Category: Archive

Britain’s eyes in America

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Second of two parts

By Ray O’Hanlon

In the ebbing days of the Cold War, the special relationship between the United States and Britain was at an all-time high. Much of this had to do with the glowing mutual admiration binding British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan. Thatcher was famously difficult to please and wasn’t much for suffering fools. But Reagan, the Irish-American president with a twinkle in his eye, was quite something else. It was just a pity that the rest of Irish America didn’t quite match up.

In her autobiography "The Downing Street Years," Thatcher focused her gimlet eye on that great mass of Irish America living beyond the White House gates. What she saw didn’t please.

"The emotions and loyalties of millions of decent Irish-Americans," she wrote, "are manipulated by Irish Republican extremists who have been able to give a romantic respectability to terrorism that its sordid reality belies. As a result, there has been a continuing flow of funds and arms which helps the IRA to continue its campaign."

That Thatcher would see red over illegal Irish-Republican activities in the U.S. was understandable. But her conclusion that "millions" of American citizens were little more than sheep being herded by republican dogs of war goes much of the way toward explaining the sometimes extreme antipathy that the British government, particularly during the 1980s, not infrequently displayed toward even legal Irish-American political concerns such as the MacBride Principles campaign.

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The danger clearly was that if "millions" of decent Irish Americans could be swayed by bloodthirsty terrorists, they could be absolutely won over by smart-talking lobbyists and politicians intent on shattering the economic status quo of Northern Ireland as it related to Catholic-Protestant employment rates. Given this view from the very top in London, it was a short step to taking the position that at least some level of interference in the political discourses of Irish America was both justifiable and warranted. After all, these misguided Irish Americans were themselves interfering in the internal affairs of the United Kingdom.

Such reasoning, now given new impetus by the Richard Tomlinson list, merely underpins what some veteran MacBride campaigners have long suspected: That the gloves came off over MacBride and quite possibly other issues; that not just the forces of British diplomacy, but also the considerable guile of British intelligence, specifically MI6, were brought to bear on Irish America during the 1980s and that this application continued into the present decade. If that is indeed the case, it is nothing new. Irish America has long been the object of what could be described, at the very least, as an intense British curiosity.

Wolves in the fold

In a just-published autobiographical book, former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali recalls his battles with the U.S. government, a tussle that climaxed in the Egyptian’s failed attempt to secure a second term at the helm of the world body. Boutros-Ghali writes that his difficulties with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reminded him of what a Hindu scholar once said to him: "There is no difference between diplomacy and deception."

Part of any diplomat’s brief is to find out more about the host country. In a relatively open society such as the United States, what would be accepted as normal information gathering by a diplomat would be considered outright spying in more closed societies. The very definition of spying varies hugely across the globe. Even if a British diplomat at the Washington agency was attached to MI6, his or her work for that agency might never demand much of anything beyond what a diplomat might ordinarily do in the course of regular diplomatic work. But then again, it might.

Much depends on time and circumstance. In the highly charged years immediately after the hunger strikes in Northern Ireland, the advent of the MacBride Principles campaign, in 1984, would have been viewed in London as another log in an already overheated fire.

Back in the mid-19th century, the view from London was much the same. In his biography of the Fenian leader John Devoy, "Irish Rebel," Terry Golway highlights the roles of several individuals during the 1860s and ’70s whose task it was to penetrate and compromise Irish-American efforts at fueling the fires of rebellion in Ireland. There was Edward Archibald, British consul general in New York. "His chief duty," according to Golway, "was to keep his eye on the American Irish." There was the leading Clan na Gael member, F.F. Millen, a self-styled general and veteran of the Mexican War. Millen would head the General Military Board of the Clan’s Irish Liberating Army. Millen, it turned out, was on the British payroll, "one of at least two spies who successfully infiltrated the Clan’s highest counsels." And then there was Chicago surgeon Henri Le Caron, a French Canadian with an Irish mother, confidante of both Devoy and Charles Stewart Parnell. According to Golway, details of Le Caron’s conversations with both "were duly reported back to the British government for Le Caron was a British spy and had been since the Fenian invasion of Canada."

Tinker, Taylor, Diplomat, Spy

"Finding Spies Is the Easy Part." The headline in the New York Times was referring to the uproar over alleged Chinese theft of U.S. nuclear weapons secrets. But what if the spies are not being sought in the first place because they are not your enemies but your supposed friends?

