Latin quote attributed to Juvenal, literally ‘but who guards the guards?’ In a modern context, it might be interpreted as ‘who watches over the security services?’
he cases of espionage and other secret operations encountered so far are by no means exhaustive, but form a summary of the most important or colourful episodes in history. The more open minded might also like to consider the frontier of ESPionage – where secret service merges with the paranormal. There are many claims that the United States used psychic spies or ‘remote viewers’ to mentally scan buildings in the search for Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. In addition there are a whole series of related topics, which fall into the category of ‘Black Ops’, including the quest to create psychic soldiers – as seen with the strange-but-seemingly-true Project Jedi.
From the supernatural to the sinister, we have the ‘real Dr Strangelove’ – the CIA’s Dr Sidney Gottlieb (1918–99). An expert in poison, Gottlieb joined the chemical division of the CIA’s Technical Services Staff in 1951. Two years later he headed Project MKUltra which investigated the possible military uses of psycho-active drugs, including LSD. Research on CIA agents led Chemical Corps Major-General William Creasey to suggest dropping LSD into an enemy city’s water supply as a humane alternative to the use of nuclear weapons. Another colleague of Gottlieb’s was Dr Frank Olson. When given LSD without his knowledge, Olson suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent by the CIA to a New York City psychiatrist. Once in the Big Apple, Olson fell 13 storeys out of a hotel window. Although the incident was officially blamed on the side-effects of a ‘bad trip’, Olson’s son maintains his father was thrown from the window after threatening to go public about the programme.
Less far fetched has been the long-running conflict between Irish Republicans and the British government. Of all the espionage stories relating to ‘the Troubles’, perhaps the most startling was that of a ‘mole’ codenamed Stakeknife. Recruited by the intelligence services in 1978 as a low-ranking IRA volunteer, Stakeknife became head of the IRA’s internal security unit, the so-called ‘nutting squad’. His handlers were the FRU (Force Research Unit), an undercover British military intelligence unit, which mounted covert operations against IRA and Loyalist terrorists. In return for his services, Stakeknife was paid via a Gibraltar-based bank account to the tune of £80,000 a year – then comparable to a cabinet minister’s salary.
As head of the nutting squad, Stakeknife would have been in charge of vetting IRA recruits and seeking out moles working for the British and Irish governments. It is believed that Stakeknife had a hand in the murders of up to 40 suspected informers. It is also believed that to protect Stakeknife’s identity, his FRU handlers authorized him to kill three FRU agents. It is also alleged that Stakeknife supplied the information leading to the ambush of three IRA volunteers in Gibraltar on 6 March 1988. In February 1989 Belfast estate agent Joseph Fenton was murdered, apparently on Stakeknife’s orders. Fenton supplied safe houses for the IRA but also acted as a police informant. When Loyalist paramilitaries began to go after Stakeknife, it is alleged that the FRU protected their man by fitting up Francisco Notarantonio with false documents and persuading the Loyalist paramilitary group the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) that he was Stakeknife. That British intelligence could have been privy to so many murders proved somewhat unpalatable to say the least.
Another spy of note is former MI5 agent William Carlin. A soldier in the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars, Carlin was approached by MI5 in 1974 and asked to return to his native Derry and become involved in the political side of the Republican movement. Over a number of years, Carlin began to work his way into Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, reporting back to his handlers on the activities of activist Martin McGuinness.
In 1980 Carlin became disillusioned with the behaviour of the army and security services in Northern Ireland and quit MI5. However, he found it much harder to disengage himself from his political work with Sinn Fein. In 1981 Carlin re-established contact with the security services after the murder of census-collector Joanne Mathers. Rather than being handled directly by MI5, Carlin was run by the FRU, although he did not know this at the time. Carlin rose through the ranks of Sinn Fein, all the while providing his handlers with detailed information on McGuinness and other political intelligence. Carlin’s cover was then blown by one of his former MI5 handlers.
