Dirtier than Watergate

The Reagan-era espionage system that has managed to stay under the radar.

It was described as dirtier than Watergate, and involved US government dealings with Iraq, Libya, Korea and even the late British publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell. The story is deep, dark and complex; a web of strange dealings and dubious characters, it implicates wealthy arms dealers, Israeli intelligence services, the Soviet KGB, MI5 and the CIA. But unlike Watergate, this scandal, from a particularly dark chapter in American history, has appeared in no Hollywood film and is yet to reach a satisfying conclusion.

It began in the late 1970s, when the Washington-based software developer Inslaw pioneered people-tracking technology, designed to be used by prosecutors to monitor case records. Known as the Prosecutor's Management Information System (PROMIS), the software was developed under grants from the US department of justice. The US government, as it helped fund the creation of PROMIS, had been licensed to use the software on condition that it did not modify, distribute or create derivative versions of it. The government, however, did not stick to this agreement.

Under the Ronald Reagan administration's covert intelligence initiative known as "'Follow the Money", the US National Security Agency (NSA) misappropriated PROMIS for sale to banks in 1982. The version of PROMIS sold by the NSA had been "espionage-enabled" through a back door in the programme, allowing the agency to covertly conduct real-time electronic surveillance of the flow of money to suspected terrorists and other perceived threats to US national interests.

A letter from the US department of justice in 1985, later obtained by Inslaw, documented more plans for the covert sale and distribution of the espionage-enabled version of PROMIS, this time to governments in the Middle East (which would surreptitiously allow the US to spy on foreign intelligence agencies). The letter outlined how sales of the software were to be facilitated by the late Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz and the arms dealers Adnan Khashoggi and Manucher Ghorbanifar. PROMIS should be delivered without "paperwork, customs, or delay", it stated, and all of the transactions paid for through a Swiss bank account.

In the years that followed, friends of then attorney general Edwin Meese, including a Reagan associate, Dr Earl Brian of the government consultancy firm Hadron, Inc, were reportedly allowed to sell and distribute pirated versions of PROMIS domestically and overseas. As a House judiciary committee report found in 1992, these individuals were apparently permitted to do so "for their personal financial gain and in support of the intelligence and foreign policy objectives of the United States".

Brian, who was later jailed for four years on an unrelated fraud charge in 1998, has since denied any association with the Inslaw case. According to the former arms broker and CIA "contract operative" Richard Babayan, however, he was instrumental in selling PROMIS to the governments of Iraq, Libya and Korea. When Brian was unable to market PROMIS further, it is claimed that, with the help of Rafi Eitan, a high-ranking Israeli intelligence officer, the British publisher Robert Maxwell was recruited to assist.

In a sworn affidavit, the investigative author Gordon Thomas recounts how Eitan told him Maxwell alone sold over $500m worth of espionage-enabled versions of PROMIS – including licences to the UK, Australia, South Korea, Canada and the Soviet KGB. The British counter-intelligence agency MI5, according to Eitan (who himself was an adviser to the UK secret service MI6), used PROMIS to track members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), as well as Irish republican political leaders including Gerry Adams.

Inslaw alleges the US government, by selling PROMIS to other governments around the world, engaged in what equates to "multibillion-dollar theft". This claim was supported by two separate courts in 1988, which ruled that it "took, converted, stole" PROMIS from Inslaw "through trickery, fraud and deceit". Three years later, however, a court of appeal overturned both rulings on a "jurisdictional technicality" after pressure from the federal justice department.

Now more than two decades since he pioneered PROMIS, the Inslaw president Bill Hamilton today believes the story illustrates an enduring, fundamental problem at the heart of the US justice system. "[It] chronicles the continued inability of the US government to enforce federal criminal laws in cases involving national security issues, or even to render ordinary civil justice," he says. "National security appears to suspend the checks and balances built into the system of government in the United States, to the detriment of the citizens."

Some, including the US government, have tried to dismiss the Inslaw saga as conspiracy. But a message relayed to Bill Hamilton and his wife from the former chief investigator of the Senate judiciary committee, Ronald LeGrand, seems to confirm that the strange PROMIS affair – which remains unresolved – is much more than just a case of chronic paranoia.

"What Mr and Mrs Hamilton think happened, did happen," LeGrand wrote, conveying information he had received from a trusted government source. "The Inslaw case is a lot dirtier for the Department of Justice than Watergate was, in both breadth and depth. The Department of Justice has been compromised in the Inslaw case at every level. "

Ryan Gallagher is a freelance journalist based in London, currently working for the Frontline Club. His website is here.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.