Monday 1 March 2004

Spies and Spying at the United Nations

by Trowbridge H. Ford

Whenever anything important goes dreadfully wrong on the international scene, leading nations, especially America and Britain, are prone to adopt most deceptive ways, assume false postures, articulate reassuring cover stories, and assure one and all that everything will be fully investigated, and reformed.

If the matter seriously involves spies and spying, the atmosphere becomes even more charged, with responsible politicians charging that the book, if not the whole library, will be thrown at the apparent offenders while civil servants free to do so rally to the call of their masters. By the end of the day, though, rumors and unattributable briefings admit that boys will be boys, and the idea of doing anything seriously to punish them, or to prevent future repetitions is dismissed as readily as attempts to end prostitution, and off-duty whoring.

Of course, I am referring to the reaction of Washington and London to the discovery of systematic spying they engaged in during the lead-up to the illegal war against Iraq - what was only exposed by whistleblowers Katherine Gun at GCHQ, Yvonne Ridley formerly of The Observer, and Clare Short previously of Blair's Cabinet risking their careers, and possible imprisonment so that the public could see what was going on. Without it, we might already be deeply involved in regime change in Syria, and Iran. As it is, we are still just pleading with our masters to finally tell us the truth rather removing them from power.

How much more ridiculous can the media get about the situation than The Independent, a paper originally against the war, pleading with the Prime Minister now about telling the truth about the whole spying operation so that voters can once again trust him, and he can once again lead British troops into combat! Trust is not something that can simply be reestablished by getting the errant party to repeat some demanded formula, or legality, much less legitimacy, be restored by the Commander-in-Chief acknowledging once again that he screwed up.

When was the last time you restored to your trust someone who admitted finally after two years to lying, and falsely directing you in most damaging ways that he had been secretly following his own agenda without any concern about your interests or peace of mind? As any former soldier knows, if Tony Blair had been your commanding officer, and had put the ranks through what he has from afar in Iraq, he would undoubtedly have received a bullet in the back of the head.

The responses which most outrage me, though, are those by former British officials, and Labour Members of Parliament who act as if there is no higher priority than supporting their previous, and present masters. To think that Sir Crispin Tickell, former British Ambassador to the United Nations, and now the Chancellor of the Univeristy of Kent at Canterbury uttered this justification for what obviously happened is mind boggling: "My conscience is quite clear about these matters, and I would not think it necessarily a bad thing at all if it is in the national interest."

British Labour MPs seem to have lost all sense of history by taking all their disquiet about the war, and its aftermath out on the former Cabinet minister, knowing full well whatever Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, was obliged to sign up to about its legality, there was no way that the attractive, brave, and self-sacrificing Ms. Gun was going to be convicted by an English jury. In the process, Ms. Short has been scapegoated by her former colleagues, acting as if they are trying to mend a broken person when they are just engaging in self-justification.

Even Robin Cook, former Leader of the Commons, and Foreign Secretary, does not sound convincing in this regard because if spying was carried on at the UN by British agents, or those of its allies, it would have been with the approval of the Foreign Office. Cook, in sum, is just about as convincing as its present occupant, Jack Straw, who has been willing to work over his conscience in much the same way that doesn't bother Sir Crispin one bit.

In stating this criticism of our masters, I am not messaging my conscience, engaging in unbalanced hatred of them, or adopting an unrealistic atttitude about what goes on in the world - what has to happen in international relations at the highest level. Spies and spying, even at the UN, has a role if it promotes peace, world stability, and prospects of greater accord. Not even international law is an impediment to them, I believe, if they are generally directed towards these goals.

For example, no one would have seriously objected if President Harry Truman had bugged the sprawling premises of the United Nations at Flushing Meadow, and employed spies to determine what key members of the Security Council were contemplating after North Korea invaded the South in 1950. With London and Washington totally unprepared for the invasion because they did not consider South Korea of any strategic importance - what Stalin, now leader of an atomic power, clearly contradicted by giving it the greeen light - Moscow, for the first and last time, showed that it was willing to use force to promote communism around the world.

If Truman was able to learn that this was the Soviet agenda - and perhaps he did with the help of the Armed Forces Security Agency since it had been monitoring what had been happening at the UN since its inception at San Francisco after WWII - who could object to his taking advantage of Moscow's boycotting the sessions of the Security Council, and mobilizing the General Assembly, thanks to insights about how other nations, especially non-aligned ones, were reacting to the crisis which was spiralling out of control? Reestablishing the status quo was paramount despite section 3 of the 1946 Agreement on the UN providing its privileges and immunities, especially its premises being inviolable.

The same would have held true during the Cuban Missile Crisis when there was the greatest confusion about what Moscow was up to, and how to resolve the crisis. The core of the crisis rested around the claims of defector Oleg Penkovsky who tried to promote Washington's elimination of the Castro regime by stressing how weak Moscow was despite appearances about its missiles, but that the window of opportunity was closing fast as the Soviets were going to surpass America's capability. Ultimately, Penkovsky supplied all kinds of evidence to prove Moscow's limited missile capability - what JFK used to negotiate a settlement rather than the Joint Chiefs of Staff using to foster an invasion.

In this environment, any National Security Agency monitoring of Soviet and Cuban intentions at the UN to help the President prevent the crisis spinning into a nuclear showdown would be most justified despite legal niceties against it. There are legitimate exceptions to all laws and agreements.

Unfortunately, the current crisis at the UN doesn't recall any of these predecessors but the ill-fated Suez Crisis during which a similar cocksure Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, created a debacle by scheming behind everyone's back with the French and the Israelis to achieve neo-colonial goals for all. While Tel Aviv established control over the Sinai, and Britain regained control of the Canal Zone, the French in North Africa would fix Nasser's Egypt for its alleged sponsorship of the Algerian revolt.

By the time Washington and Moscow learned what was really going on, though, it was too late to stop it, resulting in the suppression of the Hungarian uprising, and a vast disruption in the Middle East from which the world has yet to recover.

What Britain, Israel, and France achieved by stealth back then, America, Britain, and Spain achieved by design at the UN now. Instead of other members of the Security Council, the Secretary General, and the weapons inspectors being allowed to do their job in a free and frank way - what could have resulted in an acceptable policy for all - they were spied on, manipulated, and undercut in ways to promote war, instablity, and international confusion.

And this is something that we should simply overlook with the muttering of a few words, and the making of a few promises by those culpable so that they can move on again towards similar objectives?