The MI5’s secrets revealed

The author of a new book offering a glimpse into Britain’s security service had ‘virtually unrestricted access’ to its files.

By COLIN SHINDLER
April 23, 2010 16:58
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Defend the Realm
By Christopher Andrew | Knopf | 1,056 pages | $40

In October 1909, Commander Mansfield Cumming of the Royal Navy and Captain Vernon Kell of the British Army started work in a small office in London’s Victoria Street which had been rented by a private detective. Thus began Britain’s security service, known as MI5 and soon headed by the 36-year-old Kell, a German intelligence analyst at the War Office. His instructions at MI5 were to root out “the spies of the kaiser.”

For decades, few knew much about the deliberations of MI5. Indeed, when Rab Butler took over as home secretary in the 1950s, he had no idea where it was located.

Today, MI5 advertises in the media, it possesses a Web site and its director-general has been publicly named. Its current holder, Jonathan Evans, argues in a foreword that Cambridge University professor Christopher Andrew has had “virtually unrestricted access” to the files and only those that would pose a threat to national security have been restricted. This tome of more than 1,000 pages is magisterial and fascinating – and a far cry from the titillating books on intelligence that are regularly published to entice the public to part with their hard-earned money.

Before 1933, MI5 paid hardly any attention to Hitler and his movement. A few months after the Nazis took power, they raided the offices of the German Communist Party. MI5 was invited to examine the material. The Nazis tried hard to convince its representative that the party was controlled by “the Jews” and was even shown a map that indicated that “international Jewry was being controlled from London.”

While Hitler supported the local British Union of Fascists, he refused to fund its leader, Sir Oswald Mosley. Instead Mosley relied on Mussolini to the tune of £3,000 per month. MI5 estimated that the BUF had 6,500 active and 9,000 nonactive members – and was clearly full of respect for the Jews of the East End who confronted a Fascist march in the battle of Cable Street in 1936. For these Jews, the cry of the Spanish Republicans in resisting Franco – “they shall not pass” – had more than a symbolic resonance.

MI5 ran anti-Nazi German agents in the UK. One was a gay diplomat, a committed anti-Nazi, at the German Embassy in London. For several years, Wolfgang zu Putlitz passed over invaluable information and reported the views of the ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop, later Hitler’s foreign minister. Ribbentrop probably induced Hitler to lift a ban on espionage in Britain. As Putlitz reported – to give the British “a kick in the behind.”



Putlitz was bewildered by Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement at Munich, but decided to continue spying for the British. His early warning that the Nazis would march into Prague in March 1939 was dismissed by Chamberlain and his foreign secretary, Viscount Halifax. Putlitz was eventually betrayed by a German spy from within MI5, but fortunately escaped to London before the Nazis fully realized.

The infamous Cambridge Soviet spy ring, headed by perhaps the greatest master of the black arts, Kim Philby, was initiated by a Czech Jew, Arnold Deutsch. Known by his code name, Otto, Deutsch had been a wunderkind at the University of Vienna. He combined his many intellectual pursuits, including a collaboration with the sexologist Wilhelm Reich, with working for Soviet intelligence. His university documents described him as “an observant Jew.” He studied at University College London – the academic home of the recent Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – and was supported by his uncle, who owned the Odeon cinema chain. Even in old age, Philby spoke in glowing terms of his mentor and recruiter.

There is a whole chapter on the attempts of the Irgun and Lehi to attack institutions in London after the war. No major attack succeeded. Even so, Lehi would have blown up the Colonial Office in April 1947, had it not been for a faulty timer. An Irgun attempt to send letter bombs to Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee came to naught due to a defector who had become severely disillusioned following the carnage caused by the attack on the King David Hotel.

Soviet intelligence was seemingly delighted by the Irgun campaign, inflicted by “progressive Jews” against British imperialism. When Menachem Begin’s The Revolt was published, it caused outrage within MI5. The director of the Overseas Division contemplated taking legal proceedings for libel over Begin’s account of the King David demolition, but was advised not to do so for “technical reasons.”

MI5 significantly refused to recruit British Jews in the postwar period on the grounds of dual loyalty due to the rise of Israel. A Jewish woman was barred in 1956 and the ban was apparently not lifted until 1974. The security archives comment that there was still prejudice against observant Jews and those of distinctly Jewish “physical appearance and demeanor.”

In more recent times, MI5 has seen Iran, sometimes assisted by Hizbullah, as a main practitioner of state terrorism. Between 1989 and 1997, 17 Kurdish dissidents and opponents of the Khomeini regime were assassinated in Europe – but none in Britain. The first inkling of the radicalization of some of Britain’s Muslim youth came when 20,000 marched in May 1989 to protest the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Iranian operatives killed its Japanese translator and wounded its Italian one. The Norwegian publisher was wounded in a gun attack. Yet Andrew comments that the Iranians failed in Britain.

MI5 discovered the first Islamist bomb factory in Birmingham in July 2000 – a year before 9/11. It prevented attacks on nightclubs, pubs and shopping centers through Operation Crevice. In 2004 Operation Rhyme preempted a plot to explode gas cylinders in London underground car parks. As Andrew writes:

“More than 300 computers and 1,800 CDs, zip drives and hard drives, many encrypted, had to be examined and the information on them decrypted. Police officers also found more than 600 sets of keys and spent 14 months visiting over 4,000 garages and lock-ups, trying to match them up and succeeding in only 77 cases. The hunt continued for so long for fear that one of the premises might contain explosives or even radioactive material.”

So far painstaking investigative work and a good measure of luck have prevented any repetition of the bombings of the underground trains in 2005. The British public is often warned that a successful attack is a distinct possibility. Many of the perpetrators are disaffected British-born Asians and Muslim converts. For British Jews, they are therefore doubly targeted. This excellent book inspires confidence that the purveyors of evil will be thwarted, but as we all know, the future is an unknown country.

The writer is professor of Israeli Studies at SOAS, University of London. The updated, paperback version of his The Triumph of Military Zionism: Nationalism and the Origins of the Israeli Right has just been published.

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