Secret Operations

Moussa KoussaTwo years ago, Moussa Koussa, the Libyan Minister of Foreign Affairs, did something interesting. He drove into Tunisia, boarded a private jet and flew to Farnborough Airfield in England. Libyan sources insisted that he had left the country on a diplomatic mission but the British authorities claimed that he was disenchanted with his employers and considering his resignation.

Few Britons would have known who he was the day before but now they knew him as a figure of tremendous evil. Politicians and commentators suggested that his defection was similar to that of Rudolf Hess. He was, Libyan rebels told us, with apparent justice, a crook whose hands were stained with the blood of his countrymen. British sources also alleged that he had masterminded the Lockerbie bombings, and had been involved in the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher. It seemed that we had a man who was both big and bad. Boris Johnson summed up the feelings of the moment by going on Question Time and saying that if there was the slightest evidence against him, he should be arrested.

Koussa was interviewed by the intelligence services, and by Scottish investigators of the Pan Am bombing. Then the European Union, on the urgings of the British, lifted its travel and economic sanctions against the man and he promptly boarded a plane and flew to Qatar. There was a kind of dazed silence. Relatives of victims of the Lockerbie bombing complained bitterly but the press, having informed us that he was a murderer and probable terrorist, seemed to lose their interest in him. The Telegraph did track him down to a hotel in Doha, and found him swanning about under the protection of the Qataris; eating at expensive Italian restaurants and generally enjoying life.

We have heard almost nothing of the fellow since. The last that I heard, he was settling in Jordan.

Why Moussa Koussa was allowed in and out remains mysterious. He must have offered the government or its agencies something valuable. The Sunday Express alleged, while he was still in Britain, that he had a close working relationship with MI6, while the Independent, noting the British and Libyan collaboration over “rendition” policies, suggested that he “held a ‘smoking gun’”. Neither they nor other papers pursued these accusations.

It seems very grubby that Koussa’s Libyan victims have been denied justice, especially if he won immunity through his work in some of the grubbiest episodes of the “War on Terror”. It seems very grubby that victims of Lockerbie were led to believe that he could answer the questions that have dogged them for almost a quarter of a century, only to see him disappear and leave more questions in his wake. Over eighteen months after the fall of Gadaffi, and with no evidence of Libyan guilt having emerged, the perpetrators of the bombings remain shrouded in mystery. If they could be found elsewhere, a chance to eliminate suspects has been thrown away. If they did come from the Maghreb it is quite possible that the state discarded not merely a chance to prove this to us but a chance to prosecute one of them. For what?

Who knows. What vexes me is not simply the fact that our government is engaged in such suspicious and discomfiting affairs but that the journalists whose task it is to explain such events have shown no interest in them. If, as they informed us, there were grounds on which to compare the man to Rudolf Hess it is as if Churchill, Eden and so on had let the one-time Deputy Führer sail off to Brazil, yet few of them complained and none of them seem to have made an effort to discover why they did it. How often, one has to ask, do they fail to make such efforts? As on other occasions, we are left with memory, and curiosity, and questions.

Pat FinucaneIt baffles me that anyone could take a “side” in the Northern Irish conflict. Oh, sure, I see how someone could be more or less sympathetic to the causes of the loyalists or the republicans but the idea that someone could condemn the murderous provos while sympathising with the murderous UDA, or vice versa, is extremely strange.

Still, I have no wish to dig my salty fingers into the wounds of that luckless nation. Unsophisticated as my “anti-all murderers” stance might be it’s one I’m comfortable with. And it’s why I’m disgusted to see acknowledgement of the extent of state collusion with the brutal would-be ethnic cleansers of the Ulster Defence Association. 85% of the intelligence they used to identify targets for slayings, it seems, came from police or army sources. British agents within loyalist groups were given carte blanche to act as they saw fit, and, it seems, even encouraged in their assassinations.

Yet I hear them now: the sniffs of pious indifference. Don’t I know Pat Finucane was a member of the IRA? Well, no, I don’t, and nor have a succession of investigators. It is very plausible that he was a sympathiser and remains possible that he conspired with the men but if you think this justification for shooting him in front of his wife and young children you should think about your ethics. One is not obliged to earn civilised behaviour with moral purity. If you think it trivial that state agents colluded in the murder of a Briton, meanwhile, and that the circumstances of his death were obscured, you are a despot’s dream.

