The Black Door: Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers

British prime ministers have never been neutral towards the intelligence services.


By Richard J. Aldrich and Rory Cormac
ollins, £30

British prime ministers have never been neutral towards the intelligence services. Intelligence historians Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac have written an accessible book, indicating how different premiers reacted to intelligence reports - and often bypassed their own officials, establishing their own private operations.

Churchill revelled in the world of secrets and approved the assassination of senior Nazi generals. Harold Wilson was convinced that he had been stalked by Boss, apartheid South Africa's service - and this convinced him to develop closer ties with Mossad. Neville Chamberlain employed a former MI5 operative to spy on the Labour Party - and on his opponents in the Conservative Party. Anthony Eden hated "the Muslim Mussolini", Gamal Abdul Nasser, and even authorised contact with the Muslim Brotherhood to investigate whether the Egyptian president could be overthrown.

James Callaghan was worried about Trotskyist entryism into Labour by the Militant Tendency, led by Ted Grant, born Isaac Blank in Johannesburg.

Aldrich and Cormac reveal that the head of MI6 in Europe in the mid-1930s, Major Dalton, accepted bribes from Jews seeking visas into Palestine. He was then blackmailed by one of his clerks. Dalton committed suicide and his blackmailer subsequently sold his information to the Nazis.

A decade later, Clement Attlee was concerned about the illegal emigration of Holocaust survivors into Palestine and initiated Operation Embarrass. An MI6 team began operating in speedboats around the Mediterranean, placing limpet mines to disable immigrant ships. Even the sinking of the President Warfield - later known as the Exodus - was contemplated. Most believed at the time that this had been the work of the Arabs.

Nasser was the target of numerous MI6 assassination plans, from poisoned chocolates to an exploding electric shaver. Nasser's secret service, aided by former members of the Gestapo, soon rounded up the Cairo network.

But British intelligence learned to adapt to changing circumstances. In the early 1970s, Black September - a front for Yasser Arafat's Fatah - attempted to kill the Jordanian Ambassador as he was being driven through Kensington. This led to the widespread use of bulletproof glass. UK intelligence also caught wind of a Palestinian plot to attack the Queen Elizabeth II, many of whose 1,400 passengers were Jewish. This led to the establishment of Cobra in 1973.

The overthrown of the Shah in 1978 was unexpected. The Foreign Secretary, David Owen, later believed that the British should have spoken to Mossad because it had already withdrawn its network of operatives - former Iranian Jews - from the country. This lack of contact was due to the prevailing coolness in the aftermath of Edward Heath's lukewarm attitude to Israel.

Yet, years later, in 1990, all intelligence services, including Mossad, never believed that Saddam Hussein would actually invade Kuwait.

This fascinating account uncovers now known unknowns, but a mountain of unknown unknowns remains.

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