The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, has accused Russia of meddling in elections and planting fake stories in the media in an extraordinary attack on its attempts to “weaponise information” in order to sow discord in the West, but Whitehall has been strangely quiet about past attempts by Britain’s own Intelligence Services to meddle in UK and Irish elections.
42 years ago this March the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, abruptly resigned from office during a whispering campaign orchestrated by elements within the British Intelligence Services alleging that he was a Soviet agent. It is highly ironic, therefore, that during the past few weeks the British media have been dominated by the ‘fake news’ story that the current Leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, was an agent of the Soviet-controlled Czech Intelligence agency, the Statni Bezpecnost (ŠtB). Established in 1945, the StB was also closely linked with the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.
The media campaign against Corbyn relies entirely on claims made by a former StB officer Jan Sarkocy, who served as a diplomat in Britain under the cover name ‘Jan Dymic during the 1980s’.
Despite the media frenzy, the current director of the Czech Security Forces Archive, Svetlana Ptacnikova, issued a formal statement making it clear that Corbyn was neither registered by the ŠtB as a collaborator, nor does his alleged collaboration stem from anything in the archive.
She said: “The files we have on him are kept in a folder that starts with the identification number one. Secret collaborators were allocated folders that start with the number four… He stayed in that basic category – and in fact he was still described as that, as a person of interest – in the final report issued by the ŠtB agent shortly before he [Sarkocy] was expelled from the UK in 1989”.
A Czech Republic Defence Ministry official, Radek Schovánek, who currently has responsibility for examining the old ŠtB files, has also gone on record saying that the allegations against Corbyn are unfounded, as were the claims that Sarkocy signed up other members of the Labour leadership.
It is almost certain that a number of MPs from all the British political parties were “persons of interest” to Czech Intelligence at that time. It is a bit like saying that some MPs are persons interest to the press!
The current story bears all the hallmarks of a similar disinformation exercise run by British Intelligence in the 1960s. In 1968, another Czech Intelligence officer, Josef Frolik, defected to the CIA and provided the CIA and British Intelligence with questionable revelations about operations run by the ŠtB in the West. These included the alleged recruitment, or attempted recruitment, of British members of Parliament and Labour Party leaders. In his book: ‘The Memoirs of an Intelligence Agent’ Frolik claimed that there was a plot to blackmail Edward Heath over his sexual activities. According to Frolík, another ŠtB officer, Jan Mrázek, working out of the Czechoslovakian embassy in London, had devised a plan in the mid-1960s, which aimed to expose Heath to homosexual blackmail.
Frolik claimed that Mrázek had prepared a homosexual honeytrap for Heath, in the form of a personal invitation from a handsome (and sexually versatile) young Czech organist, to visit and play the famous organ of the Church of St James in Prague. But Frolik claimed that Heath was tipped off by MI5 at the last moment, and cancelled the visit.
Despite these claims, the ŠtB’s archives have no record of any plot to trap Heath, nor do they contain any files on Heath. Thefakeallegation is interesting because it not only drew attention to Edward Heath’s alleged sexual orientation, but also portrayed MI5 in a good light.
The strong rebuttals issued by the Current Czech Republic authorities have not stopped right-wing elements of the British press from promoting the campaign of disinformation against Corbyn. So what is behind this fake news?
To understand this, it is important to look at the events in the lead up to the 1974 General Election and to an uncanny similarity between the Corbyn smear and one used against Harold Wilson. It may now seem incredible to many people, but 30 years ago there really was an attempt to undermine the Government led by Wilson. One of the prime witnesses in support of that claim is a former Assistant Director of MI5, Peter Wright, who in his bestselling memoires, ‘Spycatcher’, explains how some of his colleagues set about undermining Wilson at the election in February 1974:
“In the run-up to the election which, given the level of instability in Parliament, must be due within a matter of months, MI5 would arrange for selective details of the intelligence about leading Labour Party figures, but especially Wilson, to be leaked to sympathetic pressmen. Using our contacts in the press and among union officials, word of the material contained in MI5 files and the fact that Wilson was considered a security risk would be passed around.
“Soundings in the office had already been taken, and up to thirty officers had given their approval to the scheme. Facsimile copies of some files were to be made and distributed to overseas newspapers, and the matter was to be raised in Parliament for maximum effect. It was a carbon copy of the Zinoviev letter, which had done so much to destroy the first Ramsay MacDonald Government in 1928”.
The Zinoviev letter was a controversial forged document published by the Daily Mail newspaper four days before the general election in 1924. It purported to be a directive from Grigory Zinoviev, the head of the Communist International (Comintern) in Moscow, to the Communist Party of Great Britain, ordering it to engage in all sorts of seditious activities. Current scholarship sug- gests it probably originated in a Russian monarchist group.
In May 1976 Wright’s allegations about the plot were confirmed personally to two BBC reporters, Roger Courtiour and Barrie Penrose, by Harold Wilson. He told them that the then head of MI6, Sir Maurice Oldfield, had admitted to him that there was a group of MI5 officers who were “unreliable”.
Harold Wilson also told the reporters that he had called in Sir Michael Hanley, the Director General of MI5, who confirmed to him that within his service there was a “disaffected faction with extreme right-wing views”.
On 15 August 1976, the former British Cabinet Secretary, Lord Hunt, who investigated Wilson’s claims, was interviewed by Channel 4 TV and said:
“There is absolutely no doubt at all that a few malcontents in MI5 who were right wing, malicious and had serious personal grudges, were giving vent to this and spreading damaging and malicious stories about some members of that Labour Government”.
