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 innocuous tasks. Hosenball, in other words, had fingered two persons who were currently innocent. This probably lies behind the ominous phrase in his deportation order, that Hosenball had prejudiced “the safety of servants of the Crown.” In any event, the official told me that no espionage was involved in the case of either Hosenball or Agee.
Agee is forty-two and a very different sort. He appears, both from his book and in person, as a rather simple, self-righteous zealot who sees all issues in black and white. He seems to have believed literally what he was taught at a Jesuit high school in Tampa, labored earnestly at Notre Dame, and joined the CIA to crush infidel communism. He had difficulty, however, in adjusting to the agency’s arguments on the need to employ the Devil’s tools for God’s work. So he left in 1969, determined to spread the word about the new devils he had discovered. It is unclear whether he has also found new gods. He settled in Britain, wrote his tedious but instructive book Inside the Company, and toured a leftist lecture circuit, naming many of his former colleagues. He was a nuisance almost exclusively to the CIA—not to the British services. No one has established a connection between his activities and the assassination in 1975 of Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens; but indignation over Welch’s death helped provide an excuse to prise him loose from Britain.
Merlyn Rees, the British Home Office minister, has repeatedly told Parliament that there was no CIA pressure to throw out Agee. This was more or less literally true but also misleading. In fact, as James Angleton, the former chief of CIA’s counterintelligence division, said in a television interview on the eve of Agee’s deportation order, “We are somewhat displeased” that Britain had given Agee a “safe haven.” As the knowledgeable British official put it to me, CIA pressure was “minimal.” In other words, if Rees had been more scrupulously briefed by his civil servants, he should have told the Commons that there was some CIA pressure but that it did not amount to much.
Lumping Agee with Hosenball, however, did serve the purposes of British intelligence. It is always useful to do a favor for the more powerful American service. Moreover, the simultaneous deportation yoked the little-known Hosenball to the far more prominent Agee, who everybody knew was up to peculiar tricks.
The heart of the order against Agee said that he “has maintained regular contacts harmful to the security of the United Kingdom with foreign intelligence agents.” In Whitehall, where the Home Office sits, the word was quickly passed to inquiring reporters that Agee, who had made several visits to Cuba—and openly disclosed in his book that he had gone there for several months in 1971 and 1972 to do research—had been dealing with Cubans. He, in turn, contends that he saw Cuban diplomats in England only to discuss publishing his book in Havana. More recently Arnaud de Borchgrave, in Newsweek, drew attention to Agee’s appearance in Jamaica during last year’s election campaign. Agee delivered characteristic speeches about CIA interference on the island, a line that was clearly welcome to the triumphant prime minister, Michael Manley. There is also no doubt that Cuba supported Manley; but to leap from that fact to the conclusion that the eminently public Agee was acting on behalf of Havana’s secret DGI strains belief. In any case, the Cuban connection wasn’t much of a story, so it has lately been improved upon.
An official who receives regular briefings from the large CIA contingent in London has told me that the story now being circulated is that Agee transmitted material to the Russians. The official could not verify this, but that is what he was told. In Washington, the new senator from New York, Daniel P. Moynihan, made the new story public, and did so in a style that recalled the early 1950s. At the confirmation hearing for the new CIA chief, Moynihan darkly urged Admiral Stansfield Turner to determine whether Agee has “gone over to the KGB.”
While almost anything is possible in the twilight world of spies and counterspies, this does seem farfetched. Agee has been an insistently public person for years, is probably more bugged and watched than any other American abroad, and he seems a most improbable vehicle for any Soviet agency. The British official who told me that neither Agee nor Hosenball was engaged in espionage seems more plausible. Indeed his view has recently had some support from the US Justice Department, which has told Agee that he will not be prosecuted for espionage if he returns to the US.
Happily for the British services, there is neither a written constitution nor a Bill of Rights here, a situation that gives imaginative authorities considerable scope. So Home Secretary Rees invoked a little noticed and never used clause of a 1971 Immigration Act to expel Agee and Hosenball without having a bothersome review of their cases. The provision empowers the minister to throw out, without any right of appeal, aliens thought to be security risks. The law provides only that the aliens can make “representations” to a panel—in this case, three retired officials, all knights—who can then advise Rees. (The law not withstanding, Hosenball has appealed to the courts for a reversal of his deportation order. Since Parliament is supreme, and judicial review of legislation is almost unknown, his chances are considered poor. He lost the first round when three Queen’s Bench judges held that security overrides “natural justice.”)
