A former Czech spy who was expelled by the British government in the 1980s has claimed Britain's leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, was a source of his — one of 15 senior Labour lawmakers he met regularly when based in London. And the former spy says they knew he was an intelligence officer rather than a diplomat, which was his official cover.
The allegations by Jan Sarkocy, who says the Labour politicians were paid for their secret meetings with Communist spies during the climax of the Cold War, have been vehemently disputed by Corbyn and other Labour lawmakers named by the retired spy, including former London mayor Ken Livingstone.
They say the claims are a "tissue of lies" that read more like a poor James Bond movie plot. And they have dubbed the former Czech agent-handler, who now lives in the Slovak capital of Bratislava, a "fantasist."
"The claim that he [Corbyn] was an agent, asset or informer for any intelligence agency is entirely false and a ridiculous smear. Like other MPs, Jeremy has met diplomats from many countries. In the 1980s he met a Czech diplomat," according to a spokesperson for the Labour Party. He says that Corbyn "had not offered any privileged information to this or any diplomat."
According to Svetlana Ptacnikova, the head of the Czech Security Forces Archive, which houses the documents of the now-dissolved Communist-era intelligence service Statni Bezpecnost (StB), the files she has seen do not show that Corbyn was registered as a collaborator, agent or mole.
Britain's ruling Conservatives, who have questioned the firebrand Labour leader's fitness for office, pounced on the claims, which have been front page news in London for several days. They are demanding Corbyn explain in detail his attitude toward the Soviet bloc during the Cold War. StB documents unearthed by British newspapers confirm that meetings took place in the mid-1980s between Corbyn and Sarkocy, who was attached to the Czech embassy in the British capital as a diplomat who went by the name of Lt. Jan Dymcic before his expulsion in 1989. Sarkocy says the Czech archive does not have complete records. Many documents went missing, he says.
The documents that have been published are hardly shocking. Corbyn is described in them as being "negative towards the USA, as well as the present policies of the Conservative Government." He took a "positive" view of the eastern bloc and viewed favorably a Soviet-backed peace initiative. All of that was publicly known. Corbyn and other Labour politicians named by Sarkocy do not have access to classified British government documents.
Nonetheless, some lawmakers are now pressing for a parliamentary inquiry. The former chairman of the British parliament's intelligence and security committee, Malcolm Rifkind, said, "If these documents are genuine, which they appear to be, then there is a serious case for Mr. Corbyn to answer."
Others say Corbyn was naive. Professor Anthony Glees, a security expert, said of the documents, "These files show Jeremy Corbyn had been targeted by Czech intelligence services. Mr. Corbyn says he didn't know, but it shows breathtaking naiveté from someone who wants to head the British government."
The claims and counter claims have re-ignited the ideological battles of the Cold War and are reminiscent of past British spy controversies. Following the unmasking of the infamous Cambridge spy ring of Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, Russia's KGB and sister eastern bloc agencies, notably the StB and East Germany's HVA Stasi, targeted Britain for recruitments using contacts in the country's anti-nuclear peace movement and trade unions to organize introductions to politicians, civil servants and journalists for their spies under diplomatic cover.
British business people visiting eastern bloc countries on trade missions, and British exchange students, were also targeted.
The eastern bloc espionage agencies had mixed success but did manage to recruit a string of backbench (junior) lawmakers, almost exclusively Labour ones, hoping they would rise up the political ranks and provide privileged information. In the 1960s, a Czech defector, Josef Frolik, named three Labour lawmakers - John Stonehouse, Bernard Floud and Will Owen - as having links to the StB. All three dismayed their handlers with their constant financial demands and by failing to provide anything but tittle-tattle and parliamentary gossip, useful only up to a limited point.
Eastern bloc agencies aimed high, also earmarking even Labour leader and two-time prime minister Harold Wilson for recruitment. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening up of some eastern bloc intelligence archives, there have been periodic bouts of the supposed unmasking of spies in high-ranking positions. Intelligence historians, and defectors, however, have frequently warned that Communist recruiters and agent-handlers in the Cold War often embellished their intelligence reports, claiming they had managed to recruit targets when they hadn't - all in order to please their spy bosses and gain promotions.
In 1995, Britain's Sunday Times had to backtrack on a story based on claims by KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky that Labour leader Michael Foot had been an "agent of influence" for the Russians. Faced with a wave of derision, the newspaper's editor said his paper was not saying that Foot had been a KGB agent. He acknowledged the allegation might be "utter rubbish" and he said that his newspaper was merely reporting that the KGB believed Foot was an agent.