There should have been a public inquiry. Such are things are expensive, I know, but not half as costly as the wars that our nation spends half of its life being plunged into. I want it all out: all of the evidence of the callousness and dishonesty that infects people and their institutions when they are engaged in conflicts. Then perhaps the costs of future hostilities could be avoided: in financial terms, of course, but also in lives.

I would like to think that this, in the same year as the Hillsborough inquiry and the Savile revelations, will take the sneers off the expressions that are liable to face those citizens who question the behaviour of the state, and reject its explanations of events. This seems unlikely, though. In one or two decades time, if future inquiries into Lockerbie, Gareth Williams’ killing or another strange and unaccounted for occurrence turns up evidence of wrongdoing, I fear that the same conversations will be had again.

This month is the 40th anniversary of the Munich massacre. We all know of the event but the scale of the carelessness that allowed it to happen sometimes goes unrecognised. It was a tragedy of errors, with German officials failing to provide security; ignoring signs of danger; wasting time in the negotiators and finally bungling their rescue attempt on every level, with snipers blasting into the darkness and hitting their own men as often as they hit the Palestinians. This gave them plenty of time in which to kill their hostages.

The Germans, as you can guess, weren’t pleased by the event and strove to ensure that what happened in Munich stayed in Munich. A Spiegel report claims that two days after the massacre a Foreign Ministry official…

…told a special sitting of the federal cabinet what would ultimately become the maxim for both Bavarian and West German officials. “Mutual incriminations must be avoided,” a protocol for the meeting reads. “Also, no self-criticism.”

The officials began to protect their own with the skill and diligence that were notably absent from their efforts to protect the athletes and coaches. As Simon Reeves observed in his book One Day in September

Schlütter doesn’t know of a single police officer punished or reprimanded for incompetence at any point following the Munich debacle. It is testimony to the speed with which Bavarian and Munich officials closed ranks to protect themselves from blame after the massacre at Fürstenfeldbruck.

It was left to ordinary citizens and, indeed, victims of the massacre to reveal its truth. For years the government claimed to have no information related to the disaster. In the early 1990s, though, a nameless official contacted Ankie Spitzer, the wife of the slain Israeli fencing coach Andre, and sent her part of a treasure trove of documents. Confronted with the proof of the existence of their archives, the Germans reluctantly dug up thousands of files…

“It only became clear to us after we got the documentation how many mistakes were made,” said Ankie Spitzer. The documents, according to Ankie, made the Germans look like fools. “It is clear that what the Germans tried to do was cover up all their failings. First in organizing the games and not providing enough security for their guests. And then planning a rescue which they could not execute.”

Still, though, the government tried to cover up the scale of their incompetence in handling the crisis. In his discussion of the making of the film that accompanied his book Reeves claimed that…

…officials present at the Olympic Village and Fürstenfeldbruck have been cajoled or even threatened and ordered not to talk about the massacre…several German police officers were threatened with losing their pension rights if they spoke to the One Day in September production team…

The truth, then, is still coming out in dribs and drabs. Just two months ago Der Spiegel reported on previously classified documents spoke of warnings of an impending attack that the police had failed to treat with the necessary seriousness.

I’ve defended conspiracy theorising at some length. Some conspiratorial activity is directed engineering events – Operation Ajax, Operation Menu - but the most prevalent is that which is directed towards concealing the truth of events that preceded it. In blunter terms, powerful men and women spend a lot of time covering their own and other peoples’ asses. This has been brought home to us this week as the scale of the cover-up that followed the Hillsborough disaster has been exposed. The South Yorkshire police, with, it’s said, the complicity of at least one other force, had a whole team devoted to altering witness statements.

Awful as this is, it seems to me that cover-ups of state incompetence and wrongdoing shouldn’t be surprising. All of us are tempted to put our own interests ahead of truth and justice and many succumb. Think of a historical disaster and there is good chance it will have been followed by a lot of people trying to minimise their role. As state officials are often in the enviable position of investigating such calamities and crimes they have both the motive and the opportunity to obscure their parts within them. This needn’t mean they will but until the evidence for their claims has been adduced we should remember that they might.

In two decades I’m sure we’ll be hearing of the sordid acts of our governors that are being kicked under the rug. Over Lockerbie, perhaps. Iraq. “Anti-terror” transgressions. After the death of Ian Tomlinson, who, moments earlier, had been struck by PC Simon Harwood, Dr Freddy Patel was selected to conduct his autopsy. Patel was the only pathologist who held that Tomlinson’s death was due to natural causes. He was later sacked for misconduct after screwing up other cases. Coincidence? It’s possible. But don’t rely on it.

