April 04, 2011
Yemen's Useful Tyranny – The Forgotten History of Britain's 'Dirty War': Part 2
Using declassified government files, historian Mark Curtis has exposed Britain's 'dirty war' in Yemen in the 1960s, which he describes as one of the 'least known aspects of recent British history'. The war lasted almost a decade under both Tory and Labour governments, and cost around 200,000 lives.
Even today, Curtis notes, the files are heavily censored: 'probably more so than in any other foreign-policy episode I have looked at.' The official reason for the secrecy is 'national security'. The actual reason is to protect the reputations of 'the people with blood on their hands': the leading politicians of the day, including Harold Wilson, Denis Healey, Alec Douglas-Home and numerous other officials. (Mark Curtis, 'Unpeople', Chapter 16: 'Arabians: Dirty Wars', Vintage, 2004)
Curtis describes how, in September 1962, the Imam of North Yemen was overthrown in a popular coup. Until then, 80 per cent of the population had lived as peasants under a feudal system of government, with control maintained by graft, a coercive tax system, and a policy of divide and rule. The coup was led by Arab nationalists within the Yemeni military who supported Egypt's reformist president Gamal Abdel Nasser. In turn, Nasser sent troops to bolster the new Republican government. Royalist forces supporting the deposed Imam fled to the hills and began an insurgency backed by Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Curtis notes that Britain 'soon resorted to covert action to undermine the new Republican regime, in alliance with the Saudis and Jordanis'. British officials privately recognised that they were thus supporting a 'monopoly of [royal] power' that was 'much resented' by the Yemenis. But the Foreign Office's 'pragmatic' concern was that the nationalist uprising might spread to neighbouring Aden, then a UK colony, where Britain was 'supporting similarly feudal elements against strong popular, nationalist feeling.'
Why? For longstanding reasons of 'national interest'. Curtis explains:
'The military base at Aden was the cornerstone of British military policy in the Gulf region, in which Britain was then the major power, directly controlling the sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf and with huge oil interests in Kuwait and elsewhere.'
Aden was surrounded by a 'protectorate', the Federation of South Arabia: feudal fiefdoms controlled by autocratic leaders like the overthrown Yemeni Imam, and all 'kept sweet by British bribes.' Britain feared that a progressive, republican, Arab nationalist Yemen would act as an inspiring example and so threaten other feudal sheikdoms in the region and throughout the wider Middle East. British ministers feared 'a collapse in the morale of the pro-British rulers of the protectorate,' putting 'the whole British position in the area ... in jeopardy.' The rulers of oil-rich Saudi Arabia were similarly concerned about the possible domino effect of neighbouring monarchies being overthrown by Arab nationalist forces.
Early in 1963, working with the Saudis, Jordan and Israel, Britain began covertly arming and supplying the Yemeni royalist forces against the new Yemen Republican government. A British mercenary operation was set up, funded by the Yemeni royalist foreign minister, the Saudi prince Sultan, the British Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. SAS volunteers were given temporary leave from official duties and French mercenaries were also recruited.
In early 1964, SAS forces undertook their first clandestine air-drop of arms and ammunition, with the discreet backing of MI6 and the CIA. UK Defence Secretary Peter Thorneycroft spoke of the need to organise 'tribal revolts' in the frontier areas and to initiate 'deniable action ... to sabotage [pro-Yemeni Republican] intelligence centres and kill personnel engaged in anti-British activities.'
Curtis adds that a top-secret document in the government files went even further. Entitled 'Yemen: The range of possible courses of action open to us,' it considered 'assassination or other action against key personnel' involved in subversion in the federation. As these options were being debated in private, Prime Minister Douglas-Home lied to parliament on 14 May 1964:
'Our policy towards the Yemen is one of non-intervention in the affairs of that country. It is not therefore our policy to supply arms to the Royalists in the Yemen.'
Curtis notes that the election of Harold Wilson's Labour government in October 1964 'seems not to have upset the covert operation.'
