence operations abroad; and GCHQ, responsible for electronic security, codes and cyphers. This was the first time that cameras had been allowed inside GCHQ’s main site at Cheltenham. Science fiction fans (and perhaps conspiracy theorists) may be amused to learn that Britain’s military satellite communications network is called Skynet, the same name as the computer network that is humanity’s enemy in the Terminator films.

Some of the interviewees were from the CIA and FBI; they were named, but were either senior enough to already be publicly known or else retired.  A lot of it was devoted to recruitment; British and American intelligence agencies now have recruitment films on their websites. In the past, MI5 and MI6 recruited via informal approaches at universities, mainly Cambridge and Oxford.

Post 9/11 there has been a need for Asian agents who can infiltrate al-Qaeda. A ‘sting’ operation was re-enacted. British Asian MI5 agents persuaded a British member of al-Qaeda that they could supply him with weapons. The al-Qaeda man was arrested.

One of the FBI  officials interviewed said that 9/11 led to a downgrading of counter-intelligence (operations against foreign intelligence services) as counter-terrorism was expanded. This created problems because, despite the end of the Cold War, Russia continues to spy on the West. It was claimed that there are now as many Russian spies in the USA as there were Soviet ones during the Cold War.

In a well publicised case 10 Russian spies were arrested in the USA in June 2010. Most of them were ‘dead doubles’; Russians who had taken the identity of Americans who were born around the same time as themselves but died young. The exception was Anna Chapman, who has become the best known of the 10 because of her looks. She was able to operate under her own name because her ex-husband, Alex Chapman, is British.

The FBI investigation into the Russian spy ring was also re-enacted. Chapman did not meet her contact, but used a laptop with an encrypted wi-fi connection to send information to somebody a short distance away. The FBI broke the encryption and arranged a meeting between her and one of its own agents, who took the laptop for repair.

The Russian agents were arrested when the FBI realised that they were getting close to a Cabinet official. It was suggested that she might have been a ‘honey trap’ agent; one whose job is to obtain sensitive information by seducing somebody who possesses it. The FBI has subsequently issued a statement saying that Chapman had not attempted to seduce the Cabinet official. In fact, another Russian spy, Cynthia Murphy, who worked on Wall St, had several meetings with a financier who was a friend of the Cabinet official.

The 10 Russians were eventually swapped for four Russians accused of spying for the West. One potentially tragic impact of the case is on the two daughters of Cynthia Murphy and  her husband Richard, also a member of the spy ring. The BBC programme  suggested that their marriage was arranged as part of their cover by the Russian intelligence services. The daughters, having been born and brought up in the USA, now find themselves living in Russia with parents whose marriage may be a sham.

The programme talked about honey traps as if they were always used to entrap men by having them approached by younger and extremely attractive women, who would use pillow talk to obtain secrets. However, I recall reading during the Cold War of handsome and charming male agents who would seduce lonely government secretaries in order to obtain secrets.

Intelligence depends on the sources of information. An enormous risk is of acting on intelligence provided by a rogue source. Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, an Iraqi defector code-named ‘Curveball’, told German intelligence, the BND, about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. His information was used by the USA to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He admitted on-screen that he made up his stories of secret factories and special trucks carrying bio-weapons. According to The Guardian, he did so in order to bring down Saddam’s regime and had an agreement with the BND that they would not pass his information onto other countries. He claims to be ‘comfortable’ with what he did.

A major intelligence threat to the West is coming from China. The Chinese intelligence services like to operate via what are known as ‘cut-outs.’ These, rather than a Chinese intelligence officer, deal with the sources. The sources may not know who they are supplying information to, and the risk that the intelligence officers may be arrested is considerably reduced.

It was claimed that China has obtained full details of all US nuclear weapons and it was pointed out that China’s newest combat aircraft, the J-20, is very similar to the Lockheed Martin F-35. It was alleged that the Chinese had obtained details of the F-35 by hacking into the computers of BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin’s British partner.

A very interesting programme. albeit on a subject where you can never be sure that you are being told the whole truth. Like the spies, you are reliant on your sources. However, Peter Taylor has a good reputation so I think that we learnt as much of the truth as we are likely to on this subject.

More to follow on the second programme, which deals with the questions of how far the British intelligence services will go to protect the country from terrorist threats and whether or not they have a licence to kill.

For UK viewers, the programme is available on the I-Player until midnight on 16 April. There were no co-producers, so I do not know if it will be shown in other countries.

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