Spies and silence: When politics is put before justice

By Helen Fry, January 21, 2013
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With the huge success of the latest Bond film, Skyfall, and celebrations last year of the 50th anniversary of Ian Fleming’s blockbuster creation, fascination with all things relating to spies is trendy again. Of course, to get nearer to the truth of the gritty underworld that protects our shores we would do better to pick up a John le Carré novel. But whether we go for the superhero or the down-to-earth agent we can’t get enough of it. TV chiefs have been quick to pick up on this new trend and offered us classic new drama in Restless and Spies of Warsaw.

To outsiders the Secret Service of any country appears to operate according to its own code, irrespective of any moral values. But should our Secret Service function within the law? Must it be bound by an ethical code that always ensures justice is done for the victims of atrocities?

Nowhere is this debate clearer than in transcripts declassified at the National Archives, which reveal that during the Second World War British intelligence set up a clandestine unit to bug the conversations of more than 10,000 German prisoners of war. At three stately homes in the countryside the latest equipment was used to pick up some of Hitler’s most guarded secrets.

At the heart of this unit were German-Jewish émigrés who had fled Nazi persecution and were serving in the British Army. In an ironic turn of events they became “secret listeners” and British intelligence’s most valuable asset. They spent up to 12 hours a day eavesdropping, most significantly on 59 German generals being held at Trent Park in North London.

Why were these files not released for the trials?

The results were beyond anything Winston Churchill imagined when he authorised unlimited funds. British intelligence not only gained an insight into the enemy’s mindset, but surreptitiously gathered information on Hitler’s secret rocket programme, developments on aircraft and strategic details about U-boats, which contributed to winning the Battle of the Atlantic.

But the work had a dark side. Against the backdrop of military and political intelligence, the secret listeners overheard admission of war crimes and terrible atrocities against Jews, Russians and Poles, as well as details of Hitler’s human “stud farms”. These transcripts firmly place on record just how much British intelligence knew about the extermination programme against Europe’s Jews. Why, at the end of the war, were these files not released for war crimes trials to bring the perpetrators to justice?

The files reveal that in 1945, as hostilities drew to a close, a fierce debate raged within British intelligence about whether they should be made publicly available at the Nuremberg trials. There was a strong feeling in the Secret Service that Germany’s military men, who were clearly complicit in war crimes, should face trial. But there was another overriding factor that meant that in the end the files remained under lock and key.

Intelligence chiefs decided that making the files public would jeopardise existing British intelligence operations in England, where they were bugging the German atomic bomb scientists at Farm Hall near Cambridge, and also in Germany, where they were bugging Nazi PoWs. It was felt that enough evidence had been amassed against the main perpetrators without having to release sensitive intelligence files. As a consequence, some Nazi war criminals, especially the military men, were never brought to justice.

With this knowledge 70 years later, a number of dilemmas are raised. Should clandestine intelligence on atrocities and genocide be passed to the International Tribunal for Crimes Against Humanity in the Hague? Or will politics always stand in the way? Does national security supersede human justice? Official government policy is, of course, that having intelligence and being able to act on it are two different things.

But there are undoubtedly lessons for today and for the future, especially with the current situation in Syria, where daily reports of atrocities are coming through. Our Secret Service should be able to find a satisfactory way of making covert evidence of atrocities available without compromising any existing missions. If perpetrators of every generation are not brought to justice, then it makes a mockery of an objective code of international law, which is supposed to be above nationalistic interests.

Dr Fry will launch ‘The M Room’, her book about the secret listeners, on January 29 at the London Jewish Cultural Centre. For tickets visit www.ljcc.org.uk

Last updated: 11:10am, January 21 2013