Secret RAF bombing took place in retaliation for Egyptian attacks on camel trains supplying weapons to French and British mercenaries. As part of an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, Britain agreed a £26 million contract with a private company, Airwork Services, for the training of Saudi pilots and ground crew. Airwork also recruited former RAF pilots as mercenaries on missions against Egyptian and Yemeni targets along the Yemeni border. And by 1965, MI6 had a secret agreement with Israel to use its territory for launching attacks against the Yemeni Republicans.
Following Egypt's defeat by Israel in the 1967 war, Nasser withdrew his troops from Yemen. In November, Britain withdrew from Aden. Then, in March 1969, the Saudis cut off supplies to the Yemeni Royalists. A treaty was signed, and hostilities ceased. As mentioned, a total of around 200,000 people had died.
As far as current reporting on Yemen is concerned, none of this exists. On March 29, we conducted searches using the LexisNexis newspaper database for mentions of 'Yemen' in UK national newspapers since the start of the Yemeni protests in January. We found 898 articles. Apart from two reviews of a new book from an imperialist perspective (see next section), not one of these articles contained any mention of the key names from this grim episode of British history. Nor was there any mention of Mark Curtis. The war has been effectively erased from the record.
It is the same phenomenon of media blindness and adherence to state ideology that would have us believe that Iran's history began with the Islamic Revolution in 1979. This also neatly and conveniently omits the UK-US role in the 1953 overthrow of the democratically-elected leader Mossadeq after he nationalised Iran's Western-controlled oil industry. History is reduced to an elite-friendly script that minimises public understanding of the background to current events.
An Exchange With The BBC's Sarah Montague
A segment of the Radio 4 Today programme on February 16, 2011 was a rare exception in even referring to this shameful history of British involvement in Yemen. But its cavalier treatment of the events was telling, as the exchange below reveals.
The radio piece comprised a discussion between Today presenter Sarah Montague, author Duff Hart-Davis and the former British mercenary Kerry Stone. It was conducted in an almost light-hearted tone of 'look at the scrapes these old boys got into back in the days of empire.'
We emailed Montague the same day:
Dear Sarah Montague,
I listened to your interview with author Duff Hart-Davis and the former mercenary Kerry Stone this morning about Britain's 'secret war' in Yemen in the 1960s.
You said to Stone: 'And was it an adventure because I mean it sounds exciting?'
Duff Hart-Davis's biased account is summed up in the subtitle of the book ['The War That Never Was'] he was promoting: 'The heroic true story of Britain's greatest secret victory'. He told us that British colonel Jim Johnson ran the [mercenary] operation from a basement in Sloane Street. And then you indicated to listeners that this secret war took place:
'Purely because he [Johnson] looked across [to the Gulf] and didn't like the loss of empire.'
This assertion, and your ill-advised use of 'adventure' and 'exciting', is a misleading description of a war which was motivated by longstanding UK 'national interests' in the region. It was not merely the personal mission of a few disgruntled imperialists or greedy mercenaries.
There was no mention in the Today piece of the realpolitik that natural resources in the region were a prime motivation, and that profits were being made in arms deals. The serious diplomatic historian Mark Curtis has presented the evidence of all of this from previously secret government files (see pp. 288-301 of 'Unpeople', Vintage, 2004). As Curtis notes, the war cost up to 200,000 lives with British complicity in those deaths.
There was surely time in the 4 min : 30 sec piece to provide some serious account of these crucial facts and thus proper balance?
Perhaps you could invite Mark Curtis on to the Today programme to provide the balance that was so lacking this morning?
There was no response for a few days, so we nudged her gently on February 22 and she then responded that day:
Apologies for not replying sooner.
You may very well have a point. It occurred to me during the interview that I may have been making too light of it. I shall have a word with our planning editor and forward your email, but he may judge that given the way the story was told and the time elapsed since it happened it was not too serious an error.
I am on holiday at the moment but shall follow it up when I get back next week.
Thank you for the email.
