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The “Five Eyes” spies who fought the West’s secret wars

The intelligence network’s blunders in the Middle East have been disastrous – but it has a vital role in an increasingly unpredictable world.

By Jeremy Bowen

In the last decade of Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq, a man called Naji Sabri al-Hadithi played an important part in the working lives of journalists who were visiting Baghdad. He was mostly friendly and fairly helpful. As Naji rose through the regime, he opened a few doors for us. I used to play tennis with him at the Rasheed Hotel. Naji had a mean slice and always claimed the ball was in when it was not. Since I wanted my next visa, I always accepted his line calls.

Naji liked nice clothes. The only time I saw him without an Italian suit (outside the tennis court) was during the 1990-91 Gulf War. As Baghdad was being heavily bombed, Naji swapped his two-piece for a dark green Baath Party uniform and black beret. Around the turn of the century, my former tennis partner grew a large Saddam-style moustache and became the regime’s last foreign minister. According to Richard Kerbaj’s excellent “secret history” of the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance, he was also passing information to the CIA.

Naji’s wardrobe became part of his tradecraft. Bill Murray, then the CIA station chief in Paris, told the BBC that he channelled messages and large amounts of cash to Naji through a middle man, who provided his highly placed source with an expensive handmade suit. When Naji wore it to a UN meeting, six months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Murray took it as a sign that the channel was active.

When the regime fell Naji was allowed to escape to Qatar. After he was named as a US informant, I rang him in Doha. “It’s a dirty lie” he said. “Dirty, very dirty.”

Kerbaj is the latest to show that it wasn’t. Formerly the Sunday Times security correspondent, Kerbaj has written an impressively detailed account of a remarkable alliance. “Five Eyes” – even the name is redolent of John le Carré – is the intelligence collaboration between the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Until 2010 its existence was a secret. Kerbaj explains that it started with British and American intelligence cooperation before and during the Second World War. After 1945 it became clear quickly that the new enemy was going to be the USSR and its satellites in eastern Europe. The intelligence alliance, which already included Canada, was expanded to include Australia and New Zealand, giving the Five Eyes a full span of time zones. The Australians proved themselves when they engineered the defection of a Soviet diplomat with a strong interest in chasing women who were not his wife. The deal included his demand to bring his fishing rods, shotgun and Alsatian dog.

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The Kremlin pushed back. Not long after Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Hitler, the Russian leader’s men dispatched Walter Krivitsky, a Soviet intelligence officer who had defected to the Americans. Krivitsky was found dead in a hotel in Washington DC in 1941, “with a single bullet in his head, and not one but three suicide notes by his bedside”. The assumption was that the NKVD, predecessor of the KGB, had silenced him.

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Kerbaj reminds us how far the Soviets penetrated Britain’s spy agency, MI6. The story is well known, but still beggars belief. Five Eyes lays out the complacency displayed by the British in the face of evidence that the Foreign Office and the Secret Intelligence Service had been breached. After Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, two members of the spy ring recruited by the NKVD at Cambridge University in the 1930s, fled to Moscow in 1951, the British deflected American suspicions that they had been tipped off by Kim Philby. They gave Philby the benefit of the doubt, despite other pointers, including the kidnap and presumed execution of a would-be Soviet defector whose case he was investigating. Philby did not feel it necessary to defect until 1963. He was the model for the Soviet mole Bill Haydon in Le Carré’s classic spy novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

[See also: Can the Ukraine war only end with Russia’s defeat?]

The real passion in Kerbaj’s book comes with his account of the US war on terror, starting with the fevered time between the 9/11 attacks and the huge intelligence failures that marked the invasion of Iraq 18 months later. The Five Eyes had lost part of their raison d’être when the USSR collapsed. After 9/11 there was the clarity of having a new enemy, but Kerbaj reminds us how intelligence was shaped to justify a war not authorised by a definitive UN Security Council resolution. Kerbaj writes that Naji, then the Iraqi foreign minister, let the CIA’s Bill Murray know that Saddam Hussein had no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, “chemical, biological and nuclear”. But when a National Intelligence Estimate was prepared, “it did not cite Murray’s report”. The intelligence did not fit the case being made by President George W Bush in Washington and Prime Minister Tony Blair in London.

Kerbaj sympathises with the challenges faced by intelligence professionals. He provides a fascinating account of the disquiet among senior British envoys who were flown to Washington the day after 9/11. They included Lieutenant General Graeme Lamb, head of Britain’s special forces. Lamb, Kerbaj says, reported to Blair at Chequers that “every official he had met during his US visit had been ‘emotionally compromised’ by the terrorist attacks” and observed that people “don’t make good decisions” in such a state.

He was correct. The decisions around the plan of retaliation against al-Qaeda were not made by sober military and intelligence assessments. Even worse, they were heavily influenced, and arguably, dictated, by political leaders – namely Tony Blair and George W Bush – who always thought they knew better than the intelligence and military officials advising them.

The benefits of the liquidation of Saddam Hussein’s brutal Baathist regime were outweighed by the catastrophic consequences of the invasion for the people of Iraq and many of their neighbours. It was also a disaster for the geostrategic position of the Americans, the British and their Western allies. As well as the huge loss of life and destruction, the US tipped the balance of power in the Middle East in favour of its enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Saddam Hussein had also been a bitter enemy of Tehran.

The invasion turned Iraq into a theme park for jihadist extremists. More than two decades on, the fires that were lit still burn. One part of this story is the saga of the so-called jihadi brides who were radicalised in Britain and travelled to Syria to offer themselves as wives to the killers of Islamic State (IS). Kerbaj reveals some of the secrets surrounding the journey taken from the UK, via Turkey, by three London schoolgirls: Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana.

In impressive detail, Kerbaj shows that Mohammed al-Rashed, the smuggler who took the girls over the border, was also working for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. (The story has also been reported by the BBC.) Kerbaj has an exclusive account of a meeting between two Canadian intelligence officers and Richard Walton, then the head of SO15, the counterterrorism command at Scotland Yard. The two “uneasy” spooks were there to confess that their man had a part in moving the girls into Syria and the clutches of IS. That mattered, Kerbaj recalls, as Walton and his team had been pilloried in the press for not stopping the girls before they left Bethnal Green.

Kerbaj exposes many of the blunders and compromises that come with the difficult territory of secret intelligence. But in an illuminating book, he concludes the Five Eyes is still vital in an unpredictable world. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February deepened that unpredictability. It was the definitive end of the world that emerged after the Cold War, and an abrupt lurch into a new, more dangerous era.

Before the invasion, Western governments led by the US released intelligence about Vladimir Putin’s intentions that they would normally have kept secret. The plan was to stop Putin claiming Ukrainian provocation, and as a form of deterrence. It didn’t stop the invasion, but the accuracy of the information suggested that the Five Eyes are well placed in Russia, using hi-tech eavesdropping, and perhaps agents and informants. Maybe the equivalent of Naji Sabri’s suits are being deployed, as men and women use deception and tradecraft as old as the Five Eyes alliance itself to fight this century’s secret wars.

The Secret History of the Five Eyes: The Untold Story of the International Spy Network
Richard Kerbaj
John Blake, 416pp, £25

Jeremy Bowen will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 19 November. Tickets are available here.

[See also: Arthur Snell interview: “Many world problems stem from the Iraq invasion”]

This article appears in the 21 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going for broke