The beauty of all this is that it saves the state from worrying about due process. It is spared from bringing specific charges against Agee and Hosenball, confronting them with their accusers, or permitting them any cross-examination of hostile witnesses. The Home Office spokesman explained that this excellent procedure protects the state from revealing sources of information and blowing the cover of agents.
This, too, is literally true and effectively false. The splendidly flexible British law allows the state to try any accused person—alien or native—in secret, a technique often used in genuine cases of espionage. The trial protects some of the rights of a defendant and still saves the state from publicly revealing secrets. The fact that this procedure was not chosen for Agee and Hosenball hardly supports whispers, senatorial or otherwise, that some real acts of espionage, which could be prosecuted, were in question.
Both Agee and Hosenball made “representations” to the advisory panel. The three members, again according to an official in a position to know, had before them only sanitized dossiers for both men. This ensured that the panel could give Rees only the most ambiguous advice, which, anyway, is kept secret. The secret hearings of the panel at the United Services Club must have been comic. Two men were defending themselves against charges they were not allowed to know before “judges” who were almost equally in the dark.
From questions addressed to him by the “representations” panel, Hosenball got the impression that the main complaint against him was based not on the Leveller piece but on another article he had helped to write for Time Out. This piece described Britain’s National Security Agency, the Government Communications Headquarters, which monitors foreign radio traffic and breaks codes. So Hosenball triumphantly produced before the panel his co-author, Duncan Campbell. Campbell is a twenty-four-year-old British free-lance writer who specializes in articles on electronics and security. He testified that he had himself compiled 90 percent of the material for the offensive article and that his research was entirely drawn from public sources—“telephone directories, reference books and fading newspaper clippings.”
Campbell’s testimony, of course, made no difference for Hosenball or Agee, and Home Secretary Rees confirmed the deportation orders against both. (Agee and Hosenball will probably return to the US, Agee to lecture, Hosenball to look for work on a daily newspaper.) But it did make a difference to Campbell. He was incautious enough to write of his triumph in Time Out. Even worse, he poked fun at the spectacle of intelligence services being upset by material assembled from open documents.
(That British intelligence is no laughing matter I can testify from personal experience. I wrote an irreverent piece about the spy bureaucrats here for The Washington Post more than a year ago. Three weeks after it appeared on page one, two of the less restrained writers at the complaisant London Times denounced me on successive days for endangering British journalists abroad. The Times, once the Thunderer, is nowadays a tin horn, and its attacks did me no visible professional damage in Britain. But such is the power of morgues that the accusation turns up from time to time in some of the more sloppily edited US periodicals.)
The intelligence services, again alert to the bureaucratic peril of laughter, struck swiftly. Three weeks after his offending article appeared, Campbell, accompanied by another Time Out writer, was arrested as he was leaving the apartment of one John Berry. Seven years earlier, Berry had been a Royal Signals corporal working at Britain’s electronic spy center. Campbell and the other Time Out writer, Crispin Aubrey, thirty-one, were accused of receiving and Berry with giving secret information. The charges were brought under the notorious Section Two of the Official Secrets Act which Britons had been led to believe was as dead as Star Chamber.
The three men were held by police for forty hours before they were allowed to see lawyers. Another twenty hours went by before they were produced in court and charged. There, bail was initially denied all three. Detective Chief Superintendent Harry Nicholls of Special Branch, the political police at Scotland Yard who carry out the tasks of surveillance and arrest for the fastidious officials at MI5, solemnly told the magistrate he feared that Berry might pass on more of his seven-year-old “secrets” to the British writers. Eventually, the Time Out journalists were freed on bail, but Berry is still in jail at this writing.
There is no reason to think that Campbell and Crispin were physically abused by the police. Both, after all, are Oxford graduates and Campbell is the son of an economics professor. But a sixty-hour stretch in anybody’s jail, broken only by one brief and belated interview with a lawyer, is not designed to create psychological ease under questioning.
It was all lawful, of course. Again, the absence of a Bill of Rights is a great help. The Magistrates’ Rules governing police conduct say that suspects shall be allowed to see lawyers “provided that no hindrance is likely to be caused to the process of the investigation or the administration of justice.” The common law developed in court decisions commands police to bring an accused before a magistrate “as soon as possible.” But since the three men were arrested on a Friday night, and judges here rarely sit on weekends, Monday morning, of course, was the earliest “possible” time.