Despite a couple of gentle nudges in the month since then, we have not heard back from Montague, her editor or anyone else on the Today programme.
Curtis notes in 'Unpeople' that Yemen and the other case studies he examined in declassified government files illustrate the three basic principles that guide British foreign policy.
The first is the systematic deception of the public by British ministers, which is 'deeply embedded in British policy-making.' (Curtis, 'Unpeople', p. 3). Blair's lies about Iraq fit comfortably as part of this trend.
The second principle is that policy-makers are typically open and frank about their real goals in secret documents. The glaring gap between state realpolitik and government claims of benevolence is rooted in a fundamental contempt for the general population. As Curtis says:
'The foreign-policy decision-making system is so secretive, elitist and unaccountable that policy-makers know they can get away with almost anything, and they will deploy whatever arguments are needed to do this.' (Ibid., p .3)
The third basic principle is that humanitarian concerns do not feature in the rationale for foreign policy. Curtis observes bluntly:
'In the thousands of government files I have looked through for this and other books, I have barely seen any reference to human rights at all. Where such concerns are evoked, they are only for public-relations purposes.' (Ibid., p .3)
When such concerns are not evoked for PR purposes, it is because a focus on human rights would throw an unwelcome light on the West's support for oppression. Saudi Arabia is a classic example, of course - as is modern-day Yemen, where Saleh's thirty-year record of oppression has been facilitated by Western 'defence' companies and soft-pedaled by Western diplomats. As noted in Part 1, Saleh has been a 'useful tyrant' for the West. He, or an acceptable replacement, will remain a favoured figure – unless democratic forces become uncontainable, both in Yemen and in the West.
The framework for understanding Britain's war in Yemen in the 1960s, then, remains valid for the situation there today as it does for much of the world: namely, that control and geostrategic dominance - routinely sold to the public as 'humanitarian intervention' and maintenance of global 'security' - continue to be the key concerns guiding Western policy.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Sarah Montague, BBC Today presenter,
Copy to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor
Please blind-copy us in on any exchanges or forward them to us later at:
MI5 bugged leading intellectuals and journalists in 1950s, files show
Dr Jacob Bronowski and editor Cyril Connolly were among those whose political views were suspected by the secret services
Dr Jacob Bronowski, whose series The Ascent of Man was a TV milestone, was one of MI5's high-profile targets. Photograph: David Newell Smith
The Guardian, Monday 4 April 2011
MI5 bugged the phones of leftwing journalists and writers in an intensive but unsuccessful attempt to discover more about the Cambridge spy ring, according to newly released, hitherto top-secret files.
It also drew up voluminous reports on scientist Dr Jacob Bronowski, who became a popular broadcaster, in surveillance operations described by his daughter as "shocking ... just like a Stasi file".
Files released by the National Archives include transcripts from phonetaps from the London flat of journalist and author Philip Toynbee, made shortly after his friend Donald Maclean fled to Moscow with Guy Burgess, a fellow member of the notorious Cambridge spy ring.
The files, from the early 1950s, suggest MI5 was mainly interested in Cyril Connolly, editor of the literary magazine Horizon, who lived in Toynbee's Paddington flat at the time.
MI5 recorded conversations in which poet Stephen Spender, publisher George (later Lord) Weidenfeld, poet WH Auden, painter Lucian Freud and philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin were all talked about.
MI5 was most keen to discover what Connolly and his friends knew about Burgess and Maclean.
It carefully annotated newspaper articles that Connolly had written about his former acquaintances.
The files show that MI5 identified the art historian Anthony Blunt and journalist and academic Goronwy Rees as being among Burgess's friends in October 1952, 12 years before Blunt confessed to spying for the Russians.
"We are, for your own information, still making active enquiries in the Burgess circle, which, of course, included Rees, Blunt and many others," an MI5 officer wrote to the British embassy in Washington.
He added: "We do not wish to encourage the FBI to direct a lot of questions at us about our progress in this peculiarly British field of counter-espionage."
