Donald Trump’s remarkable attacks on his own intelligence community may seem shocking to the casual observer – but they are not without precedent. History is littered with the debris of this delicate and all too often abusive relationship. Whether it’s dirty tricks to undermine a “bolshevik” Harold Wilson or “Ivy League liberals” smearing Richard Nixon, it’s clear that the spies do not always love their leaders.
At the heart of the story is the role of intelligence in democracies. In theory, intelligence agencies are meant to be objective, free from political bias and to speak truth to power. They perform two tasks: providing intelligence assessments to shape policy and implementing government decisions.
Uri Bar-Joseph said the relationship should actually be seen as an “obstacle race” in which both sides – intelligence officials and policymakers – show their frustration.
For their part, policymakers need to listen to advice – whether good or bad. But often they don’t like the message being reported by their intelligence officials, criticising them or – worst of all – cutting them out altogether. Party political differences can also create problems and the potential for unauthorised leaks and smears.
The British experience
Britain has been no stranger to alleged dirty tricks. In 1920, leaks of top secret intercepts by senior intelligence and military figures, headed by the chief of the imperial general staff, Sir Henry Wilson, wrecked government attempts to strike a controversial trade deal with Bolshevik Russia.
Four years later – in the now infamous “Zinoviev Letter Affair” – intelligence officials, wrongly believing Britain’s first Labour government was sympathetic to Russia, leaked a fake letter into the national press during the October 1924 election. The letter – purported to be from Grigori Zinoviev, president of the internal communist organisation – called on British communists to mobilise “sympathetic forces” in the Labour Party to support an Anglo-Soviet treaty. It was said to have triggered the fall of the Labour government.
But one of the most famous intelligence plots must be the alleged attempt to undermine Harold Wilson. Oddly, it was Wilson himself who gave force to the story. In May 1976, after leaving Downing Street, the former PM told BBC journalists Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour that he wasn’t sure “what was happening, fully, in security”.
He said members of the Security Service (MI5) were “very right-wing” and “the sort of people who would have spread the stories of Number 10 and the Communist cell” – referring to claims that Wilson and his private office had been compromised by the KGB. But Wilson quickly distanced himself from the allegations. He called them “cock and bull written by two journalists of limited experience”.
Claims of the “Wilson plot” continued only thanks to the former MI5 officer Peter Wright, author of Spycatcher. Wright’s book claimed there were up to “30 officers involved” in a plot to leak sensitive information on Wilson to domestic and overseas newspapers. Questions were to be asked in parliament in a “carbon copy” of the Zinoviev Affair. Wright was later forced, however, to admit to BBC Panorama that his claims were “unreliable” and that the maximum number of officers tasked with this was very often “only three” – including himself.
The rumours surrounding the Wilson plot continue to this day. Attempts by former MI5 director general Stella Rimmington to end the stories by talking to Labour grandees failed. She said the exercise was “fruitless” as Labour suspicions ran too deep. In 1996, a former cabinet secretary, Sir John Hunt, acknowledged a few “malcontents” in MI5, though it was unclear if this extended beyond Wright and his mates. And MI5’s authorised history – despite the best efforts of its author Christopher Andrew – has done little to put the claims to bed, with rumours that the cabinet office deleted sections of the book over claims Number 10 was secretly bugged (claims denied by government).
President Trump’s allegation that his intelligence community is “un-American” echoes earlier intelligence-policy spats in the US. Famously, President Lyndon B Johnson compared the CIA to a cow swinging a “shit-smeared tail” through carefully worked out policy. President George W Bush, too, was “at war” with the CIA over claims the agency was “just guessing” in their assessments of Iraq’s insurgency during the 2004 presidential election. Relations with the White House got so bad that the acting head of the CIA even had to reassure Bush’s team it wasn’t supporting his opponent, John Kerry.
The history of Israeli intelligence provides similar examples. In 1963, the Director of Mossad, Isser Harel, was forced to resign having started an “unauthorised crusade” against German scientists in Egypt. He effectively began an independent foreign policy, leaking information to journalists, potentially wrecking David Ben-Gurion’s attempt to develop closer relations with West Germany.
More recently, Binyamin Netanyahu’s September 2012 claim that Iran was nearer to completing a nuclear weapon – supporting the case for an Israeli military strike – led to differences with senior intelligence and military figures.
Whether claims of dirty tricks are true remains open to question but they upset the delicate intelligence-policymaker relationship. Past examples from Britain, the US and Israel show that even the suggestion that intelligence agencies are trying to undermine the government cause significant problems. History does not bode well for President Trump. Expect more problems in the future.