Michael Bettaney was recruited to MI5 in 1982. His erratic behaviour was perhaps best summed up by one MP in a House of Commons debate:
‘He was an alcoholic, a misfit, a fantasist, a curious wild and way-out character, whose fatal weakness was alcohol in a big way. He used to be so drunk among his Security Service colleagues that he could not stand up. On one occasion, he even set fire to himself. He had two convictions for criminal dishonesty. At social occasions in the MI5 mess he used to say things such as, “Come and see me in my dacha when I retire”. “I am sure the East Germans would look after me better.” “I am working for the wrong side.”’
Another popular Bettaney story is that having not paid for a rail journey, he was chased through the carriages by a ticket inspector and police, shouting ‘You can’t arrest me, I’m a spy!’ The amazing thing was that Bettaney really was working for the Soviets, copying secret documents and passing them on to the KGB. His treachery was eventually exposed by KGB mole Oleg Gordievsky. Bettaney was arrested and put on remand in Wandsworth prison. There he met Patrick Magee, an IRA member charged with bombing the 1984 Tory Party conference in the Grand Hotel, Brighton. Bettaney is believed to have told Magee that the British had a spy close to McGuinness. Magee passed this news on to the Republicans who began an investigation. Other informants within the IRA warned that Carlin’s cover had been blown and so, on 3 March 1985, Carlin’s handler telephoned him at midnight and told him it was time to leave. He was taken with his family to a secret location in Britain.
In an unexpected twist to the case, Carlin gave evidence in support of McGuinness in an investigation into the deaths of 14 civilians at the ‘Bloody Sunday’ civil rights protest in 1972. At the time it was claimed that British soldiers opened fire on the demonstrators after shots were fired at them. It was alleged that Martin McGuinness, then second-in-command of the Provisional IRA in Londonderry, had opened fire on the British troops. According to Carlin, the accusation against McGuinness was based on a conversation reported by him, but which was being used out of context and wrongly in his opinion.
Dirty tricks are by no means the sole preserve of Anglo-Saxon agencies. In 1985 France grabbed the headlines by sinking the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior. In the 1980s France had been testing new nuclear devices on Mururoa Atoll in the Pacific. Greenpeace planned to go to the atoll and disrupt these tests. To prevent this occurring, plans were drawn up for France’s intelligence and covert action bureau (DGSE) to sink the Greenpeace ship. Codenamed Operation Satanic, three DGSE teams were dispatched to New Zealand where the ship was moored in Auckland Harbour. On the night of 10 July, two small explosions tore into the hull of Rainbow Warrior. Four minutes later the ship had sunk. Although the French saboteurs had planted the explosions so as not to harm any of the crew, photographer Fernando Pereira drowned trying to rescue his equipment.
France initially denied any involvement in the attack, but New Zealand’s police force arrested two agents, Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur, who were each found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. Both agents were later transferred into French ‘custody’ in 1986 and were both freed in 1988. It is believed the other saboteurs were picked up by a French nuclear submarine. A story in The Sunday Times claimed President Mitterrand knew of the plan and in the subsequent scandal, France’s Defence Minister, Charles Hernu, resigned, while Admiral Pierre Lacoste, director of the DGSE, was sacked. Twenty years after the operation, Le Monde published a report written by Admiral Lacoste, revealing that President Mitterrand had in fact given him his personal authorization for the operation.
Although the days of the KGB are behind us, their heirs are still at work. Witness the case of the opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, who was apparently poisoned during the controversial Ukrainian elections of 2004. On 5 September 2004, Yushchenko attended a dinner hosted by Volodymyr Satsiuk – deputy head of the SBU, Ukraine’s secret service. Shortly afterwards Yushchenko was taken ill with severe abdominal and back pains. His face then became unusually bloated and pock-marked, a characteristic symptom of dioxin poisoning. It was subsequently alleged that a Russian political scientist, Gleb Pavlovsky, came up with the idea of giving Yushchenko ‘the mark of the beast’ by disfiguring him and that the poison was administered during the dinner with Satsiuk. Despite these and other ‘dirty tricks’, Yushchenko was inaugurated President of Ukraine on 23 January 2005.
Another agency no stranger to ‘active measures’ is Israel’s ‘Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations’ – better known as Mossad. As an active participant in the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict many of Mossad’s operations have yet to be declassified. Although a number of high-profile cases are currently in the public domain – that is to say, published on the internet – there is little hard evidence available.