A number of documents related to Britain’s past colonial adventures have been released. The extent of conspiratorial activity that they detail is yet another answer to people who reflexively sneer at those who claim to diagnose such behaviour. The most sensitive documents haven’t even been exposed. They were destroyed long ago. Some of the papers that have survived relate to a historical injustice I’ve explored before: the theft of the Chagos Islands from its natives…

The aim behind the decision to control the islands, noted a Foreign Office official in a document dated September 1966 and marked “Secret and Guard”, was to build “defence facilities … without hindrance or political agitation”.

In 1970, the Foreign Office told its officials at the UN to describe the islanders as “contract labourers” engaged to work on coconut plantations. “The merit of this line,” it noted, “is that it does not give away the existence of the Ilois [the indigenous islanders] but is at the same time strictly factual.”

Officials reported the prime minister, Ted Heath, as saying: “Any discussions between the United States and ourselves must remain confidential.”

A year later, most of the islanders – about 1,500 in total, of whom 500 lived on Diego Garcia – were deported, mainly to Mauritius and Seychelles.

I say historical injustice. It is, in fact, both that and a contemporary one. Time and again the Ilois have been stopped from returning

Governments have stubbornly refused, and snidely ignored, their e’er more desperate pleas to be allowed to return home. They’re covering for the Yanks, who use the islands as a base at which to stockpile weapons and refuel “rendition” flights, and as a would-be launching pad for attacks against Iran. (It’s also used by surfers, who’ve proclaimed that it’s “home to some of the best surf on the planet”. Enjoy those waves, dudes!)

The Empire may have collapsed but imperialism is still absolutely relevant.

A book I’ve mentioned on a couple of occasions is Alec Dubro and David Kaplan’s Yakuza – a study of the tattooed terrors of the Japanese underworld. I’ve only recently procured a copy, though, and wanted to revisit a theme I’ve touched upon but never covered fully: the U.S. armed forces’ covert tactics inside post-war Japan. (Why, you ask? Well – why not.)

…Americans were hiring mobsters in Japan…in a secret war against the left that began as early as 1946. At its helm stood Major General Charles Willoughby…Willoughby and his trusted aides in G-2 [MacArthur's intelligence arm] served both to directly repress the left, as did G-2′s Counter Intelligence Corps, and indirectly, by aiding and financing rightist thugs and yakuza to do the job. To help run his covert operations, the general followed another pattern similar to that which U.S. officials were then secretly employing in Europe: recruiting for intelligence use key members of the enemy who probably should have been tried as war criminals. Willoughby succeeded in freeing from the purge in Japan certain well-placed officers from the Imperial Army and Navy. Many of these held extreme right-wing views, and their attitudes towards communism would be put to good use.

Willoughby was a far-right thug MacArthur fondly knew as “my pet fascist”. (I wrote of his life here.) The war criminals he set about releasing included the architects of the notorious Unit 731 – whose research into biological weaponry was thought to be of use in the struggle against communism. Not only were their victims deprived of justice; the failure to investigate one of the conflict’s darkest episodes means it’s been neglected and our knowledge of it remains patchy.

G-2 and their recruits were largely devoted to infiltrating and undermining the Japanese left. Cautiousness towards the Commies was, of course, entirely understandable in that time and place. Their tactics of subversion, however, did a lot of harm to Japan.  Their extent, and the extent of this ugliness, is cloaked in mystery. In the late 1940s a string of murders and acts of sabotage were blamed on the Japanese Communist Party and its comrades in the unions. They were never proved to be guilty, though, and fingers have been pointed at the Russians, the Americans and their ultranationalist allies. Dubro and Kaplan write…


Last decade, two prominent features of the news were terrorist atrocities and crimes of the state. One form of iniquity that faced no such attention, though, was that of organised crime. The gangs that were so influential in previous years, from the Balkan badlands to the seedy streets of Dubai, faded into the background. Was that because their influence had waned? I don’t think so. Last week we discovered what rude health those most notorious of gangs are in. The Mafia, it’s alleged, is Italy’s most profitable enterprise.

