By Ray O’Hanlon
It was, they said, the place to get the best hamburger in Washington, D.C. It was also, many said, the most likely place to rub shoulders with a spy. The 1789 Club in the Georgetown district was doing good business in the summer of 1987, the time of Iran-Contra and Oliver North and Robert McFarlane’s clandestine trip to Iran armed with Irish passports. The first audible creaks of a crumbling empire far to the east, an evil empire, according to the Irish American president, were also being noticed, discussed and analyzed.
There was much to talk about over drinks at the club that year. Secrets seemed to be, well, less secret than they once were. But there are always those who will keep secrets. Some are simply better than others. And British Intelligence believes itself to better than just about anyone. Well, most of the time.
In recent days, the world of British Intelligence has been rocked by the publication on the internet of the names of more than 100 people, men and women. Some of them, by the British government’s own admission — and as reported in The New York Times — are agents presently employed by Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, formerly and still commonly known as MI6 or, as John Le CarrT’s books refer to it colloquially, “The Circus.”
Some of the names, again according to the British foreign Office, are of retired agents. Some, insists London, have never been connected to intelligence operations at all. A report published in one British newspaper, The Guardian, stated that some of the names were said to be false in the first place. The British response to the publication of the names, allegedly by disgruntled former MI6 operative, now Swiss-resident Richard Tomlinson, has been, at best, damage control. Outright denial would have fallen flat anyway. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook described the list as being “riddled with inaccuracies.” That, however, is not to say that it is wholly inaccurate. “To an extent, the cat is out of the bag,” admitted an unidentified Foreign Office spokesman.
Tomlinson himself has added to the confusion. He has denied posting the names on the web but has in the past threatened to publish intelligence secrets on his website. There is a view that while Tomlinson compiled the list, he supplied it to another individual to actually post it on the internet.
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Tomlinson was fired from MI6 in 1995 and served six months in a British prison in 1997 after attempting to secure an Australian publisher for a book he wanted to write about his experiences with the SIS.
To the British government, ever sensitive about intelligence leaks — and with good cause, given a history of Philby, Blunt, Burgess, Maclean and others — Tomlinson was threatening to become another Peter Wright, the onetime assistant director of the British domestic security service, MI5. Wright had also sought a publisher in Australia. He ended up with one in that country and also the U.S., Canada and New Zealand. Wright’s book, “Spy Catcher,” was first published in that same summer of Iran-Contra, 1987. It caused a sensation. It would have been the talk of not a few of the bar at the 1789 Club where intelligence operatives from more than one country, friend and foe alike, would gather to spot faces, new and old, and take measure of the opposition.
MI6 and MacBride
All in all, 1987 was a singular year in the spy business. According to what is now being referred to, regardless of denials, as the “Tomlinson list,” 1987 was also the year of arrival in Washington of one particular alleged MI6 agent whose job description was “diplomat” at the bustling British Embassy but whose actual work — if MI6 was indeed his master — stretched well beyond the bounds of stoking and stroking the most famous special relationship on the planet. The individual’s work, some Irish-American activists now firmly believe, also included efforts to probe and possibly undermine the legitimate political activities of Americans concerned with events in Northern Ireland. This, they believe, was particularly the case at one point in relation to the campaign on behalf of the MacBride Principles on fair employment in Northern Ireland.
The British government is known to have spent millions of dollars over a period of a dozen years or more in attempting to combat MacBride progress before various state and city legislatures. A widely accepted figure is $13 million, although it could well be higher. Much of the British opposition was open and stated. But the presence of an alleged MI6 agent in the ranks of the anti-MacBride camp is raising, in the eyes of some pro-MacBride campaigners, the issue of possible secret or underhand work aimed at thwarting what most Irish Americans would tend to see as a perfectly legitimate, nonviolent attempt to change the flawed nature of Northern Ireland, economically and politically.
The idea of British agents being on station in the U.S. while passing themselves off as diplomats, business types, academics or indeed journalists, comes as no great surprise. The list being attributed to Tomlinson names no fewer than 13 MI6 operatives working in New York and Washington from the 1970s and 1990s. And the list only amounts to less than one third of generally accepted estimates of MI6’s worldwide field strength. On that basis, there were undoubtedly more.
Above and beyond concerns about underhanded interference in the law-abiding political activities of Irish Americans, some are now raising the question of U.S. government awareness. Does the United States know about and accept the presence of foreign agents, not least British ones, on U.S. soil? Is it aware that the presence of such operatives might go beyond keeping an eye on the movements of Russians, Chinese or other nationals not considered entirely friendly as they go about their work in Washington and elsewhere? If, as it daily does, the CIA works hand-in-glove with MI6 in other countries, does it also work with MI6 in the United States? Does this work also bring with it knowledge of MI6 actions against U.S. citizens, either by way of formal contacts or informal ones over a gin and tonic in Georgetown?
As one might expect, answers to these questions are not exactly hanging up in lights. But that the CIA and MI6 are on close, even intimate, terms, much of the time across much of the globe is beyond dispute. In the U.S., however, the issues become more complex because for both, America is friendly soil full of supposedly friendly people.
CIA-MI6: kissing cousins
In the James Bond movies, the CIA sometimes plays the role of the cavalry, charging over the hill at the end, just in time to clean up the mess created by Britain’s masterspy, these days, somewhat ironically played by an Irish actor, Pierce Brosnan. The CIA and Britain’s twin civilian-controlled intelligence services share information all the time. The arrangement is formalized in a memorandum of understanding between the U.S. and British governments dating to 1948. To a lesser extent, Canadian and Australian intelligence services are included in the arrangement. New Zealand has been on a more outer edge in recent years, given its opposition to visits by U.S. nuclear-powered, arms-carrying warships. Richard Tomlinson, as it turns out, was born in New Zealand.
A random sampling by the Echo of several books dealing with the world of spying and intelligence merely underlines this close relationship. In the book “Casey: The Lives and Secrets of William J. Casey: From the OSS to the CIA,” author Joseph Persico writes at one point: “In the fall of 1982, Kuzichkin defected to the British. The CIA had a sharing arrangement with MI6, British Intelligence . . . ”
And there is this from “The Shah’s Last Ride,” by William Shawcross: “It is certainly true that the action of the CIA and MI6 were important. . . . The demonstrations were indeed provoked and begun with MI6 and CIA money.”
When it comes to MI6 operations in the United States, the CIA is generally in the know, as is the FBI. According to British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, MI6 operatives are usually career intelligence agents who might be legal or illegal, declared or undeclared, in the countries to which they are posted.
“If they are declared, the host country’s secret service is advised. If they are undeclared, the host nation’s secret service is not told,” Campbell told the Echo from his home in Scotland this week.
According to Campbell, a primary function of MI6 officers in the U.S. is maintaining direct liaison with the CIA. MI6 counter-terrorism work would be carried out in conjunction with the FBI, while British military intelligence would deal mostly with the National Security Agency.
When supplied by the Echo with the name and job description of the individual named on the Tomlinson list and also known to MacBride advocates, Campbell was of the view that the person, being a diplomat, was likely a “declared, legal, SIS officer.” Campbell believes that the individual “couldn’t possibly be that provocative” unless his presence was known to the CIA and FBI.
“SIS has a very big presence in the U.S.,” Campbell said. “They would be virtually all declared, but there’s probably a few more to do other things.”
“Other things,” in Campbell’s opinion, would include the dissemination of propaganda aimed at influencing Irish-American opinion or U.S. opinion generally with regard to Ireland.
It would, according to Campbell, also involve “spying on the Irish-American community, primarily in New York.”
Next week: Targeting Irish America — do British agents cross the legal line?