When the State of Israel was declared in 1948 it immediately came under attack by its Arab neighbours. Recognizing that the first line of defence was intelligence, Israel’s government formed Mossad on 13 December 1949. The organization is responsible for a wide range of covert activities, from espionage to secretly aiding Jewish refugees reach Israel, the movement of Ethiopian Jews to avoid the famine of 1984 being a good example of this.
Widely recognized as the top spy in Israeli history, Eli Cohen (1924–65) infiltrated the Syrian government in 1962 under the alias ‘Kamel Amin Tsa’abet’. To establish his cover, Cohen posed as a Syrian returning from Argentina. One of his more notable achievements was to suggest that the Syrian military should plant trees in front of its outposts facing Israel, to guard them from view. In reality the reverse was true: everywhere the Israeli military saw a group of eucalyptus trees they knew where to find Syrians. In 1965 Cohen was caught sending a radio message. Found guilty of espionage, he was publicly hanged in Damascus on 18 May 1965.
That same year, Mossad lost its top spy in Egypt, Wolfgang Lotz (1921–93). Posing as a West German war veteran recently returned from Australia, Lotz was sent to Egypt to collect information on Soviet arms being supplied to President Nasser’s government, including MiG warplanes and SAM missiles. Lotz also provided Mossad with the names of the German scientists working on a missile programme for Egypt. Mossad was then able to intimidate many of the scientists into quitting the project. Unluckily, Lotz was arrested in a Soviet-inspired clamp down on West Germans in Egypt. Wrongly believing the Egyptians had discovered he was a spy, Lotz confessed to everything. He fell back on a cover story of being a German pressed into service by Mossad against his will and was believed. Sentenced to life imprisonment, Lotz was exchanged with other Israeli spies after the 1967 war.
Mossad operatives have also been linked to a number of assassination missions carried out against members of the Palestinian group Black September in retaliation for the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In many respects, the Munich killings were to Israel what 9/11 was to the United States. In both cases – whether officially admitted or not – the gloves came off in respect to the government’s dealing with the issue of terrorism. The Israeli response was to take the fight to the terrorists in a series of revenge attacks dubbed Operation Wrath of God by the media.
The members of the ‘Avner’ Wrath of God group were reportedly told to resign from Mossad in order to cut any trace of Israeli government involvement. They were provided with unlimited money in a Swiss account and a list of 11 targets they were to assassinate. Their first ‘hit’ was in Rome against Wael Zwaiter, the cousin of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chief Yasser Arafat. Two Israeli agents shot Zwaiter in the lobby of his apartment. Before opening fire the agents were careful to identify Zwaiter properly – their instructions were only to kill when absolutely certain they had the right man and never to risk injuring a third party. This rule led to problems with the next hit, as the suspect had his family living with him. Mahmoud Hamshari was the PLO’s official representative in Paris. The assassins broke into Hamshari’s apartment dressed as telecom engineers and placed a small bomb inside his telephone. On the morning of 8 December 1972, after the suspect’s wife and daughter had left the apartment, one of the agents telephoned Hamshari under the pretext of conducting an interview. Once Hamshari confirmed his identity, the agent detonated the telephone bomb by remote control. Hamshari was mortally wounded by the explosion and died a month later.
The group went on to perform four more successful missions, including one against Zaid Muchassi, who had not been on the original list but had replaced Abad al-Chir as the PLO contact with the KGB. While killing Muchassi the group also shot the PLO man’s KGB contact who was waiting outside the building and appeared to be drawing a gun as the group made their escape. In March 1973 Mossad learned that three targets from the original list were meeting in Beirut. These were Mahmoud Yussuf Najjer, Kamal Nasser and Kemal Adwan. An operation to get these three men was launched and codenamed Spring of Youth. On 10 April 1973, approximately 40 Israeli commandos landed on a Beirut beach and were met by an advance party of Mossad agents. Together they tracked down and killed the three targets.
