Are the West's secrets safe in the hands of Britain’s politicians?
It is a question Britain’s intelligence officers are asking themselves — so, too, their counterparts in the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing relationship that includes the U.S., Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It's a tie-up that’s been called the most successful espionage alliance in history.
Not since the 1970s, when some British MI5 officers thought Labour Party leader Harold Wilson, who won four general elections, and his most trusted advisers were KGB assets have Britain’s spooks been so uneasy about their political masters. The worries about Wilson and his aides at that time provoked treasonous plots by conservative-leaning rogue elements of the security agencies, which even drew in members of Britain’s royal family.
As Britain heads into its most consequential election possibly in the last 100 years, a vote that will determine whether Britain will leave the European Union or not, fears are mounting within the country’s security circles that Britons can’t trust their own leaders. This includes both those at the top of the country’s main opposition Labour Party as well as among the ruling Conservatives, a party once synonymous with Queen and Country.
For the past year, a former head of Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency, Richard Dearlove, has led a chorus of intelligence warnings about Jeremy Corbyn, widely seen as Labour’s most leftwing leader since the 1920s, and his clique of advisers. Last month, Dearlove said in a TV interview he was “troubled” by Corbyn’s “past associations,” sparking a furious reaction from senior Labour lawmakers, who warned of ‘deep state’ meddling.
Britain’s Conservative-leaning newspapers have taken up the warnings, with The Sun newspaper headlining midweek: “Intelligence Services and Foreign Office 'Fear Jeremy Corbyn Would Risk National Security’ if He Wins Election.”
Former intelligence chiefs and government insiders say the flow of secret information Britain is supplied from the “Five Eyes” network could start drying up because of a lack of trust by Western partners in Corbyn and his advisers.
Writing in The Times newspaper, retired Labour politician Jack Straw, a former foreign secretary, dismissed allegations of "deep state" interference and warned Western security agencies could “lessen intelligence co-operation with us,” if Corbyn wins the election. He warned Britain’s spooks also would be chary of disclosing some of their most sensitive information with a Downing Street occupied by Corbyn.
“This would not be any ‘deep-state conspiracy,’ but the human reaction of people who give their careers to keep us safe, sometimes at serious personal risk to their own lives,” Straw said.
A former defense secretary, John Hutton, who served in Labour governments, has underscored that a Corbyn premiership would affect the ‘Five Eyes’ espionage alliance and “place a major question mark over the continued operation of a vital source of intelligence.”
At the very least, Corbyn has a radical and what critics say is an anti-Western world-view, notably out of step, they add, with Labour’s previously more centrist leaders. He’s been a long-standing critic of NATO and has called for it to be disbanded, decrying it as an “instrument of Cold War manipulation.” He also has been an opponent of Britain possessing nuclear weapons. He’s voted as a lawmaker against every military action proposed by the government of the day, including intervention in Kosovo.
Corbyn dubs as “friends” Hamas and Hezbollah, and at the height of the IRA’s bombing campaign he spoke at official commemorations to honor the Irish republican dead. And he was on the board of a far-left Labour publication that praised the IRA’s 1984 Brighton bombing, which nearly killed then prime minister Margaret Thatcher. In an editorial, the publication said, “It certainly appears to be the case that the British only sit up and take notice [of Ireland] when they are bombed into it.”
Last year, he provoked fury in the House of Commons when he questioned the British government’s blaming of the Kremlin for the Novichok poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the southern English cathedral town of Salisbury. Corbyn argued Russia should be involved in the investigation.
Dearlove accuses Corbyn of giving aid and comfort to Britain’s enemies. “He has enthusiastically associated himself with groups and interests which I would not say were the friends of the British nation,” Britain’s former top spy said last month.
The alarm of the security establishment is wider than just Corbyn, though, when it comes to the current top echelons of the Labour Party. Seamus Milne, the Labour leader’s director of strategy and his closest adviser, has been an outspoken critic of Western policies throughout a long career as a columnist at the Guardian newspaper. He has argued Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea was “clearly defensive” and the consequence of a NATO manipulated breakup of the Soviet Union.
That insight earned Milne the rebuke of a fellow Guardian contributor, Oliver Bullough, an author of several books on Russia, who accused Milne of living in a “parallel universe.” He noted “the destruction of the USSR was not some Versailles-style treaty imposed from outside. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus did it themselves.”
Conservative lawmaker Bob Seely, a former British army officer and member of the British parliament’s foreign affairs committee, has accused Milne of echoing Kremlin propaganda. In 2014, Milne participated in a conference in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where he conducted an onstage discussion with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Some British intelligence insiders say in the event of a Labour election win, the heads of Britain’s security agencies likely would insist on withholding the most sensitive information from Milne, as well as another Corbyn policy adviser, Andrew Murray, a former member of the Communist Party, and regular contributor to Britain’s Communist newspaper, the Morning Star.
Speaking to VOA recently, Norman Roule, who was in the CIA's Directorate of Operations for 34 years, and served as a division chief and chief of station, says “the U.S. intelligence relationship with the British is the closest on the planet.” He added: “We share so much information with each other, and it's shared so deeply and immediately that if we have a difference of views, it's usually because one of us hasn't gotten around to seeing the other's file yet,” he added.
Roule said the intelligence agencies would try to remain constant in their work regardless of who was in Downing Street. “You know we don't really pay attention to what the policymakers argue about and would try to ignore policy differences that creep up and sooner or later the politicians will move on,” he added.
Other U.S. intelligence officials are less sanguine. One former top level CIA official told VOA: “If we have doubts or fears, we will avoid uploading especially sensitive data — some officers will just take it upon themselves to do it, whether there is an order from on high or not.”
Dearlove and other members of Britain’s security establishment have dismissed the idea of a "deep state" working against a Labour government, saying every government of whatever stripe has been loyally served by the British intelligence community.
But it isn’t only Labour that is prompting the anxiety of both British and other Western intelligence agencies. The Conservatives, too, are a cause for unease. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was blocked by his predecessor in Downing Street, Theresa May, from seeing top secret information when he served as foreign secretary on the grounds he couldn’t be trusted because of his tendency to be indiscrete.
As London mayor previously, he had let slip confidential information before it was due to be made public, angering May, who was then Home Secretary. The BBC reported that when Johnson became Foreign Secretary, Downing Street would sometimes convene smaller meetings, or ‘pre-meets,’ to discuss especially sensitive matters so as to exclude Johnson.
Additionally, Johnson’s Conservative Party has accepted large donations from London-based Russian oligarchs with ties to the Kremlin and Russia’s FSB security agency, according to a still-under-wraps cross-party parliamentary committee report. Last week, Downing Street prompted a political outcry by deciding to delay the publication of the report until after next month’s general election.
Downing Street has been accused of sitting on the report detailing the security threat posed by Russia to Britain. The 50-page dossier examines allegations that a Kremlin-sponsored influence campaign may have distorted the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum. The report raises concerns about the flow into the Conservative Party of Russian money from oligarchs linked to the Kremlin, along with a high level of Russian infiltration into the higher ranks of British politics, business, high society and the legal profession.
Members of the cross-party intelligence and security committee said they expected Johnson to approve publication ahead of the election. Dominic Grieve, a former attorney general who chairs the committee, said the report “comments directly on what has been seen as a perceived threat to our democratic processes.”