Indeed, as far as I can see the organised criminals are one of few demographics with a promising future. The Italian and Russian mafioso seem as powerful as ever. Mexican banditos could grow stronger if the “drug war” continues. From my unscholarly perspective – or, more bluntly, after reading Mischa Glenny’s fine, disturbing book McMafia – there seem to be new environments in which organised crime may thrive. Young, dysfunctional states of countries that have felt of the force of the “Arab Spring” have to be tempting prey for smart, ambitious gangsters with a taste for loose power and floating cash. As oil, minerals and other resources grow scarce people have a lot to gain from muscling in on discombobulated markets. The Internet provides ever more fertile stomping grounds.

Britain’s never had a gang culture of the sort that’s such a feature of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The Krays, those mother-loving murderers, did their best to inspire one in the 1960s, and the thuggish rabbles of the football stands and fierce delinquents of the inner cities have left their mark, but the East End was downright idyllic when compared with Sicily or Moscow and the skinheads and hoodies are too dim and parochial to be a threat in that sense.

Yet I wonder if our society has become more vulnerable to organised crime. Multiculturalism – “the fact of…”, that is, not “the theory of…” – seems to provide fecund terrain for gangsters. From Israel to Eastern Europe to India tribal groups have bunched together to exploit the confused societies they find. What with unemployment, and extremely bad employment, facing a young, expectant and often dysfunctional generation there’s liable to be a lot of aimless, angry kids to be recruited. And is it just me who can visualise Tony Soprano and his concerned citizens moving in on fractured communities to take on work that cash-starved councils have abandoned? An example of the Big Society in action.

With that depressing speculation thrown out there – console yourself: my depressing speculations are generally way off – please indulge me while I chew over another coupl’a thoughts. I’ve also been reading John Dickie’s Cosa Nostra. As far as I can see, the Mafia is a great big, trumpeting elephant in the room of people who sneer at “conspiracy theorists”.  For generations few people were sure the thing even existed. “It is hard to realise how much was not known about the Mafia,” Dickie writes. People were only sure of the name, let alone the nature, of the Cosa Nostra in the 1980s. (Yeah – after Godfathers I and II had been released.) The success of organised crime has always depended on the willingness of its participants to remain silent; their efficiency in pulling off atrocities and longstanding criminal enterprises without leaving evidence of their involvement; their ability to penetrate all levels of the social strata. Basically, they engineer big conspiracies, and as far as I’m aware they’ve been pretty good at it. I’m sure they’re not the only ones.

One resource that gangsters seem to cherish is the affection in which they’re popularly held. The Mafia have been respected as much as they’ve been feared. Eastern European thugs are veritable folk heroes. Escobar, to some, was better known as a philanthropist than as a trafficker. Reggie Kray loved his Mum. Some such criminals are genuinely public-spirited; inconsistently, yeah, but genuinely nonetheless. On the other hand, their selective benevolence can be self-serving. Why frighten somebody into acquiescence if they’ll do your bidding freely? Friends can be more useful assets than subordinates; they’ll go beyond the call of duty. And, besides, if everyone dislikes you they might band together and realise they have no cause to help you against eachother. While the phenomenon of much-loved criminals has gained particular notoriety in the case of mobsters it’s true of any powerful institution. No dictator has been without admirers. Even Kim Jong-il was mourned. I suppose the lesson is that you won’t know a bad man from the fist they drive towards you; it might be a extended hand.

The admirable Charlie Skelton notes, once more, the tedious absurdity of people who insist the Bilderberg is an occasional dinner club

In 2008, when George Osborne, as a private individual, hangs out in Corfu with a Russian oligarch (Oleg Deripaska), Nat Rothschild and Peter Mandelson, the British press has a field day with the gossip – Mandelson “dripping poison” about Osborne, and allegations that Osborne was grubbing around for party funds.

But in 2011, when Osborne spends four days, in his official role as chancellor of the exchequer, cooped up with Lord Mandelson, a Russian oligarch (Alexei Mordashov), and the former vice-chairman of Rothschild Europe (Franco Bernabè) – along with the president of the World Bank, the president of the European Central Bank, the Greek minister of finance, the queen of Spain, the chairman of Royal Dutch Shell, the governor of the Belgium National Bank, the chairman of Goldman Sachs International, and the chief executive of Marks and Spencer …

This isn’t news.

A commenter notes that Bob Crow going for an expensive lunch inspired numerous reports this week. The Chancellor, an MP and a member of the House of Lords going to swan with Chairmen, CEOs and Presidents in an armed and gated hideout inspired a single paper to give a humourist 350 quid – rotten pay considering the link-love he’ll have won them – to do a spot of blogging. Aside from a bit of gossip in the Standard and a lame satire in the Staggers that’s all the combined might of our press has had to offer.

