Book Review from the July 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
'MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations', by Stephen Dorril. (Fourth Estate, London 2000. 907 pages)
Even before this book had been put on sale in bookshops, review copies had given rise to considerable controversy. Towards the end of MI6 (p.722), Dorril asserts:
"Another MI6 catch was ANC leader Nelson Mandela. Whether Mandela was recruited in London before he was imprisoned in South Africa is not clear, but it is understood that on a recent trip to London he made a secret visit to MI6's training section to thank the Service for its help in foiling two assassination attempts directed against him soon after he became President."
No source is, however, given for the statement. According to the Guardian (23 March), Mandela "reacted angrily to a claim" that he had been recruited as a British "agent of influence"; and he added that "he had never visited the headquarters of any intelligence service". Christopher Andrew in his review of Dorril's book (Times, 30 March) also dismisses the claim that MI6 recruited Mandela. In a letter to the Guardian (24 March), Stephen Dorril's weak reply was "there is nothing implausible in the idea that someone such as Nelson Mandela might have been recruited", as he states in his book with regard to a number of African nationalist leaders.
There is, however, little in MI6 on Africa. As the author says in his Preface, "the prime focus is the European continent, and some areas of the Service's operations and intelligence-gathering, principally in South-East Asia and Africa, are not dealt with in any great detail". The author does detail areas of the Middle-East, as MI6 had the dubious task of subverting, and overthrowing governments and organisations who nationalised or threatened British-owned oil fields and supply routes. Furthermore, although the book describes "fifty years of special operations" by MI6, it largely concentrates on the period between the end of the Second World War, and about 1970, when technological surveillance began to take over from HUMIT (human spies).
Within a very short time following the Second World War, the "allies" fell out, the Soviet Union began to consolidate its control over eastern Europe, and the "Cold War" began. MI6 was more than ready to carry out orders to combat and "roll back" what was erroneously called "communism" in the area. It was soon sending spies and saboteurs into Poland, and particularly western Ukraine. Almost all of these, as Dorril demonstrates, were Ukrainian nationalists who had collaborated with, or fought for, Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union. Most were captured within days by the KGB. Both Conservative and Labour administrations were involved in such activities.
In Greece MI6, supported by Labour foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, backed the right-wing Monarchists; and MI6, together with the CIA, sent scores of agents and saboteurs into Albania over a number of years. Few of them survived or returned to the West. Dorril recounts in considerable detail the, by now well-known, joint-MI6/CIA campaign to overthrow Mohammed Mossadeq, the Iranian Prime Minister who nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951. They were successful, but the United States was playing a double game. Anglo-Iranian which changed its name to British Petroleum (BP), was left with 40 percent, and the American corporations got the rest. Stephen Dorril's book also recounts in detail MI6's assassination attempts against Egypt's President Nasser, following his nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956. Such attempts were both sinister and bizarre. Some of MI6's "special operations" were successful; many were not, but all were carried out in the interests, not of democracy but of British capitalism.
With MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations containing almost 900 pages of reading matter, and being divided into seven sections, the reader gets about half-a-dozen books for the price of one. In the main, the book is well-sourced.
Dorril suggests that "given a work of this size", the reader might wish to "dip into a particular area of interest". A good idea. Inevitably, being the size it is, there are errors in MI6. It would be surprising if there were not.
Peter E. Newell