Thatcher was warned about CIA activities in Britain, files show

Margaret ThatcherBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS |
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was warned in 1984 that American intelligence carried out operations in the United Kingdom without London’s consent. Although she dismissed the warnings, she authorized British counterintelligence to investigate the matter. A secret file from the British Foreign Office, which was declassified last month, shows that concerns about alleged American spy activity in the UK were communicated to the Tory Prime Minister by Paddy Ashdown —now Lord Ashdown— a Member of Parliament for Britain’s Liberal Party. In November of 1984, Ashdown notified Thatcher that he was concerned about a series of “clandestine activities” carried out by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) aimed at preventing communist countries from acquiring advanced computer technology developed by companies based in Britain. The written warning stated that CIA operatives had made “clandestine approaches” targetting individuals employed by leading British computer firms, inquiring about technology transfers to the Soviet Bloc. Ashdown added that the American intelligence agency had failed to provide the British government with advance notice of these activities, as was customary between the two allies. In his letter to Thatcher, the Liberal Party MP concluded that, based on his personal investigation into the matter, he was convinced the CIA operation was “still continuing”. The Prime Minister responded to Ashdown with an official letter explaining that there was “no evidence of improper activity by the CIA” or that British espionage laws had been violated by American intelligence personnel. She added that there was “close cooperation” between London and Washington on enforcing multilaterally agreed export controls, which included computer technology, and concluded that saw no need for an inquiry at that time. But London-based newspaper The Guardian, which accessed the declassified files on the case, said that Whitehall ordered the Foreign Office to investigate Ashdown’s allegations. The Foreign Office then tasked the Security Service (MI5) to find out whether the US had broken an agreement between the two countries to refrain from clandestine operations on each other’s territory unless the latter were authorized by both nations. The counterintelligence agency concluded that there had indeed been “a small number of isolated cases” the year before, in which “the CIA approached individuals” in Britain, seeking information on attempts by communist intelligence services to acquire Western computer technology. These incidents apparently took place without prior consultation with London. But the MI5 report said that these “isolated cases” had been brought to the attention of the CIA and that British counterintelligence officials were able to confirm that the CIA had terminated all such activity on British soil. British Secret Service officials later contacted the CIA about the matter and received written assurances that the American agency was not carrying out operations in Britain. The concluding report, issued by the Foreign Office, stated that “the Security Service are as confident as they can be that the CIA are not involved in activities in the UK as alleged by Mr. Ashdown”.

One Response to Thatcher was warned about CIA activities in Britain, files show

  1. There is one significant thing missing from this report.

    Paddy Ashdown MP is a former member of MI6. Whether his ‘personal investigation’ into the matter was just that, or one conducted with the assistance of his former employers, is unreported.

    It would be interesting to know.

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