Tag Archives: MI6

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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MI6 and the Media: Document, BBC Radio 4

The latest programme in the BBC radio series Document dealt with alleged links between MI6, as the organisation officially called the Secret Intelligence Service is popularly known, and the British media during the Cold War. The format of this programme is that it starts with a document or documents and then tries to find the historical story behind the document or documents. A previous post on this blog discussed an earlier episode, which analysed relations between Britain and Vichy France during WWII.

Click here to listen to it from the BBC website; as far as I am aware, there are no time or geographic restrictions on its availability. Note that the online recording starts with a brief trailer for a later programme.

The BBC describes the programme as follows:

Jeremy Duns examines leaked documents which suggest close links between MI6 and the British press during the Cold War.

In December 1968, the British media was shaken by a series of secret documents leaked to Soviet state newspapers. The documents claimed a range of key Fleet Street correspondents and news chiefs were working for the intelligence services. Further papers alleged close links between the BBC and MI6.

At the time, the documents were dismissed by the British media as forgeries, part of an escalating propaganda battle played out in the Russian press. In this edition of Document, Jeremy Duns uncovers evidence which suggests that the papers were genuine and examines how they might have found their way into Soviet hands.

Notorious spies George Blake and Kim Philby are among those under suspicion of having leaked the documents.

Jeremy Duns speaks to distinguished Sunday Times journalist Phillip Knightley, and historian of the intelligence services Professor Christopher Andrew.

The story began with in August 1968, when the Red Army invaded Czechoslovakia in order to put down the Prague Spring, crushing the Czech leadership’s vision of ‘Socialism with a human face.’ The invasion was heavily criticised in Britain by both the media and the government.

This coverage appeared to anger the USSR, since in December the Soviet newspaper Izvestia published a series of articles attacking the British media, which it accused of ‘being an accomplice in ideological subversion.’ Jeremy Duns came across this whilst researching a book on an unrelated spy operation. The Soviets claimed that a large part of the British media was directly working with MI6.

Their source was what they claimed to be a series of MI6 memos. These are the documents analysed in this programme. They included the code names of MI6 officers assigned to work with named journalists, all beginning with BIN. It was also alleged that the BBC was broadcasting coded messages on behalf of MI6.

The allegations were described as ‘rubbish’ by the left-wing Guardian, whilst the right-wing Daily Telegraph thought that they were ‘clumsy and crude.’

Duns looked into the story to see if there is any truth in it. He started with government archives, but MI6 has not released any relevant documents, and none could be found in the UK National Archives.

He then proceeded to interview a number of people who might know the truth. In 1969 Bill Norris reported on the Nigerian Civil War for The Times. He was approached by the British military attaché, who wanted him to provide intelligence on military strength in the north of the country. He declined as he was not a spy and regarded what he was being asked to as being both unethical and very risky. Others agreed to help the military attaché , but Norris would not say who they were.

Kim Philby, the KGB double agent inside MI6 who defected in 1963, made allegations about links between MI6 and the British media in a 1971 interview with Izvestia. One of documents was dated 1959, raising the possibility that Philby might have supplied them to the KGB.

Rupert Allason, who writes on intelligence matters under the pseudonym of Nigel West and studied the KGB files on Philby in the 1990s, did not find this credible as Philby had no access to MI6 files after 1951. Allason was unsure of the authenticity of the documents. He said that MI6 was very cautious of journalists, although some of them were ex MI6 officers.

Dr Stephen Dorril of the University of Huddersfield found the documents more compelling; he has written several books on the British security and intelligence services. He said that the details of how MI6 operates and its relations with journalists revealed in the memos suggested that they were real. He had previously been told of the BIN code names by an ex officer. He suspects that the memos came from George Blake, another KGB double agent in MI6. Blake was involved in recruiting journalists for MI6 and gave almost all the documents he encountered to the KGB.

Philip Knightley, a former Sunday Times journalist, was a contemporary of many of the journalists named in the memos. The allegations do not surprise him, as he had heard the same names quoted before around Fleet Street. He thinks that the documents are genuine.

The former Labour Cabinet Minister Tony Benn wrote in his diary in December 1979 that Mark Arnold-Forster had told him that he worked for MI6 whilst being a Guardian journalist during the period covered by these allegations..

One of the journalists accused of working for MI6 was David Astor, editor of The Observer. Jeremy Lewis, who is writing a biography of him, thinks that the allegations are plausible. Astor had a relationship with MI6 at start of WWII, and this may have continued.

Duns then visited the BBC archives in order to investigate allegations against it. A redacted memo of 24 April 1969 could be read by holding it up to the light. It expresses sympathy for friends who had been caught up in the Soviet propaganda attacks; friends is a euphemism for MI6, but there was nothing else on the subject in the BBC files.

Prof Jean Seaton of the University of Westminster, the official BBC historian, pointed out that the KGB would try to brand BBC World Service Russian broadcasters as spies in order to discredit them.

There is less evidence against BBC than the print media of the employment of journalists by MI6, but the question of it transmitting secret messages on behalf of MI6 remains. This involved the broadcast of prearranged tunes or sentences so that an MI6 officer could prove to somebody from the Soviet Bloc that he was trying to recruit that he had official backing. This is plausible according to Seaton, who pointed out that it was WWII tradecraft.

Prof. Christopher Andrew of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, the official historian of MI5, said that his first instinct on seeing the documents was that they were photographs taken by a Minox miniature camera rather than the originals. This points towards them having been taken by Blake, who used a Minox to copy large number of MI6 documents.

All the journalists singled out as potential MI6 agents are now dead, but cross-referencing of their careers suggests that the documents are from the late 1950s, when Blake was operating as spy. He was discovered and sentenced to 42 years in prison in 1961, but escaped in 1966 and reached the Soviet Bloc. Philby was already in Moscow, and the KGB would have sought Philby’s advice on what propaganda  would have the greatest impact on the UK public. Andrew pointed out that this would apply whether or not the documents were genuine.

Sir Alastair Horne worked for British intelligence in WWII. After the war he became a journalist for the Daily Express, which sent him to Berlin in the early 1950s. He was asked by Maurice Oldfield, his wartime boss, to run three agents in West German ministries. He did not want to and thought that it would interfere with his journalism, but felt that it was something he had to. He thought that it was unethical, but that we were fighting a war against a miserable and ghastly dictatorship that wanted to take over our way of life.

Soviet propaganda may actually have been the truth in this case, but the nature of the contacts remains unknown; they might have been more informal than claimed by the Soviets. Andrew has no doubts that there were contacts, but is cautious about their nature. Dorril thinks that there is much more to come out about co-operation between MI6 and newspapers during Cold War. Knightley believes that such links are dangerous as the opposition will assume all journalists have intelligence links if one is shown to have them.

An interesting programme in an interesting series. The intelligence services played a major role in the Cold War, and there is no doubt much more still to be discovered on the subject.

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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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