But all this is far less remarkable than the charge against the three men, brought under Section Two of the Official Secrets Act. This sweeping law, slipped through a heedless Parliament on a hot August afternoon in 1911, is a model gag law. It can jail for two years any civil servant who leaks, without permission, any government information, whether it is an unreleased survey of the time taken for tea breaks or a nuclear secret. Even worse, a reporter who simply looks at the unreleased survey of tea breaks can also be put away for two years. Only a few years ago, some witless Special Branch officers relied on Section Two to raid the files of a trade journal that had copies of an unpublished government plan to cut rail services. The attorney general wisely decided against prosecution after the London Sunday Times raised the alarm.
This sort of thing brought the act into such disrepute that a Royal Commission recommended it be cleaned up so it could be used. The commission proposed that a journalist be jailed only if he passed on unauthorized information to someone else. Offending information, moreover, would be somewhat limited—to defense, security, foreign affairs, economic, and criminal matters.
The police and the intelligence services, however, like Section Two. So the government has not acted on the Royal Commission’s proposals, although it keeps promising it will. However, Home Secretary Rees, who happened to serve on the commission, assured the Commons as recently as November 22 that “the Government accept…that the mere receipt of information should no longer be an offense.”
Rees’s view was not binding on Attorney General Sam Silkin, who brings the prosecutions. But Silkin, a few weeks later, told the House he regarded Rees’s assurance “as indicative of the public interest.” In sum, the two ministers responsible for administering the law told the nation that Section Two need never again trouble any reporter’s sleep.
They reckoned, however, without the zeal of MI5 and Special Branch. After Campbell and Aubrey were seized there was every indication that the agency and Special Branch acted without the knowledge of either Rees or Silkin. Pained official spokesmen have quietly suggested as much. But, after all, this matter did not concern the ministers. Campbell had not made fun of them but of the services.
Attorney General Silkin must now figure out how to square any prosecution under Section Two with the brave words he and Rees spoke in the House of Commons. There are broad hints in Whitehall that Silkin is searching for some other charge to press against the writers. Detective Chief Superintendent Nicholls told one magistrate that he and his men are poring through no fewer than 9,000 documents in the case.
This surprising state of affairs, the resurrection of Section Two, has elicited some protests from the National Union of Journalists and the National Council of Civil Liberties. But the protests have been mild ones and the London newspapers themselves have not commented at all, for good reason. Now that Campbell and Aubrey have been charged, their case is sub judice, in the tender arms of a court. Any comment would constitute contempt, another jailable crime. This ensures that the Sunday Times Insight Team, for example, will not explore behind the public record and that civil libertarians in Parliament will be barred from debating the issues involved. The meshing of Official Secrets with sub judice creates a wondrous official machine to preserve intelligence agencies from scrutiny.
There is a suspicion—it can be rated no higher than that—that Campbell, with Aubrey tagging along, was set up, the victim of a plant designed to snare him in the machine. But this suspicion can’t be pursued lest the pursuer risk jail for contempt of court.
Anyway, all such muttering ceased just six days after Campbell was arrested. With a timing that J. Edgar Hoover would have applauded, the intelligence services announced through the Daily Telegraph that a master journalist spy had defected. He was Svetozar Simko, the Czech news agency man in Bonn, and according to the Telegraph, he was spilling secrets. This too was either nonsense or unprofessional behavior by the SIS. No defector is brought to the surface until he is bled white, and leads his new bosses to other networks. Either Simko had been in the bag a long time, and the announcement was timed to drown out even feeble protests over Campbell, Hosenball, et al. Or—and this is less likely—Simko’s spying was a figment of imagination whose creation was designed to drown out even muted protests over Campbell, Hosenball, et al.
It would be absurd, of course, to claim that Britain is a police state or that it is ruled even fitfully by an invisible government. Even Merlyn Rees is miscast as an enemy of civil liberties; as the minister in charge of Northern Ireland, he simply demonstrated an unhealthy reliance on his civil servants, and this could again account for his order against Agee and Hosenball. It is clear, however, that there are certain matters that are ventilated here at a journalist’s peril. This is not because the British spy agencies are malevolent; they are bureaucracies, much like others. Any agency unrestrained by law will inevitably use its imagination rather than due process to deal with annoying little threats to an otherwise untroubled life.
April 14, 1977