The giants of our media can’t actually think it’s just a camp for willy-waggling old men. If they were that stupid their newspapers would consist of finger paints on toilet roll and their broadcasts would be less sophistication than The Tweenies. Even when they’re trying to defend their conference the organisers tell us things like this

Big ideas are debated frankly. Mr Davignon credits the meetings for helping to lay the groundwork for creating the euro. He recalls strong disagreement over Iraq: some participants favoured the invasion in 2003, some opposed it and some wanted it done differently.

The meetings helped to lay the groundwork for the euro? I think that’s worth a few column inches, don’t you? And as for Iraq: if you’re not curious to know what our elected representatives were saying with plutocrats and powermongers from around the globe you’re frighteningly incurious.

What’s sinister is that the press have clearly decided that it’s not their business to ask – and therefore not our business to know – what’s being spoken of. For an “open society” there’s a lot of closed doors.

According to Sky’s Martin Bruntwe’ll probably never know the how, why or who” in the death of Gareth Williams. The inquest has been postponed for the second time and policeman seem to be implying that they’ll never make arrests. The “Mediterranean couple” that we’re told we’re loitering in the safe house Williams resided in are claimed to be untraceable. Some safe house.

Unusually,” Brunt reveals, the anonymous spooks who’ve given evidence to the inquest were interviewed by counter-terror detectives who’ll report back to the homicide police. This despite Scotland Yard’s insistence that the death was “not linked to his work”. The increasingly bizarre and evermore suspect attempts to make us feel his private life was strange enough to lead to ruin don’t inspire faith. Nor does the secret service’s meddling in the inquiry. Let me put it this way – if you wander through your house and note a curious, unpleasant smell emanating from a room, then see a friend or family member standing in a corner with their arms thrown wide and feet and legs clamped rigidly together, well, they might be innocently practicing a back exercise. But you’d be forgiven for wondering.

If a barista dropped a mug of coffee down some poor soul’s neck they’d be out of a job before the drink had even cooled. If a receptionist sent their employer’s emails to their spouse rather than their lover they’d be out of work in the time it takes for blood pressure to rise. If a CIA agent spearheads an operation in which a blameless man is kidnapped, tortured and detained they’ll be promoted. The Washington Post tells all

In December 2003, security forces boarded a bus in Macedonia and snatched a German citizen named Khaled el-Masri. For the next five months, el-Masri was a ghost. Only a select group of CIA officers knew he had been taken to a secret prison for interrogation in Afghanistan.

But he was the wrong guy.

A hard-charging CIA analyst had pushed the agency into one of the biggest diplomatic embarrassments of the U.S. war on terrorism. Yet despite recommendations, the analyst was never punished. In fact, she’s risen in the agency.

That botched case is but one example of a CIA accountability process that even some within the agency say is unpredictable and inconsistent. In the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, officers who committed mistakes that left people wrongly imprisoned or even dead received only minor admonishments or no punishment at all, an Associated Press investigation has found.

The irresponsibility within the U.S. bureaux of “national security” can’t be restricted to the post-9/11 world. You can take or leave the conclusions that this writer draws but he marshalls weighty evidence to show that grievous failures to prevent the tragedies of that lamented day were quietly ignored. In the wacky world of the “War on Terror”, citizens do not possess the right to know their liberties are being safeguarded by people unlikely to do them harm. Behaving otherwise, in fact, may not be to the detriment of one’s career. There’s a thought unlikely to sweep terror from our consciousness.

A few days ago As’ad AbuKhalil wrote

Let me say this: we Arabs have been mocked for resorting to conspiracy theory. I say this: if you look at the Arab world without trying to understand the outside conspiracies, you are dumb and you don’t know what you are talking about.

Now we learn the favourite to replace Mubarak is a U.S. and Israel backed spy chief who’s calculating ruthlessness has earned him the priceless description of “an Egyptian Mandelson”. He’s in talks with a shady American diplomat who’s father headed up the C.I.A’s covert operations.

I’m sayin’ nothin’.

Elsewhere, neoconservatives are desperate to sweep up the model of communalism that the protestors are tinkering with. As Freddie de Boer notes, they’d only squish it in their great, clumsy paws. From scheming realists to meddlesome utopians – I’ve seen no reason to believe “we” shouldn’t just butt out.

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