“I don’t think they [MI5] were people who were in any sense evil. They were people who, on the whole, followed a train of thought that the Russians used to try and entrap everybody. They must have tried with him, [Harold Wilson]. They must have succeeded”.
Lord Hunt was certainly not a supporter of the Labour Party. The implications of his admission cannot be overstated in terms of the democratic process. Even if the Intelligence Services thought Wilson was the agent of a hostile power, did they have either the lawful or moral right to attempt to topple his government? Evidence of such a plot has long existed, but Lord Hunt’s statement put it on a firm historical basis for the first time.
It is no surprise that Lord Hunt’s report has still not been released to the National Archives. Despite the comments made by Harold Wilson, Sir Maurice Oldfield, Sir Michael Haney and Lord Hunt, MI5’s website, devotes considerable space to a long rebuttal of the charge that it was behind the so-called “Wilson plot”.
When Harold Wilson first met the two BBC reporters, Courtiour and Penrose, he suggested that they should talk to a former Army Psychological Operations officer, Colin Wallace, who had been in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and who had knowledge of the plot against him. From documents now in the public domain it is clear that Colin Wallace had been engaged in what are referred to as ‘psychological operations’, but he had become disenchanted by some of the political activities he was asked to undertake as part of a project known as ‘Clockwork Orange’.
Initially designed to target terrorism, the project had been turned against the Labour Government and other political figures when Harold Wilson and his government came to power in March 1974.
In 1987, the Observer newspaper in London submitted Colin Wallace’s original ‘Clockwork Orange’ handwritten notes to Dr Julius Grant for examination. Dr Grant was one of the world’s leading forensic document examiners. He examined the wood-pulp fibres, starch and additives of the paper, as well as the dye components of the ink, and concluded that the notes were consistent with being written in 1974.
On 5 July 1987, the Observer newspaper reported: “Wallace’s notes are explosive. They contain material known only to MI5 at the time”. The paper when on to say that the notes “included ‘slanted’ accounts of Wilson’s refusal to act on earlier MI5 claims that Labour Minister, John Stonehouse, was under Czech control”.
When Harold Wilson arrived in Downing Street, British Intelligence knew that during his time out of office, he had formulated a 16-point programme that was designed to pave the way for the unification of Ireland. He proposed that a commission, formed from all parties in Britain, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, be set up to frame a new constitution for a united Ireland to come into force 15 years after ratification by all three Parliaments. It is no surprise, therefore, that he was seen as, at the very least, sympathetic to the Nationalist viewpoint. Indeed, Harold Wilson’s private secretary is on record as reminding him that “our main trouble is from the Protestants”.
In May 1974, Harold Wilson was furious when the Ulster Workers’ Council strike brought down the Northern Ireland Power Sharing Executive. In a televised speech, he referred to the “loyalist” strikers and their supporters as “spongers” who expected Britain to pay for their lifestyles. He now considered implementing a secret ‘doomsday plan’ which he had initiated whereby Britain would cut all constitutional ties with Northern Ireland and transform the province into an independent dominion. This would also lead to the withdrawal of British troops. The idea was only shelved when his advisers warned him that such an initiative would not only lead to a civil war which would engulf the whole of Ireland, but also would likely draw in external forces and put the UK mainland at risk.
Although Wilson did not advocate the withdrawal of the British Army at that time, in late 1974 he communicated secretly with Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, then President of Sinn Féin, putting an offer of British withdrawal from Northern Ireland on the table as part of a proposed ceasefire agreement.
The British Intelligence Services were aware of Wilson’s secret communication with Ó Brádaigh via an intermediary. There were also aware that Ó Brádaigh and members of the Provisional IRA Council, who were then on the run from the Gardai, were due to hold a meeting on 10 December 1974 with the leaders of the Prot- estant churches in Ireland at Feakle in Count Clare. In an attempt to undermine the peace talks and discredit both Wilson and participating clergy, British Intelligence Services leaked details of the meeting to the Gardai Special Branch. Although the meeting was raided and broken up by the Garda, the IRA leaders were forewarned of the raid and escaped. The Protestant churchmen passed on the proposals from the IRA leadership to the British government and a temporary ceasefire commenced in January 1975.
Given this background, it should come as no surprise that Jeremy Corbyn is likely to have been the target of fake news from the British Intelligence Services, but why has a former Czech Intelligence officer now surfaced after some thirty years to make these allegations? Surely, he could have made his claims years ago?
At the last British General Election, few people believed that Jeremy Corbyn would ever become Prime Minister. However, even then, Whitehall and the Security Services were expressing serious concerns about him. Within weeks of him winning leadership of the Labour Party, Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, told the BBC that Corbyn’s statement that he would not authorise the use of nuclear weapons “would worry me if that thought was translated into power”.
A few weeks earlier, an anonymous “senior serving general” told the Sunday Times that Corbyn becoming prime minister would bring “the very real prospect” of “a mutiny…You would see a major break in convention with senior generals directly and publicly challenging Corbyn over vital important policy decisions such as Trident, pulling out of NATO and any plans to emasculate and shrink the size of the armed forces”.
Other parts of the British media highlighted his alleged support for radical groups around the world and for the IRA.
The British political landscape has now changed. The Conservative Party is seriously divided and the grassroots supporters are becoming disaffected with the leadership which is in a state of disarray over key topics such as the NHS and Brexit. Experience shows that the electorate does not support a divided political party. The Intelligence Services are now thinking the unthinkable, that Jeremy Corbyn could gain the keys to 10 Downing Street. Perhaps they also felt that a new Zinoviev letter, such as the claim by former Czech spy, Jan Sarkocy, might help prevent that from from becoming a reality.
Joseph de Burca