Completely independent from the Avner group, another team was sent after Israel’s principal assassination target, Ali Hassan Salameh, believed to be the organizer of the Munich operation. On 21 July 1973 this team accidentally shot dead an innocent man in Lillehammer, Norway, whom they believed was Salameh. The actual victim was Ahmed Bouchiki, a Moroccan waiter walking home from the cinema with his pregnant wife. Norwegian police arrested six of the Israeli agents and recovered documents linking them to Mossad. They also passed details of a safe house in Paris to the French authorities who uncovered more evidence linking the Israeli government to the murder of Palestinians. Undeterred by such embarrassing setbacks, Mossad made several more attempts against Salameh, finally killing him in Beirut with a remote-controlled car bomb on 22 January 1979.
Mossad is also believed to have been behind the 1988 assassination of senior PLO figure Abu Jihad in Tunis and is one of several suspects behind the murder of Gerald Bull, a Canadian aerospace engineer. Bull was the designer behind Project Babylon, better known as the Iraq ‘Supergun’, and also worked on a project to build a multi-stage missile for Iraq. In March 1990, as he returned to his Brussels apartment, he was shot five times in the back of the head. Other suspected parties include the secret services of Iran and Iraq itself.
It is widely believed that Mossad kidnapped Mordechai Vanunu, a former nuclear technician who revealed details of Israel’s nuclear weapons programme to the British newspaper The Sunday Times in 1986. Following this disclosure, an American Mossad agent calling herself Cindy began an affair with Vanunu in London and persuaded him to go to Rome with her. It was the oldest trick in the book. Once in Italy, Vanunu claims he was drugged and returned to Israel where he faced treason charges. In 1988 he was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment. He was released in 2004 under heavy restrictions.
In 1991 the American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s book The Samson Option accused Nicholas Davies, the foreign editor of the Daily Mirror, of tipping off the Israeli embassy that Vanunu was giving his story to The Sunday Times and had tried to pass it to the Sunday Mirror, a title owned by Czech-born media tycoon Robert Maxwell, who was thought to have contacts with Israeli intelligence. These allegations were not exactly new. Hersh’s principal source, Ari Ben-Menashe, had made these allegations before, but no British newspaper would publish them for fear of legal action. Even when repeated in Hersh’s book, no one would run the story.
In order to circumvent the threat of legal action, on 21 October 1991, MP Rupert Allason raised the issue in the House of Commons, which enabled newspapers to report the allegations. Allason’s early-day motion expressed concern that the Daily Mirror and Maxwell had maintained a close relationship with Mossad and that in 1983 Nicholas Davies had gone into partnership with Ari Ben-Menashe and ‘negotiated the sale of 4,000 TOW anti-tank missiles to Iran in contravention of the United Nations arms embargo then in force in 1987’. Allason’s motion also alleged that Davies had conspired to supply information on Vanunu’s whereabouts to the Israeli embassy. Allason asked if the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry would investigate the alleged export of weapons and suspend confidential and Foreign and Commonwealth Office briefings to Mirror Group personnel until an investigation was completed. The following day, Allason asked the Leader of the House, John MacGregor: ‘Will he ask the Prime Minister, as head of the security and intelligence services, to order an immediate inquiry into the alleged relationship between the Israeli intelligence service and Robert Maxwell and especially Mr. Nicholas Davies, the news editor of the Daily Mirror?’
British newspapers began publishing the allegations, and although Maxwell denied the claims, he sacked Davies soon after. The media tycoon then had Hersh and his publishers, Faber and Faber, issued with a writ for libel. However, on the night of 5/6 November 1991, Robert Maxwell died when he fell off his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, while cruising off the Canary Islands. The official verdict was accidental drowning, but, it is fair to say, there are plenty of theories to suggest otherwise, if one cares to look for them.
By now it should be clear how much of world history has been shaped by unseen hands. In nations of democratic tradition the work of secret services is reprehensible to many, but there is no reason to think such things will go away overnight – nor even in the long term. Few people can really be so naive as to believe that elected governments will never again authorize illegal acts in the national interest. However, a balance must be maintained. Elected politicians must always hold ultimate veto over the actions of the secret services, as politicians can then be held accountable through the ballot box. To allow secret services complete freedom to do as they see fit is a recipe for disaster. However, at the same time, they need to be robust enough to make a difference. It is all a question of balance. As Tolstoy declared in War and Peace ‘the wolves should be fed and the sheep kept safe’.