Press coverage of the Chinese spying scandal reached new highs in recent days with the publication of the congressional Cox report. The Tomlinson MI6 list also received prominent coverage in papers such as the Washington Post and New York Times, but neither publication mentioned the fact that the list — as available to both as it was to just about anyone with access to the internet — listed 13 alleged MI6 operatives as having operated in the home cities of both publications.

At first glance, the tendency would appear to be to give your friends a pass, no matter what they are up to. But it probably doesn’t even reach the point where such a decision has to be made. The British, quite simply, don’t rate on the U.S. espionage watch list even though events down the years illustrate, time and again, that even friends spy on friends.

Close cooperation

With regard to the question of illegal activities on the part of Irish Americans, there is no doubt that MI6 has been a beneficiary of close cooperation over the years with U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

The Echo has learned of one instance, in the mid-1980s, in which a Washington, D.C., bar, only a few blocks from the White House and viewed as a haunt of Irish-Republican activists, came under sustained surveillance by the CIA. The agency, however, did not deploy any of its own officers. Rather, it used an agent on loan from a federal law enforcement agency. The intelligence obtained by the surveillance, according to a well-informed source, was passed directly from the CIA to the British Embassy, where it all but certainly went straight to an MI6 desk.

The CIA is forbidden by federal statue from targeting U.S. civilians on U.S. soil. In this instance, the targets did include non-U.S. citizens. In strictly legal terms, too, the agent carrying out the surveillance was not a CIA career officer even though he was reporting directly to the agency.

"There’s a lot winking and nodding when it comes to stuff like this," the Echo’s source said.

In an area where the predominant background color is always gray, cooperation against illegal activity involving U.S. and British intelligence agencies is made more likely by the fact that MI6 is not actually allowed undertake its own covert work on U.S. territory. It is permitted to go about gathering information, even that level that would generally be viewed as "intelligence." But if the book is being followed, the Echo has been told, MI6 would be stepping beyond the accepted bounds if it separately mounted wiretaps, or so-called black bag jobs, against individuals in the U.S., even if those individuals were breaking the law.

If the individuals are operating within the law, however, does the same degree of cooperation between the U.S. and British prevail? And if not, does that mean that MI6 actually has more freedom to bend the rules?

These questions are being posed with renewed vigor in the aftermath of the Tomlinson list’s naming of a late 1980s Washington-based British diplomat as an alleged MI6 officer.

"Granting the historic close relationship between the CIA and MI6, was the CIA aware of the MI6 campaign to sabotage the MacBride Principles campaign? If MI6 was involved on such a public level, what was it doing on a secret level?" asked Fr. Sean McManus, president of the Irish National Caucus and a leading MacBride proponent from the inception of the fair-employment campaign 15 years ago.

A long leash

From various sources, the Echo is able to present a picture in which it is apparent that MI6 can, and does, legally assign officers to the U.S. And by no means all of them need be attached to the British Embassy in Washington or various consulates.

In the context of diplomatic missions specifically, there is what one source described as a system of "clear, if generally not codified, rules" that define acceptable behavior for diplomats in the context of the host country’s political affairs.

But those rules stretch depending on the particular diplomatic mission. All are on a leash, but some leashes are longer than others. And the British leash is the longest of all.

Said one source: "The British had the greatest leeway along with the Isr’lis. But that was before [Isr’li spy] Jonathan Pollard. Now the British are alone at the top."

Another source commented: "The unwritten rules are a bit more vague with the British than with other diplomatic missions. . . . We tend to tolerate a lot more of the British than with the others."

Given the span and depth of the relationship between Washington and London this, of course, is to be expected.

But given this extra-long leash, it would appear that MI6 is presented with the opportunity to work virtually unhindered on U.S. ground within certain, though considerably extended, parameters when compared to even other "friendly" spy agencies, such as, for example, the French external intelligence service, SDECE.

Given this, has British Intelligence targeted Irish America in a general sense? Undoubtedly. In conjunction with U.S. agencies, the CIA included, has it operated against alleged illegal activities carried out by Irish Americans, or Irish citizens, in the United States? On the balance of probability, the answer again is yes. Has British intelligence crossed the line into the legitimate political arena while passing itself off in another guise? The answer at least falls into the realm of possibility. The Tomlinson list convinces some that it goes well beyond that.

Has the U.S. government aided and abetted such crossover action? Perhaps, although given such free rein, the British might not even need help in crossing a line that is, at best, a thin one, even by the standards of that murky area where diplomacy first meets, then embraces, outright deception.

June 2-8, 1999

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