Britain’s two civilian intelligence services are comparatively modest, in keeping with a country that has lost its empire and is about to fall behind Spain in per capita income. MI5, run from the Home Office, keeps an eye on spies in Britain and hasn’t made much of a splash since the Heath government threw out 105 alleged Soviet agents in 1971. The Secret Intelligence Service or SIS, more or less controlled by the Foreign Office, does the spying abroad. Lacking both the global ambitions and material resources of the CIA, it contents itself with an occasional coup in the minor sheikdoms. Its political judgments tend to be no wiser than those of most other agencies, although it is not clear whether it was SIS, the Israeli Mossad, or the CIA that had the inspired idea of replacing Milton Obote with Idi Amin in Uganda.
Once upon a time, SIS dabbled in domestic politics with the same zest as the CIA. Half a century ago, the agency then known as MI1C forged a letter from the Kremlin urging the miniscule British Communist Party on to sabotage, enlisted the cooperation of Foreign Office and MI5 mandarins to publicize the fake in complaisant British dailies, and thus helped crush the first Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald. Nowadays, however, the invisible government here can only look with envy on the CIA’s successful attempt, for example, to intervene in Chilean politics.
But the two British agencies are also skilled bureaucracies which still know how to deal with anyone threatening their reduced existence. If the Lion has only a few teeth left, it still has a rabid bite. It is against this background that the deportation of Philip Agee and Mark Hosenball, and the revival of the discredited Section Two of the Official Secrets Act against a pair of British writers, can best be understood.
Hosenball is an amiable twenty-five-year-old American of vaguely leftist sentiments who became entranced with Britain on a schoolboy exchange here. After some studies at Trinity College in Dublin, he drifted into journalism and began to write for Time Out. This is a youthful, slick, and successful weekly, an entertainment guide with left-leaning political pieces up front and personal ads from lonely souls in the back. It enjoys drawing attention to intelligence fiascoes, and Hosenball enthusiastically joined in.
But his real sin appears to have been committed not in Time Out but in the pilot issue of a grimmer and coarser left journal, The Leveller. There Hosenball wrote an article asserting that a pair of former student leaders had been secretly employed by SIS.
A British official familiar with Hosenball’s dossier told me that “70 percent” of the reason for his deportation can be traced to the Leveller piece. What is said to have particularly enraged Century House, the South Bank SIS headquarters, was not that Hosenball had broken the pair’s cover but that his targets were now either divorced from the agency or working at …