Although Blunt, the official surveyor of the Queen's pictures, confessed in 1964, a hugely embarrassed establishment covered the matter up until he was exposed in a deathbed tipoff from Rees in 1979.
The FBI was particularly interested in the Cambridge spy ring, as both Burgess and Maclean had worked at the UK's Washington embassy.
The papers show how MI5 built up a large file on Bronowski, a mathematician and scientist who became a successful broadcaster and household name through his 1970s BBC documentary series, The Ascent of Man. He first came to MI5's notice in October 1939 when a "casual informant" in Hull, where Bronowski was a university lecturer, claimed he held "extreme left and anti-British opinions".
A year later, a Hull police officer told MI5: "I am well acquainted with the members of the local Communist party and at no time have I ever known him to be associated with them."
A series of subsequent police reports warned MI5 that Bronowski had spoken at a Left Book Club meeting about the "alarming growth of fascism". One report described him as a "skilful speaker and agitator of the 'communist intellectual' type", another as a "red intellectual". Yet another misinterpreted a satirical poem.
But his mathematical talents and expertise on the impact of bombing led the government to give him, in 1943, a job in the research and experiments department of the Ministry of Home Security.
He was later appointed a member of an official investigation into the effects of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
The files show the BBC told MI5 it had "abandoned" a series of planned broadcasts by Bronowski on atomic power.
His daughter, Professor Lisa Jardine, director of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at Queen Mary, University of London, told the Guardian: "I can't tell you how shocking it is for me ... It's just like a Stasi file. It's scary." Members of his family were Communist party members, but her father "took the decision very early on never to have an official association with politics", she said.
He turned down the offer of a post in Harold Wilson's Labour government and later emigrated to the US, because he could not get a senior post in Britain, Jardine said. But he never suspected that MI5 had a file on him.Harmonica player Larry Adler, who performed with Elton John and Sting, was investigated by MI5 over concerns about his alleged communist sympathies, the files confirm.
US-born Adler moved to Britain after being labelled a communist and blacklisted in America, but the files make it clear that MI5 did not consider him a subversive, the files make clear.
Nazis' nasty surprises
German spies were supplied with poisoned products – including chocolate, sugar, pills that looked like aspirin and doctored Nescafé – as well as cigarette lighters that gave off lethal fumes when ignited, to kill prominent individuals among the allies after the Nazis' defeat in the second world war, the MI5 files reveal. Female agents were supplied with "microbe" weapons hidden in handbag mirrors.
The Nazi leadership also planned to plant sleeper agents around the world after the war to provoke global unrest and create a "Fourth Reich", the files disclose.
Olivier Mordrelle, a leader of a separatist nationalist movement in Brittany, told his interrogators after he was captured that "ample funds" had been transferred to South America and "trustworthy key men" had been sent to live in Spain and Switzerland.
Mordrelle said he attended a meeting in Deisenhofen, near Munich, in April 1945 at which German postwar resistance plans were discussed.
He said he was told by a senior SS officer that underground agents were to lie low after the war ended until they were told to organise anti-Bolshevik movements in their countries in order to "stir up unrest culminating in civil war".
The allies also set up a secret network of agents and arms dumps, called Gladio, in the event of communist-led uprisings in western Europe, it has already been revealed.
AND THAT IS THE END. GLADIO... and "already revealed" .. finished, hush hush. DANGEROUS TERRITORY!
The guardian CAN NOT GO THERE... they can not say the truth, that the CIA was bombing, murdering, maming innocent citizens and blame it on communists, terrorists, muslim, whatever... in order to get right-wing "law and order" parties elected.
Please read the wikipedia article (which ALSO can NOT say it outright)
But the CIA (in connection with MAFIA etc) did these crimes. Planned, executed AND COVERED UP.
You can often tell the CIA's involvement, namely because the actual perpetrators are never found, or mysteriously committed suicide or were immediately killed on a manhunt or other causes. DEAD PATSIES DO NOT TALK.