Essay: Role of Intelligence Agencies

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[. . .] Although MI5 were vaguely aware of the presence of another 'great illegal', Arnold Deutsch, in Britain during the 1930s, there was no conception of the sophistication of his recruitment propaganda, or the tradecraft on which his agents were trained" (Thurlow, 2004, p.611)

One of the means through which the identification of students and in general foreign nations in the UK during this period was an increased control over the identity cards and the activities undergone by such individuals. Students and workers in particular were most vulnerable to propaganda. This is largely due to the fact that while students lacked the experience of the previous war, the beliefs and concepts promoted by Socialists had notions that would appeal to the younger generations. At the same time, given the economic crisis and the need to improve the social and working conditions of the working class, the labor disputes were among the main attractions for propagandistic movements.

The MI5 responsible with domestic intelligence and the gathering of information in relation to the Russian, German, and Fascist activities in the British society is seen to have failed in its early beginnings when it did not take into account the importance of various groups that were forming in the British society. One example in this sense was the British Union of Fascist (BUF). In theory, the British society was the representative of the oldest democracy in the world in which free assemblies and the freedom of political ideas was not necessarily sanctioned or seen as threatening (Cohen, 1986, p420). However, during the early 30s, the activities that focused on political assemblies based on socialist / fascist preference increased in frequency and eventually managed to become significant forces to be reckoned with. In particular, the BUF had established contacts, not always positive or non-violent, with other factions that promoted a more extremist approach. These included the Jewish militant groups that had been fleeing Europe due to the persecution of Jews in Germany, as well as the labor movements in the UK that were on the rise as a result of the influence communism was expressing throughout Europe (Thurlow, 1988).

The initial reactions to such influences that came from the Home Office / MI5 were in line with any other type of reaction to a public disorder incident, which included in effect the banning of symbols and propaganda-related activities that would in effect infringe the expression of other liberties and would cause issues to public order. The limitation of civil rights was not a course of action that authorities preferred in the beginning particularly because of the democracy type of approach the government was known to support. Furthermore, the economic distress that had been a reality since the late 1920s would have only increased if the government had acted more violently towards various factions. However, in the early 1930s, the reactions from the Home Office were limited, which allowed factions such as BUF to expand.

Once the expansion of the influence caused by the Fascists increased, the reactions of the authorities changed as well, yet not in a sufficient manner and not for the right context. More precisely, the Jewish community was a very sensitive subject given the news of the actions being taken against them in Germany and Poland. In the UK, the BUF targeted such communities as well. The lack of proper response from the British authorities in this regard determined criticism towards the responsible government entity. Thus, "During the election campaign of March 1937 there were numerous complaints that the police failed to take action against fascists for making provocative statements to Jews. Numerous assaults, cases of window smashing and the dissemination of graffiti continued unabated. Thus although the number of persons arrested at public meetings in the East End fell from 38 fascists and 99 anti-fascists from 1 July to 31 December 1936 to 25 fascists and 41 anti-fascists from January to July 1937," the fact that the issue did not fizzle out and that there was a large increase in both fascist and anti-fascist meetings suggests that the act was difficult to operate properly." (Thurlow, 1988, p81)

The reactions of the Home Office to these incipient manifestations of the influence of Communist, Fascist ideologies can be justified thru the lack of MI6 being able to provide the necessary intelligence for the Home Office to be able to assess the gravity of the incipient signs of interference. Despite these facts however, the British government had clear information of the Communist interference in the British labor disputes since the late 1920s and in particular after the start of the economic crisis in 1929-31 (Flory, 1977, p712-15). In this sense, there were diplomatic and political discussions on the way in which the relations with the Russian state could be managed so as to force Russia to refrain from influencing labor unions and disputes while still maintaining the diplomatic ties. Despite internal discussions and also conversations at the level of the League of Nations, the British failed to take a decisive stand on the relations with Russia and although strong notes of protests were sent across the embassy in Moscow, the Russian political leadership did not take them into account. At stake during the late 1920s and early 1930s was the establishment of manageable diplomatic ties with Russian leadership that would limit the desire to eventually wage war against Europe. This soft action from the British side was due to the lack of support the British would have had if they had pursued a break in diplomatic ties with Russia. This support however would have been provided had the British and its intelligence agencies been able to provide concrete evidence of Russian infiltration thru propagandistic means in the labor disputes in Britain and the social context in general (Flory, 1977).

Among the most well-known spy activities in the 1930s in Great Britain was the Great Britain Communist Party spies that, although of British nationality eventually came to work and assist the communist party. The Woolwich arsenal case was however one of the most significant cases in which MI5 managed to identify and eventually prosecute soviet / double agents. "The espionage ring was comprised of CPGB members who had ostensibly resigned from the party to engage in secret work for the Soviet Union. Organized by Glading, they included Albert Williams, a third class examiner of work, and George Whomack, an assistant foreman at the Woolwich arsenal. (…) MI5 knew that Glading had worked at the Woolwich arsenal until he was sacked for being a member of the CPGB in 1928. He had then entered full time employment with the CPGB and joined the Soviet secret apparatus. He was also suspected of being a close contact of James Messer, the leading CPGB contact with the Kirchenstein organization, whose activities were amongst the many diplomatic, political and security concerns behind the Arcos Raid in 1927 and the temporary cessation of relations with the Soviet Union" (Thurlow, 1988, p617)

The Woolwich case is important in the history of MI5 because it points out the techniques used by both sides and the role agents and double agents had in the dissemination of information and the countering of such information from being used to justify decisions. However, this technique most often worked to the disadvantage of the British intelligence and the decision makers. Towards the end of the decade, the distinction between reliable and unreliable information became crucial and very difficult to make. Thus, "after having recognized the importance of the information fed by SIS into the delicate process of foreign policy-making, Whitehall appeared increasingly unable to distinguish good from unreliable intelligence and to interpret the information received. At the high levels (…) the limited flow of SIS intelligence was often subject to misinterpretation and misjudgment" (Williams, 2006,p162)

Despite some significant achievements of the British intelligence during the 1930s, the overall image of the Service between the two world wars was not one of efficiency. The main consideration for this lack of capacity to interact positively with the intelligence being provided by the Russian or / and the German forces was the incipient nature of the intelligence system that had been put in place at the beginning of the 20th century (Williams, 2006, p160). The resources available were as well scarce especially given the economic crisis that had considerably changed the interest of the authorities from a war oriented economy in the first decade of the 20th century to one based on the need to maintain social satisfaction and limit the social upheaval. Finally, there was an increased sense of dilettantism among agents precisely because of the lack of tradition and at the same time the need to counteract to the Russian propaganda rather than act as an offensive and primary initiative.

Perhaps the most important aspect that influenced the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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